November 29, 1998 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Matthew 24:36-44
As you may already be aware, this week I began wearing glasses. Not only am I getting used to wearing glasses, Iím also adjusting to bifocals at the same time. To be honest, I donít like the process. These "vision enhancers" just plain feel weird. Theyíre driving me nuts. Karen, Caitlin, and Tyler just smile and say, "now you know what weíve had to face." So far, Mitchell has been silent. Maybe he figures he is next. Tessaís first reaction was a silly grin, and the comment, "you look funny, Daddy."
On this first Sunday of Advent, weíre stepping into territory that, on first encounter, just plain feels weird, and looks funny. What a way to start out a year! Did I say that this is the first Sunday in the Christian year? By the way, did anyone have a New Yearís Eve Party last night? I guess it doesnít operate that way, does it? Maybe it should. After all, what is such a celebration at its most basic level? Isnít a "New Yearís Eve party" just a "watch" in the night for one year to change into the next?
In the flow of the Christian year, this "watching" is not just the focus of one particular night, however. A whole season is devoted to the task. Advent is a celebration, yes. It is also a time to try on some new glasses, if you will. And, to be honest, the process can be unsettling. The way weíve built our modern traditions around the upcoming holidays, this element of the season has almost been engineered out. Weíve created a warm and fuzzy holiday in the place of eye opening holy days. As a result, we have a fairly predictable (and ever-expanding) month of preparation for a day which, as the years go by, satisfies less and less.
Advent is not merely a time of preparation for what has become "Santa Claus day." Likewise, it is not just a season for getting ready to celebrate the birth of our Lord, as important as that is. Yes, at Christmas time we tell the old, old story of the first Advent. We remember the coming of our Lord as a defenseless, fragile child with an immense task at hand - the saving of a lost world with limited tools at hand. The awesome story of the incarnation reveals God in Christ taking on human form, and from this vulnerable position addressing the most basic need of humanity.
This is a wondrous tale, indeed. However, the story is incomplete. Itís not just something that happened long ago, as important as that event was. The first Advent is paired with a second coming, the time when the threads of this tapestry of life will finally be woven together into a new heaven and new earth. The One who came into this world as the child of Mary, a very human being, will return to complete the tapestry.
This image of a tapestry is appropriate, for it brings us into the realm of art. I donít know about you, but when I enter an art gallery the experience is often like getting used to a pair of bifocals. Yes, there are some absolutely magnificent pieces. With my limited understanding, I can appreciate that much. There are also items of which I havenít a clue whatís going on. For them, the words "funny" or "weird" are close to the tip of my tongue.
Anticipating the coming of our Lord is a bit like that. The first time he arrived on the scene, his appearance was almost totally unexpected, even though the Messiah was much anticipated, and the signs for his coming were all over the place, or so scripture says. The Bible gives us hindsight vision, but you better believe that the people living through it walked like strangers in an art gallery. "Whatís going on?" they may have been wondering. Do we really think the second Advent will be different?
Forgive me if I step on some toes, but this "watching" for the second coming is not like dissecting a frog in science class. Scripture does not provide us a diagram which, if only we find the right interpretational key, will show us exactly when and how events will transpire. Rather, the Bible gives us a pair of glasses through which to look. To be honest, what we see with these lens is kind of funny, maybe a little weird. It takes getting used to. And that is the whole point of this season of Advent.
You see, Godís tapestry is as yet unfinished. A day will come when this tapestry will be completed by its Creator. Thatís a promise. Now, "about that day," Jesus said, "no one knows, not the angels, nor even the Son." "Only the Father" knows. If our Lord Jesus himself doesnít even know when nor exactly how events will transpire, it makes little sense for us to try to figure it all out. Furthermore, thatís not what it means to "watch," or to "be ready."
As I said, itís not easy getting used to these bifocals. Iím told that in order to do so, I need to wear them all the time, instead of every now and then - which is what I have been doing since Monday. To be honest, my eyes get tired of the change. Iíve had a few headaches because of the process. I do, however, notice that words on the page are more clear when I look through the bottom of the lens, and trees off in the distance are more in focus when I view them through the top of the lens. What I find most unsettling, though, is the point where these two parts of the lens meet. At times it seems like the walls move when I move my head. Things I thought were solid seem more fluid, if you know what I mean.
Changing the subject (but not really), this past year has been a rough one in the lives of many people in our congregation. Since this same Sunday a year ago, there have been 19 deaths of persons somehow related to our fellowship, whether members or immediate family of members. The list is probably longer than that as we widen the picture to cover other loved ones and friends. A death dramatically alters our view of reality. Things we once thought solid are less so. Grief is a long term process of getting used to living differently. It takes time to get used to life without a loved one, if we ever really do. It doesnít happen overnight, thatís for sure.
Advent is like a time of mourning, for in this season our view of reality is altered. That is, if we allow it to be. Furthermore, it is an intentional time for getting used to living differently. Let me explain. Altering our view of reality is not so much a matter of decorating our surroundings with the ornaments of the season, though the "decking of our halls" (so to speak) can become signposts along the way pointing to deeper truths.
Think about the stories behind this season. Some of my favorites involve the appearance of angels to humans. Talk about unsettling experiences! Donít you think that when Gabriel knocked on Maryís door, her world altogether changed? When the walls around you move, which is something of what encountering heavenly realities is like, there is need for those words, "Donít be afraid." Furthermore, the unexpected new life growing within her, marked the death of life as it once had been.
These Bible stories, and others like them, seek to open our eyes to a much wider picture than we once knew. At no other time of the year do we sing as much about angels as we will in the coming days. As nice as such television shows as "Touched by an Angel" are, the reality of the faith in the story and song that we have received is far richer. To "watch" is to become aware of a realm beyond this, a reality which surrounds and indwells this present one. "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." We dare not say that glibly. It is an overwhelming thought, an unsettling prayer. The walls are not as solid as we thought, whether the walls of this building or Wall Street. It takes some getting used to.
Living with a new awareness of the bigger picture of life involves a new way of living. When the New Testament speaks of the second advent the focus is always upon how we are to live. When Jesus said, "you must be ready," he wasnít speaking about sitting around watching the signs to figure out when the day will come. His mention of God coming like "a thief in the night" wasnít an encouragement to go out and purchase a heavenly break-in detection system. As he said, "the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."
To "be ready" is to live now as if the Kingdom had already come, with the focus upon ethics. What Jesus said about the end times is connected to what he said about the present time. The sermon of the mount is tomorrow living for today. Think about that favorite text of the Brethren, the parable of the Great Judgement, otherwise known as the story of the separating of the sheep and the goats. "When the Son of Man comes in his glory," Jesus said, those who in this life treated others with the ethics of the Kingdom - feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned - those who have lived as if the Kingdom was already a present reality, doing what their "King" had called them to be and to do, these people will "be ready" to inherit the Kingdom. (Mt. 25:31ff)
Advent is a time for examining our own behavior in light of the coming kingdom. I donít know about you, but that is an unsettling experience, also. These new glasses arenít easy to get used to. They say you have to wear them all the time, and not just every now and then - when you think you need them. It takes time. It takes time.
You know, this talk of glasses gets me to thinking about Alvis Reed. Toward the end of his life he had to get used to living without eyesight, or at least most of it. He taught me a lot about walking with yet another set of glasses, bifocals that keep looking toward tomorrow even as they clarify today - the spectacles of faith. This gets me thinking about all those we have released into Godís hands this past year. Living on without them here with us involves a lot of adjustment. I still miss Mary Hedrickís simple, but strong faith, and giving her a kiss. Her husband, Glen, was so restless before he became bedfast. This amateur poet has found his rest now, or so we believe. And brother Carl Simmons - how much I learned from him about fighting the good fight, of persevering in the face of setback after setback. No kidney transplants needed in the kingdom. Still, it takes time to get used to living on.
Much the same could be said of every person who has, this past year, shifted from what we sometimes call "the church militant" to "the church triumphant." Perhaps you can insert the name of someone you have known and loved into this ongoing list. Holidays are times we especially notice the adjustment.
During this season of Advent, may God give you new glasses. Maybe theyíll be bifocals, so you can see more clearly the bigger picture of Godís coming Kingdom, as well as the daily steps of living now as if that Kingdom were already a present reality. Come, folks, letís put on these new glasses, and sing together a song of this tapestry God will complete: "For all the Saints." (#636)
©1998Peter L. Haynes
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