Message from the First Sunday of Advent
Scripture: Isaiah 2: 1-5; Matthew 24: 36-44
I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving celebration with your family and friends this week. We are now in the countdown for Christmas! Are you ready yet? You just have a few things to do in the next few weeks; purchase presents, wrap gifts, bust out the appropriate seasonal drinks and food, wear a Santa hat all day, every day, watch a Christmas special or 10 or 100, decorate everything, listen to Christmas music, plan that perfect party, prepare the best meal in the world; I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted just thinking about it. Is the first word that comes to mind during this season peace?
Probably not, even though we sing hymns filled with peace like “Silent Night” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and talk about the Prince of Peace, this season might bring many emotions and peace might not be one of those emotions.
What are those things that are keeping you from peace this Advent season as we approach Christmas? Is it your schedule? Is it your idea of the perfect Christmas? Is it the uncertainty of a Christmas with illness or grief? There are many things on our plates during a season like this. We plan for the next day, not sure what tomorrow will bring.
You might have wondered as you heard this morning Gospel’s reading why in the world is a reading about the end of the age and Jesus’ return read on the First Sunday of Advent? Well we only have two Gospels that record Jesus’ birth, so we have to read something. The season of Advent is really about preparing and anticipating the coming of Christ again, the second coming of Jesus. The word Advent comes from the Latin adventus meaning “coming” or “visit”. So we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth by looking forward and preparing for Jesus’ full reign on earth when he returns again.
The followers of Jesus were preparing for tomorrow, not with peace, but fear. They didn’t know what the next day or the next would bring. In Matthew we find Jesus walking with his disciples one day near the temple, when they asked him about the end of the age. “No one knows”, Jesus answered. Some scholars affirm that many in Matthew’s congregation were losing confidence in the coming of what Jesus promised, God’s Kingdom. The full reign of God was delayed. Their witness was fading. Matthew wrote to encourage them to continue.
No one knows when Jesus will return. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. Be ready for tomorrow, for we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Neither the angels not even Jesus knows, only God the Father. Matthew uses four examples to show how you cannot know when the return of Christ will happen. In the days of Noah, people carried on with their lives, eating, drinking, marrying and they knew nothing of what would come tomorrow, until suddenly the flood came. Jesus gives another example of two men in the field and two women grinding meal together, where one is taken into the kingdom or maybe taken captive, especially during a time of perpetual conflict. Either way, be prepared. The final example Jesus offers is of the homeowner who did not know when and where a thief was coming. Stay awake.
This season has much to it and at times I wonder, if we prepare for the wrong thing? This is a season of preparation, to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ. The book that we are studying during the season of Advent is titled Prepare the Way: Cultivating a Heart for God in Advent. That should be our focus this season, recognizing that in all of our work and preparation to celebrate Jesus’ birth can actually help us cultivate a heart for God. And when we cultivate a heart for God, when we are prepared in our faith for whatever tomorrow bring, we will find the peace of God that transcends all understanding, as we read in Philippines.
A few years ago I found myself in the middle of one of the poorest areas in Manila, The Philippines. I was staying with the Missionaries of the Poor serving as a missionary in the slums. I helped to clean the shelter for men who had been homeless. I talked with the men, played games, and did easy chores around the area. There were times that I forgot where I was, halfway around the world, in the poorest urban neighborhood I had ever witnessed, but it was at night that I remembered I was a long way away.
I would lie down in my bed, covered with a mosquito net, which I quickly found out was not for mosquitoes, but rather to keep the rather large cockroaches off of my bed, and I would feel the cool evening breeze and catch the smell of trash. Another reminder I wasn’t home. There was a large apartment complex just outside my window, a large concrete building with families and children. One night, in the midst of all that was different and challenging, I remember hearing a little girl from the apartment complex nearby singing at the top of her lungs in English, “Let it go, let it go!” Who would have guessed that, right? I even heard someone who sounded like her father start yelling at her in Tagalog, the native language of The Philippines, and I imagine he was saying “Go to bed!”
My first thought was to smile and laugh, but I also thought about how important those words were for me in that moment. I had to let go all of my worries, my concerns, even my hope on some level and just experience all that was around me. Could it be that the way we cultivate a heart for God in this Advent season and find peace is to let go of everything that would hinder us from really celebrating Christmas?
I’m not saying “don’t care”, instead I’m saying to be prepared. Prepare your heart, your faith, to welcome Christ again. We shouldn’t dwell on that which has passed, but we should prepare and hope for a peace that passes our understanding. The message of Christmas has been and will always be is that God is with us. God came to dwell with humanity in the form of Jesus the Christ. God continues to guide us and be with us in the Holy Spirit, so as a response to this, be prepared, find peace.
I’m not sure what that will look like for you. Maybe doing a daily devotional, meeting with our small group study on the Advent book, maybe being intentional about praying. There’s another spiritual discipline I love, especially in this season. One thing that brings peace is jazz. There’s something about Oscar Peterson on piano, John Coltrane’s saxophone in A Love Supreme, or listening to jazz style Christmas music. It reminds me to slow down, appreciate the rhythm and movement of the music and of the season around me.
Maybe instead of worrying over all the preparations of this season, you can let go of all the busyness, let go of all the gifts, let go of all the worry, and simply be present to the season and receive the gift of God that is found throughout this season. God has always been in the peace business. Whether his prophet Isaiah is calling nations to settle disputes, beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hots, where nation will not take up sword against nation anymore or where God promises us peace through Jesus who told his disciples before he was crucified, “Do not be afraid, I give you my peace.” God has always promised God’s people presence and peace. God’s presence will always be with us and God’s peace will always be within us.
Jesus said “Do not worry about what you will eat or drink or what you will wear. No one knows about that day or hour.” Instead, just be prepared every moment of everyday to welcome Jesus in your midst. As we begin to celebrate Christmas together in the coming weeks, just be present to the people who are most important in your life. Be present to your family and friends. Be present to those you are called to serve. Be present. Receive peace.
Let us pray:
We want to be at peace, O God, protector of the frightened, refuge for the wandering.
We want to speak for peace, O Christ, hope whispered to the bruised, welcome sung to the embattled.
We want to live in peace, O Spirit, forgiveness in our hearts, kindness in our hands, trusting, trustworthy, loving, beloved.
We want to be at peace, O God, with you, with me, with others. This is our Advent prayer. Amen.