I’d like to start today by asking the young people of all ages a question. Have you ever had a babysitter come and stay with you? When that happens, do your parents usually give the babysitter instructions on things you are supposed to do while they are gone? Like what? (going to bed at a certain time, doing your homework, cleaning up, getting a shower, etc.). When your parents come home and those things HAVEN’T been done, how do your parents react? And that reaction tells you that they feel…what? You know they love you and you love them and so when your parent comes home and is disappointed or angry or sad, how do YOU feel? So generally we try to do what others expect us to do, right?
Okay, changing gears for a moment, I want to ask you another question: I want to invite you to think a minute about the greatest surprises you have experienced in your life. If you feel so inclined, I would love it if you would share one or two of them with me. They can be good surprises, or…not such good surprises. Surprises thrown by life, or by family or by friends.
Okay, you guys can go sit back down though I will use what you’ve said and thank you for your help with this.
I’ve been thinking through the greatest surprises I’ve experienced in life so far. Life is full of surprises, right? Here’s a few that I remember experiencing… I remembered the first time I put on glasses after having my first glasses prescription filled. I remember looking out the window of the car, and seeing actual leaves on the trees and being deeply surprised, even SHOCKED that people could actually see those! That was an amazing surprise, one I still remember because of how wonderful it was to be able to see in that way. I’ve won things that I didn’t anticipate or think through at all. Those were good surprises, too. Finding friendship again & again in the people and places I least expected, those were awesome surprises. When I went to work at Bethel, I went as an “interim” expecting to be there only a few short months since I thought the other pastor there would be too strong and hard to work with and for. She was and is a very strong woman but I had the wonderful surprise of discovering how amazing she was to work with and to become good friends with this extraordinary pastor and person. I ended up staying 8 ½ years in large part because I didn’t want to leave the amazing working relationship I had with this person I thought I wouldn’t want to work with at all! That was a wonderful surprise. Occasionally I’ve had the joy of experiencing the healing of a relationship –those, too have always surprised me in ways that leave me almost breathlessly grateful. There have been bad surprises as well – deaths, divorces, people saying unkind things, traumas … surprises I did not and could not anticipate. But whether the surprise was bad or good, anticipated at some level or completely unexpected, all surprises have something in common. We don’t know when they will come. We don’t know how they will come. We don’t know IF they will come. And even with all of that, they manage to still surprise us.
The scriptures for today are all talking about an unexpected time. A time we cannot know the date of (though people keep trying to figure it out and build whole careers on those guesses!) when God will come to us again in ways we cannot expect. We will be surprised, we are told. So knowing that a surprise is coming, even while knowing what that will be – God coming to be among us, but that it will happen in an unexpected way at an unexpected time, we are called to be prepared as much as we possibly can. How do we do that? How do we prepare for a surprise? Or, going back to the first question that I asked, what is it that God has called us to do that we need to get done so that when God comes to us, in whatever way that may be and at whatever time that may be, like when our parents come home after a babysitter has been over, we are ready? What is it that God wants us to do while we wait for Jesus to come, during Advent or at any time?
What are we called to do while we wait for our maker? It is interesting that most of the time when we hear that phrase, “I am going to see my maker” we think of death. But Jesus coming, God coming to be among us, Emmanuel, “God with is” is also a way we meet, or encounter, our maker, our God, our Lord. And I believe we are to prepare for it actually, in the exact same way that we are called to meet our maker when we die. Preparing to meet our maker, whether it be in the wondrous and amazing gift of a baby coming to be with us; or preparing to meet our maker because we are done with this life – both require the same preparation, the same attuning of our hearts to God, to looking for God, to hearing God, to seeing God, to experiencing God.
In today’s scripture lesson from Romans, Paul said, “The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let’s get rid of the actions that belong to the darkness and put on the weapons of light. Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in obscene behavior, not in fighting or jealousy or obsession. Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires.”
So what is Paul saying? How do we plan to “meet our maker” this Advent or any time, according to Paul? Do you believe that Paul is trying to say that we should not enjoy things in this life because we never know when God is coming? Well, I will just tell you straight out that I don’t believe that. Jesus ate and drank – he turned water into WINE, he feasted and went to weddings, he allowed and even encouraged the indulgent expenses of oils to be poured on his feet. No, I don’t think that’s the message. I think the message IS to try to get your house, your spiritual house, in order. And by that, I mean doing the things Jesus kept repeatedly telling us to do…learning to love ALL people, learning to love GOD, and learning to love ourselves. And that may change the way we have fun. It means having fun in a way that doesn’t damage others or ourselves. It means having fun in a way that doesn’t ignore the pain of other people or exclude them or fail to love them. But it also doesn’t mean failing to appreciate the good world that God has given us, or failing to enjoy it, or failing to delight in it.
We prepare by doing the things God calls us to do every day as if that were our last, as if we were “going to meet our maker.” So, as a child of God who loves God, if you had only one day left to live, what would you do? It may be hard to know what we might do in a situation like that. But I think about what people did on 911 when they knew they were going down. The stories are that they called their loved ones, when they were able, and told them they were loved. They told them “thank you”. They reassured them. They prepared to meet their master by expressing love.
That is what we should be doing every day. Expressing as much love, as much compassion, as much gratitude and caring (for others, for ourselves, and for God) as we can muster each and every day.
We live in an uneasy world, an uneasy country right now. We do not know what tomorrow will bring, truly. Each day that we are given is an opportunity to do what God calls us to do. Every time we see another human being in pain or being treated unkindly, we are given the opportunity to do things differently, to demonstrate compassion and love but also to stand up for one another. Every day should be a day of preparing to meet the God who only calls us to do three things: love God, love neighbor and love self. If we prepare for each day as if it were the day we would meet God, face to face, I cannot help but believe we would be behaving differently in the world.
So here are some more specifics about what that might look like for us this Advent: First, don’t leave any relationship unreconciled or unhealed, if there is any way to reconcile or heal it. I know you can’t force that. God knows you can’t force that. But if you have left something untried or un-attempted in terms of healing with your sister or brother, now is the time to do it. Second, don’t leave anyone short of hearing the words that you love them. Say them today, this day, to everyone you love, and especially to those whom you have not had the courage to speak to before. Third, don’t leave any “thank you” to God or to another human being unsaid, and leave no prayer unspoken. Fourth, don’t leave anyone unforgiven. Fifth, don’t leave anyone out in the cold, waiting for a blanket or warm food, or place of safety or healing that you have to give. This is not easy. I know that. But I challenge you to remember Matthew 25 each day, that every time you offer food or warmth or comfort to someone else, you do it for God. And every time we FAIL to do this, we also do it to God.
Does this mean that life needs to be nothing but work, work, work? No. We are also called to enjoy life. If this were your “last day” you would do your best to relish and appreciate the life God has given you. But do it, as you do all things, with love.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “You can never do a kindness too soon because you never know how soon it will be too late.” Life is full of surprises. During advent we anticipate and remember the best surprise ever…the surprise gift of God’s coming to be with us in person as one of us, to walk with us and among us, to lead us, to guide us, to save us, and to overcome even death. But each Advent we are called again to prepare. To prepare as if we were going to meet our maker this very day. And the best way to prepare is simply to do what God calls us to do every single day. To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. And to love your neighbor as yourself. Love, love, love. Amen.