* * *
O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
May the God of Hope fill you with all joy and peace this season.
Straighten up. Open your eyes and ears.
“You know what time it is,” Paul proclaims in his Letter to the Romans, “it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”
Maybe we should call this Wake Up Sunday.
Or, as a bumper sticker I recently saw says, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.”
We have entered the time of Advent, the season before Christmas.
Today is also the first day of the new year on the church calendar. Our calendar goes from Advent to Advent, so happy new year to each of you.
We mark the beginning of this new season and new year with new liturgical colors. We are following the English tradition by using blue for Advent.
The color is called “Salisbury Blue,” or “Sarum Blue” – Sarum is the Latin name for Salisbury.
Blue has been used for Advent at Salisbury Cathedral in England since the 11th century. No one is quite sure why this blue came to be used at Salisbury – some think it is the color of Mary, and that is probably as plausible an explanation as any, and others say it is “royal” blue – the color of Norman kings.
To me, the color evokes the time of the deep blue sky before the dawn, the time of waiting, the time of awakening.
We are, of course, waiting for the birth of Jesus, the Christ child. We are waiting for Christmas when we once again remember his birth long ago and the light he brings into our world.
We gather and wait in Advent with the traditional hymn: O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
The name “Emmanuel” means “God is with us.”
O Come, God, O come be with us.
Yet the biblical lessons suggest we are waiting for something else. We are waiting for the end of time, the end of history, the second coming, the apocalypse.
Like it as not, that, too, is a part of our tradition. And, like it as not, the Gospel of Matthew compels us this morning to grapple with this tradition.
“You also must be ready,” the gospel proclaims, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Early Christians heard in these words something we may have a hard time hearing: hope for a better world and the day when their oppressors and their poverty would be swept away.
Unfortunately there are some in our world who hear in this a prediction of the “rapture,” the day when the good guys – people like them – will be taken up to heaven – and the bad guys, probably people like me, will be left behind.
It does remind me of another bumper sticker I once saw: “Come the rapture, can I have your car?”
To many of us, this end-times talk may sound a little scary, and it certainly doesn’t sound very Christmassy.
We may rightfully ask how all of the end of time is connected to the incarnation of Christ as a person at Christmas. We might also rightly ask whether the ancient predictions of Jesus coming back were right.
We are not the first to ask those questions.
In the days following the death of Jesus, there was great fascination with calculating the exact day and time Jesus would return and human history would end. The Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus saying “all these things” would happen in “this generation.”
Early Christians circulated elaborate formulas to predict when this would happen, often using the Book of Daniel as a baseline for calculations. Popular formulas put his return somewhere between 1,290 days and 1,334 days from the crucifixion, or approximately three-and-half years.
The only problem is it didn’t happen that way; 1,334 days came and went, and still no second coming and the end of history. Time marched on.
Not surprisingly, skeptics and scoffers began to taunt the early Christians as being – how shall we say? – crackpots. The careful calculations of the return of Jesus proved to be embarrassing to early Christians.
The gospel writers seemed to hedge their bets. The passage from the Gospel of Matthew we hear today strikes this tone: “Be watchful, you don’t know when the Son of Man will return. Forget about calculating this, it could happen at any time, just like the flood during Noah’s time. Life is uncertain, so be prepared.”
All that is true – life is uncertain, floods, fires, natural disasters do happen with no warning. It is good advice to keep your fire extinguishers charged and fresh batteries in your flashlights and smoke detectors.
But what of this second coming of Jesus? Did the early Christians get it wrong?
I would suggest that Matthew got it right, but to get there you need to skip to the end of the Gospel of Matthew 28:20 where Jesus says, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
And that, I would suggest, gives us another image of this second coming business: Jesus has already come, and is still coming to us every day. Jesus rose from the grave, was seen again by his followers, dwelled with them and in them, and dwells with us still.
Yes, Jesus will come again, but he has already come and will keep coming, and is here now in each of us, and Jesus is present with us even now, gathering with us today at our Holy Table.
And that presents us with a harder challenge than simply waiting for the world to end.
We are beckoned to notice his presence, and to be his hands and feet and heart in the world, this world, the one that is ours, not some other world of popular fiction. We are beckoned to be ready to be builders.
We are beckoned to do as Christ would do, to heal and bring peace and forgiveness. We are beckoned to build a world that is more just and caring, and to do this not in a distant age to come, but here and now.
We are beckoned to do so because we are part of Christ and Christ is part of us. The second coming of Christ comes inside each of us, each day of our lives.
The Christ within us bids us to get busy building the Kingdom of God, not because there is a reward at the end of time, but because that is at the core of our soul.
The Kingdom is already here, but is being born through us, one act at a time, one brick at a time, one day at time.
We build the kingdom, and the only reward we can expect is the reward of being builders.
We build with many tools, and we have many builders here at St. Paul’s. Some of you are builders by being ushers and Eucharistic ministers, choir members and altar guild and flower guild members, or Sunday school teachers for our children, or members of the Shalom group for young adults.
Some of you are builders beyond our walls by serving the sick in hospitals and the homeless on the streets or those who are homebound, or teaming with other faith communities building house through Habitat for Humanity.
We are builders of the kingdom by serving in the workplace and in the classroom and in our own homes.
We are builders with our university community, with our students.
We are builders of God’s kingdom with thousands of acts of kindness, and by giving the best of what we have and who we are.
There is one more challenge that comes with Advent: The opening prayer this morning calls us to “put on the armor of light.”
I believe all of us have that light of God within us, and we are called to look for this holy light in each other. Sometimes that is not easy to see, but that is the prayer God has for us – that we will see God’s light in each other.
So be awake – it is almost dawn before a new day – Christ is risen and with us.
“For salvation is nearer to us now,” Paul says, “than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”
Look around you – look for the dawn of Christ’s light inside you and in all you do, in all whom you meet, and everywhere you go.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
May the God of Hope fill you with all joy and peace this season. AMEN.
* * *
Advent banner above designed by Rebekah Holton of Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School, 2009