Making Room for Christ - Advent Week One: "Time Keeps On Ticking"
We have this Christmas decoration at my house that counts down the days until Christmas. My little kids love this thing. They look at it every day in anticipation of the the coming of Christmas. You can almost feel the excitement that emanates off of them as the Day approaches.
I remember feeling that intense feeling of anticipation when I was a kid. I think it happens more when you're a kid, honestly. It's not that I am not excited about the coming of Christmas now--I am. In fact the stretch between the end of October and New Year's Day is easily my favorite time of the year.
But you know how it is... when you get older you start associating this time of year with the sorts of things that leave you decidedly less than excited. You think about how busy you are going to be... with family obligations, church obligations, work stuff, parties, dinners... Then there is the shopping, the crazy busy stores... the credit card bills that are going to land on you in January...
It's enough to steal your excitement isn't it?
I know that lots of Christians get their underwear bunched this time of year because of the so-called "war" on Christmas. You won't have to look too hard to find something to tick you off if you want to be.
Several years ago, there was a huge uproar over the fact that Target had instructed its employees to say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Then Wal-Mart responded by instructing it's employees to say "Merry Christmas." Christians everywhere were declaring their loyalty to Wal-Mart and proclaiming boycotts of Target.
No one stopped to think about where the battleground in this war on Christmas was taking place... In the marketplace. People were arguing about the true meaning of Christmas while they were participating in the very thing that undermines the true meaning of Christmas.
Meanwhile, the signs of the coming of the Christ are all around us. But we are either too busy, too stressed, too over-extended or too self-righteous to see them.
We've become so consumed with the coming of Christmas that we miss the coming of the Christ.
The Gospel reading on this first Sunday of Advent is from Mark 13:24-37. This is one of the most difficult sayings of Jesus... Let's read it together:
24 “But in those days, following that distress,“‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light;25 the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it[b] is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”Jesus ends this cryptic, apocalyptic teaching with an exhortation for his followers to keep awake, to stay alert, to be on guard... This might sound kind of foreign to us, honestly.
Keeping awake isn't a problem for us. Like I said, we are busy. I bet that if I asked you to pull out your calendar for the month of December---some of you would probably begin to weep in despair. I get it. I'm with you. I kind of feel that way when I look at the church calendar--which in our family gets kind of merged into our home calendar. The church is busy. It's that time of year.
Our busy-ness points us toward Christmas.
It seldom points us toward the coming Christ.
Are we surprised by the fact that we are out of tune with this message from Jesus?
Especially when so many of us Christian-types think we are so engaged in the battle over the meaning of Christmas?
When I lived in Chicago I loved to take the train to work or to school. Once you've driven in Chicago traffic you learn to love the train. I remember how after a few years of living in the city, I could always tell when the train was coming, sometimes long before it got there.
If you knew how to interpret the signs--the trembling of the platform, a warm gust of air from the tunnel, an imperceptible change in the light--you knew the train was about to arrive. Tourists from Iowa were oblivious. They would stare at us Chicagoans as we stood up and moved toward the tracks--wondering what we were doing.
I think that for far too many of us, we've lost our sense of childlike wonder and anticipation--we've lost our sense of wakefulness to the coming of Christ. The signs of a new world are all around us, but we're too busy, too caught up in the things of this old world to truly see them.
Mark chapter 13:24-37 has often been called "The Little Apocalypse" because it packs into just a few verses what books like Daniel and Revelation take several chapters to unfold. Jesus' words are unsettling--end of the world, natural disasters, cosmic destruction kind of unsettling. He grabs our attention right from the beginning.
The great film director Cecil B. DeMille once said about engaging filmmaking that you should "start with an earthquake and then build to a climax." Jesus does just that, doesn't he?
These sayings were meant to be sensational and attention-grabbing, but they weren't meant to be cryptic. Jesus was speaking about the current situation that surrounded his disciples, and the Jewish people: Roman oppression, threats of war, violence, revolution... this was their reality.
He was using imagery from the stories of old, however, and drawing upon Jewish beliefs about the Day of the Lord from the prophetic tradition. And what we learn from Jesus' words is that every age is uncertain. The prophets who first spoke these words lived in uncertain times... anyone who hears these words can relate. Every age is full of conflict. Satan is always at work in this world, wreaking havoc, trying to keep us blind and busy.
Jesus says that things will get worse before they get better. And just when you think that everything is about to fall apart---God will intervene. This is the way of the world--a world where Satan is at work, and frail human beings continue to listen to his whispered promises that they will be like gods. Jesus use of familiar imagery from Hebrew prophecy told his hearers that God's actions in the past provide a framework for dealing with the present.
The powers-that-be in this world want to lull us to sleep or keep us running in circles. Evil needs Good to become complacent, distracted or lazy in order for it to run rampant. If you are busy and tired---you can't really see. This is what Jesus was trying to tell his followers.
Listen, despite what you may have been taught about passages of Scripture like this--this isn't about predicting the future. It's about being wakeful. The world might always be uncertain, but God is always up to something incredible.
Jesus tells his disciples, "The signs are all around you... it's like, it's like when you see the leaves of the fig tree start to come out and you know that Spring is on the way." If you are paying attention, you will know that something is about to happen. It's the pregnant moment--the moment when you realize that everything is about to change, that a waiting world is shaking off winter and is about to bloom.
Waiting for Christmas---it's predictable. You'll be reminded of it constantly between now and the day itself. There will be a countdown of how many shopping days are left. You will start scratching events, and tasks off of your calendar...
But waiting for Christ requires a different kind of waiting. If you are anticipating a new world, free from the strife and conflict of this one... If you long for peace and hope and joy and love... You need to be awake. You need to be less busy. You need to have your eyes open. You can't predict this kind of change, but you can feel it.
Don't get lost in the details. Lots of preachers and teachers want to drown you in details and predictions and in their own way blind you to the coming of Christ.
Just be ready. Be awake. Be alert.
I am speaking to you from my heart today. Maybe I am feeling this a bit more because I just turned 46, which for some of you seems really, really old and for others seems like nothing at all. But I want to tell you how precious life is. It's precious and unpredictable and beautiful.
The seasons of life are short. Are you letting them slip away only to realize that you spent them shopping... scheduling... consuming... worrying... rushing from one thing to the next...
Are you really awake? Can you see the tenderness of the fig tree? The world is pregnant with possibilities of a new world, of the coming kingdom of God.
Last year I felt like I had lost my ability to see. I had become too busy. I was consumed with tasks. I was putting one foot in front of the other. The world seemed like it was going crazy. I didn't feel like I was making much of a difference. I know that this might be hard to hear from your pastor, but you need to hear this from your pastor.
I was in Laguna Beach California for a workshop on preaching and creative communication. The whole first day of the workshop I felt like a fraud. I felt like I was running on fumes. The weight of all of my busyness and blindness hit me like a ton of bricks. That evening during our dinner break I walked on the beach---praying, begging, crying to God asking him to show me something, anything. "I just want to see you!" I actually shouted out loud.
As I sat on the boardwalk near the beach a father and his two sons ran by me toward the ocean. As they passed, one of the boys lost his baseball hat which landed at my feet. They all stopped. I picked up the hat and went to hand it to the little boy and I saw that he was bald--obviously from undergoing some kind of chemotherapy. Their smiles faded for a moment, and I saw the father standing there with the other son--they looked tired. I saw the mother out of the corner of my eye pushing a stroller with a little girl in it.
"Thank you," the boy mumbled as I handed him his hat. Then he turned and started to walk back to the beach. His dad put his arm around his shoulder. The little boy started to put his hat back on, then he looked back at me, and I saw a gleam in his eye as he let his arm fall to his side and the hat with it. He and his brother began to run in the sand toward the water.
And just like that I saw. I saw that family's struggle. The weeks and months of tears, hospitals, fear, dread and all of the rest of it. I saw the weariness of the parents, the sadness, the distraction. But I also saw something else. I saw that for one day---the disease that had run their lives wasn't going to win. They were pushing back against the uncertainty and choosing something different. When that little boy didn't put on his hat--when he chose to feel the sun, and not the shame---I saw God.
Listen, the signs are all around you. Don't get so busy during this season of Advent that you miss the evidence of God's kingdom breaking through into this world.
Live differently. Worship God fully this Advent--make church a priority, have devotions at home, show your children and grandchildren what's important. Spend less this Advent--don't give the retailers the best of your gifts, save those for the things that matter. Give More--find ways to give of your time, your talent and yes, your treasure. Love all---open your eyes, be ready for moments when you can embody the kingdom of God and participate in His invasion of our world.
And beloved don't be so consumed with the coming of Christmas that you miss the coming of the Christ.