Sunday, December 1, 2019

Sermon for Advent Sunday

St Michael’s, O’Fallon--Matthew 24:37-44, Romans 13:8-14

Can you imagine what it must have been like for the lucky passengers who were able to book space on the Titanic for her maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City in April of 1912? It was a virtual floating city. Even Babe Ruth wouldn’t have been able to hit a batting practice pitch from one end of the boat to the other. It was huge and it was beautiful and it provided a feeling of stability and security to the officers, the crew, and all the passengers—whether they were in a luxury stateroom or third-class steerage.
So, on that fateful night four days later when the Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic, the passengers and the junior crew members who were not in the immediate area of impact may not even have felt anything, and if they did notice that the ship’s engine had stopped running, they probably assumed it was just a matter of “technical difficulties” that would be overcome quickly and they would soon be on their way again. They kept on playing cards or dancing or sleeping or whatever it was they were doing at that moment—that moment which would forever alter their lives, if not bring them to a rather abrupt and premature conclusion.

You and I may never have thought of it this way, but we have a lot in common with those voyagers on the Titanic. We don’t know the details—we don’t know when and we don’t know how—but we do know—at least, we profess our belief every time we recite the creeds—we know that Christ is coming again. Christ is coming again, not in weakness and vulnerability to be a savior, but in power and great glory to be a judge and king. And when he does, it will forever alter our lives, and, for some unwary souls on that day, bring them to an abrupt and premature conclusion.

As we know, however, the captain of the Titanic, and the senior members of the crew, soon realized that the most magnificent ocean-going vessel ever constructed in the history of the human race would soon be resting at the bottom of the deep blue sea. Sinking was only a matter of time. For everyone else, though, everything appeared to be quite normal, and people were on that ship in the first place mostly for normal reasons: Some were on vacation, some were emigrating, some had left family members behind and some were looking forward to rejoining family members already in America. Some were rich and some were poor, some were naughty and some were nice, some were educated and some were ignorant. They were in all respects a normal collection of normal human beings doing normal things. When some of them felt a slight bump and noticed that the propellers had gone silent, they may have been tempted to order another drink or ask their partner for another dance. 

In a similar way, it is easy for us to be seduced by the routines of normal life. When Jesus talks to his disciples about the last days, the days prior to his return to this world to judge the living and the dead, he compares the situation in those days to “the days of Noah.” Now, when we read the book of Genesis, we find that the reason the Lord was peeved with the human race in the days of Noah was on account of their general wickedness and excessive violence. Curiously, though, Jesus doesn’t mention any of that. Instead, he talks about pretty normal things—“eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.”  Not much here that’s inherently wicked, is there? It is, rather, as they say, “the stuff of life.” Eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage. Doing housework, paying bills, shopping, going to the doctor, surfing the internet, taking a vacation, and, of course, just doing our jobs—all pretty normal stuff. It is incredibly easy for us to be seduced by all these normal things, and so not allow Christ’s return—his return to judge the living and the dead, to be a factor at all in the way we live our lives.

The First Sunday of Advent arrives each year as a much-needed slap in the face to waken us out of our complacency, to keep us from giving in to the attempts of “normalcy” to seduce us. Jesus calls us to be alert and vigilant:
…know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
Hear also the words of St Paul in his letter to the Christian community in the city of Rome:
…it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day…
Indeed, the central imagery of the Prayer Book collect for this Sunday—casting off works of darkness and putting on the armor of light—these images are drawn directly from this epistle reading. It is our task as Christian believers to stay awake, to maintain our vigil, to never lose sight of the fact that, until Christ does come again, we live under wartime conditions and need to be ready to assume our battle stations at a moment’s notice. Our lives are not normal, and we should never pretend that they are. 

The good news is, we already know all we need to know in order to follow these commands. In other words, we know what vigilance—vigilance of the sort that Jesus calls us to—we know what this looks like. For starters, we have the Ten Commandments. Using them as a benchmark by which to evaluate our behavior helps keep us from being seduced by the normal world. We have the Beatitudes—Jesus’ promise of blessing on those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and those who make peace. We also have the example of Jesus’ life of compassion, service, and sacrifice. We have all these things that can help make us ready for the coming of Christ. We have these tools to help us avoid the nasty consequences of the Day of Judgment, and put ourselves in the position of being able to enjoy the good consequences of the coming of Christ.

Most of the passengers and crew on the Titanic were consigned to a cold and watery grave, partly because they too long went on living as if everything were just normal, but mostly because there weren’t enough lifeboats for everybody on board. We, however, have a better deal than those on the Titanic. We have a lifeboat with plenty of capacity for all who wish to be saved—all who wish to be able to stand up straight in God’s presence on the Day of Judgment, to be able to look God in the eye and not be pulverized. Actually, we have the same deal as people had “in the days of Noah.” We have an ark. Unfortunately, most of the people “in the days of Noah” weren’t smart enough to get on the ark that Noah built.

But we don’t have to follow their foolish example. We have an ark—a lifeboat—called the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Have you ever wondered why the main part of a traditional church building resembles an upside-down ship—and is, in fact, called the “nave.” There’s a reason for that. In the Christian vocabulary, the Church is known as, among other things, “the ark of salvation.” The Church is the community that God saves. God saves “us.” God saves “me” because I am part of “us,” just as God saved the ark when the flood waters rose, and thereby the people on it. Advent Sunday is like the alarm that eventually sounded on the Titanic saying, “Put on your life vest and get on a lifeboat. This ship is sinking.” Advent Sunday tells us, “The ship you’re on—this world—this ship is sinking. Put on the life vest of faith and get on the ark—get on the lifeboat called the Church of Jesus Christ. There’s plenty of room for everyone.” Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

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