Sunday, November 27, 2016

People Get Ready

This sermon for the first Sunday in Advent was preached at Luther Memorial Church in Des Moines, Iowa. It's based on the apocalypse in Matthew 24.

Here we are with Thanksgiving gone past in a flash. There are three more days in November, including Cyber Monday tomorrow. I don’t do Black Friday and don’t have a single gift purchased because I usually have my mind elsewhere with only two weeks left in fall semester. That’s fifteen hundred minutes of class time until finals. It sounds like a lot, but it’s only six classes that are left. And I still have some month-old papers to get graded. And don’t get me started on the knitting projects I wanted done for Christmas. On second thought, maybe you should get me started, because I might be ready in 27 days. I don’t know if I’m scrambling my legs off like George Jetson on his treadmill or if I’m a deer blinking paralyzed in the headlights.

Whichever it is, I know you know the feeling. The world bears down on you with an accusing finger, saying you haven’t done enough. I tried to warn my beloved freshmen in my first-year seminar about this back in September. I told them there would come a day when they look at the list of course work and papers and test they would have come the end of the semester and wonder how they ever got to that place. Well, both those students and their professor have landed in that spot. Who in the world plans to fall behind? Who puts together a to-do list that will be completed two weeks after a deadline? And yet we all wind up there.

At times like that we’re not so sure we’re on board with the Psalmist who was glad when they said, “Let’s go up to the house of the Lord.” The Psalmist was ready and happy to climb the steps to pay the piper and face the Maker of all things. I can’t even get the light bulb over the sink changed, and sure as you’re born or the piling system in my office down the street remains disorganized. How am I ever going to get my act together to be ready for the coming of the Son of Man?

Today we begin a new church year with the season of Advent. While the consumer world entrenched in the economy of buying and selling has already begun its version of the Christmas season, in the church we’re a little better a delayed gratification. Christmas carols and gifts and dancing around the tree and stockings hung by the chimney with care, these things can wait, because we need to do Advent in a way that Christmas goes deeper and we’re actually ready to receive Immanuel, God With Us. So we dress things up in blue, the color of hope and expectation. Like the expecting Mary who’s always portrayed in that color, we wait for God to deliver himself to us.

He’s already come to us in the flesh once in the manger in Bethlehem. And after his crucifixion and death, he came back yet again in his resurrected body that first Easter. If Advent is about waiting and preparation and readiness, the people Matthew wrote his gospel for were right there with us. They’d been told about all Jesus had done, and they’d been promised that Jesus would come back for them. But it wasn’t happening. Where was the glorious victory over sin, death, and the devil? Where was the day when mourning and crying would be over? Where are the heavenly streets of gold and beryl and jasper and diamonds? All they had was the same-old same-old, the day-to-day plodding through life, the dirty feet in sandals, the hauling of water from a well, the milking of goats, the occupying Roman army. And they had to wade through it all without flush toilets, toothpaste, and deodorant. Some glory, eh?

So Matthew gives his people Jesus’ words about when the grand and golden end would come breaking into their world. Christ bids us to hang on, for the resolution of it all is on its way. Hang on. It’s coming. It’s going to break in like the sun creeping up over the horizon. Bit by bit. Ray by ray. For now it may be that it’s still too dark to tell what’s going on. That’s no surprise. Only God has night vision to see it. Before Noah’s flood, no one knew the deluge was coming.

Who knows what the future will hold in this day? When I got the call about my father’s death two weeks ago, it wasn’t something I’d planned for, and neither had he. A sudden hole opened up where he belonged. But I’m not broken up over it. As Paul says, I can’t grieve like those who have no hope. What’s more I’m not sorrowful about our relationship. We had all kinds of past hurts and heartaches between us, but they’d been resolved. Nothing was unspoken. Even though I’d decided not to visit him when I had a slender opening in my calendar ten days before, I knew that if he died our relationship stood on solid, loving ground. So while it was unexpected, it also wasn’t something devastating. We were ready.

Martin Luther in his “Sermon on Preparing to Die” talked about being ready. He says make sure your family is taken care of. It’s the equivalent of not making your heirs spend days amazed that your home has become an episode of “Hoarders” because you literally haven’t gotten your house in order. Being prepared means not burdening them because you’d never signed a medical power of attorney or a living will. That’s the worldly stuff you need to have in place to be ready to meet your Maker. But that’s not the ultimate readiness. Luther says you also need to have your spiritual eyeglasses prescription up-to-date so you can see exactly what kind of God you have.

In that sense, being ready to meet God when God comes means getting the basics down. It means listening carefully to Matthew’s gospel where Jesus says that hehas come to fulfill all righteousness, rather than you. It means hearing Paul declare that you’re saved not by your works but by trusting that Christ has taken care of it all on the cross. Being ready for the Son of Man’s arrival is to take seriously the early petitions of the Lord’s Prayer where you ask for God’s name to be hallowed, God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done, all the while prayer that God would take your name, kingdom, and will out of the mix. To be ready and prepared means to have the same certainty as Romans that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

So many preachers take this passage from Matthew as a dire warning to make a decision for Christ so that, when his unexpected arrival happens, you won’t be left behind in the rapture to spend time in tribulation. But that’s not the kind of Lord we find in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus doesn’t threaten you with the fear of being abandoned behind the plow or left grinding meal or emptying bed pans, cooking supper, or cooking the books. Instead, Jesus is the one who wants to give you confidence and faith. He wants to be so good and so true that you can’t help but trust him while you’re slogging through life waiting for him to come. And while Jesus says the hour of his arrival will be unknown, God is keen for you to know where he’s going to arrive. If Jesus is the Word Made Flesh, then God will come unexpectedly wherever Christ’s promise breaks in from the future on sinners’ lives today, including right now when the Last Day becomes This Day. You may not have expected it when you drove here this morning, but the Son of Man has driven up to the curb to pull you into his limo as he dies for you, makes you his own in your baptism, and gives you all his gifts. (And if you’re not yet baptized, let’s talk. It’s time that you had the certainty the sacrament gives that you are his.)

See? You haven’t been left behind. You’ve been chosen, elected, hand-picked. You’re as ready and prepared as you ever need to be, because Jesus has been prepared from the foundation of the world to take you on, sins and all. There’s no telling what’s coming around the bend for you. It might be falling in love and becoming a drooling, slobbering romantic. It might be the hard road of cancer or dementia or a stroke. It might be a Powerball win or merely a three-storm winter with less shoveling. It might be your lingering death or your sudden demise. It might be the same-old same-old of family fault-lines and workplace drudgery. It might be the hoped-for invention of a weight-loss pill that actually works. Who knows? You can never tell. But you can go up to the house of the Lord with confidence and hope, for you can tell who it is who has come before you could ever expect him. You can know who died for you while you were still a sinner. You can be confident that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Just think about what the passage in Romans 8 says: Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate you from your Lord. That means nothing at all that you can face can be the thing that leaves you in the lurch. Not even the vast powers of heavenly creatures like angels can slice you away or leave you hanging, for they cannot go against God’s will and God’s word.

You see, he’s already come for you. And that means that whatever you face in this life, in field work and grinding of meal, in season and out, in joy and in sorrow, he has already swooped you up, and your life is hid in him. You may not see it yet, but it’s done. You’ll be tempted to want some visible evidence, but it’s been there all along. You’ve been told, just like the shepherds who heard from the angels in the hills above Bethlehem. The heavenly messengers said, “Quit shaking in your boots. Here’s where you can find him. He’s in a manger down in town.” What’s unexpected is that he hasn’t come with a rule book, legal code, or accountant’s ledger. He doesn’t come with a measuring rod, balancing scales, or lap timer. This unexpected Lord comes instead with a word for you: It is finished. You’re in. Fear not. Come what may. Amen.

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