The call goes out: be alert, stay awake.
SJF • Advent 1b • Tobias S Haller BSG
Jesus said, Therefore, keep awake; for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.
Ever since the 2001 terrorist highjackings of planes used in the attacks on New York and Washington and the one that crashed in Pennsylvania, Americans have lived under a cloud of uncertainty such as has never before overcast our land. Gone are the days of, “it can’t happen here.” Not only has it happened, it has happened with a vengeance. And ever since then we’ve lived with the heightened awareness that it could happen again. Just when we thought things might return to normal, something happens somewhere in the world — in London or in Paris or in Nigeria — to remind us it might happen here again. We are geared to that motto, “If you see something, say something” — and every package sitting on a subway seat takes on a threatening air; and the color codes of yellow, orange and red alerts push us to the fiery end of the rainbow.
We all know how wearying this can be, perpetually being on our toes in this jaundice-yellow-alert world, and wondering when the next terrorist shoe-bomb might drop, when the next cloud of anthrax might spew through out of the air of a little Piper Cub airplane, or botulism get dumped into our reservoir just a few blocks from here, or Ebola deliberately be spread. For it isn’t just bombs any more, in the days of SARS and Ebola and avian flu. I grew up in the days of “duck and cover” - but now it’s “cover your cough” and slather Purell on your hands. Boy, is the Purell company making out! We become numb in this constant state of alert, and so, we become less alert than we really should be.
And it is important to be vigilant, we who have been taught that an empty backpack left on a subway train is not something to be ignored but reported; we who have learned the drill for quick traveling through the airport screening devices — what to wear and what not to wear! These daily reminders are there to snap our attention back into focus, to call us up sharp with the realization that we are at war — a war not fought simply on the battlefields, but in our airspace, on our street corners and in our public transportation system, in the air we breathe and the hands we shake. This call to keep alert is no nonsense.
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We in the church are also called to keep alert — by our Lord. And the church’s Homeland Security System has been working for quite a bit longer than our nation’s. We’ve been on guard ever since our Lord ascended into heaven and told us, through the disciples, that he would one day return. But because the return has been so long-delayed, so long-expected, we experience the fatigue that comes with trying constantly to be alert. And so the church has its color-coded system too: though the colors are different from those used in Homeland Security — from the other end of the rainbow. Our major color for alert is purple: the purple of Advent, which is the purple of royalty, to remind us that the message of Advent is, “the King is coming; be alert.”
Jesus gives us the example of a man who leaves his home in the care of servants, each servant with a task to perform, each one with a job. And the warning is: be at your work when the master returns; don’t let him find you asleep at the switch, or snoozing by the door. Be watchful, be ready, for you do not know when the master will return. It could be in the evening, even at midnight, or at the break of day.
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When you are an employee, you know how important it is to be found working when your boss comes around to check up on how things are going. It is truly amazing how quickly a game of solitaire can disappear from a computer screen, when you hear footsteps behind you! For you know the only way to be ready, is to be ready. Preparedness, by its very nature, is not something you can do at the last minute!
We are called to be awake, awake in the middle of this world’s long night, the particular “middle” that Jesus speaks of, the middle between his first coming among us as a child, and his second coming among us as a king in glory. We live in the middle between his first advent and his second. And we had best be prepared, even if he does not return on our watch.
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Some people have tried to combine these two forms of preparation, combining the sacred and the secular, the church and the state, the watchfulness of Homeland Security and the watchfulness of the Advent season. Along with storms and plagues of this last year I’m sure you’ve heard some folks use language of the Apocalypse — as they do any time anything terrible happens. You’ve heard me say this before. Several times since I came here in 1999, we’ve seen the announcements and heard the predictions from the far-out fringes. Some see the war in the Middle East as a fulfillment of ancient prophecy; and when you add the recent storms and earthquakes and epidemics, well, they are just sure that the second coming is right around the corner.
Well, as I’ve assured you in the past, they are definitely and completely wrong, for two reasons. One is common sense and the other is Scriptural. First of all, the common sense: these are in large part the same people who do this every time something happens — you’d think they’d learn, or we’d learn. They keep warning people it’s about to happen; and the date comes... and goes... and everything’s fine. How many of us here remember being told you had to hoard your canned goods before midnight on December 31, 1999. Remember that? Now, I don’t want to embarrass anyone, and I’ll be the first to admit I had some bottled water and extra batteries on hand that week. But it is not because I was afraid that God was going to be ending the world on New Year’s Eve — it’s that I was less trusting of Con Edison! Moreover, those of us who were here that night, here at Saint James Church for our midnight New Year’s Eve service starting at 11 p.m., know that the Lord did come among us that night — in the same way he’s been coming to Christians for as long as they’ve gathered in twos or threes in his name to break bread and to pray, right here at this altar, hidden under the forms of bread and wine, and coming into our hearts that cold winter’s night.
Second, and most important, is the fact that those who claim to know when Jesus is coming are contradicting Jesus himself. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So those who claim to know when Jesus is coming are claiming to know something that Jesus himself said he didn’t know, nor the angels.
Think about it: the very reason Jesus told his disciples to be alert, to stay awake, was because he could not tell them exactly when he was going to come again — a secret known to the Father alone. If Jesus had known exactly when he was coming, why tell them to be alert, to stay awake and be on the watch? He could just as well have said, “I’ll return on the 28th of March in the year 2087. So just take it easy until then.” But Jesus assures us that he doesn’t know when he is going to come again to judge the world, only that he is going to come again to judge the world. And so he said, Be alert, keep awake.
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One thing is abundantly clear from our gospel message today: as the bumper sticker puts it, “Jesus is coming; Look busy!” We believe that God had (and has) a purpose, an aim in Creation, and anyone who’s pitched a ball knows that if you have an aim, you have a target. God had an aim in casting creation into being, as it arced on up through the history of the chosen people, on to the coming of Christ at his incarnation, and on forward to a future as-yet-unknown. That is when he will come again and make the whole creation new. For God’s creation is not an aimless exercise.
My brothers and sisters, that we are called to keep awake in the middle between these two extremes; neither thinking we’ve got the timetable for the last judgment in our pockets or on our mobile phones, nor imagining that there is no last judgment coming. No, we are called to stay awake in the middle, in the middle of the night, in the middle of our lives, in the middle of a world that alternately bristles and panics or wearies and ignores. We have been warned to be at our work, and to be alert to our salvation when it comes. For that is God’s purpose, God’s aim for us, that we do God’s work, and that we might be saved.
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It was said that the great evangelist John Wesley was once asked, “What would you do if you knew the Lord was going to return tomorrow afternoon?” He said, “I would tonight sleep soundly, and rise at my accustomed hour and greet the day with prayer; then I should visit any of my congregation who are sick, and spend the rest of my time at my desk composing my sermon for the next Sunday: for I would want the Lord to find me at the work he has given me to do, and not in idleness. He has given me many days to serve him; and I would serve him as well on the last as on the first.”
Jesus may come tomorrow afternoon. He may come next month; he may come a million years from now. When he comes is not for us to know. That he will come is the substance of our faith. The best way to be prepared for his return is to recognize that he comes among us still in everyone we serve and honor in his name. Even though we do not know the hour of his coming, we are called to be awake and at work in the middle of this world’s long night. We’ve got the graveyard shift, my friends, and we are to keep awake, to be alert, to do God’s will, for we do not know when the cry of alarm will sound, when the last trumpet will blow, the king return in glory. May we be found doing his will when he comes.+