Looking for Jesus? Then Stay Alert!
Looking for Jesus? Then Stay Alert!
November 27, 2016 Maple Grove UMC
Advent is the season of four Sundays leading up to Christmas and it’s all about looking for Jesus, making our way to Bethlehem to find a baby in a manger. But every year the lectionary—the assigned scriptures for every Sunday—throws us for a loop. Every year Advent begins not with that baby in a manger, but with grizzly old John the Baptist talking about taking care of the poor and the sick and with bewildering words about the Second Coming. On our way to Bethlehem we wind up looking for Jesus in some unlikely places.
Are you, perhaps, looking for Jesus? This Advent series is especially for two different sets of people looking for Jesus. In the first place, it’s for those who may be looking for Jesus, but don’t really expect to find him—because they think Jesus is too old-fashioned, too judgmental, maybe just too religious for them. If that sounds like you, then pay attention to these Advent Gospel readings—Jesus may turn out to be exactly what you’re looking for. But this series is also for those of us who think we know all too well where to find Jesus—in the safe, comfortable, private religion we grew up with. Well, no doubt Jesus is there, but the Gospels suggest that Jesus is in a lot of other, less comfortable, places too.
Are you looking for Jesus, my friends? Let’s turn to the Gospels and look together.
Advent begins with Jesus saying, "About that day and hour no one knows. . . Two people will be in the field and one will be taken and one will be left. . . And like a thief in the night, the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." All this talk of the Second Coming—even when it’s Jesus doing the talking—makes many Methodists—how can I put this?—uncomfortable. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga has admitted: "We live in between the first coming of Jesus Christ and his second coming, and most of us feel a lot better about the first one."1 Partly, he suggests, that’s because the first coming is about a baby, and we know about babies, and so we know how to "domesticate" Christmas. We have figured out how to manage Christmas so the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay doesn’t threaten anyone.
But the second coming, Plantinga says, is different—full of urgency, of endings and beginnings and everything changing. The second coming is something we clearly can’t manage or domesticate, we get to vote neither for it nor against it, there’s no way to know how many shopping days may be left until the Son of Man returns.
It is unsettling in a way. And some of the images Jesus uses are pretty jarring—Noah’s flood, a thief breaking in, two people together and one is taken and the other left. When I was a child, I was taught that this was about the so-called "Rapture," when believers would be beamed up to heaven and everyone else left behind. Most biblical scholars, however, think Jesus was referring to the Roman secret police sweeping through villages and disappearing people. In other words you want to be left, not taken.2 But either way, it’s not exactly a sleepy bedtime story.
But even though Jesus uses unsettling images, to shake us out of our complacency, it’s important to remember whose return the second coming is. It’s not a devastating flood that’s coming, not an actual thief, and certainly not the secret police. His coming may be unpredictable and uncontrollable like these things, but it’s Jesus who’s coming. The Jesus who gave his life for us. The Jesus who forgave those who hung him on the cross. The Jesus who said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." That’s who’s coming back. We may not know when to expect Jesus, but we do know what to expect from Jesus—mercy and love and forgiveness.
So if you’re looking for Jesus, this Gospel reading is not telling you to "Be afraid," but rather "Stay alert!" Unless, of course, you’re living in a way that would disappoint Jesus. And even then, the lesson isn’t so much "Be afraid" as simply, "Live a different way." I’ve told you before about my first grade teacher, Mrs. Rucker. A couple of times a day, Mrs. Rucker would go to the classroom door and announce, "I’m going to step out for a few minutes. When I get back, I want to see everyone sitting at their desk and doing their work." It wasn’t until years later I put it together that Mrs. Rucker smoked and was stepping out to light up. But as soon as Mrs. Rucker closed the classroom door behind her, all heck would break out. We would play basketball into the trashcan, and soccer in the coatroom and leap from desk to desk. And always, on a rotating basis, one student was assigned to watch the door. That student would open it a crack and peek out, and as soon they saw Mrs. Rucker coming down the hall, would shout, "Teacher’s coming!" and by the time Mrs. Rucker walked in, everyone would in fact be seated at their desks doing their work.
One day it was Lori’s turn to watch the door. But she didn’t get out of her seat. "Lori," we said, "hurry up and watch the door, so we don’t get in trouble. And she said, "You wouldn’t need anyone to watch the door and no one would get in trouble if you all just sat at your desks and did your work." It appears that Lori had been reading Matthew’s Gospel.
One of the things that strikes me is the ordinariness of being ready for Jesus. It’s not about doing grand and heroic things. It may be as simple as staying at your desk and doing your work. Leadership guru John Maxwell says, "What matters most is what you do day by day over the long haul. . . The secret of our success is found in our daily agenda."3 You don’t have to leave your job and go off into the desert to find Jesus. You can find Jesus in the midst of your daily routine, if only you will stay alert.
At the same time, we can become just a little too comfortable in our routines. In the Gospel reading today, Jesus finds fault with two sets of people for not being alert: the contemporaries of Noah and the owner of a house that’s about to be broken into. They are judged, Calvin Chinn has pointed out, not for some terrible sin, but for settling too comfortably into business as usual—eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, taking the house for granted.4 In that article I mentioned earlier, Cornelius Plantinga notes that the more comfortable and self-satisfied we become, the less we tend to look for the kingdom of God. "Thy kingdom come," we pray, but we kind of hope it won’t, at least not right away.5 If you’re looking for Jesus, you’ve got to stay alert! And one way to stay alert is to experience a little need and discomfort—if not your own, then someone’s.
You know how hard it is to stay alert, don’t you? You make it to your lunch appointment, spend the afternoon keeping the boss happy, get stuck in traffic and forget to get that gallon of milk so you’ve got to circle back to the grocery store. Then you get home and the kids are crying, or the dog has made a mess, there are five messages on your phone. Once you’ve dealt with all that, it’s dark already. The sink is full of dishes, The news is on—God, not news. Tonight is the night you were going to try to balance the checkbook. Instead you turn the TV on to something mindless, surf the web and drink a couple of those things that help you get to sleep.6 And if Jesus was anywhere in all that—and he probably was—he came and went without notice. Are you looking for Jesus? You’ve got to find a way to stay alert.
Someone once complained to the Buddhist master Achaan Chah that there wasn’t enough time for spiritual practice in his monastery because there were so many chores—sweeping, cleaning, greeting visitors, building, chanting, and so forth—and Achaan Chah asked back, "Is there time to be aware?" Everything we do in life is a chance to be alert.7
Today you may have an opportunity to forgive someone or to continue to judge and despise them. Today you may a chance to go to an AA meeting or not. Today you will have an opportunity to be kind, to stand up against injustice, to spend time with someone who’s lonely or mistreated, and just to sit quietly for a while and breathe deeply . . . or not do those things.
Are you looking for Jesus? Then stay alert!
1 Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., "In the Interim: Between the Advents," The Christian Century (December 6, 2000), 1276.
2 See, for example, Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004), 178.
3John C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), 23.
4 Calvin Chinn, "November 27: First Sunday of Advent," Living by the Word, The Christian Century (November 9, 2016), 20.
5 Plantinga, 127.
6 The scenario is inspired by Barbara Brown Taylor, "God’s Beloved Thief," Home By Another Way (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999),7.
7 In Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 291