November 28, 2010

The Alarm Clock Rings”

Isaiah 2:1-5

1 The word which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
2 It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it,
3 and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD.


Today we begin Advent. I think it is worth remembering that the purpose of the church year is to teach us of what the faith consists, and to strengthen our faith. We use symbols to assist us in these tasks. You can easily notice that the paraments have changed colors from Green to Violet. This color is also used during the season of Lent; but Advent is not Lent. Lent is about penitence, Advent is about preparation. Advent is more about preparation than contrition. It is about getting ready for something. This is a subtle but import ant distinction. So, one of my not so secret hopes is that in the future we will have blue parments so that we might be able to visually tell that Advent is a unique time in the church’s calendar.

During Advent we prepare. Preparation usually focuses on activity in the present. So in an effort to prepare, the proper question is “for what?” Many of you are in the midst of preparations or at least taking a brief sigh of relief in between preparations for something, one holiday or another. But this is definitely not the preparations I am talking about.

We are rehearsing preparations that began in the 8th century B.C. when the prophet Isaiah of Israel spoke of a Messiah. It is the same preparation urged by John the Baptist, who 30 C.E. urged the people of Jerusalem to prepare for the Messiah saying, “one stands among you whom you do not know.”1 It is the same Messiah sung about in 1741 when Handel penned the oratorio by that name. It is the same Messiah sung about 1967 in New York City in the musical Hair.

In the Advent season, the church turns our attention toward the future, and the present, preparing for something promised in the past. This past is not our past (as in Lent), but rather a memory from the past that helps us to remember who God is, and how God works in the world, in our lives, so we can get a much better sense of where we are headed, and what the promises of God will bring. That is why we read Isaiah today. And that’s why Advent is such a beautiful season: it remembers and re-tells the story of people who, like us, were waiting for the promises of God to be fulfilled, and striving to live faithfully as they waited.

Advent is about preparation. But how do we get ready?

We are remarkable creatures in that our brains allow us to identify people, places, and things, quite easily. Just for a second set aside those times when you are looking for something and manage to look over, or past, it. Think about the times when you somehow manage to pick out that one thing you are looking for, the proverbial needle in a haystack, the particular thing you need or desire.

I remember one time during a particularly uneventful spring turkey hunt, I decided to look for morel mushrooms. I had never actually found them myself. I’d heard of them. I’d even seen them that others have found but I’ve never really seen one growing in real life. On that day on the way back to the truck, my friend and I took a short detour and he, after looking around a bit, pointed out one tiny cap to a morel pushing its way up through the leaf litter. After I knew what to look for I was able to find them myself. I had been taught the signs and symbols.

What I am trying to say is that Advent is about learning how to look for the Messiah. The texts and the symbols, rituals and activities teach us how to tune our watching. But it is easy to get distracted.

I get crabby this time of year over all this mis-appropriated urging to prepare. The world around us calls for preparation by urging our participation in a shopping season. Let me remind you that Advent is not a shopping season.

Advent is a clarion call, an alarm clock of sorts, that can serve to wake us from the sleep of life. If last week’s lessons were about the end times, and speech to those anxious about the end; this week’s lessons on the end times are different in that they speak to those apathetic about the end. The question posed to them, ‘what’s all the excitement about,’ meets the reply, ‘nothing.’

Like us, the people in Matthew’s church have gotten apathetic because they have waited so long. They wondered, didn’t he say that “this generation will not pass away till all these things take place?”2 But they have! “God’s alarm clock must not have gone off. Or had God forgot?3 It is tempting to give up on God and to prepare for other contingencies. Apparently, that is what some people in Matthew’s community did.

The challenge is not to prepare ourselves for some far off day when we retire, or when illness and infirmity come, or even when some natural disaster strikes, as important as these things may be. The challenge is to live lives of preparedness in the here and now; on this first day of a new church year, as we long for a new heaven and a new earth, we seek to live our lives right here, right now, in ways that are pleasing to God and utterly trusting in God’s goodness. This is the message to the people when Isaiah boldly proclaims “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD.”

What is it we are preparing for? One pastor wrote, “The call to ‘be ready’ is a call to put our lives in the hands of the One Who Knows: our gracious God. Our first day with God, our baptismal day, was a day full of grace. Our last day will be gracious as well.”4

This light of a new day dawns upon us regularly. One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor said, “Every morning when you wake up, decide to live the life God has given you to live right now. Refuse to live yesterday over and over again. Resist the temptation to save your best self for tomorrow.” There’s no need to get lost in the technical details of timing, or to try to know something even Jesus himself did not know. Instead, Taylor urges us to focus on how we live, today: “Live a caught-up life, not a put-off life, so that wherever you are….you are ready for God….Ours may be the generation that finally sees him ride in on the clouds, or we may meet him the same way generations before us have – one by one by one, as each of us closes our eyes for the last time. Either way, our lives are in God’s hands.”5

The Alarm Clock rings. Let’s wake up.

1 John 1:16b RSV

2 Matthew 24:34

3 Barbara Brown Taylor, “On the Clouds of Heaven” The Seeds of Heaven, p. 111

4 Richard A. Jensen, Preaching Matthew’s Gospel (Lima: C.S.S. Publishing, 1998), 214

5 Barbara Brown Taylor, “On the Clouds of Heaven” The Seeds of Heaven, p. 113