Taking the Craziness out of Christmas

A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Year A – 01 December 2013

Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector


Jesus said to the disciples, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 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. 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 24:36-44)

Waiting is NOT something we humans do very well.  For example, I don’t know too many people who actually enjoy waiting behind someone with an overly full shopping cart at the supermarket checkout, or who looks forward to sitting in traffic when they’re already running late.    

And it seems as if our culture today rewards our impatience.  Remember when we had to wait weeks to have a package delivered to our door?   But now for an extra charge, we can get overnight guaranteed.  And if there’s book we can’t wait to read, we simply download it to one of our reading devices instead of waiting for it to come in at the Library or buying it at a bookstore. 

And perhaps the biggest change in our culture of impatience is the way we  communicate with each other.   Snail mail is a dying delivery system.  These days we email, IM, use FaceTime, or FaceBook, or tweet or twitter to stay constantly in touch with each other. 

The one thing that has not changed over time is waiting for Christmas.  No matter how impatient we are, we can’t force Christmas to come one day sooner than on the 25th of December – although I wouldn’t be surprised if someone is trying to develop an App for that! 

 This time of year, retailers especially have a hard time waiting – waiting for us to spend our money.   So they remind us earlier and earlier each year that Christmas is coming and they lure us into their stores with irresistible bargains.

Retailers are also really good at planting “what if” scenarios in our minds, fueling our fears of failure: what if the only thing my child wants for Christmas is already sold out?  What if there’s a shortage of iPads or iPods or iPhones or iWhatevers.   Then what will I do?  Which turns  “it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas” into “it’s beginning to feel a lot like craziness!”           

The truth is, the retail industry doesn’t do that to us, we do that to ourselves.  We LET ourselves be manipulated into believing we will somehow fall short of providing a storybook Christmas for our families.  And who would want to be blamed for that?

So, what if we took the craziness out of Christmas and approached it differently this year?  What if we looked at the time leading up to Christmas, the time we call Advent, as a time of preparation and reflection? 

And I don’t mean preparation in terms of decorating the house, making eggnog or wrapping presents.  I’m thinking in terms of spiritual preparation for the light that will come into our world soon after the darkest day of the year.

What would that look and feel like?  It might look like setting aside 20 to 30 minutes each day and listening to music or maybe listening to nothing but silence.  It might look like going on a nature walk or writing in a journal.  It might look like contemplating a particular text from the Bible.  Spiritual preparation might look simply like praying – or whatever we can do to slow us down and help us be in the moment. 

In today’s reading from Matthew, Jesus told his disciples to be prepared – or in so many words.  He said “… you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:44).  What he was telling them was about his Second Coming.  So, here we are waiting for Jesus’ birth yet we’re hearing from Matthew that Jesus will come again.

With all the time we spend getting ready for Jesus’ First Coming, it’s easy to forget about the Second Coming.  Yet the idea of a Second Coming is nothing new.  Jesus lived and taught about it in his Kingdom of God parables as a time that’s not yet fully here but will be completed in the future.  We’re living in the in-between time.

He taught as if the Second Coming and completion of the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth were imminent events, which made his followers believe that those events would happen during their lifetimes.  But the truth is, we’re still waiting for it whether we realize it or not.          

We proclaim it as part of our faith each time we say in the Nicene Creed: “…He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end” (BCP, p. 359). 

 In Holy Eucharistic Rite I we say: “we (remember) his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension; and looking for his coming again with power and great glory” (BCP, p. 342).  In Rite II, we all say together: “We remember his death, We proclaim his resurrection, We await his coming in glory;” (BCP, p. 368). 

 But how many of really think about such a time as the Second Coming?  In every one of his teachings, Jesus was very clear that no one other than God knows when the Second Coming will be; but that hasn’t stopped impatient people from trying to predict the timing of it or what will happen when that time comes.  The Second Coming is also known as the Parousia or the Apocalypse or the Rapture, a term that was popularized in the Left Behind series of best-selling books. 

 The image in the first book of some people being randomly chosen to be taken up to heaven leaving others behind seems loosely based on the text we heard this morning about “two (being) 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.  Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:40-42).

Many people have believed and still believe that on that last day the world will be destroyed by asteroids.  But there have been other predictions that have come and gone over the years.  One of my favorites is the prediction that Harold Camping, founder of the California-based Family Radio ministry, made about what to do to prepare for that last day which he predicted would happen sometime in 2012.

He convinced his Christian followers that if the world was going to end soon, then they would no longer need their money.  And the best thing to do would be to send it all to him.  Unfortunately there were no refunds when the end didn’t come. (Found on the Internet)

In reality, it’s scary not knowing the timing of something.  It certainly makes me feel anxious and out of control.  It’s hard enough being prepared for something I know that’s coming such as Christmas, much less something I don’t know will occur; and Jesus is clearly asking us to be prepared for what we don’t know.         

But how is he asking us to prepare?  Suppose you lived along the area of the Gulf Coast that had been hit hard by several hurricanes.  How would you stay prepared for whenever the next one would strike?  Would you keep your house protected by sandbags and board up your windows, blocking the very view that caused you to build on the water in the first place?  Probably not, although it would be like Noah waiting for the Flood to come.

Suppose you’ve been exposed to a particularly virulent strain of the flu.  How would you prepare for the possibility of getting it?  Would you just stay in bed and wait to experience the first symptoms?  Probably not.           

I think that what Jesus meant about being prepared has more to do with being spiritually prepared than being prepared any other way – whether that’s for the First Coming or the Second Coming or for anything that’s uncertain in our lives. 

 And I also think that being spiritually prepared means slowing down and being intentional about doing whatever it is that helps us find a place of peace within us.  That can’t happen when we let our impatience distract us from enjoying the moment or when we allow others to stir up our fears and anxieties especially this time of year.  

So, we have a choice.  We can drive ourselves crazy listening to what retailers want us to hear or we can choose to replace that craziness with Christ and take time to find that peace that surpasses all understanding and makes waiting for and being prepared for anything bearable.  Starting this first day of Advent, which will we choose?