A sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, preached with the people of God at St. Luke's Madison and St. Francis House, UW-Madison. These are the lessons for appointed to the day: Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44; Psalm 122. Listen to an audio recording here.
Happy Advent! I’ll be honest, I don’t know what we should do next, not exactly. How to proceed. Here in Wisconsin, I mean. If we were in Texas, where I’m originally from, I would know what to do. Because in Texas, as one theologian put it, everyone is partly Baptist. It doesn’t matter what you call yourself; it’s in the drinking water. The Episcopalians are Episco-baptists. Basically, they are Baptists who can drink. The Methodists are all half-Baptists. Catholics, Lutherans, too, when you can find ‘em. Everyone’s a little Baptist. Even the atheists, down in Texas, are Baptist atheists.
So in Texas, you show up today, announcing the first Sunday of a season of the church year called Advent, telling people that Advent means arrival or coming, and you remind folks that Advent is both about preparing for the birth of Jesus to Mary at Christmas and also about preparing for the second coming of Christ at the end of time, and then you read a passage from the Bible that says, “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” - well, my friends, you don’t have to say much more. Good Baptists can smell a rapture a mile away.
The rapture refers to the idea that before things get bad on earth, at the end of time and the judgment, Jesus will come and gather up all the saints living and dead and take them to heaven before the suffering and destruction of the earth that will follow. It gets imagined in much the way the gospel talks about friends in a field, two of them walking together and then, bam, rapture, one is gone, the other left behind. The narrative shares a lot with hellfire and brimstone preaching, where fear, anxiety, and existential dread become especially motivating, but not especially helpful, factors for the discernment of the unbeliever. It’s important to tell you that the rapture, as an idea, is a relatively recent invention, the 1830s, and that Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglican Christians (including Episcopalians), by and large reject it, for lots of good reasons, like - for example - its failure to account for the place of the earth and the rest of the created order in God’s redemptive plan. A second good reason is that we’ve just come off of three weeks of Jesus’ saying that suffering should be an expectation for disciples of Jesus; suffering is not something we should expect to be spared, especially suffering that comes as Christians love others beyond our self-interests, and it’s a word 21st century American Christians should probably spend some time with, to let it soak in.
To be fair, not all Baptists profess the rapture. And, to be fair, you don’t have to be a Baptist - or even from Texas - to speculate about disappearing loved ones and the end times. The popular Left Behind book series sold over sixty-five million copies and occasioned a bunch of feature-length films.
But the books and the movies and the other detailed accounts of how the end will all go down seem to miss Jesus’ main point in the gospel today. That is, Jesus doesn’t talk about some folks disappearing so that the rest of us can read the times and know what’s coming next. Jesus tells us he gives that example to make clear that no one knows when or how the end will come. Be ready anyway, he says.
But what can in mean to be ready for something we can't know anything about?
Whatever it means to be ready, being ready won’t mean what most of us think of when we think of what it means to be ready. Being ready won’t mean reading the script in advance or knowing each person’s part in the play and what comes next. Being ready won’t mean being the one in control. Being ready can’t mean appealing to vast stores of wealth and all the things wealth might buy. Being ready is not a matter of all the books you’ve read about this event Jesus says you can't know anything about. Wikipedia, even, will be of little use. And you can’t cram for a test whose date you don’t know. Sure, you’ve been asked to be ready before, lots of times in your life, but being ready has never involved so much uncertainty about so much you don’t control.
Be ready, he says. But where do you start?
I was doing premarital counseling a few years ago with a wonderful and especially earnest couple. Self-professed nominal Catholics, living in Madison, being married by another priest near the family home in Pennsylvania. At our first session, I asked them if they had any concerns about marriage and married life they hoped our sessions would be able to touch on. I always ask this question, and it usually flags three to five challenges we’ll make a point of giving special time. This couple flagged, by my count, close to thirty. Overachievers, I thought. Now, this couple wasn’t dysfunctional, not by a long shot. Nothing on the list hadn’t made another couple’s top four before. There were just so many. On the one hand, they were realistic. And honest. Nobody knows what they are promising, exactly, when they promise to marry another person. Sure, the broad strokes are there, but all the specifics for how love will play out are hidden from both of them. This couple knew how much they didn’t know. On the other hand, being realistic and honest was overwhelming them.
As I listened, I made the decision not to talk them down from the ledge, which I’ve learned can be counterproductive with thoughtful, earnest couples. Instead, I listened for a while and then said, “Is that all? Are you sure you’ve got the important stuff here?” Their eyes widened. “I mean, yes, you have money and in-laws and sex and insurance, number of kids, employment, geography, 401Ks, and career aspirations, but you haven’t even touched on the possibility of having a child with disabilities and what that might require of you, for example.” Their eyes grew big, and they nodded responsibly before quickly adding other items to the list. I think they got to fifty.
There was no way we were getting through the whole list in three to four sessions.
And the end of their expanded list, I made a confession. “There’s no way this list is exhaustive, either,” I said. “But maybe there’s another way to go about this. What if we narrow the list down to the four most pressing things and then spend the rest of the time talking about regular practices that will shape you into the kinds of people you believe God is calling you to be when the unexpected challenge inevitably finds you.”
What if preparing for the arrival, the coming, of Jesus is like that? Let me ask it another way. This Advent, these four weeks before Christmas, of course there are ends, things you want and need to do. But what regular practices will shape you into the kind of people you believe God is calling you to be when the unexpected ending comes? Not only individually, but together.
More provocatively, what will it look like to give God the rest of your life? Jesus doesn’t seem to make much room today for people who presume to know the timing and so who are willing to get to the task of being his people eventually, just in time for the deadline, after other things are done. You don’t know the end! Jesus says. The life of faith can’t consist in a series of one-off performances designed to impress God with whatever it is outside of God from which we are tempted to derive our identity and sense of self-worth. But, every day: structured by prayer, shaped by the scriptures, connected to the community of faith, lived in sacrificial love toward those outside the church. Every day, forgiving. Forgiven. In the words of St. Paul, putting on the garment of Christ. Every day, with the expectation that Christ is there to be sought and served in the neighbor. Every day, the dignity of sisters and brother to uphold. Every day, the self in love to empty. Every day, God’s name to be praised, thanks to be lifted, God to be glorified. Every day, every hour.
Less a set of occasional duties. More a life of obedient discipleship.
In these coming weeks, what regular practices will shape you into the kind of people you believe God is calling you to be when the unexpected ending comes?
Be ready, he says. Where do you start?