Today we begin a new Christian year. As a result, a lot has changed about our service. The altar is decorated in purple instead of green. We have a new Eucharistic Prayer. Our hymns have a more somber tone in keeping with the mood of the new season. Our Gospel readings come from Matthew this year instead of from Luke.
But despite the changes, including the change to a new Gospel, our Gospel reading for this morning sounds a lot like the readings we have had over the last few weeks. Once again we have a scary passage about the Second Coming.
At the end of the Christian year, readings about the Second Coming make good sense. Starting a new Christian year with a reading about the Second Coming is more surprising. The Church is trying to tell us something. But what?
Jesus begins by warning us that no one knows exactly when He will return, not even He Himself. Jesus ends by giving us the moral: “be ready,” he says, “for the Son of Man [Jesus] is coming at an unexpected hour.”
This week, I had a tiny taste of trying to get ready for a big arrival at an unexpected hour. My family came into town for Thanksgiving, which was great. My parents, and my niece, and my brother and his wife all flew up at separate times. I knew when they were scheduled to land. Benjamin had to work on Wednesday morning and planned to come sometime that afternoon, so I was pretty clear about his arrival time too.
And then there was Nicholas. We didn’t know his class schedule, so we weren’t sure when he would be available. Adding another bit of complexity, Nicholas hoped to get a ride from a friend. But since he didn’t have anyone particular in mind, all we knew for sure was that he would arrive sometime between Friday and Wednesday. Even that wasn’t truly “for sure” because Nicholas warned us that he might not be able to get a ride, in which case poor Carrie would have to pick him up. That is a seven-hour round trip.
So we waited. We waited for word from Nicholas, or maybe for Nicholas just to show up. It turns out, I don’t really enjoy waiting for someone to arrive at an unexpected time.
But there were two pieces of good news for us. The first and most important good news was that Nicholas would come at some point. That’s always great.
The second piece of good news is that we didn’t really have to do much to prepare for Nicholas’ arrival. While we waited, we just went about our business secure in the knowledge that we were ready for Nicholas to show up whenever it happened.
Jesus assumes the same for us while we await His coming.
In the days of Noah, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage right up until the flood came. Similarly, says Jesus, immediately before His return, people will be in the field or grinding meal or doing whatever else it is that they do. I told Carrie, I would probably be writing a sermon or catching up on e-mail. She said it was more likely I’d be taking a nap.
The point is, our lives don’t stop because we expect Christ to return at some undisclosed time. We necessarily go about our lives while we wait. It has to be that way.
But as we go about our lives, we are supposed to stay ready for Christ.
And staying ready can be hard. It is easy to get so wrapped up in our daily lives that we forget about Christ a lot of the time. I didn’t do any marrying or giving in marriage last week. But I did a lot of eating and drinking. I also spent lots of time with family, did some work for Church and around our house, and so forth. All that activity is wonderful. And all that activity can distract us from Christ, making us unready.
Last Tuesday, after our family festivities had begun, Nicholas showed up. And he could enter right in. Nicholas is part of our family. Nicholas has a place in our home and in our lives. Nicholas knows he is always welcome, and we are basically always ready, indeed eager, for him to come, even if we are busy.
Something analogous will be true for the faithful people in the field or grinding meal. They couldn’t know that Christ was coming at that moment, so they went about their ordinary lives. And yet when Christ came, they were ready. That is because Christ had a place in their homes and in their lives. Christ would always be welcome no matter when He came, even if they happened to be busy.
That is the goal: to have Christ be such a natural part of our lives that we are always ready, even as we go about our sometimes distracting daily routines.
That is the perfect invitation to Advent, the season that begins today.
For the next few weeks, most of us will be busy with all the hoopla that surrounds Christmas. And, despite that busy-ness, the Church invites us to use this time to prepare ourselves to celebrate the birth of our Lord, to get ready for the arrival of Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean ignoring the life around us. But it does mean our primary task is to make Christ such a normal part of our lives that we are always ready to greet Him.
I have been working on this with Bishop Scruton. (Ironically, I had to postpone the session we had scheduled for last week to get some work done! But I am trying to follow his wise advice.)
Bishop Scruton encouraged me NOT simply to jump from task to task. He encouraged to take just a couple of seconds between tasks. In those two seconds, he advised me to say a quick prayer of thanks, or of dedication, or to ask for God’s help, depending on the tasks.
Taking that little pause is amazingly difficult. It’s not the time commitment that is the problem. If I were to take two seconds between sixty tasks in a day, we are only talking about two minutes. I just forget. Particularly when I am busy or preoccupied, I finish one thing and immediately move on to the next.
That means I am not ready. That means I haven’t fully “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” But I keep working at it, and God helps, and over time I hope to make some progress.
Two things help. The first is to pause, very appropriately for this week(!), to give thanks to God for all that God has done for us. Our whole lives should be a constant thanksgiving.
The second is to commit in an ongoing way to dedicating our lives to God.
In a few minutes, we will dedicate our pledge cards. They represent that commitment. Stewardship is offering up to God a symbol of our lives. We give a little money to represent our material blessings. We give a little time or talent to represent all the other gifts we have received.
When we pray our prayer of dedication, I hope you will all join in, whether or not you have pledged. We are all offering our lives to God. We are all promising to do our best to be ready.
My prayer for us in this Advent season is that Christ will be such a normal part of our lives that we can truly remain ready to greet Him at all times.
And I pray in His name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan