a sermon on Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on November 28, 2010
Andre Sanchez spent the better part of his Thanksgiving holiday waiting at the doors. He arrived at the Best Buy in Union Square at 1:00 Tuesday afternoon so he could save some $600 on a couple electronics items when the store opened early on Friday morning. He told the Post, “When I finally got in, it felt like the gates of heaven opened up.”
He was surely not alone – based on the sheer volume of advertisements via paper, email, and television these days, a great majority of Americans spent at least some part of the last few days shopping, and more than a few of them surely spent some time waiting at the doors. This Black Friday “holiday” has become so notorious that one of the staff in our denomination’s Office of Theology and Worship even wrote a Christmas carol about it!
Early on a Friday morn, anxious drivers blow their horns.
Swiftly to the mall they race, praying for a parking place.
Humming carols of the season, spending with no rhyme or reason.
Checking, savings overdrawn, all before the light of dawn.
Save a dollar! Save a dime! Happy, happy shopping-time!
Bargain hunters stalk their prey all across the U.S.A.
Checkout lines around the block, just like back at Plymouth Rock.
Stuffed with turkey, pie, and gravy, they maneuver like a navy,
stacking high their shopping carts, maxing out their credit cards.
Save a fortune! Save yourselves! Stuff is flying off the shelves.
Prophets have foretold the day all of this will pass away:
parking places gone to seed, escalators clogged with weeds;
Nordstroms, Saks, and Nieman Marcus empty as a turkey carcass;
heaven’s children at the feast where the greatest serve the least.
Savior, save a place for me, where the best of gifts are free.
As Advent begins today, it is tempting, I think, to see these days as a time of waiting at the doors of Christmas Eve, longing for gifts galore, living into the strange reality of consumerism that permeates these days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, looking for heaven as a big-box store opening up with great deals, and celebrating Christmas without getting ready for it – or by getting ready for it! But our children’s bulletin for today suggests that there is more to Advent than all this:
People get ready during Advent by decorating, baking, shopping, wrapping presents, and visiting friends and family. Use Advent to get ready on the inside, too.
– Kids Celebrate, Advent 1A
So how do we get ready on the inside? What can we expect as we wait at the doors of Christmas? And what will we find once we get on the other side? Will the gates of heaven bring us to some great megastore in the sky? Or is there more to this time that that?
Our texts today start to answer that question – not with visions of angels and shepherds and wise men but with a look far forward, well beyond Christmas Eve, into the world that comes into being because of what God is doing in these days. Isaiah starts us out with a hopeful vision of peace and justice that shows us how things will look one day – not just on the other side of the gates of heaven but “in the days to come” here on the earth, too, as we wait at the doors for something new.
In these days to come, God’s life in the world will be more evident and real, for people everywhere will be drawn to God and look for God’s presence, not just in their own way as they feel led but together, as many peoples coming joining as one, to seek instruction in how to live.
But these days to come are not just a time to sit around and enjoy something new – in this time, the word of the Lord will go forth to bring justice and peace to all the world, to “beat… swords into plowshares, and… spears into pruning hooks” so that the whole world will know the fullness of God’s presence and what this means for people each and every day.
Finally, if it weren’t already clear, the prophet invites everyone to join in: “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
If the light of the Lord weren’t clear enough from Isaiah’s words, Jesus offers us another vision of the gates of heaven in our reading from the gospel according to Matthew. Unlike the deals advertised on Thanksgiving Day for Black Friday, Jesus suggests that the things to come as we wait at the doors will be quite a surprise, a sudden, dramatic change that isn’t at all understood or pictured but is coming nonetheless.
Jesus even makes it clear that we won’t know anything about this time to come until it comes, and this “rapture,” as some Christians describe it, demands only that we be ready for it whenever it might come, staying awake and alert for the day when the Lord is coming. One commentator sums it up well:
We are not expected to know everything, but we are expected to do something. The Jesus of the verses before us calls persons to a life of work in a spirit of wakefulness.
– Mark Urs, Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1
This is not just a version of that wonderful old adage, “Jesus is coming – look busy!” – this is a real attentiveness to the time before us, a real turn away from the world’s pull upon us toward greed and consumption, a real turn toward preparation and making things ready, constantly asking that wonderful question posed by our opening hymn this morning: “O Lord, how shall I meet you?” Jesus insists that we be ready for something more to come at any time.
There is something real about waiting at the doors these days. Even if we dismiss the insane excesses of the holiday shoppers around us, even if we are ready to put off the Christmas carols until December 24, even if we have a pretty good answer to how we shall meet our coming Lord, we still wait at the door for something more. We know there is something missing in the life we have. We start by trying to fill it with all the “stuff” of these days only to find that we have just dumped an incredible amount of time, energy, and money into a black hole that cannot be filled with these things.
And so as this Advent begins and we wait at the door of Christmas once again, we also wait at the door of something more. We wait at the door of a world transformed by God’s power and presence. We wait at the door of a dramatic and complete change that can’t be expected or described or contained in human words. And we wait at the door of a new way of life that can only begin by God’s own initiative but that happened once in an entirely unexpected way, not in regal robes in the palace, announced with trumpets to nobility but wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger, announced by angels to the lowly field workers on the night shift.
The little glimpse of things ahead that we get from our texts today is probably not enough to satisfy our longings and fill our spirits, but the door is nonetheless open. We can peer inside and get a glimpse of the glory yet to come in these and other words. We can wait with patience and hope for a new way to come into being. And we can take this invitation seriously to come and walk in the light of the Lord, for when we take even a little step toward this new way, we join in what God is doing in this Advent season and throughout all time to make things new.
And so, this Advent, as we wait at the doors of something new, how will we respond to God’s invitation? How will we meet our Lord? How will we walk in the light of the Lord? Will we wait at the doors with the world, focusing on the busyness of these days, the shopping that must be done by December 24, the errands and cooking that have to be finished, and the gooey sentimentality that marks so much of this season? Or will we wait at the doors of a heaven far greater than any big-box store, stepping back to prepare our minds and hearts and lives for the coming of an incredible and long-expected child, taking a new and fresh look at a well-worn season in hopes of finding something new in these days? As my friend Carol Howard Merritt put it:
We will never know the reign of God that is in and among us until we wake up and become attuned to those promises of peace and justice, until we can become alert to those things that are going on around us that remind us of God’s presence, until we walk away from the cynicism and despair that can sedate us and become busy, working for a world where the downtrodden will be buoyed and the ravaged will be made whole.
So may God open our eyes to the possibilities before us in our individual lives and our life together in this place, give us trust that these days can bring us something more than just temporal pleasures and seasonal highs, and show us how to look for the real joy and hope and renewal that can come only from walking in the light of the Lord. May these Advent days be filled with hope and expectation not just of a happy, idealized Christmas morning but of a world exploding with the glory and promise of a God who comes into our midst to make all things new.
Lord, come quickly! Amen.