[This message was proclaimed at Pearce Memorial Church (Free Methodist) on the edge of the Roberts Wesleyan College campus, for the first Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2019. The texts are Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44.]
Picture slowing down from 12,300 miles per hour (MPH) to five MPH. A year ago, we landed the InSight space probe on the surface of Mars. After a six-month journey covering 300 million miles, the InSight had to slow down, from 12,300 MPH to five MPH in under seven minutes. The NASA engineers called it the seven minutes of terror. If InSight hadn’t slowed down it would be crashed on the surface of Mars and been obliterated in a moment. InSight succeeded; talk about power brakes! It slowed down and made safe landing and is now exploring the red planet.
Advent calls us to slow down. Our word advent has two meanings: the first is to arrive (an arrival, a coming); the second has to do with something about to happen. The first carries the sense of an event. The second carries the sense of journeying toward something or someone, often with some hazard or danger, from which we get our word adventure. The first meaning was caught in Jesus’ coming to be among us in Bethlehem; the second meaning is caught in how we are to live because of that coming and in light of the promised coming yet to happen.
Our Advent begins with glorious promises first heard by Isaiah. “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshare and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” (Isaiah 2:4-5) Keeping Advent does not come readily to us. We have this countdown: Thanksgiving Thursday, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, giving Tuesday. Why not throw in Christmas Eve on Wednesday and Christmas on Thursday—get it all over in one week! Radio stations have already been playing every imaginable Christmas piece of music.
Advent calls us to hear the words of the prophets and not be consumed with bottom-line profits. Just over a year ago, Eugene Peterson died, one of my pastor heroes and mentors. Eugene called me to be an unbusy pastor. I make an admission: pastors sometimes try to look busy because they think it will cause the congregation to think they are really important with all these demands on their time. Eugene helped me to be an unbusy pastor. I always took a full sabbath day once a week. I always used all my vacation and study leave time. I kept reasonable hours. I sought to be a fully engaged and healthy pastor rather than a busy pastor. I needed and need the call of Advent in all seasons, and particularly in this season of unfettered busyness and rampant commercialism.
Jesus tells us to be watchful and ready. But first, he clearly teaches that no one knows the day or hour of his second coming, except God the Father. I was reared in a faith tradition that was always trying to nail down exactly when Jesus would return. That was used to leverage fearful living in us youth. We were given a list of activities in which we were never to engage. Why? Jesus might return at just that moment and we would be left behind. The thrust was not to be attentive to loving God and neighbor, but to getting out of this world asap. They wouldn’t have believed that some of us would be here in 2019. And here we are. Jesus has come; Jesus is coming every day in a million ways; Jesus will come again one day in glory. In the meantime, let’s slow down and be watchful and attentive. For Jesus is Immanuel; God with us now—here and now.
For twenty centuries faithful Christians have believed that they were living in the last days. And here we are in the 21st century reading these words of Jesus. For four decades I lived in eastern New York, not far from where there once was great fervor about the return of Jesus. A student of the Bible named William Miller calculated that Jesus would return between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When March 21, 1844, came and Jesus didn’t, they recalculated: April 18, 1844. Ditto. Recalculating: July, 1844. Ditto. Recalculating: August 10, 1844. Ditto. Recalculating: October 22, 1844. They banked on those dates. Some quit their jobs. They went to a mountaintop in the early morning and waited for Jesus. At the end of those days, they returned to their homes in sadness. October 22, 1844, was called the Great Disappointment. Are we living in the last days? Yes. We just don’t know what that means in terms of chronological time.
Miller died in 1849, just as three notable people were living and working near where I now live in the greater Rochester area. One was Susan B. Anthony. She was working tirelessly for the full humanity and citizenship of women. One was Frederick Douglass. He was working for the full humanity and citizenship of African-Americans. The third was Benjamin T. Roberts. He was working tirelessly for the full humanity and citizenship of women and blacks in the Church. We are at the edge of the College named for him. He was as radical in working for the rights of women and blacks as Anthony and Douglass. That is living in watchfulness and readiness. That is a far better way to prepare for Jesus’ return.
A new movie just came out about Mr. Rogers and his influence on a skeptical reporter assigned to write an article about this kind man. My daughters were young children when Sesame Street was just beginning to dazzle children. If I were home in the late afternoon, I would sometimes watch over their shoulders and be laughing more than they were at the wondrous ways Sesame Street taught numbers and letters. But then came on another show, so very different, called Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. At first I thought it slow moving, even boring. Then I watched as Fred Rogers spoke directly to my daughters and assured them of their value. He helped me to be a better person and, perhaps, a better father. When Fred Rogers was a boy, in frightening times his mother told him, look for the helpers. There will always be helpers. Look for them and become one of them. Mr. Rogers makes me want to be a kinder person. More ready to see our common humanity in other persons. More ready to listen to others. More ready to see God at work in the ordinariness of everyday life. More ready for Jesus’ coming. The gospel is more than mere kindness, but it is not less than kindness. One of the fruit of the Spirit is kindness. God’s kindness leads us to repentance, Romans tells us. What better way is there to be watchful and ready for his coming than to be kind to others? Mr. Rogers is still helping me to slow down and attend to what are the really important matters.
Advent calls us to slow down and be attentive to God all around us. Here are some biblical hints for Advent living:
- Let’s look at people. While we don’t want to stare at people, let’s look at people. Let’s slow down and appreciate people. Let’s not look away from or overlook anyone who bears the image of God.
- Let’s listen to people. Jesus is the master listener. Let’s work at talking less and listening more. (Yes, I, a preacher, am saying that.)
- Let’s leave room for God’s presence among us, not me but us. My favorite name of Jesus is Immanuel, God with us (not God with me, but God with us).
An acid test for these simple disciplines is when shopping this season. The cashier is tired of angry and impatient shoppers. The retail worker has been blistered with criticism from customers and unreasonable demands from supervisors. Let’s show these workers kindness and civility. When they ask, “Did you find what you were looking for?”, let’s not grunt but respond warmly. Let’s thank them and smile at them.
The trend for the Church in our part of the world is unmistakable: The Church is in decline. One of the reasons is that the unchurched and church dropouts around us perceive the Church as harsh, judgmental, and arrogant. We come through like the Pharisees that gave Jesus such a hard time for being so gracious instead of legalistic. I have this hunch that we can do a better job at walking in the light of the Lord. By appreciating people that look different than we do. That we could do a better job of bringing the good news of Jesus without harshness and judgment, without discrimination and arrogance, but with kindness and tenderness.
In my college years I spent a summer doing mission work in Trinidad. Shortly after arriving, we were waiting for a bus. “When it is coming?” we asked a local. “Just now,” he said. When is just now? When it comes. Wait for it. That summer we learned the meaning of just now. Instead of our American way of having watches, deadlines, and time tables for everything, Trinidadians live with a sense of just now. The bus was coming. Don’t worry. It is coming just now. Wait in watchfulness and readiness. Jesus is coming again, just now. He promised. And he tells us to wait in hope and watch in readiness.
A day is coming. God promised: “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshare and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” A day is coming. Jesus both promised and warned: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come…. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”