Advent 1, Year A, 2016

This week while visiting my in-laws in Texas, I received a text from my landlady. “Do you guys have an evacuation plan?”

This is not a text I expected to get. I found my heart pounding and my brain racing. I wrote something articulate, like, “Um, what?”

She explained that Peebles Hill, the mountain on which our houses are built, was on fire. The forestry department had come through and warned everyone to make an evacuation plan.

That woke me up. In fact, it took me about three days to come down from that text, even after I read the reports of how the forest service bulldozed a barrier so the fire would not come down the mountain and burn Lovingston.

Do we have an evacuation plan? We do now. We quickly got a list together of paintings and jewelry and important documents and texted it to our dog sitter and a friend. We know now what we consider essential.

This Advent I ask you: Do you have an evacuation plan?

And I don’t mean the kind where you gather up your grandmother’s jewelry and your passports. I mean the kind you would need for the situation Jesus describes in the Gospel of Matthew:

so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

Now, if Jesus sent you that text, it would make your heart race a little, right? Matthew describes a terrifying and disorienting scenario in which Jesus’ return means people start disappearing left and right! In this kind of evacuation scenario, I’d be tempted to gather up all my good works in a bag to show Jesus. “See Jesus, I gave to my church, I was basically nice, I bought an Angel Tree gift every year!”

Do you have an evacuation plan? Do you have a plan for what you will do or say if Jesus was to suddenly appear in a cloud before you? It’s a terrifying prospect, all these images of people disappearing, imminent destruction. Advent, the season in which we anticipate Jesus’ birth at Christmas, is the season when we also anticipate the second coming.

Jesus’ work of salvation began during his birth, but is not yet fully complete. He promises us a Kingdom where everything is perfectly in line with God’s vision—no more grief, no more sickness, no more broken relationships. But we all know that world has not arrived yet.

Some people believe that this perfect world won’t be ushered in until Jesus returns to earth in one cataclysmic event as described in the Gospel of Matthew.

Other folks believe that this perfect world will start to unfold gradually. In fact, that God’s Kingdom is right here, right now and we get to participate in building it with God. We carry the presence of Jesus in us, through our baptism, and renew it through our weekly communion. The Holy Spirit helps us to share that presence of Jesus with the world and grow God’s kingdom.

If that’s the case, maybe we don’t need an evacuation plan. An evacuation plan is the easy way out, right? You pack your suitcase of self righteousness and say beam me up, Jesus! I’m ready for my time share in heaven!

If God’s Kingdom is here now, always unfolding, right before our eyes, then Paul’s admonition to the Romans makes a lot of sense: Wake from sleep! Wake up! Look around you! Paul describes salvation as being a little closer than it used to be because Paul understands salvation as an event in history, not someone’s personal moral and ethical condition. For Paul, salvation started at Jesus’ birth and continues through this mysterious second event. Paul doesn’t care about our bags of good deeds. For Paul our salvation is not about our behavior, but about Jesus’ acts in history and the future.

And Paul doesn’t say anything about an evacuation plan. Paul wants his readers to put on the armor of light, not as a moral response to salvation, but because the armor of light is just what people who have been saved by God wear. Whether we realize it or not, each of us has the armor of light in our closet. It comes free with our baptism. I often tell kids who are being baptized that after they are baptized they will be a little bit like superheroes. If we are superheroes, this armor of light is our costume.

What if we thought about Jesus’ second coming not as an evacuation route, but as a chance to be strap on our Armor of Light and participate in the new world he wants to create? Whether Jesus is actually going to come in a historical event or whether Jesus is already here, at work through the Holy Spirit, through each of us, our role doesn’t really change.

Paul describes the Armor of Light as giving us the power to live honorably and with self control.

The world really hungers for honor and self control these days. Whether you’re a Real Housewife or an Internet troll, it seems our society rewards those who can make the biggest splash or be the most hurtful. But the fabric of the Kingdom of God is and will be made up of the quiet, the faithful, and the kind.

The town of Lovingston was saved this weekend because of faithful employees of the Forest Service and faithful volunteer firefighters. Now, I don’t know if I have ever heard of a splashy story about a member of the Forest Service. I can’t even tell you what they do, exactly. But I know this week they spent about three days in bulldozers, creating a fire line between the fire and our homes. They sacrificed holiday time with family in order to serve us. And dozens of the residents of Nelson County brought by granola bars, fruit, sandwiches and water as a thank you.

None of this is headline news if you don’t get the Nelson County Times. And I don’t know if any of these folks are Christians, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they were. Their faithful, sacrificial work is exactly the kind of work needed to knit together the Kingdom of God.

And they did not do the work in order to fill up their bags with their good deeds. They fought the fire, because that is who they are, what they have been trained to do.

How has God been preparing you to wear your Armor of Light? How are you part of the completely ordinary and completely supernatural coming of the Kingdom of God? How will you communicate God’s love to the world? How will you enact God’s justice?

Each of you has a vital role to play in the creation of God’s kingdom. And you don’t have to become someone else to do it. God created an Armor of Light that perfectly matches your temperament and interests. Only you can do the specific thing that God has designed for you.

My prayer for each of us this Advent is that we wouldn’t plan our evacuation, but that we would plan to stay, to put on our Armor of Light and to show up for God and the people who desperately need him. Amen.

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Advent 1, Year A, 2013

You may have caught on to this already, since Target has been draped in tinsel for weeks, but Christmas is coming! Today we begin a new church year and the season of Advent.  Advent, the four weeks preceding Christmas, is a season of waiting and preparing for Jesus’ birth.

But Advent isn’t just about getting ready for the baby Jesus.  The first Sunday of Advent always begins with an apocalyptic text.  I don’t know about you, but when I get to church in December I want to hear sweet stories about Mary and Joseph getting ready to welcome baby Jesus.  Instead, we get stories of women disappearing while minding their own business.  That doesn’t usually show up in Advent Calendars, does it?

No matter how uncomfortable they make us, these kinds of apocalyptic texts are pretty common in the New Testament.  They understand Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as part of an as of yet incomplete journey for human kind.  Jesus has already done the work of saving us from ourselves, but the work of completing the Kingdom of God—a time when peace and justice will mark humanity’s relationships—is still to come.  Theologians call this time we are in the parousia:  the already, but not yet.

We are already saved by the incarnate, resurrected Jesus, but our world is not yet fully redeemed.  Our world is still marked by human brokenness.  In Advent, we are called not just to remember the infant Jesus coming into the world, but we are also supposed to prepare for his return.

And how do we prepare?

We stay awake.  Not literally awake, of course.  Jesus doesn’t want to come back to be greeted by delirious believers clutching bottles of “5 Hour Energy”.  Jesus wants us to stay awake spiritually.

There are Christians who believe if you compile all the parts of Scripture together that reference Jesus’ return, you can map out roughly when he’ll come back.  But our passage today refutes that notion.  Jesus reminds his listeners that Noah’s contemporaries could not have known that there would be a great flood.  In the same way, Christians cannot know when Jesus’ return will happen.  We don’t need to obsess over it.  We don’t need to try to predict when it will come.  We just need to stay awake.

In our culture, we are experts at doing anything but staying awake and alert to our present.  Our culture has trained us to long for what is next.  Our next meal out, a fancier car, a better job, a more elaborate home.  We think about the future all the time.  We worry about the future. Will we get married?  Will we be able to have kids?  Will we have jobs we love?  Will we be able to afford retirement?  We can even put off our own happiness, thinking that our happiness will come at some point in the future—when we make a little more money, when we lose the weight, when we meet Mr. Right.

In the same way we can put off our own spiritual lives.  Oh, I’ll start going to church when I have kids.  I’ll start studying the Bible when I retire.  I’ll go to that fellowship event once my work settles down a bit.

But this one Sunday a year it is my job to say this to you:  Wake up.

Wake up!

You don’t know what time you have left.  Jesus could come back tomorrow.  You could get hit by a bus on your way home.  Our time on this earth is short and unpredictable.

Would you be ready if you had to give an account of your life today?

Have you checked in lately with God to find out where he is calling you to serve? Have you been paying attention to the needs of your neighbors?  Are there widows, orphans, or other people on the margins in your life who need attention?

These kind of questions make us feel vulnerable and nervous.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown tells us that we numb ourselves to avoid feeling vulnerable.  We put ourselves to sleep to avoid the pain of our lives. We put ourselves into a stupor by endlessly checking Facebook, by watching TV, by drinking every night, by stuffing our faces with brownies or queso.  We would rather sleep walk, than live fully awake.

We only have this one life.  We only have this one life to feel the joy and pain of what it means to be human.  We only have this one life to take emotional risks.  We only have this one life to love and serve other people.

When I yell “Wake up!” at you, it may sound like a nag.  Like something your mother used to do when you were just exhausted before school and all you wanted was a few more minutes of rest.

But I really mean to yell “wake up!” at you as an invitation.  Jesus invites us to live a full, rich life drenched with meaning.  Jesus invites us to live lives in service to God and other human beings.  I want you to wake up, not so you can check off a checklist of “good deeds” you’ve done.  I want you to wake up so you can feel the exquisite joy of being a human being made in God’s image.  I want you to wake up so you experience the human life that God made holy by his incarnation in Jesus Christ.

Your life is ordinary and extraordinary.  Just as it is now—with the same job, home, marital status, friends, pets—your life is really something special.  You don’t have to sell everything and ditch your life to follow God.  Your path to a meaningful, holy life is right in front of you.  So wake up!  And live!