A story by way of an introduction for this sermon. There was a man named John. One day, a friend of his gave John a parrot. At first, John was delighted. The parrot had bright colored feathers, and John enjoyed watching the bird as it strutted about its cage, looking this way and that. Pretty soon, however, John began to have misgivings about the gift parrot. It turned out that the parrot could indeed speak; unfortunately, whoever had taught it to speak had not been satisfied with cute phrases like “Polly want a cracker.” Instead, the parrot’s instructor had taught it all sorts of foul curse words and nasty insults. Soon it seemed to John that from sun-up to sundown, all he heard was the parrot swearing and cursing at him, insulting him with the most graphic and inappropriate language. John was too embarrassed to have guests over or even to talk on the phone, in case someone should overhear the foul-mouthed bird. He tried everything he could think of to clean up the parrot’s vocabulary. He tried teaching it more polite phrases, but the parrot was having none of it. He tried playing soft, soothing music, but that just seemed to annoy the parrot more. He pleaded with the parrot to clean up his language, but the parrot just mocked him and came up with new combinations of curse words.
Finally, John was fed up and he yelled at the parrot. The parrot yelled back. John shook the parrot’s cage and the parrot got angrier and even more rude. Finally, in desperation, John opened the cage, grabbed the bird, threw it in the freezer, and slammed the door shut. For a few minutes the parrot squawked and kicked and screamed. Then suddenly, there was total quiet. Not a peep was heard for over a minute. John got concerned and was worried he might have hurt the parrot. He opened the freezer door carefully, and the bird was standing there looking at him. John extended his hand, and the bird walked up his arm and perched on his shoulder. Then the parrot said, “I believe I may have offended you with my rude language and actions. I am sincerely remorseful for my inappropriate transgressions and I truly intend to do everything I can to correct my rude and unforgivable behavior.” John was utterly flabbergasted. As he was about to ask the parrot what had made such a dramatic change in his behavior, the bird spoke-up again, saying very softly, “May I ask what the turkey did?”
In this morning’s reading from Matthew, Jesus is trying to get his disciple’s attention, trying to shock them a bit, wake them up, get them to pay attention to their world in a different way. He is talking about the end times, and he says: no one knows when they are coming. No one, not even the angels in heaven, not even Jesus himself: only God knows. The end times will come like the great flood came: everyone was going about their business, eating and drinking and marrying and having families, and then one day, with no announcement or warning, it started raining and it didn’t stop, and everything was swept away. The end times will be the same sort of thing. Two people will be working in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding wheat together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake, Jesus says, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. It’s like being the owner of a house: if you knew when the thief was coming, wouldn’t you stay awake and be ready for him? The day of the Lord, the coming of the Son of Man, is coming like a thief in the night.
Our Christian tradition has puzzled over just how to understand this passage over the centuries. One interpretation takes this passage and others like it as a fairly literal description of a future historical event. Jesus will return in glory and sit in judgment; some folks will be taken up in glory, while others will be left behind and subjected to God’s wrath. The early Christians thought that day was coming soon, was coming even in their lifetimes, and were confused when it didn’t happen. Many Christians today are still waiting and expecting the final judgment to take place, and they hear this passage as a warning to be ready, because these things may take place yet in our lifetime.
Another interpretation has seen the day of judgment not at the end of human history but at the time of each individual’s death. Each of us will stand before God’s judgment seat as soon as we have taken our last breath. We will have to give an accounting of our life and be weighed in the Lord’s balance. The lesson of this passage is clear: we dare not put off doing what Jesus has commanded. None of us can know when death will overtake us, and then it will be too late.
A third understanding of this passage emphasizes instead the symbolic character of Jesus’ language. The point is not to speculate about a day of judgment sometime in the future, whether at the end of all humanity or at the death of each individual, but rather to confront us with God’s radical claims on us here and now. Each day is a day of judgment, so I should always be asking myself: Am I living in the way Jesus calls me to? Am I trusting in God alone? Have I allowed myself to be distracted by my own selfish concerns?
Now, I expect that none of this sounds like very good news this morning. Most of us have spent the last few days celebrating with family and friends. Some of us have probably been shopping and decorating and planning for Christmas. But it is the wisdom of our tradition that on this day, the first day of the season of Advent, that we don’t sing Christmas carols, we don’t have Christmas decorations put up in the church. Instead, we hear these unexpected and unwelcome words: Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. And so, I’d like to offer three brief thoughts on how we might be more alert to our world, more awake to the possibilities and the work of God around us this Advent season.
First. This past week I read Pope Francis’s letter titled “The Joy of the Gospel.” It is a long but really pretty fascinating document. You can find it online. The pope’s language is surprisingly fresh and informal: I don’t think anyone ever expected a pope to call overly serious Christians “sourpusses” or to say that bad homilies are painful for the faithful to listen to and painful for the clergy to give. The letter has created a bit of controversy this week, both inside and outside the Roman Catholic church. Francis writes over and over again that the church must be open to looking at what is not working and be willing to change, words that worry many conservative Catholics. And some conservative commentators outside the church have taken issue with the pope’s warnings about our being controlled by our rampant consumerism and our belief that unchecked capitalism is the best way to provide for the needs of all people. Francis, as he has said in speeches since he became pope, writes that our economic system leaves too many people behind, that too many people in our world are poor, and that is our gospel mandate to help those in need. I think he is right. I am shocked, over and over again, by the number of folks here in Hilton, a relatively affluent community, who do not have enough to eat, who are not able to pay their rent, who are not able to buy Christmas presents for their family. This year, we will once again work with the Hilton Parma Food shelf and other churches here to provide Christmas meals and assistance to needy families, and I think that is good, gospel work. But maybe this Advent season we can begin to think about how our economic systems, how the decisions we make everyday with our own money, are creating a society where there seem to be more and more folks who simply do not have enough to live on.
Second. I went to Indiana this week to have Thanksgiving with my parents, my sisters and their husbands, and my four nephews. It is a lot of people under one roof and a big meal to prepare for so many people, and my sisters decided that this year we would simplify things. This was not a decision that my mother and I were especially happy about: my sisters thought that instead of a whole turkey that turkey breasts would suffice, instead of the real deal that Stovetop stuffing would be fine, and that frozen vegetables heated up in the microwave and gravy from an envelope would round out the holiday meal. You know that I like to cook, and I like good food, so this really didn’t sound like a great idea to me. But I have to say, as grumpy as I was inclined to be about it, the meal was fine. The boys certainly didn’t notice the difference, and the easy and quick preparation meant we had more time to have fun in the afternoon, and that we avoided the annual Thanksgiving day arguments in the kitchen. I pass this along to you and your families as you make plans for Christmas. Maybe there are things that seem important but really aren’t, whether it’s a complicated meal getting in the way of connecting with family and friends, or accepting too many invitations out which leave everyone exhausted and cranky, or family traditions that no one really likes or cares about anymore, or extravagant gift giving which leaves us with credit card bills when a simpler gift would have said the same thing. Maybe this Advent season you can be alert to ways to simplify or cut back in order to focus on what is really important and life giving.
Finally. The image of the day of the Lord coming like a thief in the night reminds me that God and God’s work is most often revealed in quiet, in silence. You remember the story of Elijah on the mountainside waiting to see God. There was a great wind, so strong that it split the mountains and broke rocks into pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, there was a sound of sheer silence. God was revealed to Elijah in the silence, and I think God is revealed to us today in the quiet times in our lives. Take time this Advent, whether it is a few minutes with the light of your Advent wreath, or a time of prayer when you get up or before you go to bed, or a moment of silence stolen in the middle of a busy day, take time to listen to what God is saying to you, to listen to where God is leading you. Make those moments of quiet and silence an Advent gift to yourself.
Jesus says to his disciples and he says to us: Keep awake! Be alert! Look for the coming of the Lord in unexpected places, at unexpected times. On this first day of Advent, may we be alert to where God is working in the world around us, where God is leading us to work in our own lives. During this holiday season, may we work to figure out how to focus on what really matters and how to celebrate in life giving ways. May we listen for what God is saying to us in the quiet moments. Amen.