Scripture: Matthew 24:36-44
I think this passage can be summed up in the immortal words of Elton John, via Scar the lion, “be prepared!” Jesus informs us that no one can predict when the Son of Man will come, so we must always be prepared. And I’ll just point out that the term “Son of Man” in the Hebrew bible was used to refer to humankind, however in the new testament we interpret it as referring to Jesus.
In any case, Jesus says no one can predict his arrival, but we know when he arrives, right? December 25th! He mentions the great flood; how only Noah knew when it was coming, or that it was coming, so while he was prepared when the waters rose, everyone else was swept away in the middle of whatever they had been doing. Be prepared, Jesus says! I think there’s more to the preparation than just making sure you’ve dotted your Is and crossed your T’s, more to it than making sure you have adequate milk and bread and canned food supply.
Jesus tells us to keep awake, to stay watchful and present. It can be so hard to stay present during Advent, to slow down and remember that this is its own season, separate from the Christmas season, also known as the twelve days of Christmas, running from December 25th until January 6th. Our society starts Christmas in November (and I’ll admit, I was already listening to Christmas music before thanksgiving), but you may notice that our hymnal has an entirely separate section for Advent hymns. Jesus invites us to set aside time for the preparation, to make the preparation its own event, journey, and purpose.
Two weeks ago I touched briefly on how the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem led to the evolution of Rabbinic, or synagogue-based Judaism. Out of this shift came the development of what are known as home holidays- Hanukkah, Passover, and Sukkot. These are holidays observed primarily at home, as opposed to the High Holy Days, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana, which are observed at the synagogue. Home holidays involve preparation and family ritual, such as getting rid of all of the grain in your house or building a sukkah.
I see Advent as a Christian ‘home holiday’- the preparation is as important as the main event; preparing our homes is more than just decorating- it’s ritual. As you’ll hear throughout this service, the greens with which we typically decorate our homes carry a symbolism that speaks to how we prepare our souls. Even the use of evergreens itself harkens to the way people would prepare their homes for the gathering darkness, inviting the resilient promise of the evergreens to carry them through until the return of the light. Jesus says we wont’ know when it’s going to happen…all we know is that it’s going to happen, so all we really can do is prepare- prepare our homes and our hearts.
In many ways, preparing our homes helps us prepare our hearts. Ritual is an important part of seasons of preparation like advent and lent- Ritual helps us link a movement or condition of the soul, something abstract and intangible, with a movement or action in the world, something concrete, repetitive, and predictable. Rituals like lighting candles or hanging up string lights, choosing a tree or baking cookies help keep us grounded in this period of preparation.
The world at large encourages us to head full tilt into Christmas, but how can we if we haven’t spent time in preparation? Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither, as Matthew’s gospel points out, was the ark. Marking the Advent season as one of intentional preparation can also help the acts of preparation themselves feel less like chores with a December 25th deadline and more like part of the point itself. “How do we prepare for the coming of the king?” our opening litany questions, “With branches of cedar, and fir, pine and holly.”
It’s no longer something we have to do so the in-laws are impressed or so we feel adequate and put together or so we’re the best stop on the house tour or so that our kids have the ‘perfect’ holiday, this is something we get to do in order to help prepare our hearts and souls for the coming of Christ.
After all, the ways we prepare our homes can also reflect and reinforce our values. When we decorate as a family, or gather to light a candle each night or open the next window in the advent calendar, when we string popcorn because there’s no room in the budget for a garland or when we head to the library to rent Love Actually before anyone else snatches it up first, we are living out our values of family togetherness and community, mindfulness, sustainability, humility and frugality, and so on. Letting our children hang ornaments exactly where they want to, in not-so-artful clusters, we are living out our values of affirmation and support, when we muster up the energy to hang a wreath on the door even though just getting out of bed was a struggle, we’re living into the values of faith and trust that even amidst times of gathering darkness, even in the deepest night, the light always returns.
If we prepare our souls by living out the values that Jesus’ teachings instill in us, we’re turning our hearts towards christ, explicitly and implicitly. When our souls are focused on how love manifests amongst humankind, it’s much easier to recognize the source of that love when we encounter it. Preparations made in love, be they of our homes or of our hearts, are the star charts that guide us to Bethlehem, to the christ child. We may not know when, or how, for who could have predicted that God would join us on earth as a peasant baby…we wont know when or who, but we know one thing- we will be prepared. Amen.