a sermon on Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44
preached on November 27, 2016, at Discovery Church, Clayton, NC
A few years ago, a college student named Andre Sanchez spent the better part of his Thanksgiving holiday waiting at the doors—not at the doors of his grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner but rather at Best Buy, where he arrived at 1:00 on Tuesday afternoon before Thanksgiving so he could save some $600 on a couple electronics items when the store opened early on Friday morning. Afterward, he told a reporter, “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 spent some time waiting at the doors.
This is a season of waiting at the doors. Even if we did not wait to get into a big-box store on Thursday or Friday, I suspect that all of us are filled with some sort of waiting and expectation these days. We are waiting at the doors for the inauguration of a new president to bring an end to a brutally long campaign and election season. Here at Discovery, you are waiting at the doors to welcome your new interim pastor as he begins his work in your midst. And we are waiting at the doors of Christmas during this Advent season as we prepare our homes and our hearts to welcome Jesus.
But what are we waiting for? What stands on the other side of the doors for us? Will the gates of heaven open to reveal a great Black Friday or Cyber Monday deal? Are we expecting a radical and dramatic change on January 21st after the inauguration? What are we asking and expecting of your new interim pastor Alan as he begins his work and service here? Most of all, are we ready for the dramatic and real change that comes among us when Jesus is born at Christmas?
Our two texts this morning give us a glimpse of what awaits us on the other side of the doors of Christmas—a time well beyond Jesus’ birth, looking to his second coming in power and glory to make all things new, to the radical and dramatic shift that is made possible because God has been at work in our world in and through Jesus Christ. Our texts today give us a glimpse of what we are waiting for, not with visions of angels and shepherds and wise men but with a look well beyond Christmas Eve to a 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 as we wait for all things to be made new but “in the days to come” here on the earth, too. The prophet assures us that one day, God’s life in the world will be more evident and real. People everywhere will be drawn to God and look for God’s presence, not just in their own ways as they feel led, for their own individual benefit, but together, as many peoples joining as one, to seek instruction in how to live for the well-being of all. 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 can live differently in light of this each and every day. Finally, if it weren’t already clear, the prophet invites everyone to join in this waiting and watching: “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” All of us can prepare for these things ahead with hopefulness, doing our best to make this new way that awaits us on the other side of these gates real here and now.
Then our reading from the gospel according to Matthew gives us another vision of the things that await us on the other side of the doors of these days. Here Jesus suggests that the things that we are waiting for will be quite a surprise—a sudden, dramatic change that isn’t at all understood or imaginable but that is coming nonetheless. Jesus goes on to make it clear that we won’t know anything about the days to come until they come. All we can do is stay awake and alert for the day when the Lord is coming and be ready for it to appear without any warning. 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 E. Urs, “Homiletical Perspective on Matthew 24:36-44,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, p. 23)
One way to think about this might be to adapt that wonderful old adage, “Jesus is coming—look busy!” While we need to be doing things to get ready for the days ahead, our busyness in these days needs to be real. We are called to be aware of what time it is, to turn away from the world’s pull upon us toward greed and consumption and to turn toward preparation and readiness. We are called to live like people who know what time it is, to deepen our practices of faith and to act to further the justice, peace, and reconciliation of our world along the way.
An old Advent hymn puts it well, I think, when it asks, “O Lord, how shall I meet you?” How shall we get ready for the bigger changes ahead? How do we make this Advent season about something more than decorating our homes, completing our shopping lists, and meeting the world’s expectations of everything that must be done in the countdown to December 24th? How do we respond to the real divisions and challenges that are becoming more and more visible in our communities in light of the election? How do we make Discovery Church ready for the things that God has in store in and through your new interim pastor’s ministry but even more in the days beyond? In all these things and in all things, how do we set our lives in order to truly welcome Jesus?
I don’t have any easy answers to these questions, but I do know this: As we wait at the doors of what God has in store for us as individuals, as the people of Discovery Church, and as citizens of the United States and our world, God calls us to remember that the things ahead will be dramatically and completely different. They cannot be described or contained in human words, for they hold a new, transformative way of life that begins by God’s own initiative.
As we wait together here at these doors, we can remember that this promised transformation has happened once before—not through one announced with trumpets, attired in regal robes, living in a gold-gilt palace, or even elected by the people, but rather through one announced by angels to lowly field workers on the night shift, one wrapped in swaddling clothes, laying in a manger. And so the things we do as we wait at these doors ought to reflect the life of the one who brings new life, a way of justice and peace described by Isaiah that comes when our swords are beat into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, a way of radical expectation described by Jesus that insists that we be prepared to welcome the fullness of new life in God’s kingdom at any time, a way of hopeful waiting that comes when we remember the incredible gift of transformation in Jesus Christ that stands behind all real transformation in this world and the next.
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 [lifted up] and the ravaged will be made whole.
So may God open our eyes to the possibilities before us as we wait at the doors of God’s kingdom in our individual lives and in our life together in this place, may God help us to trust that our waiting at the doors will bring us something more than just temporal pleasures and seasonal highs, and may God show us how to look for the real joy and hope and new life that come as we walk in the light of the Lord.
Lord, come quickly! Amen.