Listen to the sermon here.
(stage whisper) Guess what? Jesus is coming!
Aren’t you excited? There is going to be a little baby and a manger and a star and some shepherds! It’s going to be so great!
Today we start Advent, so we can stop complaining about all the Christmas decorations at Starbucks and the mall and finally yield to the inevitable. Yes, you too, will soon be humming Christmas carols and craving eggnog, even if we at Trinity dutifully stay dressed in our Advent blue and hold off singing Christmas carols until Christmas.
What readings greet this auspicious beginning of such a joyful season? Will it be the story of the Holy Spirit coming to Mary and offering her a really strange proposition? Will it be that amazing scene where Mary and Elizabeth, both miraculously pregnant, greet each other in joy? Whatever our readings are, they are bound to be cheerful and about that adorable holy baby, right?
Oh. Maybe not.
Instead of sweet tableaus about the Holy Family, we’re speeding past Jesus’ birth this morning, we’re speeding past his childhood, his ministry, his death, even his resurrection! The creators of the lectionary speed up the film of the story of Christ this first Sunday of Advent, to remind us that we’re not just waiting for a baby. Rather than, “Guess what, Jesus is coming?” The tone seems to be more of, “Watch out, Jesus is coming!”
The waiting of Advent is twofold. We wait for Christmas morning and our chance to remember the birth of Christ. But during Advent we also wait for the completion of Christ’s kingdom. We remember that the birth of Christ was just the beginning of an incredible story and that we are still in the midst of that story, eagerly longing to see its conclusion.
Well, we’re supposed to eagerly long for its conclusion. I’ll be honest with you, this passage from the Gospel of Matthew just makes me really, really nervous. I’m the daughter of an elementary school principal and perhaps that makes me more prone to feel like I’m always just about to get into really big trouble. Apocalyptic passages just make me worry that Jesus will come back right when I’m making fun of someone or eating a gluttonous meal, or spending money on myself instead of donating it to the poor. Apocalyptic passages make me want to hide under a blanket, so I can be sure not be doing anything too rotten should Jesus decide to come back.
Luckily, theologians with more mature and sophisticated understandings of these kinds of writings have spent lots of time thinking about what this return of the Son of Man might mean.
Karl Barth explains what is happening in this passage.
the revelation of [The Kingdom of God’s] hidden reality will come soon and suddenly, like a thief in the night. . . .[the revelation] will come soon because it is the goal of the limited life in time of Jesus of Nazareth and will follow hard on His death and therefore in the foreseeable future. And it will come suddenly because it is foreordained and foreknown by God alone, and will occur when men are least expecting it, beneficially, if terrifyingly upsetting all their expectations and plans, and thus their anxieties and hopes, as actually happened in the first instance of the resurrection of Jesus. (Barth, Church Dogmatics III.2, p. 499)
Barth understands the return of Jesus as an extension of the revelation that God has already begun. This revelation begins with the birth of Christ—as we realize that the God of the entire universe has chosen to walk around on Earth—to fully live the human experience. The revelation continues with Christ’s death—a God who is willing to sacrifice himself for us. The revelation continues with Christ’s resurrection—a God who is more powerful than death. However, the revelation does not end with the amazing news of the resurrection.
The next part of the revelation is about the Kingdom of God. Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God all the time in parables. The Kingdom of God is like a pearl, a mustard seed, a woman who has lost her coins, the metaphors go on and on. The Kingdom of God is when Christ finally reigns over all of humanity and justice and peace and mercy are the markers of the human community.
We do not need to be afraid of this reign of God, because we already know what God is like! God is not a scary monster in the sky who wants to zap us. God loves us so much he became incarnate and ate with us and redeemed us through the life, death and resurrection of his Son. The ultimate reign of Jesus will be a continuation of that process, which will reveal even more about God’s loving character.
And this reign of Jesus does not begin in some far off future when he comes back in some mystical blaze of glory. In fact, the Kingdom of God began immediately after the resurrection and continues to grow through the work of the Church. We function as the Body of Christ, doing our best to bring peace and justice and mercy to our planet. We don’t sit idly by, anxiously waiting for Christ’s return. We don’t hide under a blanket! We do our work. We love our families. We volunteer and give away our money. We hope and we expect, even when hope and expectation seem irrational.
The anthem at our 9:00 and 11:00 services today is Paul Manz’s E’en So, Lord Jesus Quickly Come. If I had known earlier in the week this would be our anthem, I would have been tempted not to preach at all and just have the choir sing this to us several times! Legend has it that Manz wrote this piece in 1953 when his young son was terribly ill and hospitalized. The anthem perfectly captures the tension between the difficulties of our lives and the hope we still carry for Christ to make himself known in this world.
The text comes from Revelation and ends with the expression, “E’en so Lord Jesus, quickly come, and night shall be no more; they need no light nor lamp nor sun, for Christ will be their All!” And unfortunately for those of you in the 8:00 crowd, the text only begins to express the tension and grief and hope of this piece. The music perfectly captures the longing of what it means to be human. We live these everyday lives, peppered with great losses, but still Christ breaks in to give us light and hope. And that taste of light and hope makes us yearn for even more. That is the promise of the completion of Christ’s kingdom. That is why we can eagerly await Christ’s return rather than hiding under a blanket.
That is why we can say with great excitement. Guess what! Jesus is coming!