December 1, 2019

Advent 1A  

Beware and Be Ready 

GOSPEL

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

SERMON

History has known a parade of charlatans, and so it will be until the last day.   They arrive on the scene making promises that cannot and will never be fulfilled. The promises speak to the desire of the gullible for a Messiah who will fix all their problems, cure all their ills, both real and imagined, and multiply their wealth beyond belief.  Let’s face it, there are relatively few who do not harbor that desire for the man from Publisher’s Clearing House to show up at the door with guaranteed income for the rest of their lives.  

In this morning’s gospel Jesus warns us once again of the fact and problem of false prophets.  He in effect says, “If anyone tries to flag you down, calling out,  ‘Here is the Messiah!’ or points, ‘There he is!’ Don’t fall for it.  All sorts of fakes and liars are going to pop up everywhere. Their dazzling performances will pull the wool over the eyes of even those who ought to know better.”  Jesus concludes by saying, “I have given you fair warning, listen up, don’t let yourselves be duped and led astray.”

As P.T. Barnum observed, there is a sucker born every minute, and so there is generally little need to fear that the charlatan will not garner an audience, even a sizeable audience and command a following even a huge following.  

And the size of the crowd is itself reinforcing for other naive individuals who misread the size of the crowd as some kind of testimony to the credibility of the charlatan.  But, Jesus advises, “Don’t give any liar and the chorus that surrounds him the time of day.  And when you see the crowds gathering, think of carrion vultures circling, moving in, and hovering over a rotting carcass.”  

Charlatans are generally flanked by a gaggle of sycophants, – you know those weak persons who, at the price of whatever shred might be left of their integrity, if they had any integrity to begin with, always find a way to partner with and advance the fraud. 

We remember that even some of history’s most notorious fiends had their inner circle.  They surrounded themselves with toadies, fawners, minions, doormats and trained seals. Even highly educated people who should have known better but for reasons of personal gain or ambition allowed them selves to be co-opted into an unholy alliance of destruction and death.

One of the marks of a Christian is that he or she will always strive to use the image of Christ as that unfailing trustworthy icon and that standard of truth and right action.  When it comes to this business of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves, Jesus certainly ups the ante and really does not leave a great deal of room for ambiguity as to what this loving might involve in any given situation.  Jesus leaves little wiggle room with regard to the responsibility of disciples to be respectful of, open to and caring of the good of the other.  

Remember how He said, “If you would be great, you must become the servant of all.”  The vacuousness of charlatans is easy to discern when held up to the light of Christ.  Jesus is the Man for Others.  The charlatan, the Man for Himself, has no conflict of interests because he is only ever interested in himself and in his own personal gain. We remember that in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” 

We cannot allow the latest iteration in the parade of charlatans, to steal the hope that belongs to those who wait for the arrival of the Son of Man – the return of Christ and the coming of the Kingdom of justice, peace and love in its full splendor. 

This hope, that believers hold dear, is one of the most precious gifts of the Spirit.  In the face of even the most dreadful of scenarios, it allows us always to look to the future with expectant joy in our hearts.  I suppose it can be likened to the expectant joy of pregnancy. Hope allows us to see whatever might be the present travail as but the birth pangs of the Kingdom yet to be born in its fullness. 

That birth date has not been revealed.  Jesus has said, “Its day and its hour are only known by the Father.”  But when it comes there will be no ambiguity about it. Jesus assures us that, “No one will miss it.”   

When I was a young boy, it was not at all unusual for people to show up at the door unexpectedly and unannounced.  You always kept something in the house to be able to show hospitality to the unexpected guest. The greatest failure was to be unprepared to offer some measure of refreshment and sustenance to such a visitor.  These days, people do less dropping by without advance notice.

God however keeps to the old way at least in this regard.  His coming is generally unannounced and without prior notice.  He usually shows up when we least expect Him. 

Our God is most certainly a God of surprises.  As we begin the Advent season we are compelled once again to acknowledge this facet of the divine mystery.  All of the stories that form the infancy narratives contained in Luke and Matthew’s gospels and that we will hear again during the next four weeks, share the theme of surprise. Zachary and Elizabeth were surprised, Mary and Joseph were surprised, the Shepherds were surprised and the wise men were surprised.  The first Advent of the Redeemer was in so many poignant moments a pageant of surprises.    

Today we are made mindful that the Second Advent of the Redeemer, His return in glory at the end of the ages, will also come as a surprise.  Jesus notes that “The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour,” and even the apocalyptic signs in the heavens and on earth will not be definitive but merely precursory.   

Yes we will know that the end is near when “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” And when, “We will hear of wars and rumors of wars.” But we will also see to it that we are not alarmed, for Jesus told us that “while such things must happen, the end will still be at a distance.”

It seems more likely from the wider biblical witness, the witness other than the presaged apocalyptic signs, and the witness of the last two thousands plus years, that Second Coming of the Lord will unfold oh so slowly, like the greening that precedes the rebirthing of spring.   

We recognize that we live our lives during this this very birthing process, between the already and the not yet, and our task as we wait is very clear. 

We are to live our lives as faithful stewards, in prayerful anticipation and in joyful hope of what has been and always will be the Lord’s immanent return.  

To live our lives in that state of preparedness that allows us to enter fully into the words of that beautiful black spiritual, “All is well with my Soul.”  Its author penned the lyrics as the Titanic sunk into the deep, with his wife and children still on board. 

To live each of our days as if today were going to be the last day.   And to live this last day with the joy of an expectant mother who is about to hold and cradle new life in her arms and clutch that life to her full and waiting breasts.   

And finally to live each day open to the God who is always coming into our lives in unexpected and surprising ways as we wait in this time between the already and the not yet.

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna

December 1, 2019