The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Second Sunday of Advent
December 10, 2017
During my second year of seminary, I spent a month studying at the Episcopal Church’s seminary in the Dominican Republic. The seminary is in one of the rough neighborhoods of Santo Domingo - it’s next door to a sketchy bar and across the street from the Communist Party headquarters. No joke. By chance, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church was scheduled to visit the seminary while I was there. Having a bishop visit your church or seminary is stressful enough. Having the presiding bishop visit ranks just below the Queen of England and Jesus himself. For a whole week leading up to the visit, it was a flurry of activity. Cleaning, organizing, throwing away, tidying up. Even a fresh new coat of paint over the entire seminary campus.
Anyway, the big day came, and the presiding bishop arrived for the long anticipated visit. I’ll never shake this image from my mind. It was bizarre and surreal. All these seminarians from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, El Salvador, and the United States are standing there at the seminary’s driveway, shaking hands with the big boss. This huge mural of Che Guevara is looking over us from the Communist Party across the street. You can hear the partying next door at the bar. And all you can smell, is that fresh, new, coat of paint. If we thought that we were pulling a fast one of the presiding bishop by making her think the place was always that clean, we failed miserably. We walked into the seminary dining hall, and instead of the savory aroma of rice and yuca, all you could smell was paint. The chapel, paint. The courtyard, paint. We had done everything we could do to get ready, and it was obviously noticeable.
You know what I’m talking about. Your family is coming over for Christmas, so you clean the house. You scrub the floors, you even dust on top of the refrigerator. You clean the bathrooms, but all they can smell is bleach.
My question for us this morning is this - if our life was required of us today, and we were to meet our Maker, would the Lord notice our preparations? Would God smell that fresh coat of prayers? Would God see that the corners of our souls had been dusted and that our spiritual garbage had been taken out? We had advance notice of the presiding bishop’s arrival, but our own time may not come with such notice.
And that’s how the Gospel of Mark begins. There is a sense of suddenness we heard this morning. The beginning is unexpected. This is unlike the other three gospels. In Mark, there are no shepherds, no angels, no wise men, no Mary and Joseph. There’s none of that. Mark begins like an unexpected visit from your in-laws. “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He just appeared. It didn’t matter if the people were ready, it didn’t matter if they had prepared. John the baptizer just showed up and the ministry of Jesus began without warning, without preparation, without prior notice. Are you ready?
Are you ready? There will come a time for us to meet our Lord, it’s going to happen. We all have advance notice. We know that we are going to die. Are we prepared?
I mean, think of what we’ve all said about Houston and Harris County and the Army Corps of Engineers and Congress and the State Legislature and developers about our drainage issues. There’s been this collective finger pointing - they weren’t ready. They knew a storm like this was coming, but they couldn’t get their act together to actually do anything about the reservoirs, about the bayous, about the developments. They weren’t ready for what was bound to happen. Well, let’s take a dose of our medicine. And start preparing our souls for what we know is bound to happen. Our death.
See, it’s far better to start preparing to meet Jesus now than it is to try and catch up later. One of my favorite authors, Jeremy Taylor, says that actually, you aren’t living until you are ready to die. It’s only when you’ve made the spiritual preparations to meet Jesus when you’re dead that you can be fully alive.
This might be unsettling, because let’s face it - we live in a society that denies death. We deny aging. It’s why we spend billions of dollars trying to look younger, trying to smooth out our wrinkles, trying to grow our hair back. But death, death is coming. Whether it comes today, tomorrow, or decades from now, that is our destination. No matter how much Rogaine you take, no matter how much Botox you inject, death is coming. So instead of living in denial of what is bound to happen - live in a way that recognizes how short your time is. That is truly life. Everything else is just a charade.
This means saying your prayers. Day by day. Going to church, every single Sunday. It might seem like a lot of time, like a burden in the middle of a busy day, like a huge time out of the weekend. But you never know if that day will be your last. Like the sudden beginning of Mark’s gospel, your end might come unexpectedly. Will you be ready?
And figure out what you’re going to do with your money. I’m serious about this. You know, there’s a actually a rule in our Book of Common Prayer that says, from time to time, I’m supposed to instruct you all to make sure that your money is well spent and that you have written your last wills. I know, you don’t like it when I meddle with your personal lives. But I’m just following the rules. It is our Christian duty, our obligation, to make sure that we have arranged for our money when we die. It is my duty to instruct you to get your will written. And to make sure that you leave behind what money you do have for your family, for your church, and for charity. And not to put it off. If you fail to plan, plan to fail.
Preparing for death is an act of stewardship. Of being good stewards of our two most important possessions, time and money. Because you know what? The time you have in this life, it does not belong to you. It belongs to God. And the money you have in this life, you cannot take it with you. The suddenness, the unexpected nature of Jesus’ arrival - Advent - is a wake up call so that we’re ready for our death. Then, we can finally enjoy our lives. Then, we’ll have a real life.
And I know, in the midst of everyday life, preparing for your death seems absurd. See, the real temptation to stop following Jesus typically does not come from a prowling evil presence. No, the real temptation to stop following Jesus, to stop praying, to stop caring, comes from the grind of everyday life. When you are rushing to get the kids to school, to get out of work for the day, to finish the laundry, to do the dishes - Jesus can get pushed to the margins. I know, because I live it, too. Which only makes this message all the more important. Clean out your hearts, vacuum the recesses of your minds, give your soul a fresh coat of paint, today. Because no other day is promised to you.
Eventually, the presiding bishop left the seminary in the Dominican Republic. She had to go make another visit somewhere else. All we were left with was the smell of paint and a clean seminary. And you know what? It was actually nice to have fresh clean walls. We enjoyed the place better that the floors had been scrubbed. It was really nice that everything was organized and cleaned out. We could get on with our life, and we were much happier for it.
The prophet Isaiah shouts out - “prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight!” The good news of Jesus Christ is that God loves us even if we are not ready, even if our paths our crooked, even if we don’t know what it means to be loved. The whole point of preparing is not to get Jesus to love us. No, Jesus already loves us. The whole point of preparing is so that we fully understand what it means to be loved. So that we can love God and our neighbors in return. So that we enjoy our lives better with that fresh coat of paint and that clean soul.
And please, don’t take this sermon as a downer. I pray that we all have long, happy lives. But our lives will be more fruitful, and our time will be richer when we have tended to our spiritual lives, day by day, week by week. And then death will not come like an unexpected visit from your in-laws. No, death will come as an old friend. Because you will be ready.