One of the great joys I have been having lately is learning to tell stories to my daughter who is almost three years old and it’s funny because I thought I knew these stories because I had heard them my whole life. My parents used to tell me the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and I thought I knew it.
I know that it begins, “Once upon a time,” and I know that somehow, I need to get to: “And they lived happily ever after” But, man, if I can’t remember what was wrong with the chairs and why one didn’t work out, and what happens at the end, when the Bears show up and Goldilocks wakes us, and consequently every story is different.
There’s no manual for how do this except to practice and try and get to the end and you do know how it ends:
“And they lived happily ever after.”
Pretty early on in our lives we learn that a story has a beginning and a story has an ending and that the proper thing to do is to begin at the beginning and work your way along until you arrive at the end.
So it may seem strange but here on the first Sunday of Advent (the beginning of a new church year) we don’t begin at the beginning.
We don’t read the creation story, and hear how in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Instead we hear a vision of the end from Isaiah of a day to come when the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established as the highest mountain, and all nations, all peoples, all tribes from every continent will stream to it, seeking instruction from our God, and all people will beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, and no one will know how to make war anymore.
And we look around at the wars and bombings and protests and terrorist attacks and we know, Isaiah’s words have got to be a vision of the end, because it’s not a vision of the times we’re living in!
We’re used to beginning at the beginning and ending with the ending so it may seem strange to begin our new year in Matthew’s gospel not hearing about Joseph and Mary, the sweet baby Jesus, and the angels and the magi…But we don’t begin at the beginning.
Instead, we hear Jesus speaking a warning, painting a picture of the end of all things, when he will return to bring God’s judgment on the world.
Today we are paying attention to endings because it is so easy to know we live somewhere between the beginning and the end and to lose ourselves in the everyday things of this life, eating and drinking, (as in the time of Noah) and going to weddings and parties and not really thinking much about the coming of the Son of Man.
And so today we hear the word of the Lord as he urges us to “Keep Awake” because we do not know on which day He is coming.
We begin with the end because every new day brings so many unknowns, so many difficult decisions, so many hanging questions, but in the midst of it all: we know the ending of our story.
We know that whatever we face, no matter what joys or heartbreaks may come, that in the end we are destined to be with God.
God promises us: no matter what sickness or suffering we have had to endure, he will make us well…in the end, no matter what depression, addiction, or brokenness we have had to carry, we will live happily, joyfully, abundantly ever after.
God promises through his crucified and risen son, He will gather us to himself. He will wipe away every tear. He will give us his salvation.
God himself has prepared our ending.
And that makes all the difference for how we live today.
Now maybe you never have had one, but I’ve had days when I didn’t want to get out of bed.
I’ve had days when I felt so bad, I felt so much weight on me, I felt so hopeless, that my prayer to God was, please get me through this day. Just this God: One. More. Day.
And that’s when it matters that we know the end of our story.
Paul says, because we know the end of the story, its time to wake up from our sleep, to get up, and to get dressed.
We have passed the time of pulling the covers back over our head and dreading to face the world.
We know that our crucified and risen Lord has gone before us.
And that on the third day, early in the morning while it was still dark, he got up and laid his grave clothes aside and stepped out in the world to begin a new creation.
He is the bright day that is coming to end the night of our despair. He is the sun that rises with healing in his wings, bringing the new day God has prepared for us.
So we have hope.
So we can be ready.
So it’s time to us to get up and get dressed…
Paul says, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
And I wonder if there are ways people can see who we are in the world by what we wear.
In the youth group we make matching t-shirts from time to time which have a bible verse on them. They are all the same color. We wear them when we do service projects so that people might connect what we’re doing in the community with who has called us to do it (the uniformity of color also comes in handy so we don’t leave anyone behind).
In my clerical collar, out in the community, people come up to me a hospitals and gas stations and any other place you can think of about once a week and ask me to pray for them and I have appreciated these always surprising, always moving encounters.
Many people wear a cross as a way to share their faith. I have heard people in waiting rooms and grocery store lines remark on another persons cross and then listened as they shared about the difference God has made in their life.
Some people are choosing to wear safety pins on their clothes as a show of solidarity with those who have been marginalized as a way to say they are a safe person to come to if you feel you are in danger.
I wonder if there are other ways you have been identified out in the community by your dress.
My guess is we are somewhat different than the people of the first century whose social standing was firmly cemented by the clothes they wore.
We are a bit freer to choose how we will present ourselves and how we will dress.
But I do know each of you wear Jesus Christ in your baptism.
At the font you put on our Lord.
Each of you have been marked with his cross forever and wear it daily as a sign on your life.
Each day you are invited and we are invited to put on his way of life and to put on his way of being, and let him be born into the world through us.
Each day we’re invited to wear an armor of light, as Paul says, invisible and yet illuminating the world around us; working with God to drive back the dark.
We have this vision of of the end – of what the world is going to look like when Jesus returns.
That there will be no more fighting, no more name-calling, no more bullying, no more hurting one another, no more hating one another.
Our Prince of Peace will gather all people together. The Alpha and Omega, beginning and Ending will gather us in his healing embrace.
Hopefully people can see his cross on our life even now, while we wait for that Day to come. Hopefully people can see Him in the actions we choose, in our regard and respect for different nations and peoples and tribes whom he is inviting to his holy mountain.
We know our ending:
We know that our crucified Lord is living, we know death is defeated, we know that the end of our story is our salvation.
The question is what are we going to do with our life now?
Or as the poet Mary Oliver asks the question:
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
He has given us a beginning. He has prepared our ending…we get to make up the part in the middle.
But you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from your sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.
The night is far gone. The day is near.