By The Rev. Sherry Deets
1 Advent – November 30, 2014
“Keep awake!” “Stay alert” Keep awake. We hear this every year in Advent – this church season before Christmas in which we anticipate, we wait and prepare for the coming of Christ. We wait.
Consider the different ways in which we wait. Is there a difference between waiting for Christmas and waiting for Christ? Obviously, we know when Christmas will arrive and mostly what it will be like when it does arrive. We know the script, and all we need do is follow it. But waiting for Christ to come—or to come again—requires something more, an expectant watchfulness, because we never know when he will appear.
So, this requires a different kind of waiting. Some waiting is passive. But there is also active waiting. A girl who stands on the street corner waiting for the bus to arrive will experience one of kind of waiting, a passive waiting. The same girl on the same corner hearing the sound of a parade that is just out of sight will also wait, full of expectation, a waiting on tiptoe, an active waiting.
A fisherman finds it burdensome to wait for spring to arrive because it is passive waiting. Once he is fishing, however, he does not find it a burden to wait for the trout to rise to his fly because it is an active kind of waiting, full of expectation. At the pool of his favorite trout stream his waiting is filled with accomplishing all the many things he must do, all injected with an active sense of anticipation because he never knows when the trout may appear. That is the kind of active waiting Jesus had in mind when he said to his followers, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come”.
It is clear that Jesus does not intend for us to predict when he will return. Instead, he is urging us to live as if his return were just around the corner. Of course, Jesus has already arrived, we are living in a state of a paradox with an already, but not yet, quality to it. Already Jesus has established the means through which we are drawn into relationship with God, but not yet do we live in complete communion with God. Already the realm of the God is evident, but not yet is that realm fully established.
So what would you do if the world were going to end tomorrow? Would you reconcile with a long lost friend or family member? Would you finish a project you started years ago? Would you tell your children, or maybe your parents, that you love them one last time? Would you wrap your beloved in one long, tender embrace? What would you do?
Asking and answering this question has a way of clarifying our values and sharpening our priorities, and it’s not a bad question to ask as we move — or is it careen — from the festivities of Thanksgiving to the headlong dash toward Christmas. Why? Because it’s easy to get so caught up in the cultural pressure to have the perfect Christmas that we can lose a sense not only of what Christmas is supposed to mean but actually of ourselves.
Is this the beginning of another well-intentioned rant about the true meaning of Christmas, you may be wondering? Actually, no. I’m not interested in scolding people for getting too caught up in the secular celebration of the season, particularly as I have a hard enough time avoiding that myself. Rather, amid all the planning and preparing, amid all the parties and shopping, amid the all cards and cooking — amid, that is, all the festive craziness that most of us, truth be told, simultaneously love and dread — I’d like to offer some space, some Advent space, to be still, to experience just a bit of quiet, and to be reminded of who we are: God’s beloved children.
And here’s where Mark’s otherwise confusing and alarming passage has something to say. Because after all the predictions about the end, Jesus says that no one will know the day or the hour and so we have to keep close watch. He goes a little further, actually, and compares our situation to that of servants who do not know when their master will return and yet are expected to be prepared for it. One way to read this mini-parable is as a call to constant vigilance. And I think there’s something to that. We are indeed called always be on the look out for our Lord — whether at the end of time or, as we noticed last week, in the face of our neighbors’ need.
David Lose notices something else going on here as well. The parabolic details of Jesus’ warning are telling. We do not know, he says, whether the master will come in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn. Now notice where these ruminations on the end come — just prior to the story of Jesus’ passion. And now note the way in which Mark divides the scenes leading up to the crucifixion: 1) Last Supper, beginning, “When it was evening, he came with the twelve…” (14:17). 2) Jesus’ prayer and betrayal: “And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy” (14:40). Why so tired? Because it was the middle of the night. 3) Jesus’ trial and Peter’s denial: “But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, ‘I do not know this man you are talking about.’ At that moment the cock crowed for the second time” (14:71-72a). 4)Trial before Pilate: “As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate” (15:1).
Do you see? Another way to read this injunction to watchfulness is to hear Jesus declaring that his return — when the heavens shake and the sun is darkened — is precisely the moment when he is nailed to the cross and we see God’s love poured out for us and all the world. Whatever, whenever, and however the end of the world may come, that end is both prefigured and realized right here, in the form of a man who goes to the cross out of love for us and all the world. For this reason have theologians across the ages declared Jesus’ cross as the pivot point of history, for at that moment one age ended and another begun.
Once asked what he would do if he believed the world would end tomorrow, Martin Luther is said to have responded, “I would plant a tree today.” We also, confident of God’s love and sure of God’s promises about the future, can also invest in the present, in the everyday and the ordinary, in the people and causes all around us. For we have God’s promise in the cross and resurrection of Christ that in time God will indeed draw all of God’s creation not just to an end, but to a good end.
So remember how you answered that question about what you would do if the world were to end tomorrow? Well, guess what? You don’t need to wait. You can do those things now! Love the ones you want to love; finish the work you started; be reconciled to those who need you; be faithful to the people and tasks around you; undertake some small and wonderful and great endeavor. Why not? For Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again, all in the name of love. And we — God’s beloved children for whom Christ died and for whom Christ now lives — along with all of God’s blessed creation are those from whom Christ is coming!
Blessed Advent. May you find some Advent space to hear and contemplate and believe once again that you, also, are a beloved child of God who knows that because God has promised to take care of the future the present is eternally open and full of possibility.
T.S. Eliot’s poem Little Gidding V , first few lines read like this:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
And Jesus says to us: Stay awake! God is here and now. Amen.
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