November 27, 2022

"Keep Awake”

Rev. Scott Landis

Isaiah 2:1-5 & Matthew 24: 36-44

The season of Advent for me is typically filled with much excitement and anticipation – and yet it’s a bit daunting at the same time. I love its emphasis on preparation, and the great themes of mana’olana (hope), maluhia (peace), hau’oli (joy), and aloha (love). The decorations are beautiful and provide a sense of nostalgia as I remember Christmases past. The songs are some of my favorites and invite us to look deep within as we await the coming of Christ once again as the child-king. But the scripture passages strike fear into the heart of even the most seasoned preacher as we try to listen anew for a message for our day.

The central symbol of Advent is usually a wreath which typically has a rather prominent position in the church. As more candles are lit each week and the wreath grows in brightness, kids of all ages know we are getting closer to Christmas which further elicits the excitement the countdown intends.

Unlike our wreath of lava rock - the wreath I remember takes me back to my childhood church in a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania. I was an acolyte as a youngster – and had to undergo strict training by the pastor on how to properly light the candles for Sunday worship – but during Advent the stakes got a lot higher. We had, hanging in our church sanctuary – what I remember as a huge Advent Wreath. Suspended by chains, the metal structure was decorated by the Women’s Fellowship every year with live greens and four purple candles – one for each Sunday in the Advent season.

At a pivotal moment in the worship service, it was the responsibility of the acolyte to take the candle-lighter, get a light from the altar, and walk under the wreath, and raise the light to the candle or candles to be lit for that Sunday. It wasn’t so bad if you got week one or two, but if you got stuck doing week three or four – not only did you have to light more candles – well, by then the live greens had dried out significantly. One wrong move could end up in an Advent Torch rather than an Advent Wreath.

It was enough to scare the heck out of even the best acolyte. I remember “staying awake” the night before “my Sunday” — not preparing for the second coming of Christ, rather worrying about whether I’d be able to pull off the impossible task of lighting the candles without the wreath starting to spin – let alone not to ignite the greens. I can only imagine what was going through the mind of my parents – and others in the congregation.

Anticipation and terror came together in that moment – and that’s precisely the feeling that is intended in a scripture passage like the one we read today from the gospel of Matthew. [Pause]

You may remember, I mentioned last week that Advent scriptures typically fall into the apocalyptic genre. Their intent is to get us to wake up – to open our eyes and to become fully aware of what is going on all around us – an exercise that can elicit anticipation – but also a level of anxiety and possibly downright terror.

Jesus, the primary speaker in Matthew 24, spoke of the impending destruction of the Temple. Then he warned about false prophets who would try and deceive and take them away from HIS message. He then spoke of the trials and tribulations that would affect all of humankind – events that would occur before he returned to the earth. And yet he concluded, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Do you sense this intersection of those conflicting emotions? But! They were not to worry – nor were they to make any special preparations. Rather, they were advised to “Stay Awake,” for their hope was not in their own ability or power. No! Their hope was solely in their ability to be open and aware — to maintain a posture of readiness – to be present to the present moment. Or as former mentor of mine used to say, “To be present to Presence.” That is where and how they would experience the Grace of God – the Awareness of God. The insight of God. It was by being fully present – fully conscious – as they developed a deeper sense of knowing – themselves and their surroundings. [Pause]

It is so easy to get caught up and completely overwhelmed by all the bad news and tragedy that exists in our world today. I find myself often leaning in that direction as my heart despairs at what I read in the news or experience firsthand. But Advent invites a very different posture, I believe.

Advent invites us to as ourselves, “What do I hope for? What is a burden I carry that I would like to see change or let go of completely?

I read to my Bible Study group this past Wednesday a little devotional by the Rev. Vicki Kemper pastor of First Congregational Church of Amherst, MA. Vicki referenced the story of Jesus healing the 10 Lepers – only one of which returned to thank Jesus. While most sermons focus on this grateful recipient, Vicki said it was the other 9 who she thinks about. They were to go to show themselves to the priest – but it wasn’t until they began their journey that they were healed. In other words, they went on their way “As If” they had been healed – but the healing didn’t occur right away.

She suggested we ought to begin living our lives in that level of faith – AS IF. That’s mana’olana. That’s hope. We live life as if our burden will change for the better. But we have to put it in gear. We have to move in the direction of change so THAT which we hope for may begin.

Vicki offers the examples, “We make the hard decision to undergo the chemo and radiation, not knowing if the misery will be worth it, but as if it will. We decide not to drink today, not knowing if we’ll be able to do the same tomorrow, but trusting we’ll get sober one day at a time. We reach out to that person who’s angry with us, as if forgiveness is possible. We work for racial justice, as if both hearts and systems can be changed. We care for creation, as if the worst of the climate crisis is not inevitable.

Professor and New Testament scholar Matt Skinner refers to this as “Active Hope,” and bases his description on the other passages in Matthew where problems are recognized and not just prayed about, but folks live “as if” change is possible and probable – when we begin to do something that makes a difference.

Pastor Vicki Kemper concludes by stating that, “As we go, we find companions along the way. As we go, we build community. As we go, we come to realize that we must live each day as if God’s love is at work in our lives and in the world, whether we see it or not. [Pause]

Back in my acolyte days, I had to live “as if” I could light the candles on that wreath and that as I did, it just may help others to “awaken” to the Advent invitation to hope – that the way we live CAN make a powerful difference in the world. I doubt I really thought that at 12 years of age, but I sure think a lot about that today.

Keep Awake! The scriptures beckon. Live “As If.” Jesus invites. Embrace the mana’olana – the hope that our small contribution can begin a world of change. May it be so.


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