The Job of Advent

Dear Friends,

Well, congratulations for surviving Black Friday. Unless you stayed home, of course. But, seriously, if you ventured out to shop with the masses on Friday, congratulations for surviving it. Not everyone did. At a department store in California, a shopper used pepper spray to keep others away from the smart TV she wanted to buy. At another, a customer was stabbed over a $2 item; and in the parking lot of a store, robbers attacked some midnight customers on the way back to their car with their purchases. It’s crazy, isn’t it? Here are just a few news headlines I saw over the weekend: “Black Friday is when Americans take the gloves off and fight for their right to shop,” “Black Friday sales resulting in chaos breaking out around the nation, with fights, stampedes and even gun scares,” “Long Lines and Fist Fights On Black Friday”

And yet, such incidents seem not to deter most, do they? Maybe you are one who enthusiastically embraces and participates in the longest and most full-contact annual shopping day of the year. I get it. You wake up early, you meet up with family and friends, you get a rush from the crowds, you probably got some pretty good deals. If you are a manager of a big box store like Target or Wal-Mart, you’re loving it; packed aisles, ringing registers, and stuff flying off the shelves faster than you can restock them. If you’re a local, small business shop owner, you might have felt the hit. Hopefully Small Business Saturday helped make up for some of that. Different people; different responses; different perceptions of the same event. Not everyone sees things through the same lens; that is simply a fact of our human personality.

The same is definitely true when we read scripture. Take, for example, the gospel lesson for the First Sunday in Advent (Matthew 24:36-44). Regarding the coming of the Son of Man, “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. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. Therefore, you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

For some, those words make the chaos and craziness of Black Friday seem pretty appealing. But like Black Friday itself, different people will interpret these words of Jesus’ differently. Those who heard those same words in the first century were likely  filled with hope, excitement and anticipation as they looked forward to a promise fulfilled. When Jesus died on the cross and the sky turned black at mid-afternoon, his disciples were devastated, but when he rose again, and then went into heaven, they remembered his promise: Jesus will come again. Every day they wondered if today would be the day. Each night they would go to sleep hoping that tomorrow Jesus would come. Why? Because they saw his coming – his return – as a good thing; a time when all of God’s promises for his children to be fulfilled, and all of God’s Kingdom on earth would be at peace. I look forward to this as well. I hope we all do!

Because for generations since and even still today, some look at these words of Jesus quite differently. To some, these words are packed with fear. “You better shape up, or else!” the contemporary prophets will tell us. “You better not be sinning when the Lord returns. You better pray that Jesus doesn’t return until you get your life in order.” Those words are filled with fear! Contemporary prophets like to play on the fear of people. In a time when we are concerned with so many things, the health of a spouse, or a parent or a child, the due date of our mortgage payment, the prospect of getting a job, and now, you have to worry about whether you are religious enough when Jesus returns? Whether you will be the one left standing alone in the field when all is said and done?

So yes, for many, this text sounds foreboding, and can make us anxious and afraid, but the reality is Jesus IS coming back someday – not as a powerless infant in a manger, but as the powerful judge of all creation. Like the landlord who leaves someone in charge of his property, but always returns to check on it and how it’s being tended and managed. Like the one who loans a sum of money will always comes back to claim her due. The Creator of heaven and earth will one day come back to redeem his creation. And those who play on our fear have had us believe that it is an angry God who is coming. 

One of the things I love about going to the state fair each year is reading all the t-shirts. I recall seeing a T-shirt on a young man at the state fair a few years ago; on the front it said, “Jesus is coming soon…” and on the back it said, “And He is ticked!” One Advent I remember a pastor friend of mine wearing a button that said, “It’s Advent! Look Busy!” If that is our theology regarding Advent and the second coming, then of course we will fear his return. But if we perceive God to be a loving and gracious Creator, then we are able to see His return as more like a reunion – like between a father and child, or husband and wife who have been separated for months or years, finally reunited again. Such a reunion would be a time of joy and celebration and something to eagerly anticipate and look forward to. 

So yes, the truth is, Jesus is coming back one day. That is the scriptural and spiritual truth we hear always throughout the season of Advent. In divine anticipation we are commanded to “stay awake,” “be prepared,” “watch,” and “wait”. These are the four simple truths or commandments of Advent. They are the ongoing themes and messages of Advent that are still applicable and always will be, until the day of Christ’s return. And yet, we have lost some of that divine anticipation haven’t we? How many of us go to bed each night waiting and watching, or sleeping with one eye opened – not in fear but with excitement, hoping and praying that the Lord returns tomorrow? For most of us, Jesus’ return isn’t necessarily on our minds 24/7, is it?

Let’s think about it a different way for a minute, using a modern day parallel to the warning Jesus offered. Many of us have had the experience of teaching our children how to drive. Carrie and I have had that experience with both Caleb and Annica and we are currently having it with Tobie. Although what’s different with Tobie is that he’s learning how to drive a stick! Which is what I first learned on. Both Caleb and Annica had no interest or patience in learning how to drive a stick. Either way, it’s a harrowing experience for both parent and child, for both student and teacher, but we all survive it. I would guess every parent has used some identical phrases in those first few miles on the road with their son or daughter: Keep your hands on the wheel; keep your eyes on the road ahead of you; use your mirrors; left, right, and rear-view; watch your speed; and of course, watch for deer! I saw a funny meme online the other day that said, “‘Watch for deer’ is the Minnesota version of ‘I love you’”.

Keep your hands on the wheel; keep your eyes on the road, use your mirrors, watch your speed, and watch for deer! All of that sounds real good in the church parking lot, or driving in a quiet neighborhood with mom or dad in the passenger seat. But what about when the teenager finally gets a license, picks up three of his or her friends and drives to downtown Minneapolis? Now the music is blaring, there’s lots of laughter and talking, cars are going fast on the left and the right, cell phones are ringing, pedestrians are walking and running, deer are darting across the road without warning, and oh yeah, they’re supposed to watch for deer, watch their speed, use their mirrors, and keep both hands on the wheel! It’s a recipe for disaster! It’s all too much, isn’t it? In the midst of all of that chaos and craziness, it’s hard to remember the four simple truths of driving that mom or dad or my driver’s ed instructor told me the first time I drove the car. This too, is part of learning how to drive, isn’t it? Learning how to drive defensively and attentively in the midst of inevitable distractions, all the while not forgetting those four simple truths of driving. And this is the job of Advent – helping us stay focused in the midst of the Black Friday’s of our lives and the worldly preparations that try to consume and distract us from the real reason for the season every year.

So in the coming days, regardless of how you hear, understand, or interpret the Advent scriptures, with all of the wonderful activity of the season, the smells and bells of Christmas all around us, the beautiful lights, and the arrival of snow, and the many tasks that must be done, Jesus simply says, “Stay focused on our gracious reunion – on my return. Don’t be so overwhelmed by the preparations of the world that you shut out the message of the King; that I while I may be the reason for the season, YOU are the reason I came, into the world in the first place.” Yes, God wants us to remember those four simple truths of Advent (wait, watch, prepare, stay awake), but wants us to dwell on the ONE simple theme of Advent; that the Savior came – and he’s coming again – in love. And I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait!
Advent and Christmas Blessings to you!
Pr. Dale