A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
December 1, 2013
First Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44
Are you ready for Christmas yet?
“Oh, goodness no. It was enough for me to get through Thanksgiving, what with all the cooking and the family and the football, not to mention the bad weather earlier this week. Give me a few days yet, and I’ll put together my shopping list and figure out what I’m going to do. But today? No, no I’m not ready for Christmas.”
Okay. So perhaps a better question is, are you interested in Christmas? Some people aren’t, you know. In fact, some folk dread it… for what they consider to be its false piety, its false hopes, its false… well, just about false everything.
Some Christmases are like that even for some of us, aren’t they? We find ourselves just not that interested. The family’s not coming, so it’s just you. Nothing special is planned, so you may not even bother to decorate. Or maybe you’ve lost a loved one, a person so close to you that it’s taken all the joy out of celebrating something like Christmas. You just can’t bring yourself to get up for the holidays. So you think this year you’ll just lay low, nurse your grief, or whatever the source of your pain might be, and hope that maybe it will be better next time around.
For some of you, this may be the most fun time of the year, and you look forward to it with great anticipation. When someone said that Christmas was made for children, you decided never to grow up. Just the thought of this magical season makes you giddy and gives you goose bumps. Bring it on! You’re ready to go!
If that’s true of you, I hate to burst your bubble, but you won’t find much support in the scriptures, at least not in the ones we read this morning. You see…
Matthew isn’t interested in Christmas, at least not in our scripture passage for today. If you paid close attention to it, you probably noticed that he’s more interested in Jesus’ second coming than he is his first. And my guess is that your response to that, whether you’re interested in Christmas or not, is that you’d rather give your attention to Jesus’ birth story than to all this talk about how it’s going to be when the Son of Man comes again.
Who wouldn’t? Jesus is talking about that day and hour when suffering will come and the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, he says, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Jesus is talking about when “the Son of Man will come on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory… and will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”
There’s a lot of talk of heaven in there, but it’s not the heaven we want to hear about. “Two will be the field;” he says, “one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” Be ready, he warns, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
So what’s this got to do with Christmas?
I mean, this passage may have its place… somewhere and some time. But today? Even if we’re not ready for Christmas, we’re giving it our best effort. Tonight, we won’t be hanging the holly and the ivy in anticipation of Jesus’ coming again. We will be preparing for angels and mangers and little drummer boys. What that means is that on this first Sunday in Advent, our scriptures are at odds with our expectations, our hopes and dreams. Bah humbug.
And that is because these dumb lectionary editors don’t seem to be much interested in Christmas either. Not today, anyway. But it’s December the first. We’re well aware that too many people, especially retailers, jump the gun and start emphasizing Christmas in September… or earlier. But it’s December now, for goodness’ sake. Barely December maybe, but it’s December still. Thanksgiving has come and gone. Time to get out the ornaments, hang the mistletoe, dust off the holly-jolly CDs, and get in the spirit.
Yet, the lectionary readings for today don’t seem to have anything to do with Christmas. Why do people who make a living off the church have to be such killjoys?
It happens every year, and I admit it’s a bit of a letdown for me, a tough time when it comes to sermon preparation. I sit down in my study, at my desk, my Bible on my lap, wondering what I can say this year that hasn’t already been said… by me and countless other preachers across the land. And then I read these words from Matthew’s gospel, “About that day and hour no on knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (vs. 36). Every year, the first Sunday in Advent is given to Jesus’ return, not to his first coming. And every year it gets harder to say something fresh and new about it… if for no other reason than this year’s headlines are very much like last year’s, and there doesn’t appear to be anything new – or redemptive – under the sun.
At least Christmas helps get our minds off the headlines. Christmas tells us the angels not only knew what was going on but were in on it from the get-go, proclaiming it to the unsuspecting shepherds in the Galilean hills outside Bethlehem. For that, and many other reasons, we can’t wait for Christmas.
But that story is evidently going to have to wait. In this passage for today, the angels are as clueless as anybody. And oddly enough, Jesus says he won’t know when that day comes either. So what is this all about?
Well, let me tell you how it was in the days when Matthew wrote his gospel, and maybe that will explain a few things. If you think we’ve got it rough now… oh boy.
It was not an easy time for those who had committed themselves to following Jesus, the risen Christ. Jerusalem had been destroyed, and the Jews – at least those who survived the destruction – were scattered to the four winds. Matthew’s congregation was huddled in an enclave somewhere wondering how they were going to survive. Their group was composed largely of widows and orphans, not to mention those who were imprisoned because of their heritage and their faith. To the Romans a Jew was a Jew, so it mattered not to them if Jews were wearing crosses or fish, symbols of their devotion to the Nazarene who had been crucified a number of years before. Gather them all up, and if you don’t harass or imprison or persecute them, at least give them a hard time for being who they are… and who they are not. Who they are not is Roman. That in itself is reason enough to make life miserable for them.
Matthew is aware that there were those in his church who so longed for Jesus to come again – hadn’t he promised he would do so? – that they were giving all their attention to those hopes and dreams, and all the while were neglecting those who needed their attention and care. It is not long after recording these words that Matthew reminds them of what Jesus had said about the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the poor and imprisoned. “When you have done it unto the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me.” And vice versa. “When you haven’t done it unto these, you haven’t done it unto me.”
There were those on the other side of the spectrum who had given up on Jesus ever coming again. Jesus’ disciples, the Twelve, are beginning to die off, and with their deaths so went the hopes for those who had believed them. What’s the point of following Jesus, and helping others in his name, if Jesus can’t be trusted? The words of the prophet Isaiah never rang truer: it is indeed a land of deep darkness (9:2) for those who would follow Jesus.
And it gets worse. You see, Jesus doesn’t appear to be interested in Christmas either. Maybe it has to do with the possibility that in his day and time not much emphasis was put on birthdays. Not the way we do it anyway.
I read recently of a mother – not a very good mother, you understand – who wrote to an advice columnist about her teenage son. His behavior had not of late met with her approval, and then she admitted that she had ignored his past three birthdays. Can you imagine, ignoring your child’s birthday three years running? “I have a busy work schedule,” she said, as if that was an appropriate excuse.
This is the columnist’s response: “When you ‘forget’ a child’s birthday, you are basically negating him as a person. It is as if you are saying that you have forgotten his presence in the world. How very sad for him.”1 That’s the kind of emphasis we put on birthdays in our culture, and it may be why – or at least partly why – we give Jesus such a big party every year. If we were to ignore his birthday, we would have “forgotten his presence in the world.”
We can’t help but wonder, however, if Jesus really appreciates it – all this fuss about his birthday – because that doesn’t seem to be the theme for today, this first Sunday in Advent. Today, he’s not ready for a party, nor does he seem to be all that interested in one. Jesus is telling us we better get ready for his return because, when he does, some pretty wild things are going to happen, and not all of them are going to be fun-and-games. Jesus just kind of turns everything around, doesn’t he?
Well, that’s nothing new. He also said the meek shall inherit the earth. Last time I looked, that hadn’t happened. He said the first shall be last and the last first. Maybe in the kingdom of heaven, but not so far on earth. He says that God takes notice of the “least of these” before he does the wealthy and privileged. If that’s true, there’s not much evidence of it. Makes you wonder… can Jesus be trusted?
“You must be ready,” Jesus says, “for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” Do you believe that? If so, what does it mean to you?
You may not fully appreciate this, but one man has said with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, I would imagine, that the idea of Jesus’ second coming was conjured up by some church father who only had two fingers.2 What he means by that is that Christ doesn’t just come once or twice, he comes again, and again, and again – that God has placed no limit on coming to the world, but is always on the way to us here and now. “The only thing we are required to do is to notice – to watch, to keep our eyes peeled.”3
So I would encourage you, as we move deeper and deeper into the Advent season, that you look for ways Jesus might come to you.
A minister tells of the time, during the Advent season, that he and his wife flew to Birmingham, Alabama for a wedding. They hailed a taxi to take them from the airport to the hotel. His wife asked the driver if he was busy with all the Christmas travelers. “Not really,” he answered. “Our business falls off this time of year. People traveling for Christmas always have someone coming to meet them.”4
Jesus may not yet be interested in a birthday party, but I do think he is definitely interested in coming to meet you… that what he wants to do is come to you in ways he has never done so before. Whether Jesus has come to you once or twice, or many times over, he’s waiting yet again for an invitation from you to accept him into your heart. I do believe he is interested in that, and I hope you feel the same way.
Lord, come to us, abide with us, and may you find us receiving you into our hearts. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
2Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 113.
4James A. Harnish, Come Home For Christmas: An Advent Study for Adults (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon, Press, 1999), p. 21.