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Seeking the backwards “N”

Today is Advent 1. Happy New Year! I had the priviledge of preaching at our 11:15 service at St. Anne’s. Below if the rough copy of what I preached. I went off notes quite a bit, but this will give you a general idea of the message conveyed. I hope you enjoy. Scripture: Mark 13:24-37

When I was growing up there was a little church near my house that we would pass on the way to the store. For about 15 years they had a sign that read, “Jesus is coming soon, are you ready?” it was on one of those deli sign boards with the removable letters. // The reason it stood out was not because of the message, but because the “N” in “soon” was backwards. // For 15 years this sight amused and fascinated me. “If Jesus really is coming soon, you had better flip that ‘N’ around.” // But, if the “N” wasn’t backwards I probably wouldn’t have taken much notice then, and I surely wouldn’t remember it now. // So, I now wonder, did some clever little old lady do it on purpose to give us pause? …to force us to “keep awake”? Whatever the reason, I was a little bit sad when I went home for a visit a few years back and discovered that there is a new message up. I don’t even remember what the sign says now, but I miss that backwards “N.”
During the hustle and bustle of the commercial Christmas season, I think we all need a backwards “N” in our lives to make us stop long enough to ask, are we ready?
It has always struck me as somewhat odd that the prepares of our lectionary –the people who decide which Bible readings we will have each week- start the first week of Advent, the beginning of the new church year, with readings about the “end times.” The reading from Mark points toward the end times, it speaks of the coming messiah, “the son of man,” whose coming will mark the beginning of the end. The reading feels especially bleak: “heaven and earth will pass away.” But these predications also point toward hope: Hope that the messiah is coming. Advent is a season of waiting; but unlike our Advent calendars claim, we are not simply waiting for December 25th, we are perpetually waiting for the Messiah who, as our Eucharistic prayer reminds us, “Will come again.”
For many people, Advent, or in their minds –the Christmas season— began this past Friday. We have been socialized to wait for our Lord by purchasing gifts and getting deep discounts on items we may, or may not, need. Holiday shopping has become a sporting event that starts on “black Friday” and ends sometime in mid-January when the post-Christmas sales events end. Retailers take advantage of the fact that many folks have the day after Thanksgiving as a holiday from work to encourage people to take out their checkbooks. The social tone set by Western media and commercial industries is one of frenzy. The tone suggests that there isn’t a moment to spare because “our loved ones are expecting presents, and these deals won’t last.”  // Somewhere along the line the preparation for Christmas became about preparation for parties and gift giving rather than preparation for God to enter our hearts and our world.
As Christians, we are instructed to keep our eyes focused further in the future. For us, Christmas is not the end; it is just the beginning. //
Can you imagine being a Jew in the years before Jesus’ birth? The prophesies of the Hebrew Scriptures foretold the coming of a Messiah from the line of David, but they gave no timeline. // The people were just faithfully living out their lives waiting for the promise to come. It must have been difficult to believe that a Messiah was actually going to come. I am sure that many of them did not believe it would ever happen. // Our lives now mirror the lives of the people who lived in the years before Jesus came. It has been 2000 years: maybe God forgot that we were promised a second coming? Maybe the translators got it wrong or the authors embellished Jesus’ words? // Maybe. // Or maybe, we are supposed to wait. //
The readings assigned for Advent 1 may seem out of place at first glace, but when we consider our statement of belief with which we respond each week in the Eucharistic prayer, we are constantly reminding ourselves that “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” // The attitude of frenzy that is encouraged by our social world is the exact opposite of the one we proclaim in our faith, and often in our daily lives.
How often have you heard the phrase, “Live life one day at a time”? How many times have you advised a friend or relative to focus on this moment? // You see, while our path is perpetually headed over the horizon, if we never take a moment to look around at where we are right now we will trip on the rocks under our feet. // The instruction to “keep awake” that is issued in the gospel reading is not intended to feed the holiday frenzy. God already knows that we are awake and running: we are just trying to keep up with a society that insists toddlers need datebooks if they want to see their friends. We are trying meet the expectations set by marketing firms for appropriate holiday gifts for the people we love. We are trying to keep ahead of the trends, // to help our children become successful, // to be all that we can possibly be. And we are trying to do all of this, all of the time. // In fact, we spend so much time “trying,” that I wonder how much time we actually spend “doing.”
It is exhausting to “try” all the time. Trying implies an external influence that has set a standard we must achieve. Trying implies that we might fail. // Doing, on the other hand, is a positive action. It implies confidence in ourselves and our abilities. Doing shows the world that we know what we want and we are acting to achieve an end. // But how do we go from “trying” to “doing”?
We are creatures of habit and it would be nearly impossible to rewire ourselves to a point where we are able to block out all external influences in order to “just do it” without still spinning our minds thinking about the “right way.” // So what if instead of trying to forget about the opinions and pressures of external forces, instead we do something to change it? // What is we choose to let God’s standard be the standard that we try to meet: not the media’s, not the politicians’, not our parents’, not our children’s… not even our own. // What if God’s standard were the only one we focused on?
Advent is a season of expectant waiting. Unlike waiting for a bus or waiting in a check out line, Advent is a season of waiting that offers us opportunities to do things to prepare our lives for the arrival of our Lord. We can pray. We can choose to keep our hearts open for the coming of the messiah. We can help those who may be in pain this season. We can wait, actively. //Waiting in our modern day Western world is often seen as a negative thing. When we have to stand in the check out line too long we tap our foot impatiently and glare at the man who is writing a check instead of swiping his card. We look scathingly at the cashier as if to say, “hurry up and stop wasting our time.” // There is the old phrase “Good things come to those who wait” but I find that it is used to pacify people who are already frustrated with the delayed gratification they seek.

If we rearranged our standards to which we measured ourselves and our efforts to God’s standards we would hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” much more often. // When we think about the words God would use to describe us “beloved child,” “one with charisms granted by the Holy Spirit,” or “created in my image” then we see that as long as we are doing our very best with right intention, then we have already succeeded. // Wouldn’t that feel amazing? To know that our best is good enough.// //
Photo Courtesy of
the Rev. Lauren Kilbourn

Rather than being frustrated with the wait for our Lord, or feeling rushed along by the commercial Christmas pushed on us by society let’s prepare in this season of waiting by seeking that backwards “N” in our lives. // If we are rushing along we won’t see the backwards “N;” the thing that will cause us to pause and consider this very moment. The journey of waiting that we are on, brothers and sisters, does not end on December 25th. The journey may not even end in our lifetime. // So what’s the hurry? // Slow down, keep awake, pay attention: Something amazing is going to happen and we will miss it if we keep running around. // So go home and ask yourself, am I ready to have my heart broken open by God? // And if the answer is no, then I encourage you to take stock of what you can do to prepare yourself, because Jesus is coming soon, and His birth will change you if you let it.

1 Comment

  1. What a lovely sermon. Thank you! So glad that I took the time to read this today. Peace, Lori Anderson York

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