A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, and Matthew 24:36-44.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
There’s a wonderful exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum on Jerusalem, exploring the diversity and wonders of the Holy City from the year 1,000 to 1,400. One of the first objects in the exhibition is a map of the Holy Land by an English monk who had never even visited. But it’s a map of the imagination as much as it is a map of the geography, and on his map, he associates each of the famous cities with an object or landmark associated with it. There’s Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock, the Aqsa Mosque, and the Tomb of Jesus. The port of Acre is there, as is the City of Tyre. And then, along with the word for Armenia is a funny-shaped boat—an ark, actually. That represents Noah’s Ark, since people believed that the ark had come to rest on Mt. Ararat, in what was then Armenia.
I love that a map from the mid-1200’s shows the prominence of Noah. In the Hebrew Scriptures, in the Christian Scriptures, and even in the Russell Crowe movie a couple of years ago, Noah has been a persistent symbol of faith, patience, and trust in God.
In today’s Gospel Jesus reminds the people who are listening to him about Noah. The people in Jesus’ day must have known the stories of Noah from Genesis, how God became disgusted with the mess of humanity and decided to do away with everybody—everybody except for Noah and Noah’s family. Noah was saved because he paid attention to God, because he was listening for God’s voice, and probably because there was also in Noah the propensity to take care of others—not just his family, but even the creatures of the earth, the things that creep and crawl, that climb and claw.
I doubt that many people in Jesus’ day really thought much about whether Noah was an actual person, or whether he literally built and ark and filled it with animals. But I bet a lot of people, then as now, could understand a little bit of Noah as someone who gets a sense of what he should do to be faithful to God. Once this sense is gotten, preparations are made, things are put into place, and then it’s time simply to wait for God to act, to move, to make things happen, to point to the next step. I bet a lot of us have been at that place—we may not have been building an ark, but we’ve begun something that involved God (at least at the beginning). And then there’s a time of waiting, and wondering. For Noah, it meant wondering whether the rains would really come. Would there really be floods? Would his preparation and faithfulness really pay off? And then what would life be like after all the drama, when the waters are dried up and the animals are set free?
Jesus points to this time in-between, after one has felt God’s presence at the beginning, but before one has begun to feel God’s presence moving into the next step. It is a scary place and a vulnerable place. Jesus knows that whether we’re talking about Noah or us, or perhaps even himself, it’s difficult to wait, to watch and to listen for God.
How good, then that we have such a season as Advent, when the Church invites us to practice these spiritual disciplines of waiting, watching and listening. Advent helps us live with the in-between. The Church remembers and retells the story of the coming of a Messiah, the one who was born in the manger, Jesus of Nazareth. But the other aspect of our waiting and watching has to do with the Second and Final coming of Jesus, as is hinted in the prophetic scriptures and especially in the Revelation to John.
The liturgy helps us to recall the first coming of Christ, and our prayers help us to stretch forward for the second coming, but there is also a third way in which Jesus invites us to spend this season. That third way has to do with our living in the kingdom of God, not as it began, nor as it culminates, but right now, as it continues to unfold.
Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus spoke about this kingdom, this commonwealth, this holy realm and way of God’s presence among us. “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” “The kingdom of God is very near you,” he says. And finally, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, “Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you!” Jesus invited apostles, disciples, strangers, friends and enemies, to see the kingdom of God that was already around them. And that’s his invitation to us.
In today’s Gospel Jesus cautions that we should be ready, but it’s not for most of us to go up on a hill and wait for God to come. In describing how we are to wait, Jesus describes some in the field (from which one is taken to be with God.) Others are grinding meal or making bread, and again, one is taken to be with God. We could continue the list—one will be teaching, while one is taken away. Another will be in a meeting, one at a store, another watching the children, and another working outside. In short, since we do not know when or how or where, it is for us to do the work God has appointed for us to do, and to carry on with faith, with love and with charity.
Saint Paul says in today’s reading that it is time for us to wake from sleep, and Jesus invites us to live in readiness for God’s next move. Live wakefully, with eyes and hearts open.
The season of Advent is not about escape or retreat from reality—it is about allowing God’s increasing light to shine upon us and from within us. The Collect of the Day captures the prayer of the season, really, that “we may cast away the works of darkness” and put on the armor of Christ’s eternal light. May we walk with faith in the light of Christ.
In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.