Paradox is Good for the Soul

A Christmas Meditation on Luke 2:1-20
© Stacey Steck

If you’ve ever shopped for a child, perhaps you experienced one of a parents’ greatest Christmas conundrums: do I buy the gifts my kids tell me they REALLY want, or the ones I know they will play with for a lot longer. For me, this makes the other pressing Christmas questions about trees (real or artificial?), fruitcakes (regift them or put them straight in the trash?), and eggnog (with rum or without?) pale in significance. There is nothing more wonderful than seeing a child’s face when they get exactly what they have been begging for months to receive. But there is also no greater disappointment than seeing that gift accumulating dust just a few days after the blessed morning because it was really more style than substance. I can’t say it is a conundrum that has kept me awake at night, but it is surely one that has consumed more of my time than is spiritually advisable. You see, I should be more concerned with the paradox of the season than its conundrums.

You will remember that a conundrum is a “puzzling question or problem,” the classic example of which is the riddle, “What’s the difference between a jeweler and a jailer? One sells watches and the other watches cells.” To be sure, the choice of a child’s gift falls into the category of conundrum. A conundrum makes you put your hand on your chin, grimace, and say, “Hmmm.” A paradox, on the other hand, makes you throw your hands up in the air in praise or surrender, and renders you speechless. A paradox, classically defined, is “a statement or situation that seems contradictory, unbelievable, or absurd but that may be true in fact.”

Like “Life is not lost by dying.” Or “You gotta be cruel to be kind.” And maybe the first and still most notable, the Epimenides paradox, uttered by a native of the island of Crete, who famously said, “All Cretans are liars.” In a conundrum, there is a choice. In a paradox, there is only acceptance. We may have had to deal with a conundrum to get here this evening – which car should we take, should we eat dinner before or after the service, and should it be ham or turkey, that kind of thing. But once here, we are faced with the greatest of all paradoxes, the incarnation of God, God becoming flesh and dwelling among us in the person of Jesus Christ. My hope tonight is that at least for the time we are together, that the Christmas conundrums you may be facing will pale in significance to the paradox we gather to celebrate.

The Shepherds seemingly faced no such conundrum when confronted with the paradox of a savior baby. Luke records no debate about what to do with the sheep while the shepherds made haste to Bethlehem to “see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” Not even their livelihood occasioned a “Hmmm” in the face of the angel’s awesome message. They ran on down that hillside to Bethlehem to experience a paradox. Mary’s treasuring and pondering all the Shepherd’s words reflect an admiration of the amazing paradox she had been experiencing, not an attempt by her to solve some kind of dilemma like should the diapers be cloth or disposable. And the angels had the best seat in the house, announcing the paradox and watching the others begin to enjoy it. They knew better than anyone what and who was coming into the world.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams describes the coming of Christ, the fulfillment of all of our most earnest hopes and dreams for peace, and communion with God, as a “shock to the system.” And although I agree with him, it is hard to see the most ordinary of events – the birth of a child, something that happens thousands of times a day all over the world – as very shocking. What happened in Bethlehem is not really so awe-inspiring as we might imagine or hope a Messiah’s coming to be. After all, what it really meant was another decade or two of waiting for things to change, until that child grew up and did what Messiah’s are supposed to do. A more apropos scenario for a Messiah’s shocking arrival might be the one Bill Murray and the rest of the Ghostbusters described a few years ago now: as a disaster of biblical proportions, yes, real Old Testament, wrath of God type stuff. Fire and brimstone coming down from the sky. Rivers and seas boiling. Forty years of darkness. Earthquakes, volcanoes, the dead rising from the grave, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. Now, that would be a shock to the system, one we could really wrap our minds around! But a baby? A baby can’t even lift its head! The only thing shocking about a baby would be if it wasn’t wasn’t crying. And yet a baby, not a lightning bolt, ushered in God’s shock to the world’s system. A paradox. While we might expect something with more pizzazz, God enters the world to judge and save it, and does it in the most unlikely of ways, by coming as “a child, wrapped in bands of cloth, and lying in a manger.” That which is utterly and completely “not human” entering fully into human life and existence is indeed a paradox of the best and most holy kind.

The funny thing about paradoxes is that in the end, they convict us not on the basis of their merits, but because they simply overwhelm us. We can never really solve them, so we have to settle for letting them solve us. Whereas with a conundrum we can weigh the pros and cons of each side, with a paradox the only choice we have is whether or not to fully appreciate it, to live in it, to be transformed by it. Our English word “paradox” comes from a Latin word that means something like “beyond belief” or beyond our ability to think about it, something which puts us in our place, which makes us recognize that we are not the center of the universe, that whoever created that paradox for us has something on us. And maybe it is precisely paradox that gives rise to praise, for praise is that natural response to something that overwhelms us. Think of the Grand Canyon, the first flower of spring, a newborn baby, whatever makes you drop your jaw or forget about everything else. That is stuff over which we have absolutely no control. And in each of these experiences, it is the authenticity, the genuineness, the lack of ulterior human motive, the fact that it is not contrived or manufactured that makes all the difference.

Which brings us to the mall, and my original conundrum. I have never been a big fan of shopping for Christmas gifts. I’ve always a general feeling of unease about the whole matter. I used to think it was a question of money, but since the feeling hasn’t gone away even with more disposable income, I’ve had to eliminate that reason. It is not that I have so many gifts to buy because my family and circle of friends is pretty small really. And I am not averse to gift-giving or receiving. (I’ve tried giving no gifts at all, trying to find the perfect gift, even trying to get everything on someone’s list.) But in spite of all those things, Flora and I have observed that if you send us out to go Christmas shopping for others, you can be pretty well assured that we’ll come home with things mostly for ourselves.

But finally this year, as I walked through the mall, I came to a realization about this hangup I have about Christmas gifts. It occurred to me that what bothers me is the expectation of gift-giving during the holidays, an expectation which seems to betray the very idea of a gift, at least from a Christian perspective. After all, a gift given under duress is no gift at all. That’s called extortion. A gift given from guilt or to avoid some consequences is no gift at all. That’s called blood money. A gift given for something in return is no gift at all. That’s called that a bribe. And so, the only gift worth giving is the surprise gift, a gift offered unexpectedly, a gift offered with “no strings attached,” a gift like the Christ Child in the manger, given unexpectedly to Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds, and “all the people.” The best gifts then are the paradoxical gifts, the ones which when given cause their recipients to throw their hands up in the air in praise or surrender, not because it was what they wanted, but simply because it was given to them. Maybe my conundrum is solved. No gifts for the kids this year. Hmmmm.

I want to close by sharing a poem by the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. It is called “The Last Bargain.”

“Come and hire me,” I cried, while in the morning I was walking on the stone paved road.
Sword in hand, the King came in his chariot.
He held my hand and said, “I will hire you with my power.”
But his power counted for nought, and he went away in his chariot.

In the heat of the midday the houses stood with shut doors.
I wandered along the crooked lane.
An old man came out with his bag of gold.
He pondered and said, “I will hire you with my money.”
He weighed his coins one by one, but I turned away.

It was evening. The garden hedge was all aflower.
The fair maid came out and said, “I will hire you with a smile.”
Her smile paled and melted into tears, and she went back alone into the dark.

The sun glistened on the sand, and the sea waves broke waywardly.
A child sat playing with shells.
He raised his head and seemed to know me, and said, “I hire you with nothing.”
From thenceforward that bargain struck in child’s play made me a free man.

Although it is usually best to let poetry go unanalyzed, it is important that the point not be missed. “Come and hire me,” says the main character, “Give me a place, a role, an adventure in which to invest myself.” He is willing to give himself completely, yet none of the comers, with their offers of various kinds of payment, seem worth the effort, no matter how enticing, except for the one who offers nothing in the world. And the child is the only one worth following. The paradox of Tagore’s poem is that he who went seeking work, and passed up reward of all kinds, ended up working for nothing yet experienced it as freedom. So it is with Christ.

Brothers and sisters, my prayer for all of us is that we come face to face with fewer conundrums and more paradoxes, and that we will see anew that even amid the crassness and the commercialization of our holy day, Christ still offers us an authenticity, a genuineness that bids us follow. Neither power, wealth, nor romance have the power to draw us near. But approaching, and being approached by, the Christ child, we find ourselves willing to follow that child. In the story of Christ’s birth, may you find a surprising and unexpected gift, may you be overwhelmed by the love God has for you, may it be a shock to your system, and may you be taken in and transformed by the great and wonderful paradox of the eternal God entering into a human life, so that we humans might find eternal life. Amen.

The Blessings of Unrecognizeable Reality

Matthew 11:2-11
© Stacey Steck

We might imagine the dismay with which Jesus received John’s messengers bearing a question as inane as “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” But gentle Jesus, meek and mild, takes it easy on John and sends back the message, “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” along with a catalogue of the events inaugurating the inbreaking of the kingdom of God on earth. Jesus is nothing if not long-suffering.

But what are we to make of the fact that John the Baptist, the one who leapt in his mother’s womb when the fetal Jesus came near him, the who could describe so clearly Messiah’s coming, the who could chastise the Pharisees and the Sadducees for failing to read the signs of the times and make straight the paths for the one who would soon be coming to baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit, the one more than anyone else who should have known, how come this John can’t see the forest for the trees? How could he not make sense of so many powerful signs taking place around him? Maybe it was the jailhouse food that suddenly made John the Baptist soft in the head. Maybe he just didn’t want to be disappointed. Maybe he just couldn’t trust his own judgment since his own judgment had landed him in jail. Maybe there are other ways to explain away John’s question as something other than an inability to put together two and two, but what remains the simplest and most likely explanation, if for no other reason than it describes us pretty well too, is that John struggled with imperceptible reality. He had the human tendency to miss seeing what’s really right in front of us all the time, especially of the divine kind.

Of course, imperceptible reality is not limited to the divine realm. Take the human body for example. As we all know, blood flows through our veins, oxygen is received by our lungs and is transferred into our blood stream. The brain processes billions of tiny messages that control all of our essential functions as well as our emotions, our creativity, our compassion. But we can’t see any of that. Even when we cut our fingers and see our own blood, we don’t really come any closer to fully comprehending what the blood is doing in our bodies. The same is true for machines, especially computers, if you’ve ever encountered the blue screen of death on your PC or the endless spinning wheel on your Mac. We know when it works and we know when it does not, but even if we tried to wrap our minds around their circuitry and electrons, our computers would still remain, at least for me, an imperceptible reality.

Moving a little closer to divine imperceptible reality, take nature. Despite our best efforts at understanding it, watching it with satellites, breaking it down with electron microscopes, it remains something which constantly surprises us and makes us appreciate how little we know. If we really completely understood the natural world, perhaps we’d manage it or control it a little better, but the truth is that there is nothing we can do about the sun rising and setting, the tides washing onto the shore, or the freezing and thawing of the earth. The Christmas carol we sang earlier reminds us that God’s creation is part of that realm of imperceptible reality: “Birds, though you long have ceased to build, guard the nest that must be filled. Even the hour when wings are frozen God for fledgling time has chosen. People look east and sing today, love the bird is on the way.” Each spring’s nest of eggs will hatch, and little birds will grow feathers, spread their wings and fly away. You can count on it even on chilly days like today.

And then there’s stuff like love and grace and forgiveness, the real intangibles in life, the real gifts of God that are too often, it seems, imperceptible reality. Would that we always knew how God loves us or how much others love us! Would that we always experience grace as fully and abundantly as we affirm it to be available! Would that forgiveness and compassion touch us as easily as December’s frosty wind! Oh, at times we glimpse these things, but for the most part, we, like John the Baptist, question God, asking, “Is it real?” or “Is that all there is?” not because it’s not real or because there isn’t enough to go around, but because we suffer from John’s affliction.
The good news of the Gospel, at least today’s Gospel lesson, is that there are blessings to be found in and around imperceptible reality. First and foremost, there is the opportunity to give thanks to God that we can’t see everything. Our little minds, hearts, and souls couldn’t handle it. We’d be so overwhelmed by all that information, emotion, and Spirit that we’d be paralyzed. Our consciousnesses have enough trouble putting together coherent sentences, much less being mindful of which chamber of the heart to pump. Some of you may have seen the movie, “Bruce Almighty,” in which the main character is endowed, for a short time, with the rights and responsibilities of the divine. Like Bruce, imagine being party to all the prayers of even one city, much less the whole world, and being unable to shut them out. Thank God for your feebleness, for your limited ability to perceive reality. If we find ourselves complaining about our inability to have access to enough reality, may Jesus say to us as he said to the mother of James and John, when she asked for her sons to sit at Jesus’ side in the Kingdom. “You do not know what you are asking!”

The other blessing of imperceptible reality I’d like to share with you this morning is the one demonstrated by what happened after Jesus sent word back to John that “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Despite receiving an ignorant question from one who ought to have known better, Jesus does not rebuke John, neither to his messengers nor those who remained behind. Instead of judgment, Jesus goes on to extol John as a prophet, as one superior even to kings. Indeed he says, “Truly, I tell you, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” John can be forgiven his inability to observe the signs of the times. But more than that, when Jesus says, “yet, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he,” it is a reminder to us that we who may have even less ability than John to observe the in-breaking of the Kingdom that which we celebrate at Advent, are still valuable in God’s sight, that what we would see if we could see is that God’s mercy and compassion and grace are the only things able to overcome our shortcomings.

Believe it or not, the world goes on despite the fact the we don’t know or see everything. Thank you God. Thank you for shouldering the burden of running the whole world while we learn little by little, slowly but surely to see the reality you have placed among us, the reality of Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh. You see, the greatest blessing of imperceptible reality is the permission is gives us to slowly expand our vision, at a human pace to develop the capacity to experience God’s reality in the way my favorite photographer DeWitt Jones describes when he says, “If you believe it, you’ll see it.” It takes a while to believe it, but the view is worth the wait.

When I think about imperceptible reality, I am reminded of the way the famous Trappist monk and contemplative writer, Thomas Merton, described the special work of the monastic community. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like this: “Monks, praying, hold the world together.” You can’t see them and you don’t know exactly where they are, but somewhere in the world, every minute of the day, there’s a monk lifting up the world to God’s mercy, carrying on in the humble and routine act of prayer. It’s an imperceptible reality, for we can’t see those prayers rising to the heavens, but I thank God that in the course of my life and my experience, I have come to discern the truth in Merton’s statement.

A wise person once described discernment by calling it “the uniquely human capacity to know something without knowing how one has come to know it, and to bring what one knows in this way to what one has come to know in other ways,” and, by doing so, to discover the truth.” Discernment is different than learning. Learning is that process of bringing together your perception and your ideas and your behavior. But discernment means be able to experience what can’t really be captured in books or laboratories or telescopes. Discernment requires the eyes of faith. That kind of vision in human beings may not always be 20/20 but as we grow in faith we can come gradually closer to participating more fully in God’s reality and our own humanity. I don’t know how I know Merton is right that “Monks, praying, hold the world together,” but I do know that God is calling them to do their part, and that God is calling me to do mine and that that’s what it means to be human.

I want to conclude with a famous prayer written by Merton that speaks to these blessings of imperceptible reality: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

May our waiting this Advent please God and help assure us of that sometimes imperceptible reality that God is truly with us. Amen.

The Blessings of Unmeetable Expectations

Matthew 3:1-12
© Stacey Steck

Some of you may have heard me tell the story of the couple who were coming to the end of their pre-marital counseling sessions with their pastor. They had talked about anger management, finances, in-laws, children, the whole gamut of issues and so the pastor asked them if there was any last question to ask or concern to raise in the relative safety of the pastor’s office. They thought about it for a moment and then the groom-to-be said, “Well, I guess there is one thing I’d like to know. Honey, why do you cut the ends off the ham before you cook it?” And the bride-to-be thought about it and answered that she had simply always done it that way and that she had learned it from her mother. And so the groom was satisfied and they left the office all ready to get married. The matter did not end there, however, for the question so troubled the bride that she called her mother and asked her, “Mom, why do you cut the ends off the ham before you cook it?” to which the mother replied that she had simply always done it that way and that she had learned it from her mother. A little while later, the phone rang at the home of the bride’s grandmother who was confronted with the same question by her daughter, the mother of the bride. “Mom, why do you cut the ends off the ham before you cook it?” And the grandmother replied, “So it will fit in the pan I use to cook it.” Often, we do things for reasons we cannot even recall. That’s just the way they are.

I think the same is especially true at Christmastime. Family traditions die hard, and woe betide the new bride who suggests that the gifts should be opened at midnight rather than first thing in the morning. Heaven and earth will exchange places sooner than some families will forsake going to grandmother’s house for Christmas dinner. How many families have the same cookies, the same decorations, the same traditions year after year after year even though everyone agrees they are getting pretty stale? And in those families, how many in the family find themselves in the same role year after year, with the same responsibilities year after year, and with the same expectations placed upon them either by self or others. For a wide variety of reasons which philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists can explain better than I, Christmas has become a rather pressure-packed experience, what with finding the perfect gift, writing out personalized greeting cards, doing all the holiday baking, and taking the trip around the neighborhood to look at light displays, not to mention keeping all the children’s gifts surprises until the blessed morning. On top of that, there are all the emotional expectations of keeping everyone happy, of making it a spiritual experience, or maybe an experience without spirits - if you know what I mean. All these traditions and activities and expectations, and I’ve only named a few, can be overwhelming. It’s no wonder that the period between US Thanksgiving and Christmas has such a high rate of depression and suicide, and that so much family drama plays itself out so destructively during the Christmas season. It’s just too much. Maybe there ought to be a reality show…

But here’s the thing. Who said it had to be this way? Who decreed that all expectations must be met or Christmas isn’t worth celebrating? Who came up with the idea that if you work hard enough, you can make everybody experience the joy you think they should want? And who came up with the idea that you have to play the role because someone else wants to play theirs? If there is a time of our year, or a time of our lives, when we run smack dab into our inability to live up to expectations, either those of our own, or those placed on us by others, it is at Christmas. And the trap we fall into is believing that it is our fault, that we just don’t measure up, that we have somehow failed to invest Christmas with the meaning it so richly deserves. If you have never experienced any of what I am talking about, praise God, count your blessings, and share the secrets of your success, but be prepared to receive a very long line of wisdom-seekers, none of whose expectations you will be able to meet. And then, consider yourself welcome to the club.

John the Baptist knew something about unmeetable expectations. In an age of enormous expectations about the coming of the promised Messiah, John had created a stir with his calls for repentance and confession and good works, so great a stir that the people of Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region along the Jordan were going out to him, so great a stir that even Pharisees and Sadducees were coming for baptism. Believe me, when the Pharisees and Sadducees come calling, you’ve touched a nerve. Very likely, the pulse of the populace was beating out, “He’s the one, he’s the one, he’s the one” and with each passing day, the expectations grew greater that he was the promised one. The temptation to believe the hype must have been mounting. But John seems to have had his priorities straight, he seems to have understood that it was not his job to meet the expectations of all these desperate people, all these chosen people thinking they had been forgotten, all these sorrowful people looking for a little joy. He understands that his role is the harbinger, not the harvester, a voice in the wilderness and not the Word of God. John flat out tells us about his limitations, what he can and cannot do for us, and what Jesus will soon be coming to do – Look, “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” He says very clearly what we all might like to say from time to time, maybe especially at Christmas: “I can’t meet your expectations and I’m not even going to try. I’m just going to wear my funky clothing and eat my locusts and wild honey, and let the chips fall where they may.”

But he also says a lot more about expectations, especially about the blessings of unmeetable expectations. You see, when he reminds those Pharisees and Sadducees that it will be Jesus, and not he, who separates the wheat from the chaff – the good part of the grain from the bad – he reminds us that God is not asking us to clear the threshing floor, nor gather the wheat into the granary, not burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. God is not asking us to put the ax to the root of the unprofitable tree. God is not asking us to raise up stones into children of Abraham. We don’t have to do any of those things to be loved by God. And freed from those responsibilities, we are able to take on those we have been given, and indeed rejoice that God has placed expectations, however strenuous, upon us. And just what does God expect of us, at least according to John the Baptist? Well, it is nothing less than, but nothing more than, this: to confess, to repent, and to bear good fruit. Good fruit, mind you, not those candied orange peels, or stale fruitcakes. But seriously, confession, repentance, and bearing good fruit. Not exactly anyone’s first thoughts about getting ready for the holidays, but weighty expectations which are truly easier to meet than those we place on ourselves or those placed on us by others, easier because they are given to us by a God who knows that the only expectations we can ever really meet are those which God puts on our hearts.

The good news of John the Baptist is not only that Christ is coming, but also that there is a way to deal with the expectations placed upon you this Christmas season. John is guiding us toward taking responsibility not for the expectations others have placed upon us, but for what God is asking of us, and I believe that when we focus on ourselves, on our confession, on our repentance, on our good fruit, the burden of the expectations of others will dissolve away, and we’ll feel as free to speak the truth as John the Baptist was. Not that we’ll be bold enough to call Uncle Robert and Aunt June and their nasty kids a brood of vipers, but perhaps bold enough to say, “If you want those special Christmas cookies this year, you’ll just have to make them yourselves.” And we’ll be able to go to bed and sleep well on Christmas Eve knowing that even though we couldn’t find that one last gift that makes the value of our children’s gifts exactly equal, that they will just have to get over it. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll be bold enough to eat Christmas dinner when the food is actually hot and ready, even though the chronically late arrivals haven’t shown up on time again this year. We’ll be able to do these things because we will remember that the only expectations we really need to meet are God’s, and that God is not judging us on the rest.

As we make our way through Advent, may it be a time to reflect on how each of us is preparing for the coming of our Lord. Are we as mindful of the awesome, yet attainable expectations of God as we are of those other overwhelming and unmeetable ones we’d just as soon be through with? Friends, give yourself and everyone around you the perfect gift this year and confess, repent, and bear good fruit, rejoicing that this is really all you have to do. Amen.

Getting Ready for the Right Thing

Matthew 24:36-44
© Stacey Steck

You may be excused for hearing this morning’s passage and its encouragement to “be ready” for the coming of the Son of Man and being a bit confused. After all, it clearly says that “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” How are you supposed to be ready for something about which only God knows when it’s coming? And then there are those examples of the poor suckers in the field and at the grinding stone who are left behind while those standing right next to them are “taken away” even though there is no discernable difference between them. What are you supposed to do? And yet, the disciples are told to be ready. It sounds like that old saying about being all dressed up with no place to go. To tell you the truth, it sounds stressful and exhausting. It is one thing to be ready for something that happens, but it is another to wait and wait, tense and on the lookout, and then to wait some more. Sounds like a recipe for waiting burnout. At least in Minot, North Dakota.

Minot, North Dakota is the location of one of the United States Air Force bases that are in charge of operating many of the land-based nuclear weapons in the US arsenal. This is where some of the men and women of the Air Force are charged with hunkering down in missile silos awaiting a presidential order to fire their weapons of mass destruction, should the need arise. It’s always been a stressful job, but now it seem to be even more stressful according to a new study that cites rising levels of misconduct like spousal abuse, and says court-martial rates in the nuclear missile force during the last decade were more than twice as high as in the overall Air Force. The people working in these silos report a very great sense of frustration and aggravation, heightened by a sense of being unappreciated, overworked, micromanaged and at constant risk of failure. After all, if they make a mistake there are pretty grave consequences. These men and women are their nation’s sentinels, ever watchful, but paying a price.

The study notes several reasons for the increase in stress, but the most interesting one for me was the ever-increasing sense of purposelessness they felt as time marched further away from the Cold War and left their missiles with an ever-decreasing likelihood of ever being used. Not that they want to fire them, but with current military attention being directed more to terrorism and cyber attacks, those waiting in the silos have the added feeling of being left behind themselves, despite the good news that a nuclear holocaust is no longer the threat it once was. The irony is this burnout actually increases the possibility of a catastrophe. As one service member said: “We don’t care if things go properly. We just don’t want to get in trouble.” Not much of a way to live.

In the days in which Matthew’s Gospel was written, there were likely those who were beginning to feel some of that burnout. Christ had said that their generation would not pass away before his return, and yet the waiting continued, their vigilance constant, just as he had commanded. The early generations of Christians had trouble sustaining their readiness since the world was going about its business but Christ apparently wasn’t minding his. The Apostle Paul’s letters speak to this challenging period of waiting. And on and on it has continued, and each year, each Advent, we grow more and more restless, perhaps with our morale dropping and our fear of making a mistake rising – are we being faithful enough? We get burned out on waiting, on being ready for Christ. Our lamps have been lit, but our hopes have not been fulfilled. And so our attention wanes. And so our anxiety rises wondering whether we will have made a mistake and be the one that is left behind in the field. Not much of a way to live.

The next chapter of Matthew, the famous 25th chapter, the one about the sheep and the goats, gives us a hint of why one was taken and one was left. That chapter suggests that it is because one was watching for the signs of the times and the other was watching God; one was ready for the earthquakes, wars, and famines and the other was ready to lend a hand; one was vigilant about the increase of lawlessness and the other was vigilant about helping widows and orphans; one was worried about whether he or she would be judged a sheep or a goat and the other just got on with the business of being a sheep. Yes, that taking and leaving of people in the field and at the grindstone was not about, as some have pictured it, the rapture, when Christ swoops down and carries the good people off to heaven, but rather, it was Christ’s way of describing the sorting of the faithful from the less faithful, the judgment between the sheep who had acted righteously by feeding and clothing and visiting, and the goats who cried, “Lord, Lord! When did we see you hungry and thirsty and not give you water or feed you?” only to hear “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to the least of these you did not do it to me.” Those left behind will be the ones Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ ”

Now, it’s true that the 25th chapter of Matthew doesn’t describe the goats as sorrowful and the sheep as joyful, but it does suggest that what makes the waiting seem like a burden rather than a joy is that it’s easy to be vigilant about the wrong thing. From the very beginning, Jesus’ disciples asked for a sign of his coming, that they might watch for his return. And he gave them a lot of things to look for, earthquakes and wars and famines, and persecution, and the darkening of the sun and the moon, and stars falling from heaven and even trumpet calls, a whole bunch of things they could do nothing about except wait. But then he adds what seems to be that burnout factor, in our passage this morning, that no one knows when all that stuff is going to happen, and that it will be like a thief in the night, and you’d better be ready. And if it burns us out it is because we have missed the point of his teaching. You see, we are not really to be on the lookout for the signs but rather to be watchful for opportunities to serve, and for experiences of grace, and glimpses of the kingdom in our midst. That is where we’ll find meaning in the waiting, rather than burnout.

Most of us, however, operate like a certain old man who told his story like this: “When I was a boy,” he said, “we had a schoolmaster who had odd ways of catching the boys. One day, he called to us, ‘Boys, I must have closer attention to your books. The first one of you that sees another boy idle, I want you to inform me, and I will attend to the case.’ ‘Ah!!’ thought I to myself, ‘there is Joe Simmonds, whom I don’t like. I'll watch him; and, if I see him look off his book, I’ll tell.’ It was not long before I saw Joe look off his book; and immediately I informed the master. ‘Indeed!’ said he. ‘How do you know he was?’ – ‘I saw him,’ said I. ‘You did! And were your eyes on your book when you saw him?’ I was caught and I never watched for idle boys again.”

Keeping our eyes directed in the right direction of doing good, and seeking grace and building the kingdom is what will keep us awake so that the thief will not enter. This is the Apostle Paul’s insight that “you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” This is being ready for the right thing, and it will earn us not only a happy Advent but also the assurance that we have a place at Christ’s side when he does come.
Christmas Cactus Judy
I want to conclude this morning by telling you about the photo which is the background of our PowerPoint. This photo of a homemade Advent “wreath” was taken by my high school friend, and fellow Presbyterian, Judy Binkley, and she’ll be using it this year. Maybe you can’t see it too well, but there are four tealights in a row with a Christmas cactus in bloom at the end. What you also can’t see in the photo is how much that cactus means to Judy this year. You see, it was given to her just about a year ago by her friend Christine, the day before Judy’s surgery for a brain tumor. Now the Christmas cactus is a hopeful houseplant. As the name suggests, it blooms right on schedule around Christmas every year, and last year it gave Judy something to look forward to, to focus on, as she prepared for her trip to the hospital. And all went well for her. Judy survived her surgery last November and enjoyed the December flowers, and she’s enjoying them again this year. But her friend Christine is not. You see, Christine lost her battle with cancer and died in August of this year, and in her memory, Judy is using that same Christmas cactus in her process of getting ready again this year for Christ’s coming. What is poignant for me about this photo is knowing that surely Christine must have been in the midst of her own health struggles when she offered this gift, and yet found the grace within to offer such a thoughtful gift for someone else who needed it. She could have been so focused on herself and her own future that she might have missed the opportunity of this kind of being ready, the kind I believe Christ had in mind when he told the disciples about how to wait for his coming. If the gift she gave my friend was any indication of how she lived her life, I have no doubt that Christine suffered no burnout in the days leading to her death, her time of waiting to meet Christ, because she lived ready – ready to love, ready to care, ready to share even in the midst of her own pain. May we all live such a life this Advent and beyond. Amen.