Why Do You Do, What You Do? (A Sermon for Advent 1A)

You may have noticed on this blog that I have been posting a few sermons recently.  This will be the final sermon posted here for a little while, as its the last sermon I am scheduled to preach in the immediate future.  I have been covering for the congregation’s pastor (for the congregation I am on staff for) who has been recovering from surgery.  This sermon which is printed below was written for the First Sunday of Advent and shared yesterday (12/1/13).  I am sharing it pretty much as written here, with a few tweaks for contextual purposes. It was based on the appointed readings for the day, especially the Gospel of Matthew 24:36-44.  The other readings were:  Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; and Romans 13:11-14. Blessings on the start of Advent! – TS


“Why Do You Do What You Do?”

An Advent Wreath
An Advent Wreath

And so we have begun a new church year today.  In beginning a new year, we are entering a new year in the revised common lectionary, the three year cycle and set of readings that we follow mostly for the church year.  We enter today into Year A, the first year of the three year cycle, which focuses mainly on the Gospel of Matthew.  Matthew is known especially for its stories and the gospel’s story telling.  Perhaps more than the other gospels, it is made up of story after story and that is a central part of the writing style and the gospel’s explanation of the good news.

As this is the beginning of the church year, it’s also the beginning of Advent. We hear in today’s readings the call to be ready and be awake.  This is primarily for the coming of the Son of Man, and is part of the dual theme of Advent- of preparing and being ready for Christ’s return and the fulfillment of the kingdom of God, as well as the preparation for his original incarnation in his birth which we celebrate at Christmas.

Today’s gospel deals much more obviously with the first.  It is a response to questions posed by the disciples earlier in chapter 24 of Matthew.  They asked Jesus in verse 3, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”[1] Jesus answered the second question about signs first which covers much of chapter 24.[2]  Some of it is very similar to the passage in Luke we heard read and preached about two weeks ago.[3]  In answering the question of “when” Jesus says openly that “no one knows except the Father.”[4]  Jesus doesn’t leave the point there though; instead he goes on to offer an illustration of the need to be awake and watchful.

We are told, “You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  Its Biblical stories like these that some people love to hear, because it affirms their theology and belief in God.  When they hear verses like “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left,”[5] they see an idea that has been caught up in popular culture about the rapture that says that some will be taken up with God and others will be left to feel God’s wrath.  To others, when they hear a passage in the gospel like this, they ignore or utterly dislike it because it seems like other apocalyptic themes in scripture- a lot of stuff that makes no sense or is completely unbelievable.  Frankly, I don’t think either of these approaches is particularly helpful- a focus on the popular culture idea of a rapture, or a denial of the apocalyptic themes and concepts.[6]

What I hear in this passage is an admission actually- that Jesus doesn’t know everything.  There is uncertainty.[7]  The only thing certain is that one day the Son of Man will come, or put another way, the day of the Lord will come.  But as to when, only God- the Father knows.  So all of these people, self-proclaimed prophets who claim to read signs that the world is ending on such and such a date, well… to be honest, they are claiming to know something that Jesus doesn’t even know.  Why would they do something like this?  Well, honestly it’s because people like certainty.  Certainty sells books.  Certainty gets airtime on cable news.

The fact is that which is often claimed as certain in our faith is anything but.  You know what’s certain in our faith?  That God is for you!  That God loves you and that God is with you, Emmanuel.[8] A very important Advent theme, as we will sing about in the coming weeks “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”[9]  Jesus even provides this assurance himself a verse earlier to today’s gospel passage in verse 35 when he says that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”[10]  The message we hear is grounded in hope and faith, and it’s not entirely apocalyptic and fearful.[11]  However, if we take today’s passage just as itself without its larger narrative in the gospel of Matthew that is exactly what it sounds like- something of fear, doom and gloom.

Today’s gospel hints at the theme of uncertainty.  Where have you felt uncertainty and fear in life?

A friend of mine, we’ll call Mike, relayed this story to me.  It took place while he was a sophomore in high school.  Mike shared this story about facing and experiencing the grief and uncertainty of losing a classmate who committed suicide.

It was the morning after, and news had reached his biology class that one of their own had taken his own life.  How do you respond to that?  You certainly can’t ignore that or function as if things are normal.  If you do, you are denying yourself and your friends the importance of grieving.  Most of the class asked if they could gather in the back of the room as a group and hold hands.  This was a public school by the way, in one of the least churched states in the country.  Each classmate looked at each other, everyone with a little sadness in their face and not sure what to do.  Eventually someone asked Mike if he would share a few words and pray.  They knew that Mike went to church and that he had at least some faith.  It was an honest request, to which he agreed, though with great fear and trembling inwardly.  He told me he was thinking “oh Lord… what on earth can I say?  What do I say? What do I pray?”  In that moment, he must have muttered a small prayer inside his head, and then what happened next he is not all that sure about.  But in the midst of his uncertainty, his mouth started moving and words came out.  He’s not sure how the words were received, but it seemed that they provided a sense of hope and assurance, a sense of peace.  And he knows and openly says, they didn’t come from him.  In thinking of that story, this really stands out for me, as a moment of where the Advent reminder of “God is with us” was very much true.

Returning to the gospel, about the end of things, we do not know much at all.  Like Jesus, we don’t know when and that’s okay.  That doesn’t mean though that we are off the hook for not being mindful and aware.  Jesus includes the story about Noah in today’s gospel because it highlights the point.[12]  The people did not know what was coming or happening, they were not awake.  They were not aware, and they were caught off guard.  So, when it comes to it, there is a basic Advent claim here in today’s text that we should be awake. We should be aware, we should be mindful.   Sometimes we are.  Sometimes we’re not.

To finish up Mike’s story, after sharing those words and prayer in that biology class, his classmates and he went on about the rest of their day, but in that moment, God was there and was given voice.  It happens more than you think, and that’s something that also points to the kingdom of God breaking in in new ways, and being aware of those moments. Even in the darkest times, in responding to a young adult’s suicide and tragedy, where there is of course no sense in the suicide, you can’t ignore the pain and suffering. Instead, you recognize the presence of God there even in the midst of that- that God is with the grieving, and that we trust in God’s promises that God is there with the suffering too.

Returning to the gospel, it’s fitting that we hear texts like these during Advent.  Because this is a call to wake-up and be mindful, while we are inundated with the opposite.  This being the close of Thanksgiving weekend, some of us may have seen this first hand in the way stores have been opened for odd and never ending hours.  We may have seen the push that is well underway to make sure we have the best and next brightest television and new technological gadgets. The idea that we simply don’t have everything we need, and if we make some more purchases we’ll be happy.

I wonder if this is partly what Jesus has in mind when he says be mindful, be awake.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas.  I for one am a fan of singing Christmas music all year long.  But, there is a beautiful thing about Advent- a call to reflect, a call to wake up, and to be mindful.

The best way I know to get to this is to ask “Why do you do what you do?”  If I leave you with anything at all, I hope it’s with a willingness and openness to question.  Questioning is good.  Wrestling with that question is good.  It’s not always easy, but it makes the walk and journey of faith far more meaningful and richer.

(Labeled for commercial reuse with modification when given results for "Emmanuel" via an image search on Google.com)
(Labeled for commercial reuse with modification when given results for “Emmanuel” via an image search on Google.com, 12/2/13)

The gospel of Matthew ends in Chapter 28 with a call to action, to “Go make disciples and baptize and teach.”[13] It also ends with a promise that “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[14]  That is the promise of Emmanuel- that God is with us, and God is with us always. That’s what matters.  Not whether or not there is some function of a rapture, as some might interpret. Not about stressing about when the end will come, or what things we need to buy from the store for presents.  No.  What matters is to trust in God and doing that which God would have us do- showing God’s love, baptizing, teaching, and accompanying others where they are in life by meeting them where they are at, and genuinely being curious about what they are thinking and feeling.

The disciples and all people of every church “are to go to the nations and teach all people what obeying Jesus looks like:  forgiving others over and over; feeding and clothing and visiting; making peace and showing mercy; spending every moment awake and watchful for the return of the Son of Man.”[15]  This is daunting. But we are reminded that all of this work and ministry is done because of and with a God who makes and keeps promises.   These promises are that, “the seed of the good news is being planted and is bearing good fruit even in the most surprising of places.  And… that Jesus is still with us, with his church, with his gathered followers and his restored lost sheep, meeting us on the road and accompanying us as we go in the way of baptizing and teaching and worshiping and living as Jesus has taught us.”[16]

Why do we do what we do- because we are loved.  Because we are called, gathered, and sent.  And all we can do is to really show what it means to be loved and to love.  We do this because the joy of the gospel sends us out to share.  We do this, because “soon and very soon we are going to see the king” and my friends, that’s not something to keep quiet about.[17] That’s something to join the chorus of Hallelujahs about.   And in the meantime, stay busy doing the good work.  Stay mindful of all those around you, and share and live in that love which God has first shown us.  Amen.  Come Lord Jesus.

[1] Matthew 24:3, NRSV.

[2] Richard A. Jensen, Preaching Matthew’s Gospel:  A Narrative Approach, (Lima, OH:  CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 1998), 212.

[3] Luke 21:5-19, NRSV. This is the gospel lesson appointed for Lectionary 33, or the 26th Sunday after Pentecost in Year.

[4] Based on Matthew 24:36, NRSV.

[5] Matthew 24:40-41, NRSV.

[6] A good discussion on the rapture can be found in Barbara Rossing’s The Rapture Exposed:  The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, (New York, NY:  Basic Books, 2004).

[7] Mark E. Yurs, “Homiletical Perspective” for “Matthew 24:36-44” in “Homiletical Perspective” for “Matthew 24:36-44” in Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Feasting on the Word:  Year A, Volume 1- Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Tayler, eds., (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 23.

[8] This theme of “God is with you,” “Immanuel” is something we will hear most predominately in the 4th Sunday of Advent.  This is explained in good detail by Erma S. Wolf in, “The Gospel of Matthew” in Sundays and Seasons:  Year A 2014, (Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Fortress, 2013), 15.

[9] “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, Koln; French processional, 15th century, Public Domain; Text and arrangement: (Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Fortress, 2006), OneLicense, found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 257.

[10] Matthew 24:35, NRSV.

[11] Richard A. Jensen, Preaching Matthew’s Gospel, 211.

[12] Richard A. Jensen quoting Robert H. Smith, Matthew:  Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament, (Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Press, 1989), 290 on page 213.

[13] From Matthew 28:19-20, NRSV.

[14] Matthew 28:20, NRSV.

[15] Erma S. Wolf, “The Gospel of Matthew” in Sundays and Seasons: Year A 2014, (Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Fortress, 2013), 16.

[16] Erma S. Wolf, “The Gospel of Matthew” in Sundays and Seasons, 16.

[17] “Soon and Very Soon,” Andrae Crouch, (Bud John Songs, Inc./Crouch Music; administered by Brentwood, TN:  EMI Christian Music Publishing, 1976), CCLI Song #11249, found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 439.

5 thoughts on “Why Do You Do, What You Do? (A Sermon for Advent 1A)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s