Will We Be Ready When Jesus Comes?
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11
I work in the church three or four times a week. I go into my office through the sacristy and keep the door between my office and Marcia’s closed. When I do need to go into Marcia’s office, which is rare, I wear a mask and so does she. We keep each other safe.
And every time I’m in the church, I walk into the sanctuary and just stand here for a few moments. I say hello to the space. I don’t know why I do it, it just feels right. I think it’s because I can feel you all in here. I can see Jack and Dave and Barry up on the first pew with their instruments. I see Joan and Marcy in their usual place about four pews back on the right. I see Kristian in the back row with Marci and Sid. I see all of your faces when I come in, and I say hello.
And then I get really sad. You’re not here. You haven’t been here since March. We haven’t sang together in this space since March. We haven’t taken communion together in this space since March.
And it’s the right thing to do. I know it is. Just the other day, I read about the director of the National Institutes of Health, a devout Christian himself, imploring religious leaders to keep their buildings closed. He said:
"You're doing the altruistic, loving thing of saying, 'I'm going to protect people from me.' And that's a Christian action if ever I've heard one."
So we stay home. We worship online. We do our best in this wilderness.
So often we speak of the wilderness in metaphorical terms: a tough spot in our individual lives. An illness. A divorce. A natural disaster. But this year, this Advent, the wilderness is real, and we’re all walking through it together. The whole world is walking through it together.
Covid is killing nearly 3,000 people every single day in our country. And most of them are over the age of 65.
We have been forced to change our lives to keep ourselves and each other safe. Some of us are so isolated. Some of us haven’t hugged our grandchildren or parents in months. Some of us are trying to do in-person jobs on Zoom, and it’s exhausting. And some of us have lost our jobs and are waiting for help to arrive. We’re fighting loneliness. Depression. The tension built between people stuck for too long in a house together. We are all in the wilderness together.
In our Isaiah reading, we heard the prophet say:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
And the gospel echoes Isaiah: See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.
One of the carols we’ll sing on Christmas Eve says, “let every heart prepare him room.”
Advent is a wilderness time. And this wilderness time is not just a time of waiting for the savior, it’s a time of preparing our lives and this world for the savior.
It’s not that Jesus isn’t coming, it’s: will we be ready when Jesus comes? Will we recognize him? Because he doesn’t come as a hero swooping in to save the day. He comes as an infant whose parents can’t find anywhere else but a barn to give birth. He comes as a carpenter. He comes as a small town Jew to the big city where he is of little significance to the Jewish leaders, and of even less significance to the ruling government.
As far as the world was concerned, Jesus was no one. Only his closest friends saw him for who he was—and it took constant practice for them to keep believing.
Like those friends, we have to keep practicing so that we recognize Jesus when he comes to us. And as we heard a few weeks ago, Jesus comes into our lives in the form of the least of these.
He may come as a worker at a food-processing facility whose employers didn’t put protective measures in place. He brings the virus home to his wife and his elderly mother who lives with them. His mother ends up on a ventilator and dies alone in the ICU, and he is devastated with guilt. But he has to keep going to his unsafe workplace day after day, because he can’t afford to keep a roof over his family’s head if he doesn’t.
Jesus may come as a woman fleeing death threats in Honduras with her family. She ends up at our southern border where she is separated from her children and locked in an intentionally freezing cell. She develops a flu but is only given a thin blanket to keep her warm. She isn’t told where her children are.
How do we prepare the way for when Jesus comes into our lives like that? How do we make it possible for these people’s stories to enter our consciousness and let them change how we think? The same way we let the story of Jesus’ suffering in? Because their suffering is Jesus’ suffering.
Jesus doesn’t come bearing armfuls of vaccinations. He doesn’t come with a trumpet declaring restaurants and gyms open. He comes as the least of these, asking “how are you going to prepare the way for me?”
The Advent season is always a study in hope. Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes, “The natural setting of hope is among those who have grief and process it in the community.” The wilderness stories of the Bible—the Israelites wandering for 40 years after escaping Egypt, the Jews exiled from their land for 150 years—are about processing deep grief in community.
To have hope requires a capacity for sitting with grief—our own grief and the grief of others. Do we let ourselves see the pain of that man in the food processing facility whose mother is gone? Do we allow ourselves to experience the fear of that mother on the border? Can we let ourselves drop into the sadness of our own lives as we are isolated and afraid?
“The natural setting of hope is among those who have grief and process it in the community.” That is the definition of the wilderness. It’s also the definition of a Christian church, of a place like St. Luke’s. A community that constantly holds the grief of finding Jesus then losing him, and then constantly acts in the hope of finding him again. We practice this together every single Sunday. In what we pray. In what we sing. In what we believe.
This practice guides us in how we live our lives: lifting up Jesus wherever we find him in this world—in the least of these, in ourselves—and preparing the way for him.