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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Matthew 24:36-44: Get Ready!

‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too 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. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

During my third year in college I met a young married couple – Mike and Jetty – who used to stop by the campus ministry building on a regular basis to read, to chat, or just to relax. Mike had dropped out of Law School because he and Jetty became convinced, after deep Biblical research, that Jesus was going to return and end the world one Tuesday in October of that year. Mike had dropped out of school to preach this bad news and try to get people saved. Jetty was the daughter of a prominent Baptist minister in Charlottesville, and she had also dropped out of school to join her young husband in his mission. They were very sincere, very likeable, and very intense.

The Tuesday of Mike and Jetty’s prediction came. I was living in an apartment with three other guys, and, over breakfast one of them exclaimed, “Hey! According to Mike and Jetty, the world ends today!” The general response around the table was, “Well, guys, if I don’t see you again, it’s been fun.” We went off to class and to work, came home and had dinner together that night, and we never saw Mike and Jetty again. I’ve always wondered how they dealt with that day: were they relieved, or disappointed?

Last summer I preached a sermon on a text similar to this one, and said that all Christians should be ready at all times to act upon their faith. Jesus language about those in Noah’s time swept away by the flood recalls the Tsunami in Indonesia a month ago, as well as the one the day after Christmas, 2004. Language about one man being left in the field and one taken, one woman grinding meal taken and the other left is reinforced by yesterday’s story about seven people killed by lightning at a nursery school party in South Africa. Accident, illness, violence – all can snuff out or lives randomly and capriciously.

This morning, I’d like us to consider less the need to be prepared than how we can be prepared. On this first Sunday of Advent, in the wake of Thanksgiving and Black Friday, as we face three weeks of commercial tsunami urging us to buy, as well as calendars already full with parties, rehearsals, cantatas, pageants, concerts, and commitments, I want to make my annual case for making room. You see, I am more and more convinced every year that you and I have surrendered to a brilliant plot engineered by the forces of darkness and executed with the cooperation of church, school, and commerce, to cram the month of December so full of activity and greed that when the Holy Family finally comes to the door of our hearts on Christmas Eve, not only is there no room left in the inn, but we have collapsed from exhaustion and never hear them knock.

How many of you hosted your Thanksgiving dinners this year for other friends and family? Now, I’m sure you didn’t have to do what we did – that is, what Vicki mostly did. I’m sure that your homes are always completely clean and orderly and ready to receive a multitude of company for a meal or an overnight without any preparation at all. Now, Vicki is a good housekeeper, and she gets some help from me. But we do like to do some preparation to make room for company. Now that all of our children are out of the house, Vicki has been working hard the last couple of months to sort through a great deal of stuff we have been keeping, ostensibly for their sake. She’s been going through closets and storage spaces, bringing things to the Fall Festival yard sale, farming things out to the kids, and throwing things away. I’ve been cleaning out the tool shed, my library, and my closet. We’re making room.

Anticipating the influx of food from the dinner guests on Thursday, we cleared out the refrigerator and panty, and added items needed for the meal. That’s how you prepare – you get rid of what isn’t needed, and carefully add what you lack.

In the Christian calendar, the two great feasts of Christmas and Easter are preceded by penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, respectively. Advent is meant to be a kind of “Winter Lent,” in which we clean out our emotional and spiritual houses to make room for Jesus to be born in new ways in us this Christmas. That’s not how we practice the four weeks before Christmas, is it? In fact, what we’ve done – and yes, I helped set up decorations yesterday morning, until my cold drove me back home to recuperate – is to turn Advent into Christmas, and the twelve days of Christmastide that last until January 6 into – well, I don’t know what it is, except that we stop celebrating Jesus’ birth pretty much at midnight Christmas Eve. From then on it’s football, New Year’s Eve, and figuring out what to do with that hideous thing Aunt Ethel got you this year.

So, how can we make room in our lives, so we’re ready for God to do something new in us, not just at Christmas, but at any time?

1. Create some space in your schedule. The great jazz trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie said, late in life, “I’ve spent most of my life learning what notes not to play.” More is not more. Less is more. In this hectic season, carve out some time every day to do nothing except to be. Put down the book, turn off the cell phone, turn off the TV, unplug the iPod. Find a quiet room, sit in your car alone, go out on the porch, but just make some daily sabbath for yourself. Make a date with yourself. Leave your troubles and your business at the door. Let the quiet and the stillness of that space leak out into the rest of your busyness. Jesus regularly separated himself from disciples and crowds just to be alone. Making space in our time helps us hear the holy family knock at the door.

2. Create some space in your space. More is not more. Cluttered space clutters the soul. If everything is important, then nothing is important. Give your stuff away, even if it’s to the dump. It’s no accident that all the great spiritual giants in history had very few things. Do not store up treasure on earth, where moth and rust consume, but store up treasure in heaven. Remember that when people ask you what you want for Christmas. And remember that when you are thinking about what you will give people. Give people memories – a concert, a trip to a museum or a play, a special activity with them – instead of more stuff.

3. Create some room with God. Anne Lamott, in her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, says the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. Forty years ago I was absolutely certain about who God is, how God thinks, and what God wants. The more time I spend with God, the less sure I am about any of that, but the more amazing I find God to be and the more I love God’s deep mystery. I used to have a whole list of questions I wanted God to answer in the next world, if not in this one. Now I really don’t care. I’ve given up on the answers: I’m just trying to learn how to love. All the people who were certain about how the Messiah would come missed him; the only people who found him were the ones open to surprise.

The Messiah will come, Jesus says, not when preachers who have made fortunes predicting it say, but when we least expect it. Clear your time, clear your space, and clear your expectations. If you don’t, love will come, and you’ll be left behind.

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