Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent
November 27, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Stories shape so much of our understanding that we expect life to work like a story, with a well-organized beginning, middle, and end. The end of a well-told story may have a surprise, but the end itself feels inevitable, not just because we can see and feel that there aren’t many pages left, but also because all the stray threads of the story are wrapping up neatly. But of course we know that life doesn’t work that way, even if we expect it to. Individual lives can end abruptly, creating great sorrow. Wars can end abruptly, creating great joy, or weary relief. Other times, things just sort of wind down gradually, but without any real direction or satisfaction, like a party where the guests leave a few at a time. Last one out, turn off the lights.
So, what about the world? Will it end with a bang, or a whimper, or will somehow the story of existence wrap up with a neat and satisfying conclusion? As we’ve talked about recently, in the ancient world, people were very interested in how the world would end, or more accurately, how the world as we know it would be transformed by some great power into something that works very differently. Jesus spoke to this reality of hope, fear, and uncertainty, but he didn’t exactly answer the question, at least, not directly. He did say a bit about what this moment would be like, but mysteriously, he described it as like both a cataclysmic flood and a stealthy burglary, something one could easily sleep through.
How can this be? Perhaps the disciples were asking the wrong question, and Jesus is trying to turn their attention in a more productive direction. Like children, they were asking what would be done to them — what will happen, and when will it happen — are we there yet? — and those are fair questions. But Jesus is trying to raise up leaders, strong leaders for difficult times, and so he uses their natural curiosity and anxiety to draw their attention to a more adult question: what should they do?
A creeping cat burglar and a wall of floodwaters do have one thing in common: you are much better off if you have prepared for them before they get there. Once you see them, your options are limited, and unappealing. The world rightly regards elaborate preparation for hypothetical events with disapproval, but Jesus assures us, while we can’t know when or how God will intervene and turn things upside down, there’s nothing hypothetical about the end. We may be certain.
The world also rightly points out that you can’t prepare for the unknown and unknowable. But that’s OK, because Jesus is greater and wiser than the world, and he has taught us exactly how to prepare. Follow his teachings and you’re good. Love God and love your neighbor, and you’re all set. His teachings are beautiful, in and of themselves, but also in how they play out. Most disaster preparations, security countermeasures, and contingency plans carry a cost, and can only mitigate a specific threat. The preparations for a thief do nothing to prevent a flood, and there is no end to the anxiety we can bring on ourselves by trying to prevent every possible loss. But part of the beauty of Jesus’s way is that it is a way for all seasons, and it takes away our fears. Working, living, and aspiring to love, grace, peace, and justice is always the right way to live, and not only for the sake of the world, but we are also better off for living our lives this way, whether the end times come in our lifetimes or not.
We may know little about the end of the story, but we know our roles, and we know enough about God to feel hope for the future God has planned and is even now bringing into existence. This hope makes it possible to bear great burdens gracefully and even cheerfully, and to do good and great things in a world still suffering and lost in darkness. In this holy season of Advent, may we all rededicate our hearts to hope, our lives to grace, and our whole beings to God, whose love never ends.