Advent I, Year A – Matthew 24:36-44
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
December 1, 2019
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
When you got to church this morning, you may have noticed that things are a bit different around here. Instead of green or white, there is purple. And it’s not just the colors that are different. We began by singing the Great Litany in procession, and we didn’t sing the festive hymn “Glory be to God on high”. The Scripture readings bid us to stay awake, to be watchful, to be ready. Paul, in the second lesson, calls us to cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light. And in the gospel lesson, we hear of the end of the days when Jesus will come for a second time to judge both the living and the dead. Today, we begin a new church year with the season called Advent.
The word Advent comes from the Latin word “coming.” And as we think about the second coming of Christ, it’s natural to wonder when it will happen. What day? What hour?
Remember how the passage began? “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” It’s amazing how many Christians seem to believe that they can accomplish what the Son confesses he cannot do and proclaim they know the day and the hour of the Second Coming. If you want to dive into a fascinating internet rabbit hole, go to the Wikipedia page on “Predictions and claims for the Second Coming of Christ.” There have been dozens and dozens of predictions throughout the years, and guess what, none of them have come true. I think my favorite prediction that’s still out there is by a mathematical physicist who is a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans. He has published a book in which he claims to scientifically prove that Jesus will return in mid-2057. When I saw that, I marked that date in my Google calendar so that I’ll remember to be ready at age 77.
Maybe asking when the second coming will happen is the wrong question. Maybe the question should be, “How does the fact that Jesus will return one day change our behavior?”
Isaiah reminds us that one day God shall “…judge between nations and shall arbitrate for many people.” In light of which we are reminded by St. Paul that “. . . it is now the moment to wake from sleep” and “put on the armor of light,” and “the Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus reminds us that “about that day and hour no one knows,” so we must “keep awake therefore,” because, “you do not know on what day your Lord is coming,” and “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” 
Perhaps God isn’t calling us to try to figure out the “when” or the “how” of the Second Coming of Christ. Perhaps He is calling us to be aware that life is short and can end in an instant, and to live our lives accordingly. We are called to stay awake, and to keep watch for the coming of Christ.
During Advent, the Church calls us to keep watch for the coming of Christ in three distinct ways:
First, we are to keep watch for Christ’s coming in the manger at Christmas, when we remember God’s inbreaking into our world in the birth of His Son. Out of his love for humanity, God proclaimed to Mary that she would bear a Son, who would be called Emmanuel – God with us. At Christmas, God became human, in order that the great divide between himself and humanity would be eliminated, and we would be reconciled. The incarnation of God into the world at Christmas is so important in the life of the Church that it is literally a 12-day feast. You may have heard the expression that you can’t celebrate the joys of the resurrection at Easter without first experiencing the suffering of Good Friday. The same is true for us now: the great Feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ s comes after a nearly four-week period of preparation in which we put our spiritual lives in order. This is hard work, particularly in our culture in which holiday sales began this past Friday, and in which office Christmas parties have already begun. We are called to take a step back and to watch and wait and to prepare in hopeful anticipation of the coming of Christ in a few weeks.
Secondly, we are called to keep watch for the coming of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. It is so easy for me to show up at church, sing the hymns and pray the prayers, hear the Scripture readings and the sermon, and not even think of the intimate moment of receiving God’s love in the Body and Blood of Christ until the moment it hits my tongue. One way in which we prepare ourselves for this moment in the service is at the General Confession when we confess our sins and receive God’s pardon and peace in absolution. But in Advent, we are called to focus on this preparation and perhaps go a bit deeper. One way to do this is to arrive at church a few minutes early, and spend some time quietly preparing yourself before the Mass begins. There are many traditional prayers you can use to prepare for Holy Communion, but next week, consider just kneeling or sitting for a few moments and asking for God’s help to “keep watch” throughout the service and to recognize Christ in the breaking of the bread. In other words, lay aside your cares and burdens and ask God to prepare your heart to receive his love and grace in the bread and wine.
And thirdly, we are called to keep watch for the coming of Christ as judge, both at our death and at the end of the world. Every time we say the Creed we affirm our belief that Christ will come again to judge both the living and the dead. The prospect of judgment is alarming, but the Church calls us not to respond with fear or denial, but rather by turning to Jesus Christ to save us and redeem us. Jesus’s teaching in today’s gospel lesson was given to his disciples in the context of preparing for his second coming in power and glory, inaugurating the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. He didn’t criticize people for getting on with ordinary life – eating and drinking, marrying and carrying on with daily work – we have to do that. We prepare for Christ’s second coming by living life faithfully every day. At the same time, we must also heed Jesus’s warning to be ready for when God acts. His example of people unprepared for the flood is vivid for us who are bombarded with images of sudden disasters around the world. We have disaster plans for many things because preparing and waiting with readiness takes determined effort. Our spiritual disaster plan requires us to keep awake spiritually because we have no idea when life as we know it will end, either through our death or because Jesus comes again. Either way, he will be our judge. And so, during this new year in the Church’s time frame, we intentionally cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. We vigorously cast away sin just as we would instinctively throw away something we picked up that is horrible or awful, and we put on the armor of light by putting on the Lord Jesus Christ and living our everyday lives faithfully and rooted in prayer.
On this First Sunday of Advent, and for the next four weeks, let us keep watch for the coming of Christ – in the manager at Christmas, in the bread and wine at communion, and at the Great Hour of Judgment. In the midst of Christmas shopping and office holiday parties and hearing “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” on the radio, let us intentionally take a step back and put our spiritual lives in order so that we may “be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
 David Bartlett, and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 21.
 Much of this paragraph comes from here: https://lectionarylab.com/2013/11/23/the-first-sunday-of-advent-december-1-2013/
 This threefold purpose of Advent is spelled out by the New Advent Encyclopedia: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01165a.htm
 Much of this paragraph is from a sermon preached by the Rev’d Rosalind Brown: https://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/worship-music/regular-services/sermon-archive/advent-themes-death-judgement-and-the-second-coming-of-christ
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