December 1, 2019 – Advent 1A
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.
I have good news for you today because Jesus has good news for you today. That shouldn’t surprise us. The word gospel means “good news,” and I trust that, in one way or another, it is always good news for God’s people. But, in order to hear the good news in today’s gospel lesson, we may need to use our collective imagination.
“But about that day and hour no one knows…” Jesus says, “For as the days of Noah were, so 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.” To us, those words sound scary, but imagine what they sounded like to the disciples, who for their whole lives had known the unrelenting power of Rome yet now heard from their master that everything could change at any moment. Imagine what those words meant to first-century Christians, who had celebrated Jesus’ victory over death yet faced the threat of deadly persecutions with no end in sight. Imagine what hope those words bring today to those who are imprisoned because of their faith or isolated from family because of sectarian violence. Imagine how good those words might sound to someone who is being crushed by the weight of debt or struggling to get out of bed each day because of mental illness. At any moment, even when you least expect it, the Son of Man will come and change all of that. Isn’t that good news?
The good news of God’s coming judgment isn’t imaginary, but it requires us to change the way we think of judgment and change the things we look to for hope. The season of Advent and the message of hope it conveys are a reminder that judgment isn’t something we’re supposed to run away from but something we are called to cling to. This season isn’t about preparing for Christmas—the first coming of God’s Son. It’s about preparing for Advent #2—the second coming, when the Son of Man will come and judge the world. Sure, we need time to do our shopping and put up decorations and plan our parties, but aren’t those just ways of covering over the cracks in our lives with shiny wrapping paper and bright sparkling lights? That’s not the kind of preparation this season is about. Advent is about getting ready for God to peer beneath the pretty surface and expose those cracks so that God might heal them once and for all. And, for those of us who have been covering them up for our whole lives, that takes preparation.
The spiritual question we must wrestle with during this season of Advent is whether those cracks define us. Are the flaws we hide—the brokenness we carry within ourselves—the things that really matter, or are they just dross waiting to be refined? When we hear the word judgment, what is our instinctive response? To suck in our bellies and hold up our heads. To smile as if everything is ok. To sweep that stubborn bit of rubbish under the rug. To hide our failures in the closet. To hang up lights and put ornaments on the tree. To spend too much money on meaningless stuff and wrap it in pretty paper that we’ll just throw away. Our response to judgment is to pretend that everything is ok because the alternative is unthinkable. We react that way to judgment because we think that judgment means condemnation, but God has a different sort of judgment in mind. God’s judgment isn’t pointing a finger at that which is flawed so that we might be forever ashamed. God’s judgment is exposing our weakness so that we might be made strong. It’s naming our grief so that we might be forever comforted. It’s revealing our failures so that we might be perfected.
That’s good news, but it isn’t easy. It requires a new way of thinking about ourselves and about God. It requires faith not in ourselves to get the job done but in God to do what we cannot accomplish on our own. It requires hope in the face of adversity even when it seems like adversity is winning. It requires a commitment to the impossible. It requires a renewal of our faith.
In the days of Noah, Jesus reminds us, people went on eating and drinking and getting married because they had no idea that things could ever be any different. But Noah and his family were given the gift of seeing what the rest of the world could not see—that God would come and make all things new. In the same way, when the Son of Man comes to execute God’s final judgment—God’s final making right of all things—people won’t see it coming, yet, just when they least expect it, it comes. Even though life’s insurmountable challenges may seem stacked against you, Jesus will come at any moment. Even when the powers of this world seem to be gaining strength, Jesus will come at any moment. Even though the tidal wave of grief and loss are suffocating you, Jesus will come at any moment.
The image Jesus uses to describe the coming of the Son of Man is that of a thief in the night: “If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake.” So what does Jesus tell us? Not “Sleep on for there is no use keeping watch,” but “Be ready! Stay alert! Keep watch!” What’s the difference between the owner of the house, who cannot anticipate the coming of the thief, and the disciple of Jesus, who despite not knowing when the end will come is urged to keep watch? The disciple waits with faith and hope.
We know that the brokenness of this life cannot be the end of the story. We know that the struggles we carry cannot not define us. How do we know? Because we have seen God send God’s Son into the world to take all of that brokenness onto God’s self and defeat it through the cross and empty tomb. The first Advent gives us confidence as we wait for the second. In the good news of Jesus Christ, we see that our future is certain in God’s great making new of all things. In the promised coming of the Son of Man, we see what this world cannot see or, perhaps, will not see—that God’s judgment is coming at any moment and that that’s good news.