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How Should We Wait for the Lord?
based on Matthew 24:36-44, Isaiah 2:1-5
We do a lot of waiting at this time of year. We wait for relatives to arrive, turkeys to be done, pumpkin pie to be served. We wait for cookies to bake, school to get out, for Santa Claus, and we wait in lines. We wait in lines at McDonald's, the grocery store, the gas station, the post office. Some of us wait patiently. Some do not. Have you ever watched people wait in lines? Small children don't wait. They move. Constantly. They swing on the ropes that guide the lines, they swing on the posts that hold the ropes, they dance, they sing, they whine. Rarely do they wait quietly.
Many adults don't wait quietly, either. Some adults stand straight as an arrow, staring straight ahead, hardly aware of their surroundings. Some people shift from one foot to the other and back again rather like a Mexican jumping bean. They sigh and sift their packages from one arm to the other, and back again, and sigh louder. Some people strike up conversations with perfect strangers not wanting to endure the waiting experience alone. Depending on the day and your mood, you might be a starer, a jumper, or a talker. Depending on the day, and your mood, you might wait patiently, impatiently, or with anticipation.
Advent is a time of waiting. It is a time of waiting for the Messiah to come. "But wait!" you say. "The Messiah has already come." Yes, the Messiah has already come. But the Messiah will come again that is what we are waiting for. We live in a between time, a time when the Kingdom of God has begun, but has not yet fully come. Saint Bernard says there are three comings of Christ. The first, of course, was the coming of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. The Second Coming will be when Christ returns in glory to establish God's kingdom on earth. The third coming, St. Bernard says, is sandwiched between the other two: . . . In the first coming the Lord was seen on earth and lived among men in the days when, as he himself bears witness, they saw him and hated him. In his last coming all flesh shall see the salvation of our God', and they shall look on him whom they have pierced.' The other coming is hidden. In it, only the chosen see him within themselves and their souls are saved. In brief, his first coming was in the flesh and in weakness, this intermediary coming is in the spirit and in power, the last coming will be in glory and majesty.
Our scripture lessons this morning focus on Christ's coming in glory and majesty at the end of the world. In the passage from Isaiah, we are told what the world will be like when the Kingdom comes. There won't be any more wars. Everyone will get along with everyone else. There will be no jealousy, or selfishness. There will be no divisions between God's people. In the Romans passage, Paul tells us God's kingdom has already started. We are to live as citizens of God's kingdom. We are to live without jealousy or hatred. In the Gospel lesson, we are told we don't know how or when Christ will come, and Jesus urges us to always be ready to enter God's kingdom. I said two weeks ago that all those people who are predicting the end of time in the year 2000 don't know what they're talking about. It may happen in the year 2000. It may not happen until the year 20,000. Only God knows.
The focus of our scripture lessons is not meant to scare us, rather to prepare us for the glorious day when Christ will return. How do we, in the between times, wait for the Lord? We wait by preparing ourselves for the Lord's coming. Being prepared means being ready for Christ every day, in every relationship, in every deed. Like children who decide they will be on their best behavior from Thanksgiving till Christmas Eve, just in case Santa is watching, we cannot live an un-Christian life, and then expect to change our ways a day or two before Christ arrives. In the Romans passage, Paul says we should "conduct ourselves properly, as people who live in the light of day no wild parties, don't get drunk, or be indecent . . . don't quarrel or be jealous . . . Then you won't try to satisfy your selfish desires." That is rather difficult in this season when television, radio, newspapers and magazines tell us to buy, buy, buy. Buy to make your mother-in-law happy, buy to make your children happy, buy to make yourself happy. Buy, buy, buy. The more you give, the happier you'll be. The more you give, the better person you'll be. Even churches suggest giving more more money to the needy, more time volunteering to help the poor.
Yet, giving is not the focus of Jesus' words. Remember, when Jesus told of his second coming, there was no Christmas! Christmas was not celebrated until the fourth century, and then it was only as a religious holiday. It has only been in the last century that Christmas turned from a religious holiday to a secular orgy of consumerism. What can we, 20th century American Christians, do to prepare for the Lord in this Advent season? There are gifts to be bought, wrapped and mailed. There are cookies to bake, candles to make. We don't want to miss the Nutcracker, Festival of the Trees, The Living Christmas Tree, open houses, office parties, or our child's school performances. If your family is like mine, there is something doing for someone every night, and on weekends, between now and Christmas. So what is it that gives' in your family? Too often what gives' is the reason for the season. Too often, even as Christians who wait for, who hope for, who expect the coming of Christ, it is Christ whom we forget.
Our focus should be on our spiritual preparation for the coming of Christ. As someone once said, it wasn't raining when Noah started building the ark! Leonard Sweet notes: Noah knew judgment was coming "soon," but he did not know the exact timetable of the Lord. While he labored at building the ark, the rest of his neighbors went about their common, every-person, every day affairs. "Eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage" does not describe any uniquely awful behavior the people were displaying. On the contrary, they are cited as examples of everyday life. But to go on with "business as usual" without concern or consideration about something as certain (but uncertain as to time) as God's promise of judgment for evildoing? It is the people's fixated commitment to "business as usual" that condemns them. It is our business as usual that condemns us. God has standards. We are judged by how well we live up to God's standards, not the world's standards. God judges not only our actions, but our attitudes and involvements. We do not live a Christian life so that God can make the world better through us.
We live a Christian life as our response to God's love for us shown to us in Jesus Christ. Living a Christian life doesn't mean standing in line, staring into space, waiting for Jesus and unaware of our surroundings, oblivious to the hungry, the poor, the despondent, the homeless, the prisoner. Living a Christian life doesn't mean standing in line, waiting for Jesus and sighing because the problems of the hungry, the poor, the despondent, the homeless, the prisoners are too big for one person to do anything about. Living a Christian life means striking up a relationship with someone who is hungry, someone who is poor, someone who is homeless, someone who is in prison and telling them what God has done through Jesus Christ.
In the gospel lesson, Jesus talks about the people who are taken into God's kingdom, and those who are not. Those people who are living their lives in relation to God are those who will enter the Kingdom. Those who are more concerned with God than with themselves are those who will enter the Kingdom. There will be no appeal, no "wait a minute Lord, I can live my life better," when the Lord comes. There will only be God's decision. Leonard Sweet shares this story from a friend, Ann Wells: My brother-in-law opened the bottom drawer of my sister's bureau and lifted out a tissue-wrapped package.
This,' he said, is not a slip. This is lingerie.'
He discarded the tissue and handed me the slip. It was exquisite: silk, handmade and trimmed with a cobweb of lace. The price tag with an astronomical figure on it was still attached.
'Jan bought this the first time we went to New York, at least eight or nine years ago. She never wore it. She was saving it for a special occasion. Well, I guess this is the occasion.'
He took the slip from me and put it on the bed with the other clothes we were taking to the mortician. His hands lingered on the soft material for a moment, then he slammed the drawer shut and turned to me.
Don't ever save anything for a special occasion. Every day you're alive is a special occasion.'
I remembered those words through the funeral and the days that followed when I helped him and my niece attend to all the sad chores that follow an unexpected death. I thought about them on the plane returning to California from the Midwestern town where my sister's family lives. I thought about all the things that she hadn't seen or heard or done. I thought about the things she had done without realizing that they were special. I'm still thinking about his words, and they've changed my life. I'm reading more and dusting less. I'm sitting on the deck and admiring the view without fussing about the weeds in the garden. I'm spending time with my family and friends and less time in committee meetings. Whenever possible, life should be a pattern of experience to savor, not endure.
I'm trying to recognize those moments now and cherish them. I'm not saving' anything; we use our good china and crystal for every special event - such as losing a pound, getting the sink unstopped, the first camellia blossom.
I wear my good blazer to the market if I feel like it. My theory is if I look prosperous, I can shell out $28.49 for one small bag of groceries without wincing. I'm not saving my good perfume for special parties; clerks in hardware stores and tellers in banks have noses that function as well as [those of] my party-going friends.
Someday' and one of these days' are losing their grip on my vocabulary. If it's worth seeing or hearing or doing, I want to see and hear and do it now. I'm not sure what my sister would have done had she known that she wouldn't be here for the tomorrow we all take for granted. I think she would have called family members and a few close friends. She might have called a few former friends to apologize and mend fences for past squabbles. I like to think she would have gone out for a Chinese dinner, her favorite food. I'm guessing - I'll never know.
It's those little things left undone that would make me angry if I knew that my hours were limited. Angry because I put off seeing good friends whom I was going to get in touch with - some day. Angry because I hadn't written certain letters that I intended to write - one of these days. Angry and sorry that I didn't tell my husband and daughter often enough how much I truly love them.
I'm trying very hard not to put off, hold back, or save anything that would add laughter and luster to our lives. And every morning when I open my eyes, I tell myself that it is special.
Every day, every minute, every breath truly is . . . a gift from God.
Don't put off until tomorrow what you should do today. How many times did my Mom tell me that when I was supposed to be picking up my room, practicing the organ, or starting a term paper? Yet, I always did, and I always scrambled at the last minute to complete my assigned tasks. Sometimes, they weren't done on time, and I suffered the consequences. In the same way, Christians should not put off living a Christian life, for tomorrow, Christ may come.
Frank Schaefer, for JavaCasa Resources and the Desperate Preacher's Site, 1999