Be Alert at All Times

Sermon Preached on Sunday, December 3, 2006
at Church of the Transfiguration
Propers - Advent 1, Year C

Department stores, radio and television stations, and the fresh-fallen snow are all reminders that Christmas is upon us. Caribou Coffee is once again serving Fa-la-lattes, Starbucks has pulled out its Cranberry Bliss Bars, and our downtown streets sparkle with lights and decorations on windows and trees.

I used to think Advent was just a handy way to countdown the days to Christmas. One year, my Sunday School class made paper chains out of red and green construction paper loops. Each link on the chain contained a Bible verse that we were supposed to open and read at the beginning of each day to help us prepare for Christmas. But I knew what those chains really were about. They were to prevent me from having to ask my parents over and over again, “how many days until Santa will be here!?” As an adult, I’ve become much more sophisticated [said with a great deal of irony] and have an Advent Calendar that hangs in my home – it’s not altogether accurate though because it only contains 25 days – that works alright for this year, but most years, Advent begins on the last Sunday in November. Even in our churches, Advent candles help us with our annual countdown to Christmas. How much longer do we have to wait? --- well, let’s see --- about 3 more weeks! The countdown to Christmas, listening to the quiet jazzy strains of Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas and to Jessica Simpson singing the latest version of Brenda Lee’s Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, these have become the “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars” that Christmas is drawing near.

And yet, if these are the signs that we look to in order to know “'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory” – in order to know that the day in which the LORD’s promise “to the house of Israel and the house of Judah” will be fulfilled – if these are the signs, how do we make sense of this morning’s Scripture? Part of the problem, perhaps, is that Advent, unlike Lent, doesn’t come with a prescribed set of practices. In Lent, most of us “give up” something – chocolate, caffeine, swearing, the list goes on and on. Others “take on” something new – perhaps a spiritual discipline like reading the daily office, writing in a journal or volunteering in a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. These are all common ways in which we “use” Lent to prepare for Easter. But what do we do in Advent to prepare for the coming of our LORD and Savior on Christmas Day?

In a message prepared for World AIDS Day, which was on December 1st, Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori reminded us that Advent “challenges us to carry our worship of God out of our churches and homes and into the world around us.”[i] Just as the world around us is trying to impart upon us its understanding of Christmas as a time of mass consumerism, a time of sleigh bells and parties, we are called by God to impart upon the world our understanding of Advent as a time of hopeful anticipation – a time of watching for and participating in God’s transformative work in the world. We are called to impart to the world our understanding of God’s promise of redemption that draws ever nearer in the birth of the Christ child. We are called to focus on the places of transformation in the world, “to stand up and raise our heads”, to “be on guard”, and to “be alert at all times”. We are called to focus on the places of transformation in the world so that we might see God’s transformation at work in the world, so that we might discern the ways in which we are called to help transform the world in ways that will serve as signs that God’s reign is at hand.

Two years ago, when my grandmother was dying, my grandfather asked me, “who will be with me when I am dying.” I answered him, “I will.” Ever since I spoke those words they have haunted me for how would I possibly be able to be with him. How would I know when to arrive? I couldn’t possibly know. And yet, I reassured myself that I said the right thing at the time – I gave him some comfort by letting him know that I would want to be with him when he was dying, that I would not want him to be alone. Last weekend, Andrea and I flew to Florida to spend some time with my grandfather who was very ill with advanced lymphoma. When Andrea and I arrived in Vero Beach, my grandfather was aware we were there. Sometimes he spoke to us in short sentences with long naps in between. At other times he spoke and it was difficult to know what he was saying – the words were gurgled or simply didn’t make sense to our ears.

We planned to return to Chicago on Monday morning. But, on Sunday morning, over breakfast, I began to feel guilty – I had promised my grandfather I would be with him when he was dying and now I was talking about flying home and leaving him alone – to die alone. As I went back and forth in my mind, considering my options, I asked God to help me find the right answer. But, I received no answer.

Breakfast ended and we returned to my Grandfather’s room. He was sitting in his favorite chair – an old blue recliner, his eyes were closed, and his breathing was labored. I spoke, “Grandpa, Andrea and I are here.” He opened his eyes and turned them toward me. I don’t know if he saw me or not. I held his hand. I told him that Grandma was waiting for him (more a reminder to myself than to him – for it was the one thing of which he was most confident). He closed his eyes again. A few minutes later, he died.

His death was both God’s answer to my predicament and a sign of God’s ultimate transformation of the world. As Lane reflected on that moment in which my grandfather passed from life to death, he commented to me that my grandfather was very lucky to have loved ones on both sides of that transition – Andrea, myself, and other members of my family who visited him over the past several weeks on this side of death and, my grandmother waiting for him with God.

As we prepare for the coming of Christ during Advent, my grandfather’s dying reminds me of the powerful transformations that occur in our world – the transformations we are invited to embrace because they are the true “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars. . . [that] ‘the Son of Man [is] coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”

As you prepare this Advent season, I invite you to look around, “to stand up and raise your heads”, to “be on guard”, to witness God’s transforming work in the world, to become a part of this transformational work as we carry our worship of God into the world. And through it all let us wait with hopeful anticipation for God’s promise of redemption which draws ever nearer. How much longer do we have to wait? “Be alert at all times”.

[i] The Anglican Communion News Service – News Digest, “Presiding Bishop Calls Episcopalians to Unite as ‘One’ Against HIV/AIDS,” November 28, 2006 accessed online on December 1, 2006.