Richard Maxwell

Advent 1 A
1 December 2013
Grace Episcopal Church

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Get ready!  Get ready!  He’s coming!  You better be ready!  And, no, I’m not talking about Santa Claus!

Welcome to the season of Advent . . . the season of preparation.  The season when we prepare for the coming of Christ . . . I know that sounds obvious, but in the church we prepare not so much His birth as His coming again.  This is the season when we hear dire warnings from John the Baptist . . . when we’re told to prepare for the end of time.  Advent is sometimes referred to as the “little Lent,” and some of the readings we hear from Scripture during Advent sound as if they’re meant to frighten us.  “The end is near!  Your eternal fate may be decided . . . this INSTANT!  Are you ready?  Are you cleansed of sin?  Is your heart turned to the Lord?”  Advent, as it is sometimes observed, can be enough to drive us right out of church and into the nearest shopping mall . . . happy to immerse ourselves in the din of Christmas music, and the frantic good cheer of shopkeepers.

Get ready!  Get ready!  He’s coming!  You better be ready!

Think of some time when you were really frightened . . . maybe when you were a kid.  I was left alone a lot as an adolescent, and I can remember more than one night when my parents were away and I was certain, CERTAIN, that I could hear people trying to get into the house.  Lying in the dark, having been awakened by . . . something . . . I’d hear some strange noise, far off in the house.  “It must be . . . . them . . . they’re coming for me!”  I’d lie very still . . . listening . . . waiting.  Finally, I’d make myself get up.  Turning on the first light was always the most difficult.  “Click.”  I’d stop and listen, frozen, trying to hear any movement.  All alone, my heart pounding, I’d make myself go through the house, turning on lights, checking doors and windows . . . making certain no one was breaking in.  Can you remember some time like this?  When you were really scared?  Remember how ALERT you were?  Remember how all of your senses were fully awake?

Now I’m all grown up.  It’s harder to scare me now.  Sometimes I like to go to a really suspenseful movie . . . it can be fun to get all worked up in a movie theater . . . it’s a little like being at camp and sitting around the campfire with other kids, telling scary stories to frighten ourselves . . . but, despite the pleasure I can get out of a tension-filled movie, it’s not easy to make me really, deeply frightened any more.  You too?  So stories like the one we heard today from the Gospel of Matthew, about some people being taken and others being left behind, don’t really affect us much.  They don’t REALLY frighten us.  We’re all grown-up now . . . we’re all terribly sophisticated . . . and we know that some of these Bible stories are just, well, stories . . . and so we treat them like they’re the same as the stories we used to tell around the campfire.  But if we do that, we miss the point.

Go back to that time when you were really frightened.  Remember again how awake, how alert you were.  You were ALIVE, right?  Your vision, your hearing, your sense of smell were all fully operating . . . you were FULLY awake.  THAT’S the point of stories like the one we heard from Matthew this morning.  The point is to wake us up.  I think that stories about the end of time . . . about Judgment . . . about the Second Coming of Christ . . . are meant to make us alert . . . aware.  They’re not really meant to frighten us . . . so much as they’re meant to remind us of what it’s like when we’re fully ALIVE . . . alert and aware.

Two men push their grocery carts; two women boot up their computers.  Two men tuck their children into bed; two women transfer laundry from washer to dryer.  In each case, one is taken and one is left.  Why?  What distinguishes these ordinary activities of one from another?  What point is Jesus trying to make when he tells such stories?  I suspect that the lesson is about awareness.  In these Bible stories of one person being left behind and one person being taken, nothing is said about wickedness and innocence.  There’s no suggestion that the one left behind is evil and the one taken is a saint.  It’ simply that the one left behind is unaware and unprepared for something that the one who is taken knows about and is ready for.

So if this is the case, that one person is taken because he or she is “ready,” and another person is left behind because he or she is NOT “ready,” as Martin Smith points out in a sermon on this subject,[1] “the key questions are:  ‘What is God preparing for us?’ and ‘How do we show that we are getting ready for it?’  ‘Heaven’ won’t do as an answer to the first question, ‘What is God preparing for us?’  We have to say what heaven is.  Heaven is union with God.  Okay . . . Heaven is being united with Christ and joined with him in love to the Creator, receiving from the Father limitless love and the fullness of his Spirit.  Okay, so that’s heaven . . . but how do we show that we’re getting ready for such union . . . for such intimacy with God?  By practicing the first steps of this intimacy in our daily lives.”  And how do we do THIS?  Through prayer.  Okay . . . But what KIND of prayer?

I’m reminded of one of the things we used to wonder about when I lived at Holy Cross Monastery:  We used to talk a fair amount about whether or not it’s possible to pray always.  What would this mean?  What would this look like?  Well, it would NOT mean being in church all the time.  It would not mean being on your knees all the time.  Praying always has to do with intention . . . it has to do with being awake . . . with being AWARE.  Ah ha!  Yes, we’re back to THAT!  Teilhard de Chardin writes, “Through your own incarnation, my God, ALL matter is henceforth incarnate. . . .”  Being aware means that we are alive to the fact that God is all about us . . . that God is revealed to us in all creation . . . through all matter.  And “all matter” means the chips and the celery tossed into the grocery cart, the tired child, the computer, the laundry. . . .  For one person all the chores of daily life may be pure drudgery, but for another the most mundane work reveals the “hum of the eternal song.”

To pray all the time . . . to practice intimacy with God . . . means to practice awareness.  To pray all the time means to use whatever experience is at hand as a lens through which to glimpse God.  Nathan Mitchell writes:  “Everyday experience is the paradigm for religious experience. . . .” [2]  In other words, paying attention to what we’re doing . . . living more and more in the “NOW” . . . trying not to spend all of our time in the past or in the future . . . is prayer.  To really experience our lives . . . is to experience God.  Don’t sleepwalk through your life!  Wake up!  Don’t bolt through your life . . . TASTE it!  SMELL it!  FEEL it!  Live your life with all the attention . . . with all the awareness you can bring to it . . . and you will be praying.  You will be intimate with God.

And you will be ready.

Jesus says, “Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.  Know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into.  Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

Tell yourself a ghost story . . . Wake up!  Get ready.  Get ready.  He’s coming!

Amen.

 

[1] “One Will Be Taken,” in a collection of his sermons, Nativities and Passions, published by Cowley Publications in 1995.  Page107.

[2] Contemporary examples of the Gospel story are from Living the Good News, p. 12, an Episcopal Sunday School curriculum.

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