First Sunday of Advent
December 1, 2019
A truly astonishing thing happened last night. I packed up the leftovers from dinner and put them in my refrigerator for lunch today. Amazing. I set my coffeepot to turn on automatically this morning. I brushed my teeth. I said my prayers. I read a book in bed. And I fell asleep. Now, don’t tell me that isn’t that most amazing thing you’ve ever heard. It boggles my mind that this, this amazing wonderment is my evening ritual. It’s almost inconceivable to me, and in fact, it is inconceivable to the vast majority of humans who have ever walked this earth.
First, I can hardly fathom that there is such an abundance of food available to me that there would even be leftovers. And then comes the mind-boggling idea that I can cook food without worrying about botulism. My biggest concern is whether that cold pizza will look appetizing the next morning, not whether it will kill me. Then, I can prepare a beverage that is made from a plant grown in South America, shipped to Seattle, roasted in a factory, packaged, sent to HEB, lands in my grocery cart, all in a matter of weeks so that I can wake up fresh and ready to go. I can turn on the faucet in my house, put water in my mouth, and not have to worry about dysentery. That’ll blow your mind. I can flip on a bulb, made out of light emitting diodes, that burns a fraction of the amount of energy a normal bulb does, giving me a soft, radiant glow, to read a book that was printed on another continent. Long gone are the days of whale oil lamps and kerosene. Then, I can fall asleep not really worrying too much about someone sneaking into the house, thanks to modern safety, security, and of course, my dogs. Isn’t it all terribly and wonderfully amazing? Think about any part of your day, and I bet you can think of something that would have been unthinkable just one hundred and fifty years ago. And is still not possible to billions of people today. We may not have flying cars but life is pretty good.
The fact that disease and dying do not haunt every corner of our lives is an aberration from the human experience over the millennia. This is a gift. My insulin pump itself is a witness to this - just a couple of generations ago, I would not have lived past the age of twenty-one. But here I am, thanks to the ingenuity and creativity of humans and their little gadgets. Living used to be a life or death affair; now, for the most part, it’s quite mundane.
That’s why these words from Jesus this morning sound so odd. “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” This season of Advent is all about expectation, waiting, living in the darkness while hoping for light. The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting longer, and Jesus warns us to stay awake, to keep alert, to be on the watch for something unexpected from God. In this season of Advent we assess the darkness in our own lives, we come face to face with the reality that though we know we are beloved children of God, we do not live up to what that means. We’re caught between the already and the not yet of God’s promises. Advent is a stark warning, a reminder that life is short, and that every minute we draw closer to The End.
Over the years, the message of Advent has been softened. Recently, Advent has become more about getting ready for Christmas. We come to Advent and it’s almost like we have to forget that Jesus was born so that we can be surprised again on Christmas Eve. Oh look, a baby! I mean, Mary knew she was with child, y’all have read the story, right?
Or, just two weeks ago, we were going over the children’s Advent wreaths. We decided to go with each Sunday representing “faith, hope, peace, and love.” But in reality, the four Sundays represent, “death, judgment, heaven, and hell.” Merry Christmas. I mean, can you imagine opening your Advent calendar every day, eating your little milk chocolates for twenty-four days, milk chocolates not shaped like little reindeer but like little coffins? Yikes.
We laugh, because we’re uncomfortable. Because in this modern life of convenience and safety, we don’t have to think about death every day. But this is a wake up call from Jesus. To keep awake, to stay alert, for we do not know when our days will come to an end.
In this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, it’s important to note that Jesus is warning against carelessness. Jesus has in mind more of the sins of omission than the sins of commission. The warnings he offers, the examples he gives, they’re about normal people doing normal everyday things. Marrying, eating, drinking, plowing the field, making food. In the midst of their daily lives they have lost track of the big picture and become careless. It’s negligence that’s the problem here.
Now this passage is not about the rapture. Remember, the rapture is not a Christian doctrine. Often times this passage is read as if on some supernatural day in the future all the good people will be sucked away to heaven and all the bad people will be left behind on earth. The better way to read this passage though, is that those who are unprepared, those who have been careless, are the ones who will be dragged away to judgment and condemnation when the Romans come storming back into Jerusalem. Jesus is using that as the image of what the return of the true King will be like. Those who have stayed awake, kept alert, are the ones who will be left behind and not dragged away. No matter what those terrible books and movies say, in this example, you want to be left behind. That means you’ve been prepared.
So the message for today, the message of Advent, is simple - keep awake. Don’t fall asleep. Don’t be negligent in your duty as Christians. The Church has a word for this, it’s called, “acedia.” A-C-E-D-I-A. It’s a fancy word for negligence. And the Church is right. Carelessness, laziness, and negligence will creep into your life when you least suspect it. From the gospel passage today, I doubt you will be plowing the fields or grinding your meal. But the lesson is the same. Carelessness will creep upon you when you’re just going about your daily life of work, school, driving the kids here and there, catching up with Facebook, watching TV. None of those are inherently bad things, but just the mundane nature of life can lull you to sleep. And it is just then, when you have grown lax in reading of holy scripture, when your prayer life has lapsed, when your worship becomes second choice behind brunch, when you have forgotten about the shortness and uncertainty of life, that something will come storming into your life like a Roman Legion and you will be taken away in sorrow and anguish. Keep awake. Stay alert. Say your prayers, day by day. Read your bible, not sometimes but always. Worship. Serve. Be prepared for whatever life will throw at you, even death. And I do not say any of this to try to frighten you into coming to church more. I don’t traffic in fear. And the Church isn’t warning against carelessness because it’s good for the Church. No, I’m talking about it because it’s good for you. Staying awake, keeping alert, being mindful of the brevity of life is for your sake. Not mine or the Church’s. The Church will keep on going whether you’re careless or not. This is about your preparation for The End.
When I’m dwelling on all of this, I’m often drawn back to the wisdom of Bishop Jeremy Taylor. He lived a life none of us would envy. He was a clergyman in 17th century England, a tumultuous time. He was thrown into prison twice for being on the wrong side of the political upheavals of the day. He had a large family, but buried seven of his sons. He’s known for saying, “it’s a good thing life is short, because life is miserable” (“As our life is very short, so it is very miserable; and therefore it is well it is short.” “Jeremy Taylor, Selected Works,” edited by Thomas K. Carroll, 486.) And though we probably wouldn’t agree with him there, surrounded by our modern conveniences and our relative political stability, he does have something else to say that we should mind. He said that Christians aren’t living until we are ready to die. Christians aren’t living until we are ready to die (“The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying”).
In this season of Advent, during these four weeks given to us by the Church, wake up to the reality that modern life and modern conveniences can delay, but not stop the inevitable. Bruce Springsteen probably said it best, “everything dies baby, that’s a fact.” Take these four weeks and get your house in order for whenever that Day may come. Start today, because tomorrow is not promised to you and, if you are careless, these four weeks will be over before you know it. And after Advent, then goes Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and soon enough, our whole lives slip away and we will stand there at the end, and wonder where it all went. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. And once you are ready to die, you can start living with Jesus.