Is this the weirdest Advent scripture ever? In Advent we’re waiting for Jesus to come, both as a baby to Bethlehem, but also to come again, like this passage from Matthew describes. The day our Lord is coming will come like a thief – since when does God act like a thief?
‘Twas the month before Christmas and throughout our towns
We’re shopping and baking and making smiles from frowns
For politics are scary and everyone’s stressed
And holiday cheer just might fix this mess
We’ll decorate trees and maybe hang up a stocking
Wake early for doorbusters, do serious online shopping
2016 disappointed many of us, the year has been rough
Must be time for Santa Claus to bring us some stuff
Jesus is going to break into our world at an unexpected hour, says our scripture from Matthew. Jesus, like a thief in the night, is coming when we least expect it. That is a jarring metaphor. Just doesn’t seem like Jesus’ style, sneaking into our house in the middle of the night – that’s Santa Claus’ job, right?!
When Santa sneaks in he might take milk and cookies, but he leaves presents behind – what does Jesus take, and what does Jesus bring?
What would you like Jesus to take from you this Advent, so you can be ready for Christmas?
I pray that Jesus will steal my resentment – my resentment that our culture chases after celebrity and fame and outrageous wealth. My resentment that our most shallow and selfish sides get to dominate headlines, airwaves, even national politics.
I’m righteously angry that 20,000 people die of hunger every day in this world. Every day, 20,000 people.
And we’re waiting for hours in line to shop for holiday deals – is anyone waiting in line to volunteer at the soup kitchen or Alternative Christmas Gifts Bazaar?
I am righteously angry, but it doesn’t help any of us if I wallow in resentment and complain, does it? Just leaves us all feeling guilty and weary. So this Advent I pray that Jesus sneak into my heart and steal my resentment.
Because we read in Matthew that Jesus shows up unexpected, like a thief in the night. And when a scripture is that weird we can turn the page, or we can get curious. A thief catches us off guard. A thief is subtle, sneaky. So if Jesus came today he wouldn’t show up as America’s next Idol, or President? Jesus wouldn’t have popular merchandise associated with his brand?
Let me try this again:
It’s the month before Christmas and all through our land
The people are worried – we don’t understand
In our families and country, so much is the matter
We tune in to God to hear peace in this clatter
For Advent’s upon us, and what will it mean?
Time to stack presents high and get the house squeaky clean?
Juggling family schedules and everyone’s diets
And go a whole month without peace or quiet?
I don’t mean to diminish the rituals of modern Christmas – if decorating and gift wrapping and cookie-baking increase your joy and are a way for you to share love with the people around you, that’s wonderful. But for many people it just becomes chaos and stress.
I do think it’s ironic how many of us are focused on our homes being neat, our lights being perfectly spaced along the roof, our wrapping paper carefully folded and secured with no more than 3 pieces of tape per present.
Because the first Christmas, the one we read about in scripture, was anything but neat. It was full of messy people in the midst of messy geopolitics – kind of like what we’re living through today!
Take the shepherds, who proclaim Jesus’ birth. “An angel of the Lord stands before them, and the glory of the Lord shines around them.” They go to Bethlehem and meet Jesus, and then, “they make known what had been told them about this child, and all who hear it are amazed.”
Shepherds are the dregs of 1st century Palestinian society. Everyone looks down on them. Shepherds are like people you wouldn’t want to end up sitting next to on the bus, and if you do, you might hold your breath a little, assuming they smell bad. They’re definitely dirty, living in the fields with sheep, and most people look down on them as barbaric.
Shepherds are the first guests at the first Christmas party.
And of course there’s the holy family – a teenage first-time mom, traveling across the countryside with her betrothed and they can’t find any place to sleep, so they end up sleeping with animals and Jesus ends up spending his first night in a feeding trough.
Who else ends up in our nativity scene?
The magi – who we sometimes call kings, but scripture calls them magi, magicians, who follow stars and see the future. Today many Christians roll their eyes at astrologers or would call fortune-tellers heathens, but the magicians came to see Jesus and helped him survive his earliest years.
Because the king, Herod, wanted to kill him. Jesus didn’t come for our adoration and admiration. Jesus came to turn the world upside down, and it scared people even when he was a baby, and it scared people when he grew up – so much that he was killed by the powerful.
This Advent I pray that Jesus sneak into my mind and steal my assumptions about power: that kings and presidents and CEOs have the most important power.
Because we follow in the way of Jesus, who comes to earth as a homeless baby, in a messy stable, born into a precarious family situation, waiting a year or even two to settle in his hometown Nazareth, he has none of the power of kings and presidents and CEOs.
Sometimes we call Jesus king or lord, but he is a truly different kind of leader, he empowers us to get closer to God, to listen in our prayers, to follow our callings, to serve other people, to love so fully that we give everything up for one another.
This Advent may our hearts open to the king who is born homeless, who lives as a refugee, whose power is in vulnerability, in serving others, in proclaiming the good news of God’s love and vision of peace and justice.
On the first day of Advent, let us listen for God’s peace amidst the clatter and clutter of our lives, and spend one minute now in silence.
2 Thessalonians 2:13-17
I love rollercoasters. My friend Elizabeth and I used to celebrate my birthday at an amusement park, and the year we rode seventeen rides we eventually collapsed on the grass while our brains vibrated in our skulls. Our favorite rollercoaster that year was the Diamondback, with an outrageously steep drop, right at the beginning of the ride. Well, not the very beginning. The beginning of the ride is that most frightening part, the slow ascent, pulsing with anticipation.
The scariest part in a horror movie or book is the waiting, the moment right before the person opens the door, when you know something terrible is going to happen but you don’t know exactly what the monster waiting on the other side will look like, or be holding, or say, or do.
Riding the Diamondback, you’re strapped in that little metal car with nothing around your shoulders or head, just a thick bar in your lap and a back-up flimsy seat-belt, watching the ground get smaller and smaller as you approach the summit, and it’s too late to get off, and the fiercely steep and ferociously fast descent is immanent.
Elizabeth and I rode the Diamondback six times that year--six of our seventeen rides were the Diamondback--and we developed a strategy. We’d put our hands high up in the air as we climbed that first hill and hold them up as long as we could possibly stand it. I always gave in first, clutching the bar in my lap, or the sides of the car.
It’s totally irrational – if the rollercoaster malfunctioned and our car went flying off the track, or if the bar in my lap released by mistake, I would not be able to save myself by holding on. Whipping around turns and spinning upside down, holding on did not protect me. But the fear started as a queasy knot in my stomach and spread as shudders into my limbs, and my hands moved to hold the bar no matter what I told myself.
“Surrender!” Elizabeth called as she threw her hands in the air. I tried, but every time I took the edge off my fear with the false security of holding on.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? Like this election season, perhaps? Many of us are living with fear, dreading the monster on the other side of the door, afraid of the fierce descent of this political rollercoaster.
I’ve been working on surrender – listening to the news and watching polls does as much to protect me from the outcome of this election as holding onto the rollercoaster. So I go for days without tuning in and obsessing about politics, I surrender to the inevitability of a new president who I don’t trust or admire.
Then after a few days I turn back to the news, like clutching the lap bar on the rollercoaster. And I remember that this election and rollercoasters really do have a lot in common, since we’re totally fascinated and entertained by the drama and suspense. Many of us are afraid, disgusted…and also addicted to the thrill of it all.
Paul’s letter to the early Christian church in Thessalonica is relevant for us two thousand years later. These people striving to follow Jesus never met him, like us, live outside the Holy Land, like us, depend on written words to stay connected to the roots of their faith. They live in a culture of militarism, materialism, indulgence, hierarchies, economic exploitation, and their faith calls them to live differently, to follow Jesus’ way.
Paul writes to them, "stand firm and hold fast to the traditions you were taught by us." Traditions that still ring in our ears, to rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God and Christ Jesus for you.” These words are from Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica, in which he also writes, “admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.”
We read Paul’s letter today and hear a call to stand firm and hold fast to these traditions, amidst political tension or harmony, amidst economic exploitation or generosity, amidst violence or peace, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that seek what is good for one another and for all people.
Wouldn’t it be thrilling to live on the beach, wake up each day to the sun rising over the ocean, step out onto the sand and greet the waves? But Jesus tells a parable, recorded in both Matthew and Luke, about building a house on sand or rock, which Joanne shared this morning. From the Gospel according to Matthew: Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine, and does them, is like a wise builder who built a house on rock. The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it didn't fall, for it was founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine, and doesn't do them will be like a foolish builder who built a house on the sand. The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it fell—and great was its fall. — Matthew 7:24–27
We can enjoy the beach without building our house on it. But wait, you might be thinking, plenty of people do live on the beach. But the foundation of beach homes is not sand, it’s wood. These houses may rest on sand but they are usually built on a post and beam style foundation.
We can ride political and literal rollercoasters for entertainment without building our lives on them. But wait, you might be thinking, doesn’t our faith call us to engage the world, including political advocacy? Absolutely, but even if we pour time and energy and passion into politics, our lives are grounded by more than sand, formed by faith deeper than politics.
Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions of our faith, to “admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.”
Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions of our faith, to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.”
Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions of our faith, to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome to strangers, clothes to the naked, visit the sick and offer companionship to prisoners, and by doing so, build the Kingdom of God that has been in process from the foundation of the world.
Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions of our faith, to care for the widow, the orphan, the immigrant.
To turn the other cheek, to offer our shirt with our coat, to seek out the last, the lost, the least with the radical love of Jesus, to break bread with the people our culture scorns, to claim healing and seek wholeness even if we are the ones our culture scorns.
Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions of our faith, celebrating stories of self-sacrifice in love, descending into the depths and then! An empty tomb. Because when the world is ending God is doing a new thing. And when all hope seems lost and we go to sleep in a crumbling world and wake up to a crumbling world and look around bewildered and betrayed and resentful and resigned and we say, “What was all this for? Why did we bother leaving our boats and our nets and sharing all we have with the poor and following this radical teacher who was supposed to fix this world, and now he’s gone and what was the point?”
The world is still aching, infected by injustice. Children are starving, people are exploited, pain and anger are all around us, even filling us up. And no matter who we elect on Tuesday, children will starve, people will be exploited, pain and anger will be all around us, even filling us up.
Will we stare at the cross and think “Well if Jesus couldn’t fix everything I sure won’t, so I might as well seek salvation, or at least distraction, in a beach house or rollercoaster and check out with food, or screens, or substances, or drama, or whatever it is that soothes me.”
Or will we turn to the empty tomb and remember that new life is born of death, that hope is born of struggle, that the firmest foundations of our lives: our faith, our intellect, our advanced civilization, our families and communities – all that we build our lives on do not protect us from struggle, but give us more creativity and courage in the midst of struggle.
Who will you be on Wednesday? Does it matter who we elect president? Does Jesus' call for us to love and serve change if we like the president?
Even though it doesn't last, most of us will reach for the easy comfort of food this week, the quick transcendence of drama, the shortcut to bliss in alcohol or other substances. It’s a hard week, in a hard fall, during a hard year. “Eat, drink, and be merry,” we read in Ecclesiastes. But Jesus reminds us that these easy merriments simply won’t last in a parable of a rich landowner. He doesn’t shame us for wanting them, he just invites us to a truly abundant life of radically loving ourselves and others, and loving God with abandon.
Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions of our faith. Hold fast, cling, in some translations. These are days for clinging to the teachings of our faith. But we don’t need to cling to God.
God is holding on to us. Amen.
Sing: Leaning on the everlasting arms