Sermon: “I Hope We’ll All Be Ready” (November 27, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“I Hope We’ll All Be Ready” (Matthew 24:36-44)
November 27, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When I was growing up the other kids in the neighborhood and I spent many hours on summer nights playing the classic game of Hide and Seek.  As the person who was “it” counted out loud to fifty, everyone else would scramble to their hiding place.  And then the person who was “it” would stop counting, and yell out for all to hear, “Ready or not, here I come!”

During the season of Advent the recurring theme of the scripture readings is preparing for the coming of the Lord—both preparing to celebrate anew Jesus’ first coming at his incarnation, and also preparing for his Second Coming.  All of this is reflected in the collect for today as we prayed:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal (The Book of Common Prayer 211).

This collect was written by none other than Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), the leading figure of the English Reformation who compiled the first two versions of The Book of Common Prayer (1549 and 1552) for the Anglican Church, and who was burned at the stake on March 21, 1556 as one of the Oxford Martyrs.  In their book, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer Paul Zahl and C. Frederick Barbee observe the following about this collect:

The Collect for the First Sunday in Advent achieves an astonishing feat.  It ties together not only the first coming and the final coming of God—the two advents of Jesus Christ—but it binds together our human present with the future, which is even now rushing towards us…our present life is the incubator for our future and enduring life.  And every moment of this life is accompanied by Him who visited the planet in great humility (3).

This collect is rooted in today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans in which the apostle exhorts:

You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.  Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light (Romans 13:11-12).

What “works of darkness” do you need to lay aside?  What immediately comes to mind when I ask you that?  Those “works of darkness” need to be addressed, and the best thing you can do is repent, and as it says in The Book of Common Prayer, ask God to “grant you absolution and remission of all your sins, true repentance, amendment of life, and the grace and consolation of his Holy Spirit” (42).

But on this first day of the new church year, and in light of scripture’s warnings about the Second Coming occurring when we least expect it, ready or not, I want to focus on something else: reaching out to others.  At the recent convention for the Diocese of Georgia in Augusta that was the theme of the convention, reaching out to others in three simple ways: inviting, welcoming, and connecting—inviting others to come to church with you, welcoming them to church, and connecting them with others at church.

I think Christ Church does very well with welcoming and connecting—I can attest to that personally for myself and my family—but I suspect we could probably do a better job at inviting.  Yes, we are far from a perfect church, yes, we have lots of areas in which we are working to improve, and yes, the rector is a bit neurotic and probably uses too many song references in his sermons—but the Holy Spirit is moving here, the grace of God is being preached and administered in the sacraments each and every week, and the members of Christ Church is one of the kindest and most generous communities I have ever known.

And we need to be sharing all this with others.  Yes, newcomers will probably not have the liturgy memorized or know exactly when to kneel or sit or stand, and there is a risk that they may even sit in “your” pew—but nonetheless, one of the best ways to “put on the armor of light” is to reach out to others—inviting others, welcoming others, connecting with others.

When I was growing up my family did not start attending church until I was ten years old.  I spent Sunday mornings playing outside or hanging out in my room.  And do you know why we started attending church?  Because a friend of my dad’s named Ken, with whom he worked, invited him.  I have often wondered what would have happened in my life if Ken had not done that.  What would have been the trajectory of my life?  Not a pleasant thought.  But thankfully Ken reached out to my dad by inviting him to church, and because of that simple act of reaching out the trajectory of my life was eternally changed for the better.

A couple weeks ago Steph and I went with some friends to see Hacksaw Ridge, the powerful film that portrays the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who served as a medic in the Pacific Theater during World War II and who ended up saving seventy-five fellow soldiers who were wounded and facing certain death.  Early in the film Doss, whose childhood had been overshadowed by awful domestic violence, decided that “With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together…While everyone else is taking life, I’m gonna be saving it.  That is gonna be my way to serve.”

During his heroic rescue of the seventy-five soldiers Desmond prayed again and again, “Please Lord, help me get one more.  Help me get one more.”  Imagine a church full of people like Desmond Doss, a church full of people like my dad’s friend Ken, full of people reaching out to others.

In the gospel lesson for today Jesus said this about his Second Coming:

About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father…Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.  But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.  Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour (Matthew 24:36, 42-44).

In addition to Jesus emphasizing that his Second Coming will occur “at an unexpected hour”—ready or not—as if that were not challenging enough, he gets even more specific:

For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.  For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.  Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left (Matthew 24:37-41).

And now for a song reference…As a high school student I spent most of the money I earned from delivering newspapers and mowing lawns to buy cassettes (yes, cassettes, this was in the 80’s), especially Christian rock cassettes.  One of the pioneers of Christian rock was the late Larry Norman, whose brilliant 1972 album, Only Visiting this Planet, includes a beautiful but sobering song called, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” which specifically refers to today’s gospel passage:

A man and wife asleep in bed
She hears a noise and turns her head, he’s gone
I wish we’d all been ready
Two men walking up a hill
One disappears and one’s left standing still
I wish we’d all been ready
There’s no time to change your mind
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind…

There’s no time to change your mind
How could you have been so blind?
The father spoke, the demons dined
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind

Lest you be tempted to dismiss this is as a “Jesus People” evangelical guilt trip from the 70’s, remember it is based solely on Jesus’ words from today’s gospel lesson.  The truth is there are probably wounded people in your life who need you to be a Desmond Doss for them, who need you to pray, “Please, Lord, help me get one more.”  There are probably people in your life who need you to be a Ken for them, who need you simply to invite them to church.  What a wonderful way to “put on the armor of light.”

A few weeks after speaking the words in today’s gospel lesson Jesus, who had entered in humility this “world so set on tearing itself apart” was himself left behind—left behind by none other than his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane when he was betrayed and arrested—for when that happened, as Matthew put it, “all the disciples deserted him and fled.”

And what happened the next day?  Jesus, the “light of the world” (John 8:12) took all the works of darkness in the world, including the works of darkness in your life and mine, upon himself, in order to save us from our sins.  Scripture tells us “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

And the Risen Jesus, still bearing the scars of his victory over the works of darkness, will return at an unexpected hour, ready or not, as Charles Wesley describes in his classic Advent hymn:

Lo! He comes with clouds descending
Once for our salvation slain
Thousand thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of his train
Alleluia!  Alleluia!  Alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign…

Those dear tokens of his passion
Still his dazzling body bears
Cause of endless exultation
To his ransomed worshippers
With what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars
(Hymn 57 in The Hymnal 1982)

On that day Jesus Christ, the One who has accompanied you every moment of your life, will indeed “come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead.”

I hope we’ll all be ready.

Amen.