Sermon: Advent Is a Time for Spiritual Preparation

The Rev. Bernard W. Poppe, Rector
The season of Advent begins today. The liturgical colors change to the royal blues and purples symbolic of anticipating the arrival of a King. The wreath is set up with the first of four candles burning anticipating the four weeks of preparation for the Feast of the Nativity, also called Christmas.
In the history of the Church, this season was a time of penance, similar to Lent. It was a time to prepare spiritually for the joy of the Christmas feast. We still have a sense of preparation for Christmas in a different, secular way. The shopping, parties, sending cards, home and shop decorations, all pointing to this special day. It's good to anticipate, it sharpens the joy of a special event. On the surface, Christmas has become about gift giving, but beneath that surface is the love that inspires the gift. The weeks leading up to Christmas are filled with the anticipation of the joy released on that day with the gifts for children, spouses, other family members, friends and co-workers. It's an Advent season in its own right.
While Christmas in today's world has taken the shape it has both in the secular and religious world, it also has a dual role for people of faith. It commemorates the birth of the Christ and looks forward to the coming of Christ again. On December 25 we observe an event that already happened. The season of Advent is to remind us that we are to be alert for an event that has not yet happened.
The lessons we read this morning are filled with this kind of anticipation. Anticipation of how God will work in the unknown future. The lesson from Israel anticipates a great day when there will be no more war and the swords will be beat into plows. Being in a time of war we can well imagine that hope. When it will no longer be necessary to arm ourselves against brothers and sisters we call enemies. When our technology will be used to create food and shelter and all necessities for the people of the world. What a great day that will be. Like Isaiah, we are a people of Advent waiting for God's kingdom in that way.
But there are also more immediate ways of waiting. The Gospel gives a nice lesson about the need for preparation. I've read this story for years and like so many other times, each reading yields a different way of looking at it. Jesus told his followers that no one knows when and how God will work in the future. He reminds them of the story of Noah and how people in his day were laughing and eating and drinking and living as though they had not a care in the world. They had no idea that the flood was about to happen and were caught unaware and carried off by it. Noah and his family alone were saved because they had listened to God and made an Ark. When the flood came, they were carried to safety -- them and the animals they needed to restock the world.
Once in a while the Discovery Channel or the History Channel will do an episode on finding the Ark. Supposedly it struck land in the Turkish mountains. They give tantalizing circumstantial evidence to substantiate the claim, but positive proof is just beyond reach. There is a segment of the Christian Church that desperately wants to find such proof as though that will validate to a scoffing world that all the claims of the Bible are literally true.
I don't think they'll find it, if you ask me. And I'm not on the side of those who believe the literal truth of Noah's Ark. As I tell the confirmation class, stories don't need to be true to find the truth in them. Searching for the Ark misses the point of the story. It's about being prepared for disaster.
God spoke to Noah and Noah listened. He built what he needed to survive the flood. The other people didn't. That doesn't mean that God didn't tell them, it means that they didn't listen. In the language of the Old Testament, God causes everything good and bad. It's a reward and punishment view of the world, nothing happens by chance. Our world view is different, and that world view was shaped by the events of the New Testament. Jesus told us of God's love for the world and God's care for the world.
God doesn't cause the evil in the world, but transcends it, overcomes it, moves beyond it and helps us to do the same. Disaster hits everyone at one time or another. The flood becomes an illustration of the overwhelming sense of calamity that may occur in our lives. People who have suffered the death of a parent or child, spouse or partner can relate to the power of a flood sweeping them away. Loss of jobs or security such as those lost in this long recession has been devastating to many. The earthquakes in Haiti, the hurricanes in the south and other natural disasters point to the overwhelming power of disaster.
Without trying to sound too apocalyptic, we are all in the path of some unknown disaster. We will all experience, if we haven't already, something devastating. The question comes up, how have we prepared for it? What ark have we built to protect us from the flood?
Last week we had a lovely baptism of a sweet baby girl. I reminded those here that the part of the church where the pews are is called the nave, which is from the Latin meaning "ship." A look at the ceiling is to remind us of the underside of th hull of a ship. The symbol here is that our faith is the ark upon which we are carried to safety when trials or disaster strikes.
We carry insurance for our homes, cars and health, not in a way that makes us afraid to go outside, but in a way that makes us feel reasonably prepared if something happens to anyone of those things. But none of those forms of insurance works for the spirit of a person trying to pick up the pieces of a life that has been disastrously affected. That kind of preparation comes in prayer and faith.
Rose Kennedy was asked what she did each time she received the tragic news that one of her sons had been killed. Her response was that the first thing she did was to go to church. Before she could deal with the shock and grief, she had to pray. Her Ark was built very strong, and she made it through. People who survive great tragedy and horrible living situations often credit prayer with their ability to survive. Scientific tests are conducted these days observing the increase in healing ability among those who profess a faith versus those who claim to have no faith.
Advent as a season of preparation calls us to consider the importance of being spiritually prepared to be in the world, putting on the "armor of light" to use Paul's phrase. Doing so means that we not living in fear that something might happen, but living in faith that when it does, we can handle it and with God's help transcend it, and like Noah, bring with us that which we need to rebuild our world.
Last week the clergy of this district got together for a meeting with Canon Greg Jacobs who is Bishop Beckwith's assistant. His official title is "Canon to the Ordinary." We all get together from time to time to check in with each other, find out what's going on in our churches and our lives and support each other in various ways. We often do a Bible study using the lessons for the upcoming Sunday and it actually helps us prepare for our sermons.
When we read this Gospel we shared different impressions. When it was my turn I was overcome by a devilish smile -- the kind that gave away that I'd thought of something that I found very funny but wasn't sure my colleagues would. Never the less I ventured my impression of the story Jesus told with the people eating and drinking unaware of the flood. God help me, it reminded me of the Three Little Pigs. Building the house of straw and twigs wasn't enough. The wolf blew them both down. But the house of bricks was strong enough. The people eating and drinking that Jesus talked about had built their houses of straw and twigs, but Noah, to complete the musing, had the house of bricks. They teased me for my thoughts but kept coming back to the image I used. Our children's stories are ingrained in us in the ways that the Bible stories were ingrained in generations of people of faith. They speak of truths that reach deep into our understanding and teach us how to prepare for the world in which we live that can sometimes be dangerous and appear cruel.
Advent is about preparing for the feast of Christmas, but in a deeper sense is about being prepared with God's help to be in the world. To live in expectation that no matter what, God will be there for us to see us through the floods of overwhelming circumstance in our lives. As Jesus said, we don't know when these things will happen -- the day or the hour -- but they will come like a thief in the night. When they do, we have the power of God to see us through. And just as the circumstances of our lives come at unexpected times, the strength of God comes at equally unexpected times to save us. Amen.
©2010 St. George's Episcopal Church, Maplewood, NJ