Advent Week One: The Return of the King - "A Long Expected Party"

When I was growing up in the non liturgical, "low" church Baptist churches we frequented, the season of Advent was not something we celebrated... or discussed... or had ever heard of before.  It was not part of our language.  I suppose this was the case because the powers-that-be in the fundamentalist churches I attended thought things like "advent" and "candles" were too "Catholic" for "church."  I put a lot of things in quotes just then.

And while most church-going folk probably won't give a second thought to Advent or it's meaning, I think that it's making a bit of a comeback outside the church.  For example, I just bought a Star Wars Lego Advent calendar at Target, which is the retail chain famous for encouraging it's employees say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Boom. 

There are undoubtedly some within the sound of my voice (or key strokes) who might be saying at this point, "So...exactly what is Advent anyway?"  And perhaps more importantly, "Why should we care?" 

The easy answer to the first question is that the season of Advent is the four or so weeks leading up to Christmas.  The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated.  

You see, "advent" is a word that essentially means "expectation," and the season of Advent is an expectant season.  For centuries, Christians around the world have celebrated the season of Advent as a time of preparation for the arrival of the Christ Child.  It is a season to reflect on the fact that even though Jesus came into this world to show the light of love, the world is still not as it should be.  One of the great theologians of the twentieth century, Karl Barth, once wrote about Advent that it reminds us we are "living between the times."  In other words, we are living between the Nativity and the Return of Jesus.  

The right celebration of Advent, with it's emphasis on the hope, peace, joy and love that Christ ushered into the world, serves to remind us of God's promises to His people, and the ways that God has kept those promises time and again--most specifically with the promise of the Messiah, God's Son... Jesus, who came to show us what God is really like.  

Advent also serves as an Anticipation of the return of the King--the king of Kings, this same Jesus who faithful Christians expect will one day return to set things to right once and for all.  A king that has come, and is coming.  A king that has arrived, and is among us "in secret" to one day be revealed in stunning glory...  I dunno.  That's fairly awesome. 

The inspiration for our Advent sermon series this year comes from the most famous stories of two of the most well-known and beloved authors from the twentieth century:  C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.  Both men were professors at Oxford in England, and both were students of mythology.  They were also both devout Christians.  Lewis would go on to become one of the most respected and revered Christian theologians, but he owed his conversion to Christianity in large part to the witness of his friend Tolkien.  C.S. Lewis wrote his allegorical fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia as a way of conveying deep Christian truths in the form of a "children's book."  Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy along with The Hobbit were allegories of their own, full of Christian imagery. 

In the works of both Lewis and Tolkien we see one over-arching theme: the theme of Advent.  A new day has dawned... and the king is returning to set things right. It's a reminder... and an anticipation.  

And much like the way our own culture views the season of Advent---some people are full of expectation and ready... and others aren't.  Some people are waiting for the unexpected arrival of the expected king... and others aren't.  Some people are ready for the party... and others aren't.  

Both The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings begin with unexpected guests and parties.  I don't think it's a coincidence.  

There's something about unexpected guests that teaches us lessons in readiness. On more than one occasion I've had friends or family members show up at my door for a "visit" because they just happened to be in the neighborhood and thought they would "drop by" without calling first.  And these visits typically happen when your house is a wreck, dishes are piled in the sink and you are clad in the ripped, torn and nasty sweat pants and shirt that you put on to wash the dog, which is now running around the house rubbing her wet fur on all of the furniture, and being chased by your youngest kid who is not wearing pants for some unknown reason.

There are some friends and family members who you are cool with seeing you like that---but they are typically the ones that always give you a heads up first.   

We know what this is like---to be caught off guard.  Maybe it's that moment when that family you met at that thing you went to takes you up on your offer to come and visit the next time they are "down this way."  And because you live near Walt Disney World, they make a point to come "down this way" when you weren't really expecting or wanting any four-day guests.  And they need a car. And want you to have dinner waiting when they come back--even if when they come back is like dark-thirty in the morning.

In case you were wondering.  That actually happened to me.

But what about when we get caught seriously off-guard---not just when we get unexpected guests?  What about when we forgot about a deadline at work, and our co-worker didn't.  What about that chance we had to invest in that incredible deal, or piece of property only we didn't have any cash on hand to do it, because we ran through all of our savings?

What about that opportunity we had to do good--to give to those in need, to help that person who was in dire straits, to share our faith, to volunteer our time, to share our money... and we didn't do it, we weren't ready, weren't prepared...

There's nothing worse than the regret of unfulfilled potential.  In fact, it could be said that unfulfilled potential, missed opportunities to be our best selves... is the greatest tragedy of all.  And I believe that those moments when we are called upon to be our best selves are moments that are full of the presence of Jesus.

I think that the most important lesson we can learn from the season of Advent is to expect the unexpected---to be ready when the time comes to experience the "return of the king," so to speak---the arrival of Jesus.

Here's the thing: just like the in the stories that Lewis' and Tolkien told---I believe that the Jesus, king has landed, quietly, behind enemy lines---and all of these years the king has been drawing his people, the true, loyal subjects to his side.  And further, the king has been slowly changing things---darkness is becoming light, winter is turning into spring, evil is being overcome with good... slowly, in moments... one heart at a time.

What I want us to know on this first Sunday of Advent is simply this...

Jesus arrives in moments... Be ready and willing. 

There is this really strange moment in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus tries to tell his disciples that they need to be ready for the unexpected... that there are moments coming when he will be present, and they need to have their eyes wide open to see them...
36 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
Jesus is talking about the Day of the Lord, the day of judgement, which many Jewish scholars believed was a time in the future when the Messiah would return and set things to right for Israel. What Jesus taught was that this Day of the Lord was for everyone, and was not only going to happen it was also happening. I know.  That's kind of deep and strange.  Let's keep reading, though.    
37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.
Notice how Jesus doesn't say anything about how wicked people were in the days of Noah, which is the reason given the Old Testament for why God judged the earth.  What he focuses on here is just the ordinary-ness of everything--the way that people walked around thinking that they were invincible, that nothing could shake them out of their routines, their lives, their comfortable existence.  
That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. 42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.
There are three dominant ways people read this passage.  Some people believe that it's a passage about the End Times, and is "proof" of something called the Rapture when certain people will be "snatched away" to heaven and other people will be "left behind" to judgement on earth.  There are others who believe this is a metaphor of the frailty of life and the unexpectedness of death.  Still others see this as a warning to be ready each and every day because we never know when we will be called upon to act on our faith.  The actual language of the passage doesn't help clear it up all that much, to be honest.  The word "taken" is literally translated "saved from danger," and the phrase "left behind" is literally translated "forsaken."  Some scholars believe that what Jesus was predicting here was the violent and sudden destruction of Jerusalem... could be.  Let's keep reading though.  
43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. - Matthew 24:36-44
Jesus paints a picture of people who are caught off guard when the moment of truth arrives.  It's easy to get caught up in trying to figure out what this apocalyptic vision means and miss it's meaning, if you know what I... mean. 
Does it really matter which version of this is the "right" one?  The point is that when Jesus arrives--in all the moments when Jesus arrives--if you aren't ready, you'll regret it.  

Here's a question... When did you lose your readiness?  I know, I know... you don't think you have.  But here's how I know you probably have lost it...  We all have to some extent.  We get too comfortable in our lives---too caught up in the ordinary, too numbed by the ease of routine.  Or we have become resigned to what we believe is the "order of things," the "way things have always been done," or the way things are, according to us.  Perhaps we get tired of doing good when it doesn't seem to do any... good.  Which leads us to becoming jaded, cynical and prone to self-reliance.

And we miss the moments---the Jesus moments all around us.

In Florida we don't really see the leaves change all that much.  But for those of us who grew up elsewhere (most of the people in my church) we know what it's like to see the effects of Fall in the leaves of the trees all around us.  Did you know that the reason why the leaves on a tree are green is because of the effects of sunlight and chloroform?  And did you know that when cool weather turns off this effect, so to speak---the leaves revert to their true color?

I heard of a mom who was telling her children this very thing, and her daughter picked up a beautiful golden leaf, turned it over and over and said incredulously, "you mean it was always this color?"

Leaves are not ever purely green, and not everything is as it seems...  The beauty, the wonder, the resurrection, the revolution---is right... under... our noses.  You can be so caught up in what you think is the way things should be, and totally be missing Jesus---in everything.  

Jesus arrives in moments.

He arrives in the moments when your child asks you to play with him or read a book to her... right in the middle of whatever it is you were doing...

He arrives in the moments when you have a choice of working through the weekend, or spending time with your family...

He arrives in the moments when you need to decide to spend more money on stuff than on memories...

He arrives when you have that opportunity to tell someone you are a Christian, and you don't want to because you're afraid...

He arrives when you have the chance to give of yourself, or your time, or your money to change the life of someone in need...

He arrives to show you that the person you could be is kind, full of hope, expectant and joyful...

Jesus arrives in moments... be ready and willing.
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