Church Interrupted! A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Augustana Lutheran Church
27 November 2016 + First Sunday of Advent
Matthew 24.36-44; Romans 13.11-14

The end is near.
The rapture is coming.

Don’t worry. I haven’t gone rogue or joined an end-of-the-world ultra-fundamentalist cult. But you have to admit there is a certain fascination many people have with some version or another of what they think “the second coming” will look like. And they’ve dreamed up some pretty bizarre scenarios.

In 1806, for example, a domesticated hen in Leeds, England, began laying eggs on which was written “Christ is coming”… until it was discovered that the hen’s owner had been inscribing the eggs and, um, reinserting them into the bird.

More recently, American radio evangelist Harold Camping calculated that the end would come on May 21, 2011, and when that date came and went, revised it to October 21. Oh, and all this after four previous miscalculated dates seventeen years earlier. If at first you don’t succeed…

Of course, none of these predictions has ever come true, but at least for me, there is still a certain fear there. What if they’re right this time?

The thing about fear is…

Oh, I just hate that noise! If my phone alarm spoke New Testament, it might sound something like, “It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”

Now what was I saying? Oh yeah, the thing about fear is that it almost always comes as an interruption.

My phone alarm is an interruption every morning — albeit an interruption that I can control with a tap of the snooze button, exactly two times, for exactly nine minutes each, for just a touch of extra sleep before waking up for good shortly after the coffee maker’s own timer has gone off and brewed just enough coffee for my first cup. (Don’t think I don’t have this timed out perfectly.)

Unlike my alarm, however, fear is an interruption that can rarely, if ever, be controlled. It’s what makes end-times predictions so scary for many, a fascination that Hollywood has capitalized on with apocalyptic blockbusters.

Our gospel text for this First Sunday of Advent could nearly be one of them. An earth-destroying flood that sweeps everyone away. A sudden rapture. A violent home invasion. And did Jesus say something about an unknown day and hour?!

Not exactly “Joy to the World”… If this isn’t a text that conjures up fear for its listeners, I don’t know what is.

But another thing about fear is that it is also a wake-up call.

Two years ago this past Thursday, I was standing outside of Chicago Police headquarters with at least a couple hundred others. Together, we were waiting to hear the grand jury announcement that would decide whether or not Officer Darren Wilson would be indicted in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier that summer.

As soon as the announcement was made, the crowd began marching, peacefully but defiantly, from the south side precinct all the way to Chicago’s Loop downtown.

It was a call to action, spurred by a fear about what it means to be a person of color in this country that the supermajority of us in this room will never experience.

Ferguson inarguably become a watershed moment in the modern civil rights movement. Unfortunately, moments like it have only become more the norm than the exception, as hate crimes against marginalized and oppressed communities seem to have surged in recent years.

Ferguson was a wake-up call, but every hate crime against a person of color, or someone who is transgender, or a queer person, or someone who happens to be Muslim, needs to be a wake-up call.

In the midst of a national election that has left many in those communities feeling shocked, angry, and scared, we the church have the opportunity, not to cower under the grip of crippling fear, but to face that fear and do those things that the church has always done when it’s at its best.

In a gospel text of frightful images, Jesus calls his disciples to an attitude of wakefulness and watchfulness, but these things are not idle behaviors.

In Advent, yes, we wait and we watch for the coming of the Messiah — and we know that’s going to happen, and indeed has already happened. But we are also urged to be about the work of the reign of God that that Messiah has ushered in. What would it look like if we upped our game in living out what it says on the back of our Augustana t-shirts: “grace, justice, and faith in action”?

Paul reminds us what that means in Romans. “Besides this…” our reading begins. This: “Love one another,” he writes just verses earlier. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

And: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public,” writes Cornel West.

We don’t have to do it all — no one expects that of us, least of all God. Indeed we cannot do it all. But there is a certain ethic at stake in these apocalyptic texts that urges us to action.

The point is not to be preoccupied with the future — not rushing to Christmas during Advent, not making bizarre claims about the second coming so we know when exactly we need to be on our best behavior when Jesus shows up. The point is to be concerned with the present moment. There are real fears in the world, held by real people, that demand real action.

Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death… words we will sing shortly in our hymn of the day.

Life can and life does and life did and life will always spring from death. Wait for it, watch for it, and work for it.

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