Advent is a time when we wait for the incarnation of God. We anticipate Christmas with all its joy and familiarity. We also anticipate the second coming of Christ. We are called to wait in quiet and prayer, and yet the season is often the most hectic of the entire year.
In the book of Isaiah 64:1 we hear the prophet cry, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down.” There is a certain human longing that God would come down here and fix this mess; mixed with fear that the world could indeed come to an end - perhaps by human error. In Advent we contemplate both the first coming of Christ and the second coming, in inverse order; all of this leaving us rather bewildered and confused. The Gospels assigned for Advent 1-3 are full of warnings. “The axe is ready at the root of the tree.” Portents and thieves coming in the middle of the night… Fearful things. Not very Christmassy.
In the first half of the 20th Century there was a lot of fear and speculation about the end of time, especially in the United States. This period also saw two world wars and economic collapse.
At the time, some people claimed to be able to predict when the end will come by reading signs of the times and trying to interpret the book of Revelation. There was a lot of this going on at the beginning of the 20th century. This is when the word “rapture” came into common parlance. Incidentally, the word “rapture” is found nowhere in all of scripture. There were the “Pre-millennial Dispensationalists” who thought the rapture would happen before the great trial, and the Postmillennial Dispensationalists, which is a rather complicated way of saying it would happen after the 1000 year trial. Some, namely the Christian Zionists, pointed to the restoration of the State of Israel as a sign of the end times. There are any number of rather complex theories of how it is all going to happen. It is noteworthy that so far, without exception, all predictions of when the end would come have been wrong!… Predicting the timetable must not be the essential message we are supposed to hear in Advent. Jesus says so himself. He is coming at an unexpected hour.
Another way to alleviate our fear is to make sure that we are among the saved. Assurance of personal salvation is what some churches offer, so that individually we can know that when the rapture comes, even if we cannot predict when that will be, we will for sure be among the taken and not among the left behind. So if we say the right words, then we will be saved. Presumably not saved from our sins, as Jesus most assuredly taught, but saved from being left behind. This emphasis on personal salvation through Jesus Christ creates another kind of anxiety and fear. We have to make sure that all our loved ones get saved before it is too late. And we might be so busy doing that, that we ignore the gnawing, troubling questions about a loving God who would let billions of people be “left behind” because they are presumably, at least in our view, not among the saved.
None of these interpretations of the Gospel seem to work ,or even make sense. Whether it is predicting when the end will come, or as-suring ourselves that we are among the saved. Why explain all this? Because these theories and teachings are still very much alive and well, especially in our American culture. Your children will be exposed to these ideas in mov-ies and books, and among playmates. You can be ready with a compelling alternative.
Jesus and John the Baptist are telling us to be ready, so how are we to do that? There is a clue in Matthew 25:31-46 where Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats. In this parable we have a separation happening. A reckoning. But it is not about sheep and goats. It is about us. The sheep in this story seem quite bewildered that they are separated to the right side of God when Jesus says to them:
“Come you that are blessed by my father, in-herit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Mat-thew 25:34-40
That is what Jesus said to the sheep. But the sheep in the story did not see this coming any more than the goats. The sheep say ‘But when? When did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked or a stranger, or sick, or in prison?” And as for the goats, It’s not as if the goats did anything wrong. They are as surprised as the sheep! It’s not that the goats did anything wrong: it’s just that the goats did nothing.
Whatever kindness you do for another you are doing for Jesus. The way to be ready, the way to stay awake, the way to alleviate our fear about our precarious existence is to recognize the face of Jesus in one another and particu-larly in the poor, the sick, the needy, and the stranger.
The way to prepare for the coming of Jesus, the way of Advent is to treat one another, love one another, as we would treat and love Jesus .
Therefore stay awake, keep your eyes open and be ready for Jesus is surely coming in a surprising way and at an unexpected hour.