Sermon for 1st Advent -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
Like many others, I used to think that the word “tsunami” was synonymous, the same as, the word “tidal wave.” Then came December 26, 2004, ten years ago this Christmas, when we learned that a tsunami is an undersea earthquake, an earthquake with one or more tidal waves following its eruption. On that date we learned more than we wanted to know about tsunamis as the second largest earthquake ever recorded, 9.31 on the Richter scale, spread tidal waves across the Indian Ocean. Within minutes more than 220,000 people across southeastern Asia were left dead in a rush of water that brought certain death.
Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel lesson to “keep alert” and “keep awake.”
If you are at least age 35 or older you can probably tell me where you were on January 28, 1986. Many of us were watching television that day, including most grade school children. That is because National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, had injected new life into the US space program, with which many in the American public had become bored, by putting a teacher in space. A young woman teacher named Christa McAuliffe from New Hampshire was one of seven US astronauts blasting off in the Challenger space shuttle that day. We watched and waited – the rocket shot high into the air. But, suddenly, both the rocket and many people’s dreams exploded. As the reality of what had just happened began to sink in, all most of us could do was weep.
And Jesus tells us that “no one knows” the “day or hour” for the end. “Keep alert” and “keep awake.”
For most of us, the end is much less dramatic than a tsunami killing hundreds of thousands or a space shuttle exploding before our eyes. Much less dramatic, but no less painful.
Like some of you, I watched my father die slowly from Alzheimer’s disease. I watched this highly educated man, a teacher, high school principal and school superintendent, slowly and then rapidly forget who he was, even forgetting his wife of more than 50 years. Like some of you, my Mother struggled far too long, trying to care of my father at home. He roamed the house all night, not sleeping much at all and turning up the heat to 90 degrees or more. Everyone became a stranger, a feared stranger. He could no longer dress himself. When he finally went to live in a safe, locked, nursing home Alzheimer’s unit, my Mother told me she slept for what seemed to be the first time in many years. We were luckier than many since my Dad kept his good
nature to the end, but, as too many of you know, that’s little compensation when a loved ones’ brain is turning to mush.
Many of you can share similar stories of both slow and rapid death of those you love - deaths for which you were prepared and those for which you had no time for preparation. And prepared or not, most of us know how difficult these times can be for us and for those we love.
We are within a month of Christmas and we would certainly like to be thinking about other things than the end of the world, more pleasant things than tsunamis, space shuttle disasters or difficult losses of those we love, but Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel from Mark, that the end of the world is coming. It may not be coming for the entire globe anytime soon – Jesus tells us that only God knows that timing – but it is coming for each of us at some time in the near or more distant future. Death for each of us, the end of our world here on earth, is coming for each of us. That’s a guarantee.
These are not very happy thoughts for the first Sunday in Advent.
Of course, most people have forgotten Advent or, more likely, never even knew of its existence. A time of quiet preparation and reflection seems out of place in the hurriedness of our Christmas preparations. A time to keep awake and be alert, discerning and expecting - to listen for God’s presence in our lives.
These are not the themes of our modern culture’s pre-Christmas with its emphasis on buying and selling and its impatience with waiting for anything. Think of the recent news stories on so-called “black Friday” and shopping and spending – shoppers fighting at the Kohl’s in Tustin, California or over televisions at a Walmart in Houston. Not much different than last year, sad to say.
But themes of Advent – waiting, preparation, reflection – still are, or at least can be, the themes for us Christians – “keep alert” and “keep awake.”
I was pleased to read recently in the USA Today newspaper, that so-called evangelical Christians have “discovered” Advent – sales of home Advent wreathes have increased as have the number of books written to help people pray and prepare for Christmas. Now, of course, we liturgical Christians, those of us from the Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Episcopal traditions, can be tempted to say “we knew this all along,” but, if we did, we’d really be lying since most of us do not keep much of an Advent. Most of us spend little or any time in quiet preparation for Jesus to come anew into our lives at Christmas.
Today’s Gospel lesson this first Advent Sunday, calls on us to be alert and awake, to be ready for Jesus to come anew into our lives on any and every day. It was certainly chosen as the Gospel for this First Sunday in Advent to remind us to prepare anew for Jesus to come into our lives this Christmas. For most of us, Jesus’ coming anew will not be the dramatic end of the world as those who died in the 2004 tsunami must have experienced, or even the less dramatic end of the lives of someone we love or even ourselves.
No, for most of us, this Advent can bring a time, if we let it, for reflection and personal preparation. A time to reexamine our own priorities and refocus them away from consumerism and towards love for others. In this in-between and certainly uncertain time, we can still stop and reflect, thanking God for the many blessings that do still exist in our lives and remembering that God is with us in all times. The promise of Jesus Christ, whose birth we prepare for in this Advent season, is still the promise of God’s love for all people in these uncertain times and in all times – for those who died in the tsunami and the Challenger disaster as well as our own loved ones, as well as you and me. The promise of Jesus Christ, whose birth we prepare for this Advent
season, is still the promise of God’s love for all people in this or any season.
God’s love is coming anew into our lives this Advent and Christmas as it can and does come anew into our lives every day. While the end times may be and are coming, they are filled not with disaster and judgment but with hope and salvation for us Christians. As Christians, we know who is coming and why, we know the real reason for this season and we know that our own end times, whenever they may come, are filled with the hope of eternal life with our Lord.
This Advent, let’s keep alert, let’s be discerning and expecting, let’s keep awake. Let’s pray, study, worship, and prepare. And, let us continually thank God for the gift of his son, Jesus Christ, whose birth brings with it the promise of eternal life with God.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Keep Alert and Be Awake
Sermon for 1st Advent
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
November 29-30, 2014
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica