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The 1st Sunday of Advent; Matthew 24:36-44

In the silence of a midwinter dusk there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen. You walk up the steps to the front door. The empty windows at either side tell you nothing, or almost nothing. For a second you catch a whiff in the air of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you have never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart. The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.

The Salvation Army Santa Claus clangs his bell. The sidewalks are so crowded you can hardly move. Exhaust fumes are the chief fragrance in the air, and everybody is [as] bundled up against any sense of what the fuss is really about as they are bundled up against the windchill factor.

But if you concentrate for just an instant, far off in the deeps of somewhere you can feel the beating of your heart. For all its madness and lostness, not to mention your own, you can hear the world itself holding its breath.1

It is Advent! And I wish I could claim that poetic description as mine, but its author is the late Frederick Buechner, who died just 3½ months ago at age about 96, who might have been described as a contemporary Presbyterian mystic.

Today we begin again a new year of sacred time, a new cycle of telling the story of salvation; of what God did in the past, is doing in the present, and will do in the future. Indeed, we are at the beginning of a new 3 year cycle of readings, during which we will hear the sacred stories and supporting texts, one year at a time, as told by three different authors; we call them Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with occasional additions by a fourth author, John. This year, as in all those three years, we again prepare for Christmas by hearing the prophesies and events from before the birth of Christ; and and after the high point of Christmas we will hear how that birth was the birth of the Light of the World as we go from Christmas through Epiphany to Lent. During Lent we will reflect on how that Light of the World, through the sin of the world, almost came to be extinguished on Good Friday on a cross. We will celebrate the Good News of Easter for seven weeks until Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. And then, for almost a half year, in the long post-Pentecost season, we will read how the life and work of Jesus Christ shapes the Church he founded, until we come again to the Feast of the Reign of Christ exactly 364 days from today (on November 26, 2023), when we again celebrate Jesus Christ as Lord of all creation, and then move on to hear the same overall story as told by Mark.

It’s a long story, it’s a long year; we’ve heard the story before; we’ve gone through the church year before. There’s a temptation to omit or avoid the “boring” bits (although how can we say that anything that has to do with our eternal fate can be boring?). There’s a temptation to do the Church year equivalent of “channel surfing” or “web surfing”, to jump from exciting part to exciting part. The temptation is to turn Advent into Christmas (as the world is doing right now!), and Lent into Easter (watch for Easter cards and eggs and bunnies to appear right after Valentine’s Day (if not before!) and ignore everything else. But that’s not what the church year is about, it’s not what life is about, it’s not what being a Christian is about. And the theme of this first Sunday of Advent makes all that very clear!

That theme is one of watchfulness, keeping alert and awake. That theme is especially clear in the Gospel and in the Collect of the Day. Our Lord, in the Gospel says;

But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father … keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming … Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Jesus is speaking of his second coming, but his words apply to all times. They are a warning to us, to watch, to be alert, to be awake for the coming of God into our lives and into the life of our world. The Collect summarizes all this with one word: NOW!

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light, NOW in this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility …

NOW! God comes into our lives, now! Salvation is now, in this mortal, ordinary, sometimes boring life. The spiritual life is not something that happens at some particularly quiet, tranquil meditative moments of life, or in some particularly stirring, exciting religious experience, or only at the good parts of the church year. The struggle of growth towards God takes place, now, at every now, here, in every here, in the myriad of ordinary everyday things, in many unrehearsed, unthought, seemingly minor decisions we make, and acts that we do, every minute, every hour, every day; every where.

Of course, spiritual growth, conversion, salvation, call it what you want, can come in extra-ordinary, spectacular dramatic ways. It has done so for many people. But we are wrong if we restrict it to that. That would be wanting to live our spiritual life only at the high spots, the good parts. Worse, it would restrict the ways God can enter into our lives. It is much more likely for most of us that we work out our eternal life, our eternal salvation, in the ordinariness of day-to-day life. NOW! In this mortal life. Here!

Watch, be alert, be awake, for you do not know when the Master will come, says our Lord. We do not know when God will enter into our lives, to change them in ways we cannot anticipate. And especially we do not know which small event, which boring task, which meaning-less routine decision, will turn out to have consequences beyond our wildest imagining.

I spent my middle and high school years in Midland, Ontario, which was then thought of, by Torontonians at least, as the far north of Ontario. I kid you not, when we students travelled to the big city, and met with our counterparts there, they thought we lived in igloos and travelled by dog-sled; now, Midland is not even considered cottage country! I remember well the signs that were at rhe many rural unprotected railway crossings along our “northern” country roads: “STOP, LOOK, LISTEN,” in large bold letters. That is also a summary of the theme for this Sunday, and all Advent.

STOP. I know the world appears to be speeding up, and the closer we get to December 25th the faster the pace becomes. We get caught up in shopping, cooking, baking, work events, office lunches and dinners, parties, even church events. The season of good cheer has so overwhelmed the actuality of Christmas, that its entire spiritual meaning is in danger of being lost. Santa Claus has replaced the Christ-child. Trees and elves and reindeer and snowflakes have buried the crib. In the midst of all this, Advent invites you to stop, even just for a moment. Stop; and be quiet. Stop; and be refreshed. Stop; and make some room in your life and heart for the child waiting to be born again within you. Stop; and wait for God.

LOOK. Really look, beyond the clutter of your life. Look; at eternal things. Look; for the meaning that is beyond the often meaningless day to day grind. Look; for the purpose in a life that may feel purposeless. Look; for the love that is waiting just beyond you, ready to fill a life that may feel empty. Look; for a star to follow, a stable, a crib, a baby. All these are there, if only you will look. Look; for God in your life.

LISTEN. Be still. Hold your breath. Stop chattering. Listen; for the music that has not yet begun. Listen; for the sound of silence. You are in that extraordinary moment just before the extraordinary event that is about to happen. God is waiting to be born, born into the world, born into our hearts, into your heart. Listen; for the angels, ready, but not just yet, to sing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo – Glory to God in the highest.” Listen; for God coming to you.

Watch, wait! Stop, look, listen! Christ is coming.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! Amen!

1 Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark; 1988

Copyright ©2022 by Gerry Mueller