Sermon by Reverend Dr. John Mann | December 1, 2019
Today is the first Sunday in Advent. Advent is a word that means, “Something is happening.” For people who pay attention to a church calendar, the season of Advent is the four weeks leading up to Christmas. We get ready for Christmas to happen. It marks the beginning of the church year.
It’s more than just getting ready for Christmas; Advent is about reminding ourselves of how we might prepare to live the life God makes possible. That involves getting ready to meet God in everyday life.
In one sense we are always getting ready for life. Whether in a big way or a small way, consciously or unconsciously, we make choices about how we live. If we look at the basis of our choices, we can begin to see whether or not God is revealed. God is always present, but it’s always up to us to see God.
We might ask, ‘If I want to see God, where do I look?” The answer is not so much in where, but how. Observing the presence of God in everyday life depends a lot upon our perspective; our lenses.
I once served as the minister of two churches in Iowa. The distance between the towns these churches were in was 18 miles. I drove that 18 miles back and forth many times every week. It was wide open farm land; one farm after another. The farmers raised two crops – corn and soybeans. While the landscape was constant, it was also forever changing.
One day I was driving along the road between the two towns. My son Elliott who was three years old was along for the ride that day. It was a day in late autumn. The vast fields of corn and soybeans had been harvested and the snows of winter had not yet arrived. The sky was mostly cloudy and so the landscape as far as the eye could see was a variation of earthy grays and browns.
Then the clouds part and streams of sunlight burst through. Suddenly the landscape changed. The colors were more vivid and the contrast between the bright sun and gray of the clouds and the browns of the land was sharpened.
My son said, “Look dad, God has come out.”
I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it would seem so. I wondered if he saw what he saw because his daddy was a pastor, or simply because he was three years old. In any event, he saw what I didn’t see, but once he pointed it out, it was hard not to see it that way.
God has come out. Where do we look to see that happening? How do we look to see that happening?
If Advent means, “Something is happening,” we can think about how we read the signs of the times. At any given time we are moving toward an unfolding future. Some things we plan for; some things we have no control over.
The story we read this morning from Matthew’s portrait of Jesus comes toward the end of the story. In it, Jesus is talking about what has been called the “Second Coming” of Christ. Part of the story of Jesus is that he will at some point come into the world a second time. Some people have it all worked out how it’s supposed to happen.
Within the span of time when the four gospels were written, we can see how this idea developed. Mark was the first gospel written. In Mark, Jesus is coming again, right away. It was thought that the generation that knew him in person would be the generation to see him come again and that his arrival would be literally in person.
Matthew and Luke were written toward the end of the first century. The generation that knew Jesus was gone. Luke promoted the idea that if we change the world through peace and justice, we’ll see Christ. Matthew promoted the idea that we can see Christ coming into the world through the acceptance of his teachings.
And the fourth Gospel, John, written around 100 years after Jesus, promoted the idea that the second coming of Christ is the presence of the church in the world.
In Matthew, Jesus said, “no one knows the day or the hour when the Son of Man will come.” He said that people would just be going about the normal course of their lives, and it would happen. Two men working in a field and one will be taken. Two women grinding flour and one will be taken.” Therefore be on your guard, because he will come when you least expect him.
By the time Matthew’s story of Jesus was being told it had been at least ten years since the uprising that destroyed Jerusalem. The church community to which Matthew was addressed was primarily the Jewish Christians who had been centered in Jerusalem. They had suffered much in the war and were dwindling in numbers. Within a generation or two they would be overtaken by the non-Jewish or Gentile growth in the Jesus movement. In one sense they were being swept away.
We can read this story as an illustration of the random nature of violence. People going about the normal course of the lives when suddenly they are consumed by some violent act. This is not merely the result of overactive imaginations. Every time we fly on a plane we are reminded of the risks. Television, the internet and other forms of media have made the world seem like a smaller place. What happens in some other part of the world is brought to us live and with digital clarity. The only thing remote about it is the control we use over it.
Another way of looking at the story is that it says something about the way God works. Experiencing God is not necessarily an event we can program on demand. What the story tells us is that we can be alert to the possibility. Being alert to the possibility is a primary ingredient of hope.
If we looked into any point in human history we would see the same forces at work. Fear is part of the human survival mechanism. It’s in our DNA. Fear was part of what formed early tribes and settlements. It has defined rituals and religions throughout the ages. Even in Scriptures we are told that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Fear is part of what keeps us alive. But it has to be balanced. It’s a good thing to live with a sense of caution. The constant reminders to “Mind the Gap” are there for a reason. The idea is to mind it, but not be controlled by the fear of it. Otherwise we would never get on the train.
The story of Jesus is the story of God showing what it is like to be a human being. The very idea can be startling. The way the story is told is that when people were startled by the possibility and when they felt afraid of it, the first word was often: Do not be afraid.
Yes, you feel fear because that’s what people feel in situations of uncertainty. But this is not a story to make you feel afraid. This is a story of hope, peace and joy.
As the story was told – An angel told Joseph in a dream, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”
When telling Mary that she would give birth to Jesus, an angel said, “Do not be afraid. God has been gracious to you.”
In so many different ways Jesus empowered people to overcome their fear and to live with hope. He brought into the world a sense of transformation so that people could somehow, even miraculously move from fear to hope. To live with hope is to live with the knowledge of God.
Like my son and I driving down the road, two people can look at the same thing, experience the same thing, and view it in completely different ways. If I am fearful, I see one thing. If I am indifferent, I see one thing. If I am angry I see one thing.
I was visiting with a fellow once whose son had died. It was a tragic and painful situation. One thing he said helped me to understand why it is so important not to tell people how to feel, but simply to listen.
He said that in their attempts to offer comfort and support people had sometimes said things like, “I know what you’re going through” or “I understand how you feel.” And even if they had been through a similar experience he said, “Nobody knows how I feel. Nobody.”
It might seem like saying, “Do not be afraid,” is telling someone how to feel. I think perhaps that message is more of an invitation than an order. It’s a reflection of what’s on offer when God is revealed.
For now, something is happening and we are preparing to be there when it does – when Christ comes – today, tomorrow and all the days after that. Amen.