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ADVENT: Wake Up to Hope   Matthew 24:36-44  Pastor Larry Boatright   (2nd Service)

{Manuscript–View video for complete content}   Hello, everyone.  My name is Larry Boatright, and I’m one of the pastors here. So glad to see you all!  Wow. That’s a festive passage of scripture, isn’t it! Sure puts me in the Christmas spirit.  I’ll concede that it’s a strange, ominous passage.  Who’s with me?  You might be wondering, “Uh, it’s December. We sang Christmas carols today. It’s Christmas time.  Why are we starting an Advent series with a passage that looks like the end of the world?” I’m so glad you’re wondering that too!

Now, maybe you grew up in a tradition that followed the church calendar.  I didn’t, but someone introduced me to it a number of years ago, and it had a massive impact on my formation.  The church calendar has been around for centuries, and the practice of following a specific text during a specific season has its roots deep in Old Testament history.  In fact, some scholars believe that Jesus, when He got up in the synagogue and read from the scroll of Isaiah, was reading the prescribed text of the day, which just so “happened” to be about Him!

It’s not just a logistical exercise, it’s a powerful tool for formation, because the church calendar immerses the church into the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  It slows us down from the chaos of life to actually journey with Jesus in an intimate way.  This passage is one of the four prescribed readings in what is called the Lectionary, which is sort of a Bible reading plan that follows the church calendar. What’s neat is that millions of Christians around the world are reading these exact same passages today!

The church calendar begins with Advent, which really is all about living in that space, not just looking towards Christmas.  It’s actually looking toward the return of Christ. The term literally means “arrival.”  It’s looking for the arrival.  We find ourselves sandwiched between that first arrival—the incarnation, which we’ll celebrate in a few weeks—but also the looking and the waiting for Jesus to come.  In fact,  Advent is the beginning of the Church year.  You didn’t know it was New Years, did you?  Turn to someone near you and say, “Happy New Year!”

After that, we move into Christmas, which, in just a few short weeks, we’ll honor and celebrate the incarnation of Jesus. Then we move from that into the season of Epiphany, which starts in January, and journeys through the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry on earth.  After that, churches historically follow Lent, which is a season of reflection, repentance, and groaning for the resurrection. And then Easter, which is that glorious celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, that event which causes us to have HOPE.  I was really excited about the Lectionary guiding our Advent journey this December. It’s my favorite time of year and I love getting back into that rhythm of observing the calendar.  I was really excited until I read the gospel passage I was supposed to be teaching on this week, and I thought, “Oh man, I don’t want to talk about THAT!”  Seriously, though, one of the things that I love about the Lectionary is that it forces us to engage even the difficult texts.  And I’d say this is one of those difficult texts.

So to get the gist of what’s going on here, let’s take a step back and get some context. Jesus had been teaching in and around Jerusalem, and He and His disciples were walking away from the temple, and His disciples asked Him what He thought of the temple buildings.  He started using this cryptic language, saying that everything they see (the temple and surrounding buildings) would be turned to rubble. And He didn’t really explain what He meant.  So it really bothered the disciples, and later, they come to Him and say this:  As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, they came to Him privately. The disciples said,  “We don’t understand your predictions. Tell us, when will these things happen: When will the temple be destroyed? What will be the sign that You are returning? How will we know that the end of the age is upon us?”

So they ask him a two-pronged question:  1. When will the temple be destroyed?  2. What will be the sign that you’re returning?  So verses 4-35 are Him basically talking about what the next era was going to be like.  Kind of like what the next season was going to be like; how to know the basic signs of the coming era.  But then he gets really specific in the verses we read today.  Because the disciples had basically asked, “When are you coming back, and how will we know exactly what day you’re coming back?”  Pretty easy stuff, right?

I have to be honest, this text is not an easy one.  Scholars have argued, for almost 2,000 years, what this text is all about.   Most of us read this and think it has something to do with the end of the world.  Throughout the years, the Church has wrestled with a number of different ways to interpret it.  Some think it’s metaphor.  Some think it’s talking about when Jesus returns to the earth.  Some interpret this to be talking about this thing called a rapture, where Jesus will snatch everyone who follows Him out of the earth, and everyone else has been left behind.  Sound familiar?

It’s a pretty popular theory, but the early church fathers didn’t believe that.  It didn’t come around until the 19th century.  It’s a pretty recent phenomenon.  Entire book series and movies and scary youth group films were generated from this way of looking at this text.  I remember watching a film when I was in youth group about “the Rapture” and when people were snatched out, their clothes were neatly folded.  I’m saying, their shoes were laid out, and their wallet and keys and jewelry were in there, and then their jeans were folded and their shirt was folded on top of that.  One guy was on a ladder and when his buddy turned to see what was going on, he saw the guy’s clothes neatly folded…ON THE LADDER!!

Culture has been fascinated with this approach.  Books have been written, t-shirts printed, and all that sort of stuff.  We shouldn’t really be surprised, because people have been fascinated by the “end of the world” since humans have been on the planet.  Even 2,000 years ago, people were fascinated with the end of time.  When Jesus said this stuff, his disciples were like, “Let’s go back to that. What’s it’s going to be like?”  People have all these different ideas what it looks like.  There’s a ton of speculation. For example, there was this guy in 44 A.D. who thought he was the messiah and would be ushering in the end of the world. And so he rallied 400 followers to go with him out into the desert.  Turns out, he was right. It was the end of the world for him, because the Roman Army showed up and wiped out him and his followers.  Or what about Harold Camping?  This is the guy who had a radio ministry and a few years ago was insistent that Jesus would come back on a certain date.  Spoiler Alert: Jesus didn’t come back on the day he predicted.  So he got back on the radio, and said he had “miscalculated” and was off by seven months, and to donate to his ministry.  Guess what?  Jesus didn’t come back seven months later.  I guess he should have bought a better calculator with the money people were donating.   And what’s crazy is people still follow some of these guys and their predictions!  Back in 2012, some researchers found that the Mayan calendar ran out in December.  Remember the uproar over this?  The calendar ended on a certain date in 2012, so people thought that must mean it’s the end of time.  Could it be that they just ran out of paper or stone or whatever it may have been?

But the thing is, people have gone to great lengths to find out when exactly Jesus was coming back so they can be ready.  They’ve made all kinds of flowcharts and spreadsheets and taught seminars and got ultra nerdy.  And so, back to the passage. We find ourselves here, nearly 2,000 years later, faced with the task of looking at a text like this and asking, “What in the world does this mean?”  “What in the world does it mean for us, today?”

But we can go back to what the disciples asked to find out what they had in mind when they were talking to Jesus.  The disciples said, “We don’t understand Your predictions. Tell us, when will these things happen: When will the temple be destroyed?  What will be the sign that You are returning? How will we know that the end of the age is upon us?  So the disciples were pretty unnerved by what Jesus said and saying, “We don’t understand everything you’ve said, and we want to know what’s going to happen someday, and we don’t know what it will look like or exactly when or…”  This is not too different than us, is it?  We like to have things figured out.  I like to know what’s next.   Have you ever sat with someone who is having a freak-out about something because they don’t know how to process it, and they don’t know what’s going to happen, and they worried about every possible doomsday scenario?  Do you ever want to just put your hand up and say, “Stop!” This is kind of what Jesus does here.  Jesus patiently listens to their question, and then uses a handful of word pictures to help them see something very important. He used a word picture like the days of Noah. People are going to be eating, drinking, carrying on.  Two women—They’re at a mill making corn meal or flour and one disappears. The two men are walking up a hill and one disappears.  We think of rapture as Jesus snatching us out, but a flood is bad.  Have you ever thought about that?  When you read about Noah and a flood came and took them away.  If we’re going to use that metaphor, it doesn’t make sense because the flood is bad.  The people that are taken away…it’s kind of confusing.

Jesus is basically trying to say that you’ll be doing ordinary, everyday, average things.  When you do those things, you should live with an awareness of Me.  You should be watching vigilantly for Me.  It sounds a little bit scary.  It’s a lot to try to figure out.  We try to figure it out and get so focused on HOW it’s going to happen. Like, what kind of cloud is Jesus going to be riding when he comes down?   Is this literal?  Will He be wearing a robe or a snuggie or what’s happening when Jesus comes back?  We dig into the Greek nuance of the words to try to predict something that will happen in the future. We want to know all there is to know about that thing that will happen in the future.

But I think the answer to this passage is pretty simple, really.  Jesus says something to His disciples that I think carries over to us today.  He basically says, “Don’t worry about when I’m coming back or exactly how I’ll do it.”  See, Jesus was aware of how we as humans like to have everything figured out and think through every little detail and obsess over the future.  So Jesus squashes all of that and cuts right through the mess and in verse 36 He tells us all that no one knows the day or the hour. After much study, prayer, and consulting with the very best commentaries, and after four years of seminary, and two master’s degrees in theology, we can deduce this from this passage:  Something WILL happen SOMEDAY.   I’ll say it again:  Something WILL happen SOMEDAY.  Aren’t you impressed?

But that’s not even what this text is all about.  Jesus is basically saying, “You’re missing the entire point. You’re so focused on this thing that you hope will happen someday that you’re missing being awake and ready to embrace the kingdom that’s bursting forth right now.”  Now THAT is extremely relevant to where we find ourselves at this point in history.  You see, for most of us, December is a crazy, busy month filled with parties, and shopping, and organizing things, and meetings, and on and on it goes.  And I don’t know about you, but sometimes I plow through this month and sing the songs and go to the parties and all of that, and think so much about what is to come that I miss the beauty of what is right in front of me.  Time with my kids.  Thinking about things other than me, me, me.  Or, as a pastor, I’m teaching a lot this month, and one of the things I’m afraid of is what if I get to the end of this month and I talked a lot ABOUT Jesus, but I didn’t really spend time WITH Jesus.

See, this has a lot more to do with how we live our lives right now, awaiting the Advent, than it does with what will happen someday.  Jesus wasn’t saying, “Nerds unite: let me give you some homework. Go research like crazy and tear my words apart.”  He’s saying, “Be a light in this season when darkness is trying push the light back. You are the light of the world.  BE the light as you go about your ordinary, average life.”  Jesus is saying it’s all too easy to be focused on stuff, and figuring things out, and worrying about someday, and that instead of being concerned about what’s going to happen 10 years from now or 50 years from now or 2,000 years from now, we should take the opportunity be watchful and awake right now.  Advent is about sitting in the tension of waiting for when He returns to make right all the things the enemy and the forces of darkness have made wrong.   It’s about going about our business with an increasing awareness of His presence in all aspects of our lives.  He wants us to wake up and experience life right now filled with hope, not filled with dread at what will happen at some undetermined point in the future. To work and to play, and to live and be married, and to eat and drink, and to sleep.  But to do it all with an awareness of Him, with a watchful eye toward the sacred— that really, everything is sacred.  And to move beyond that as we experience that unhurried pace of life this month.  As we experience the joy that comes from knowing that God’s got this.  As we experience the peace that can only come from Christ, that we can show an unbelieving, frenetic, anxious world what hope in Jesus and the peace of Christ look like.

It’s really interesting that this is where the church finds herself permanently planted in a season of waiting, in a season of  Advent.  Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian, wrote, “What other time of season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent.”  He called it “the time in between.”  Basically, we’re stuck in Advent; we’re waiting.  We’re still longing.  We’re still groaning for the return of Christ.  That’s what Advent’s about, it’s not just buying presents for people and looking forward to singing Christmas carols.  It’s the awareness of the presence of Christ now and the longing for incarnational presence of Christ when He comes again.

Fear is big money in the culture we live in.  People use it to sell things, that use it to rally you to their political persuasion on either side of the aisle.  They use it to force you to move into some things, and that’s what the rapture movies attempted to do.  They didn’t produce lasting fruit, because fear doesn’t do that.  When we follow Jesus, we have peace.  Jesus invites us to step into Advent and live counter-culturally, going about our business and embracing this season with peace, joy, and hope, and extending that hope to others who desperately need it.  For most of us, this season isn’t like that at all.

A poll by the American Psychological Association showed that up to 69 percent of people are stressed by the feeling of having a “lack of time,” 69 percent are stressed by perceiving a “lack of money,” and 51 percent are stressed out about the “pressure to give or get gifts.” This stress often leads to symptoms like headaches, sleep disturbances, fatigue, exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, short temper, upset stomach, low job satisfaction and morale, aching muscles (including lower back pain), loss of appetite, changes in behavior while at work, and a decline in productivity and work performance.  That’s what a lot of people said they experienced this time of year.  I don’t think that’s what Advent is supposed to be about.

I also, realistically, know that December can be a pretty tough time for a lot of people. There are some people who are experiencing their first Christmas without a loved one.  This might be a Christmas where you lost your job and you struggle to provide for your kids. I think for all of us, not just in December, but in life things are tough sometimes and we find ourselves groaning and longing for Jesus to come back and make what is broken whole again.  That’s what Advent is all about.  It’s about being awake to the fact that all that stuff’s happening.  There may be fear or there may be hardship, or maybe just having our heads in the clouds waiting for someday, holed up in a cave waiting for Jesus to return and withdrawn for life.  But Advent is about being awake to what God is up to right now as we longingly wait for Him to do what He said he would do.  So, the bottom line of this passage is this:  Something will happen someday….but Jesus wants to meet us right now, in this season.

As I mentioned earlier, there are four readings, and I want to look at two of those because they’re designed to work together. I want to look at Romans 13:11-14 to sort of expand our idea of what Advent looks like and what this passage means.    And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.  The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.  Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.   This month invites us to lots of desires of the flesh.  This month invites us to fall in line with everybody else and to do what everybody else does, but this passage tells us to put on clothes of Christ, clothe yourself with Jesus.  Jesus was unhurried. He wasn’t worried.  Imagine if December was like that for you.  Who would be excited about a month that was unhurried and not worried?  I think all of us.  That’s what the Scriptures invite us to do, to live as awake people, filled with hope and not despair.

It goes on to tell us some harsh things there on how to live in the light of Christ.  Not to give over to the things, culturally, that are trying to entice us, but to put on the clothing of Christ in a way that honors Jesus.  And groaning with anticipation of the future return of Jesus, but filled with joy and hope today.  See, we don’t have to live as people who have no hope, do we? The resurrection happened then and it’s happening now.  That cycle of life, death, burial, and resurrection is still happening.  Here’s the thing, we get to live as people who live under the kingship of the King of kings, who will have the last word.

Let me tell you what that last word is.  This is from Isaiah 2:1-5 — The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s temple shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.  Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.  He shall judge between the nations, and  arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.  O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

That’s a pretty beautiful picture of the end of the world.  We can trust that whenever it is, His plans are good and righteous and holy.  I look at the peace that this verse promises us, I get excited about and go, “Wait a second!”  If the King of kings is promising this and he’s got this under control, maybe I don’t have to live anxious today for what’s going to happen tomorrow, because He is the God of this world.  He owns this world.  He has all authority and power and all dominion over the forces of darkness.  Jesus, the light of Christ, is pushing back the darkness.  We don’t have to live in a month filled with darkness, because we live under the Sonship of the King of kings!     Paul writes in the Scripture from his letter to the Romans (13:12) — The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Listen, this month you have to make a conscious decision.  You can go on about your business and be a zombie and just go through the month of December and go, “Wow, that was crazy.”  You can do that.  If we don’t stop and make a conscious decision to stay awake, mindful of the presence of Christ in every situation we’re in, Macy’s and Wal-Mart and Amazon’s Cyber Monday and all those things will keep us mindlessly walking through the Christmas Season.

I don’t want to just say all that and say, “Have a good day.”  I want to give you a couple practical things you can do to be mindful and awake, filled with hope and joy in this season.   Here’s the first one:  Engage in a contemplative practice for this whole month.  A contemplative practice is the type of practice where you just slow down and you just really try to connect with the presence of Christ.  When Advent first began in the 4th century, it was seen as a time of fasting and repentance.  Similar to how many traditions celebrate “Lent.”  The idea had to do with reflecting on the first incarnation of Christ and second coming of Christ.  But slowing ourselves  down and cultivating a mindfulness about Jesus and what Jesus is up to in this moment, being watchful and waiting for him.  It might be hard today to imagine fasting in the month of December.   But it could be helpful to put some kind of practice in place that helps you not jump from Thanksgiving to Christmas too quickly.  I’m talking about practices you’ve heard us talking a lot about like prayer, meditating on Scripture, solitude—getting away and getting quiet.  Those sorts of things help us reframe our vision.  Those help us escape our prewritten patterns of busyness in this season.  They help us to stay present to the invisible.  Have you ever thought about the fact that when Mary was pregnant and Jesus was in the womb, He was present, but He was invisible.  The whole month of December, Jesus is in the womb….He’s coming but He’s not quite there, but He’s present and with us in the moment.   Those kind of practices help us to look beyond what we can physically see and reflect on God showing up in everyday circumstances.

Just to be clear, I’m not asking you to become a monk.  I’m just saying pick one thing you can practice the next four weeks.  Maybe it’s….I’m going to try journaling three times a week.  Maybe it’s sitting in silence for 15 minutes a day.  Maybe it’s reading Scripture in the middle of your day.  Maybe it’s reading the lectionary readings for each day of the week.  I’m going to ask you to just pause for a moment and ask yourself this question:  What is one practice you can embrace in this season to disrupt your typical pattern and walk more closely with Jesus?  That’s why we meet and have church, not just to hear me talk, but so you can practice living in the way of Jesus with the heart of Jesus.

The second thing you can do to help you stay awake is to practice gratitude.  Facebook can be a real pain sometimes, but the one day it gets a bit redemptive is on Thanksgiving.  It’s fun to flip through newsfeed and read statuses.  Giving thanks for the past and present sets us up to be hopeful for the future.  So, its really important that we remember our past and give thanks for it and learn to pause and give thanks as the day goes on.  This is why we gather and reflect on what God has done through prayer and worship.  Practicing gratitude can become a habit that can redeem each moment as it comes.  It allows us to escape from our pattern of self-concern and fear.  When we are tempted to start complaining about overcrowded airport terminals, or bossy family members, or kids that don’t appreciate the line you waited in on Black Friday, what if we practiced gratitude in those moments?  It can jerk us back to the reality that everything we have is a gift.  Our God delights in giving us experiences with nature and relationships and blessing us with small and big things, but, most importantly, with His presence.

So, I want to encourage you to set up a pattern for yourself to give thanks.  You might want to set a reminder on your phone to say every morning at this time and every night at this time practice gratitude.  Just take 30 seconds and get quiet and then thank God.  Maybe you write the word “thanks” on a napkin and tape it to your dashboard.  Start a habit with your kids before meals where you share one thing you were thankful for in the day.  Or maybe post on Facebook or instagram what you’re grateful for and ask others to share what they are grateful for as well.

And finally, another thing you can do to help wake up and live awake:  Think beyond yourself.  We expend an extraordinary amount of energy this time of year asking ‘me’ questions, don’t we?  What party will I go to?  Which family will I spend the holidays with?  What do I want for Christmas?  What should I give so-and-so… and will I spend the appropriate amount of money on it?  What should I eat?  What should I cook?  Identifying with others can help disrupt this hurried cycle, slow down, and wake us up to the reality of what others are experiencing in this season. Maybe you serve dinner at a homeless shelter.  Maybe you find a family who has just gone through a job loss and is struggling financially; maybe you adopt them for Christmas.  Maybe you volunteer at the Christmas Shoppe, or the Christmas Marketplace, or the posada that’s coming up.  Maybe you open up your home to those neighbors that just moved across the street from you.  Maybe you give someone your old laptop.  Maybe you listen to Uncle Joe’s story again and actually LISTEN to it.  Maybe you just sit with someone and be present with them.

Advent invites us to live in that tension between the resurrection, the ascension of Christ, and Jesus’s returning again.  It’s the time when he brings true Shalom.  It invites us to live with a conscious awareness of him in this season—no matter what our circumstances are. Three ways we can do that this month:  1.  Engage in a contemplative practice that reminds us of the presence of God.   2. Practice gratitude.  3. Be present with others as we think beyond ourselves.

As we move towards a close, I want you to know that the One who created all things is with you. If this is a hard season for you, I want you to know I’m really sorry.  It’s hard for a lot of people.  I want you to know that Jesus is not content to let you languish in your pain forever.  Jesus meets you. In Advent, He is waiting with us. He is groaning with us.  He is ever-present in our time of need.  He meets with us in the good and the bad and He will return again.

One of the tools our team has put together to help in this season is to put a formation guide inside the bulletin.  Every week it will have the four passages of the week, so you can chew on those.   It’s going to have helpful questions that you can journal through, you can ask in your small group, you can meet someone for coffee and talk about those things.  It has some practices you can engage in.  My prayer is that God would be with us in this season, however we find ourselves engaging in it.  As it’s busy, as it’s crazy, that we would somehow be unhurried and would remember that Advent is coming, but Jesus is with us right now.  Awake to His presence in ordinary, average moments; knowing that Jesus meets us in every season of our lives.

The band is going to share a real beautiful song that embodies the spirit and the heart of Advent.  I’m going to ask you to lean in and pay attention and then we’ll celebrate the Lord’s Table together.