First Sunday of Advent 2010
Our December book club selection that I read over the holiday got me thinking about dreams, and the power of a dream to share an important message. Sometimes it’s not so much the dream itself, but the way that the dream makes us feel upon waking. Some leave you with a sense of peace, some with a sense of anxiety. The most powerful dreams are the ones that you sense could really happen.
As I think about our Advent theme of preparing the way so that we are ready, one particular dream comes to mind. I bet many of you have had similar dreams. You’re in school, and all of a sudden a deadline sneaks up on you. And you are totally unprepared. It might be a science project that you kept putting off, or that final exam you forgot to study for. Yes, most of us have had that dream and in fact it is among the top ten most common recurring dreams.
After I began teaching, I started having a variation of that dream. In this new drama, the end of the semester approached and I realized that we hadn’t covered any of the material. Or I’d forgotten to show up for class for weeks on end and the students just wandered off. The worst one was based on a situation that was a little too true. As a new teacher I had trouble setting up an objective grading system…the syllabus was too vague in terms of the criteria for grading. In the dream, the students came stampeding into my office complaining about their grades. “Nobody ever told us!” And in my dream they were right…I hadn’t prepared them.
The reason that dreams like this are so common is that we share common anxieties…and we all have things for which we know we are unprepared, and for which we put off getting prepared. And none of us have as much time as we would like to think that we have.
Advent marks the beginning of the Christian year. Advent is to be looked upon as a time of active waiting…as an expectant mother waits for a child. There is excitement, but it is subdued. There is a festive air, but it is not a party. There is promise, but the time has not yet come. We are told, in no uncertain terms, to get ready.
The stories we read in these next 4 weeks are all about being ready and waiting. Jesus warns the community of believers that the coming of the Son of Man will bring both promise and judgment. These scriptures are in a minor key like our Advent hymns…a little unsettling maybe. But the minor key of these hymns assist us in our active, expectant waiting for a king unlike any other.
We know when the tiny baby king will be born. We do not know when the full grown king will return. But we are to expect that it will happen in the midst of ordinary life. For example, in the days of Noah, there was no hint of any coming disaster. Jesus challenges us to be ready and keep awake for this coming change. But it’s been so long since Jesus lived and died. How does one maintain a sense of urgency when it seems there is no particular hurry?
Two vivid images are set forth in this passage. One is Noah, who is compared with his contemporaries who were “ eating and drinking and marrying and giving their children in marriage.” In other words, they were just living the everyday life we all know. Noah’s neighbors thought that everyday life would go on forever while Noah engaged in the urgent task of building a boat. Noah took to heart the message to be ready and waiting.
The other figure from this passage in Matthew is the householder who lacks vigilance in protecting the house. Because he fails to keep watch, the thief succeeds in breaking in and plundering the house. What Noah’s neighbors and the householder share in common is that they failed to watch — because they weren’t in a hurry.
A fable is told about three apprentice devils who were talking with Satan about their plans to destroy all of humanity. The first apprentice suggested telling people there was no God. Satan rejected that suggestion. The second apprentice suggested they tell people that sin and evil are okay, but Satan rejected this suggestion, too. Finally, the third apprentice said, “Let us destroy all of humanity by telling them there is no hurry!” The fable concludes that Satan loved that suggestion because he knew that people would believe there is no hurry.
Jesus knows we have this weakness. So he warns us by sharing dream-like images. One can almost hear him say to the crowd, ”has anybody ever had a dream like this…you’re standing on the shore watching as Noah and his family pull away in their boat? Or, have you ever had the dream where you’re working in the field and all of a sudden your neighbor gets taken and you get left?” Maybe those were the recurring dreams of people back then!
Here in Matthew is a vivid vision of the end of the semester. It is coming. Jesus knows the basis on which we will be graded because the syllabus was set forth clearly when we signed on for the course.
The parables that follow in Matthew (the bridesmaids and the parable of the talents) reinforce this urgent message. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning because the bridegroom will return. Then Chapter 25 concludes with a passage with which we are very familiar. Lord, when did we see you? In a vision depicting the actual coming of the Son of Man, a judgment is rendered regarding those who have or have not tended to the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the naked and the imprisoned. The judgment as described in Matthew 25 leaves no doubt as to what exactly is meant by being ready and waiting. We can’t say nobody ever told us or that the syllabus wasn’t clear enough.
Yet we are expected to wait with hope in our hearts. We should be hopeful not fearful. We are a people who have been prepared. John the Baptist prepared the way as did the prophets before him. The kingdom is coming and it will be one of justice and joy. Our first hymn this morning proclaims the coming kingdom: “When the king shall come again, all his power revealing, splendor shall announce his reign, life, and joy, and healing. Earth no longer in decay, hope no more frustrated, this is God’s redemption day, longingly awaited.”
Are you prepared? Are you awake? Are you ready?