Today, the season of Advent begins. It is our traditional season of waiting for the coming of the Christ Child. Our lesson from Matthew today admonishes us to be prepared for the coming of Christ. It calls us to active waiting.
Matthew warns us that we do not know when Jesus will appear in our lives. He warns that we are often unaware of the coming of God into our lives, just as the people around Noah ignored the significance of his Ark.
He warns that if we have not committed to a life of righteousness and inclusiveness, then we will be left behind when the light of Jesus appears among us … we will simply not have the awareness to know that the light is shining. We will not be attuned, if you will, to God’s vision of peace and justice and love. We will miss it, even when it is right in front of us.
And Matthew tells us now is the time to work on our commitment and awareness of God around us. If we wait, even a moment, we can very well miss the wonder and beauty of Jesus. Now is the time. Not tomorrow or yesterday, but right now.
William Barclay in his daily study bible series on the Gospel of Matthew tells a fable:
There were three apprentice devils who were coming to this earth to finish their apprenticeship. They were reviewing with Satan their plans to tempt and ruin people. The first apprentice said, “I will tell them there is no God.” Satan replied, “That will not delude many, for they know there is a God.” The second one said, “I will tell people there is no hell.” Satan replied, “You will deceive no one that way; people know even now that there is a hell for sin.” The last apprentice reported, “I will tell people there is no hurry.” And Satan joyously replied, “Go! And you will ruin them by the thousand.”
The Advent season reminds us that every minute of our lives counts. We most not waste a second.
But what are we to do? How do we tune ourselves to Jesus’ coming among us?
We can start by accepting Jesus’ invitation to sit at his table. Table fellowship was very important to Jesus. It was at the table that he did much of his teaching. And it was a significant place where he practiced what he preached. No one was turned away from any table at which he sat. Each time he sat at table it was like a great Thanksgiving feast where your family was anyone and everyone who wanted to sit and eat at the table. No one, whether friend or foe, neighbor or stranger, was ever turned away.
Our own Thanksgiving holiday is a start on this. But would we invite strangers to our Thanksgiving feast? Jesus would invite strangers or neighbors down on their luck.
Or do we decide not to go, because of some argument or dissension in our family? And thereby we lose the opportunity at reconciliation.
For it works both ways. Jesus invited everyone without exception. But anyone could turn down the invitation. In Matthew Jesus tells the parables of the two men and two women, one of whom was taken to God and another left behind. The man and woman left behind, were not rejected by God. No, they rejected God and refused to come to God’s table.
And Jesus did not just host us at the dinner table. He showed that healing people, in body, mind and soul was a very central and important activity of a life lived righteously and to the fullest. Even when he was busy with something else, he would heal a bystander or he would heal on the Sabbath even though it was illegal to do so.
I have two friends, neither with health insurance or even an income, that both needed life saving surgery.
Typically in their situation the hospital puts them on charity care and they believed all expenses would be taken care of. They just needed to heal up. Well, it turns out it isn’t that simple. Charity care only covers the hospital expenses. It doesn’t cover the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, or any other doctor. Over the weeks, each one of them received enormous bills. When they didn’t pay their bills, collection agencies harassed them day and night, hour after hour. One even received letters from a lawyer demanding payment. They couldn’t understand what world the doctors came from … no income is no income. Sending a bill for thousands of dollars doesn’t cause the money to magically materialize. So their healing was the healing of the body only. The mind and the soul were thrown into agony.
Except for one, his surgeon told him that he would receive a bill and that he was to ignore it, and that he would never see a bill again from the surgeon. The surgeon understood the reality of the man’s life and embraced it to provide him with as much care as he could for not only his body, but also his mind and soul.
I do not know the surgeon and whether he was religious or not. But his compassionate act was a righteous act and a holistic act of caring also for the mind and soul.
So are we, if we are determined to be ready to greet Jesus, expected to be healers … not physicians, but a people who cherishes relationships, who listens to the people, and does not judge another first, but engages them in healing relationships first.
But Jesus did not just feed people and heal people. He challenged the social and political systems that left people hungry and broken.
To Jesus the beautiful vision of Isaiah that we read today of beating swords into plowshares wasn’t just a beautiful poem to Jesus. It was a call for systemic changes in the way society functions. He required his followers not to strike out, but to engage those who would be their enemies in peaceful transformation.
If we step back on what Jesus taught and see what he taught through the eyes of the society in which we were raised, much of what Jesus taught seems impractical or downright foolish … and definitely nigh on impossible to implement.
But as faithful Christians, God expects us to do these very things … and trust in God that they are not foolish or impractical.
Years ago I had a colleague who was an atheist and a pacifist. He loved to argue religion with me. He attended regular meetings of a group of pacifists in NYC. One day he told me about the previous speaker. The speaker was an advocate of unilateral nuclear disarmament on the part of the USA. During the Q & A, he was challenged by one listener: “Do you really trust the Russians not to bomb us if we disarm?” this listener asked. Now my atheist friend very gleefully told me the speaker’s reply, “No. I don’t trust the Russians. I trust God.”
Our active waiting this Advent is a chance to live life anew in God’s foolish, impractical way … so new and yet so old that it may just work.
In his day, Jesus went to the cross for his beliefs. I do not believe he died for our sins. I believe he died because of our sins. Had his disciples … that’s us … taken him seriously and really committed to what he was practicing and preaching, they would not have abandoned him in that last horrible week. Judas would not have betrayed him. Peter would not have denied him. But they were human and creatures of their society, just as we are. They were afraid or confused or tempted … or all three. And they just couldn’t understand what he was doing.
But God is the God of second chances… and third and fourth changes. God is always giving us another opportunity to follow these beautiful and hopeful visions recorded in Isaiah and in the Gospels. In this Advent season, we are offered another chance to walk with Jesus and take the risks that he took to live a righteous and therefore better life.
Have you ever watched Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal? It’s about a Crusader returning home encountering Death. He challenges Death to a chess game. If he wins, he can stay alive. Death agrees to play.
What we learn about Antonius, the Crusader is that he has lost his faith. He explains how before he went to the Holy Land, he lived a typical self-centered life. Looking for his faith in the holy war of the Crusades, he found instead a meaningless, senseless war. Now he just felt empty. He needed time to find God before Death took him.
Now Antonius has returned to find the Plague ravaging his homeland. As he heads home from the beach he landed on, he encounters various people and events. The plague is raging and people don’t understand its cause. So they blame God for it … believing in some way God had become angry at them and is inflicting the plague. So Antonius sees in the people’s reaction to the plague yet more reason not to believe. In one town the church has convicted a woman of witchcraft. They have tortured her and will burn her at the stake for consorting with Satan. They hope this will take away God’s anger. Another group comes through the village: a religious group who whips themselves and carries heavy crosses from town to town … hoping this will end the plague of God’s anger. No where does Antonius see God’s love emerging in the land.
Then he encounters a young couple with a small child. They are wandering troubadours. They go from village to village entertaining with music and comedy. They are very much in love and rather innocent of everything going on around them. They befriend Antonius and as he gets to know them, he comes to care for them.
When they plan to move on to another village, he advises them to go elsewhere … because the plague is ravaging that town. He does not want them to die. It is at this point where Antonius intentionally loses his game against Death … he is ready to die. Death promises to return and everyone who is with him would also be taken. So before Death returns Antonius guides the small family through a dangerous forest and in the subsequent storm departs from them with his squire. He has saved them from the plague and from Death.
At the end Death takes Antonius but the family moves on in their innocent life. Antonius has found redemption and meaning in his life finally in the life of that family. And finally at the end of his life he rose above his self-centered life and saw that God’s love is in the world when he opened his eyes to it.
He waited all of life before he finally recognized Jesus coming into his life. We need not wait until we are at Death’s door. We can recognized Jesus now.
Each one of us must make the decision to stand with Jesus in these modern, but difficult and divisive times. We must make the decision now so that we are not left behind. We can never know when that one incident will come our way that will make all the difference in our lives. If we are not standing with Jesus at that moment, it will pass us by.
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …