Sunday, December 1, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
First Sunday of Advent
According to Google Maps, it only takes around six hours to drive all the way from Coleridge, NE, to Davenport, IA. But what Google Maps doesn’t show you is how long that trip takes when you have three small children in the car. In my experience, it takes more like… nine hours.
The drive from Coleridge (my hometown) to Davenport is one my family used to make all the time when I was growing up. My mom’s family is all from the Quad Cities area, and so we used to make the drive out there at least a few times a year – especially around this time of year for the holidays. Mom and Dad and my younger brother and sister and I would all pile in the old Dodge Caravan and head east. It would still be a long drive even if you only had adults in the car – adults who can, in theory, hold it for six hours – and you’d still have to stop at least once for gas, especially back in the 90s.
But with three small kids in the car, forget about it. We stopped constantly. I am pretty sure I have been inside literally every single Iowa rest stop along I-80. We stopped at the World’s Largest Truck Stop in Walcott. We stopped at Adventureland in Des Moines. Whenever we stopped to eat, we almost always went through two or three different drive-thrus because each of us wanted something different to eat. And we always made sure to slow down while passing Adair, IA, so that we could wave at the water tower; it’s big and yellow and it has a smiley face painted on it, and somewhere along the way, we nicknamed it “Mikey” and decided it was our friend.
As kids, it’s not that we weren’t totally excited to get to Davenport to see our relatives – we were! But we were also interested in seeing just about everything else on the way.
This is not how most people prefer to travel, though. Most of us tend to be more focused on getting from point A to point B in a timely fashion, especially on a long drive. We’re generally not in it for the part in the middle. I mean, when I lived in Chicago, as an adult, I used to make this same drive from Davenport to Coleridge as part of my drive home for the holidays – and when I did, I usually stopped only once on the way, and only because couldn’t make it on a single tank of gas (though I confess I did still wave at Mikey).
And lots of people wouldn’t even bother driving such a long way – especially through this part of the country. I’m sure you’ve heard the term “flyover states” used to describe where we live. States like Nebraska and Iowa tend to be considered “flyover country” because so many people choose to fly over them in their hurry to get to somewhere else. And there are a lot of people hurrying to get places around this time of year, a lot of us just focused on making it from point A to point B as quickly as possible.
As humans, we all have a tendency to focus on where we’ve come from and on where we are going – and to tune out just about everything else. And that can mean that sometimes we miss out on good stuff in the middle.
The season of Advent is about the middle. It’s about the long drive. Advent is the flyover country of liturgical seasons.
In one sense, I say this because it’s a season that most people seem to be content to skip. You’ve probably heard people complain that there’s a “war on Christmas,” but I would argue that, if there’s a “war” on anything, it’s on Advent! Christmas stuff seems to show up everywhere earlier and earlier each year – so much so that, by the time Christmas actually gets here, we’re all completely sick of it.
Now, I promise this sermon isn’t going to be just some crotchety rant about when people should or shouldn’t put up their Christmas decorations. That would be completely hypocritical – God knows I’ve been working on Christmas crafts and humming Christmas carols for at least a solid six weeks now, lol.
But there is something to be said for a season of quietness and presence and contemplation in the midst of all the hubbub.
Advent is about the middle, about the waiting, about flyover country. And in a broad sense, Advent is about the theological temptation we experience to view our own lives as flyover country – to see our lives as part of this shapeless middle between the stuff God did before and the stuff that we’re waiting and hoping for God to do.
During this season, we remember the darkness and the anticipation leading up to Christ’s birth as a tiny child; and we look forward to his return and to the coming of the kingdom and the resurrection of the dead on the last day. We remember the incarnation and we anticipate the resurrection. But the importance of everything in between those two points can end up getting kind of lost – including what we do with our lives now.
To be sure, the incarnation and the resurrection are both extremely important. On the one hand, remembering Christ’s incarnation and his humble birth reminds us of God’s love for us and for creation; it reminds us about who God is. And on the other hand, as Christians, our hope for the future is set on Christ’s return and on the coming of the kingdom. And it’s easy to get caught up thinking about that future, imagining what it will be like, wondering when it will happen.
But, as Jesus points out in our gospel reading for today, we have no idea when that future will be. He says that not even “the angels in heaven nor the Son” know when that day will be. And he uses some kind of extreme examples to talk about what a surprise it will be when it does come. Of course, this hasn’t stopped Christians over the centuries from trying to guess! One of the gospel commentaries I read this week made the snarky comment that, “It is remarkable how many interpreters seem to believe that they can accomplish what the Son confesses he cannot do.”
Jesus says we are to be ready and watchful – but it’s not so that we can try and figure out on our own when that day will be. Instead, we’re driving down the road toward God’s future like a family in a minivan with small children: literally God only knows when we’re finally going to reach the promised land of Davenport, IA!
All this leaves us to focus on our time now, on the time in between point A and point B – in the flyover country between incarnation and resurrection.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” Paul echoes Jesus in his call to be ready. But he isn’t only talking about being ready and watchful for the day of the Lord, for an unknowable future. Paul is talking about how we live now.
The kingdom is near to us now. And it’s not because the end times are upon us (I’m not about to stand out on the street corner screaming at people to repent, for the end is near). It’s because God is still very much at work in the world. The kingdom is breaking into this world all over the place in little ways, and we are called to be awake and ready and watchful so that we might see it.
We could choose to be sleepy and checked out in this long car ride toward salvation. But God is calling us to pay attention. God is calling us to be on the lookout for signs of the kingdom – for signs of Christ’s presence in the world around us now. We know that God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end; God is point A and point B; but God is God of all the stuff in the middle too. God is a God of flyover states. God is a God of all the small children who are really good at stopping to notice the wonderful little things all along the way.
The call of Advent to be ready and awake is a call to be open and alert to the present moment. It’s a call to be still and notice what God is doing in our world and in our lives right now. And now is the season for us to listen intently for where the Spirit might be calling us.
You never know what you might find when you take the time to stop and wait and listen. This is a world full of wondrous things: interesting rest stops and friendly water towers and all kinds of other wonders. So keep your eyes and your hearts open – because there’s lots to see in flyover country.