Well, this is not exactly the passage we expect to begin the journey to Christmas, is it?
I mean, here we are ready to start thinking about Christmas, and our lesson is about the flood and thieves and people getting left behind. Not subjects that fill us with a warm and rosy glow, are they?
And yet, to begin Advent this year, this is our Gospel lesson. As we await and prepare for the birth of Christ, we begin by talking about Christ’s coming again.
Every time we talk about Christ’s coming again, there is always someone who is sure they know when it will be. They’ve worked out the math or are positive the signs are in the daily news. So it must be so.
But Jesus is really clear. We don’t know the day. In another passage, he says that even he doesn’t know when it will be. And if Jesus himself doesn’t know, why on earth would we think we are smart enough to figure it out? Jesus stresses that though there will be many signs, many trials, no one knows precisely the day or the hour of the arrival of the Son of Man.
The Scriptures continually remind us that one day God shall, as Isaiah puts it – “. . . judge between nations and shall arbitrate for many people.” In light of which we are reminded by Paul that “. . . it is now the moment for (us) to wake from sleep” and “put on the armor of light.” Jesus reminds us that “about that day and hour no one knows,” so we must “keep awake therefore,” because, “you do not know on what day your Lord is coming, “ and “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Now, let’s be honest, odds are against it happening in our lifetimes. Given the span of history and the fact it hasn’t happened yet, it probably won’t happen in the next fifty or sixty years either. But even if the hour doesn’t come for the whole world in our lifetimes, the hour will come for each of us. We are mortal and we each will have our own judgement day. And we don’t know when that day is either. Regardless of health, wealth or situation, we don’t really know when that day is coming.
And maybe, just maybe, this passage is talking about more than just the dramatic judgement day and more than just our own personal judgement days. Maybe it can also refer to our chances to meet Christ in the world today. We talk about Jesus coming to us as one of “the least.” And whatever we do for them, we do for our Lord.
So really, we could be walking past Jesus every day and we don’t recognize him any more than the world did when he was born as a baby in a stable, or lived as a roaming homeless man, or died as a convict on a cross.
Jesus is coming. The best way to be sure we will recognize him when he does is to get lots of practice in the meantime. Whatever we do for “the least of these,” we do for Jesus. If we want to see Jesus and know Jesus, if we want to experience the Good News that Jesus is coming, we need to listen to the stories, the hopes, and the concerns of “the least of these.” If we want Jesus to recognize us as a neighbor, we must become neighbors to the least of these, building real community – shared bread, shared dreams, shared vision – with them. That shared vision is Jesus’ vision. That shared hope is what makes the certain news of Jesus’ coming Good News. That shared dream is coming true among us, and Jesus invites us to make it our own.
As Christians, we should expect to find Jesus in the unexpected places, in the company of unlikely people, at any time of the night or day. We should expect the unexpected. We need to try to ready ourselves for the possibility of divine disruptions as the Spirit moves people and situations into our line of vision and into our all-too-carefully-constructed lives and overbooked schedules.
One way or another, the Son of Man is coming, whether in a big dramatic cloud, as a stranger in the street or to take us home when our day is done. And we do not and cannot know when. Because we cannot know when, we have to be ready whenever it might happen. We have to live as though we might meet Jesus again at any time.
Blogger David Ewart put it like this: “We should live as those who have applied to emigrate to a new country called The Kingdom of God. We haven’t heard yet when our visa will be approved – no one seems to know the day or the hour. But in the meantime, we want to be ready, and so we are already learning the language and practicing the habits and customs of that new land. While we are still citizens of our current country, we also live like citizens of the age to come.”
Jesus told us how to live in the Kingdom of God. He told us to feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and to care for the widow and the orphan, the outcast and the immigrant. He told us to put others before ourselves. Living for the Kingdom of God looks strange to outsiders. Really following those teachings sounds crazy, but that is what we are called to do.
My favorite example of living in the Kingdom of God is the bishop in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. Despite his position of power and influence, the bishop lives a life of simplicity and generosity towards those in need. As a matter of course he shelters Jean Valjean, a convict newly freed after 19 years’ imprisonment for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children. When Valjean becomes a literal thief in the night and makes off with the bishop’s silver, he has every right to demand justice with righteous indignation after this abuse of his generosity.
Instead, confronted by the police who have collared Valjean in possession of expensive cutlery, he chides Valjean for not having taken the silver candlesticks too, as part of his gift. After they leave, the bishop explains his version of justice to his baffled housekeeper: “I have for a long time detained that silver wrongfully. It belonged to the poor. Who was that man? A poor man, evidently.” Now most of us would be infuriated at being taken advantage of in this way. We would want justice if not vengeance. How many of us would be able to not only forgive the thief, but also save him from the police and give him even more?
The bishop’s response may seem absurd, yet it is entirely consistent with Jesus’ warning to “be ready.” In other words, to live at all times as though Jesus was serious about the way we treat those society deems unstable, outcast, or even morally bankrupt This is how we live so that when Jesus comes we are ready.
In short, on this First Sunday in Advent, we are called upon to take our God and ourselves seriously. We are called upon to recognize that life can be snuffed out in an instant and to live accordingly. We are to stay awake, to watch out for signs of God’s activity in the world.
Advent is a good time to begin to be ready. As we wait and prepare for Christ again, it is easier to focus outside of ourselves. We talk about the spirit of Christmas – the spirit of Christ filling people with generosity and “goodwill.” Even people who only play lip service to following Christ tend towards giving in this season. It has become a secular tradition as well. As a country we make 30% of our charitable gifts in December, while other months average just over 6%; and 38% of Americans who donate to charity said that they are more likely to do so during the holiday season.
Yet, Advent is only four weeks long, roughly one twelfth of our year. So, are we only ready for Christ in December? Or can it be more? Can we begin now, and find a way to change how we live every day?
For God is always up to something good, always seeking to bless and create and restore and bring hope to the chaotic messes of our lives and the dark corners of our fears and hurts. The season of Advent bids us to stop, to breathe, to consider the marvels of creation, of each other, and of the Divine presence that infuses our lives and the world. This is not just another Sunday, another season, and another day. Are you ready to encounter Jesus? Are you ready for the unexpected to change your life, alter your plans, and disrupt your direction? Be ready.
For Jesus is coming again, and again, and again. Don’t miss a single opportunity of this present day. Beginning in this Advent season, may we live in such a way that we are never surprised by the coming of the Son of Man.