Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44; and Romans 13:11-14
Listen to the lectionary text for this first Sunday of Advent that Laura didn’t read to you. Matthew 24:36-44:
36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
There is no questioning that this is an odd passage, especially for the first Sunday of Advent when we light the candle of hope. Truth be told, earlier in the week when I had to decide what scriptures to list in the worship guide, I ran from this text. I just didn’t feel up for it. The first thing that I thought of when I read it was an old song that we use to sing years ago in youth group. The title of the song was, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” It was then, as it is now, a horrifying song meant to scare the bejesus out of young people. Larry Schultz knows it but won’t admit it because it was a low moment in church music history. It went like this:
Life was filled with guns and wars, and everyone got trampled on the floor, I wish we’d all been ready. Children died, the days grew cold, a piece of bread would buy a bag of gold, I wish we’d all been ready. There’s no time to change your mind, the Son has come and you’ve been left behind.
Man and wife asleep in bed, she’s hears a noise and turns her head, he’s gone, I wish we’d all been ready. There’s no time to change your mind, the Son has come and you’ve been left behind.
It’s crazy and a bit scary that I still remember all of those words—words meant to instill fear. When reading (or singing) an odd text like this, with seemingly little connection or meaning to our lives today, you have to look creatively for a point of entry. The issue at hand in this text is the sheer unexpectedness of the events Jesus talks about. No one knows, he says—neither angels nor even he himself—no one knows when this coming will take place except for God and God alone. And there it is—our entry point. It seems to me that it’s this uncertainty, this unpredictable element of life that offers to us today a point of entry into this odd apocalyptic text. (David Lose, workingpreacher.org)
It’s true, you know. So much of life is unexpected. We are regularly caught off guard. An unknown caller on your cell phone. The car in the lane to your right suddenly tries to make a left turn. A family crisis or an unforeseen job loss. A typhoon hits the Philippines. The pregnancy test comes up positive. Or that mid-morning phone call that shifts the rest of your day. You find a twenty-dollar bill in last year’s pants pocket. Your daughter gets nominated for an award. You find a parking spot directly in front of Neomonde on a Sunday afternoon after church. Totally unexpected!
In all seriousness, “we know life is precarious, unpredictable, and for these reasons also precious, but we often deny or are afraid to speak of that fact.” We try, sometimes going to great lengths, to protect ourselves against the unexpected and the unpredictable. “…Perhaps by not taking a risk on a dream for fear of failure, or by shielding ourselves from possible disappointments in life or relationships, or by numbing ourselves to the pain of others lest it haunt us with the possibility of our own loss.” (David Lose)
Jesus, in our text today, seems to be saying something to us about how to live life in these unexpected places. Contrary to how these apocalyptic texts have been read and even sung in the Church, they are not about “wishing we had all been ready.” And unlike reality TV in 2013, they are not about stockpiling food and weapons in underground bunkers to get ready for the end of the world or the second or third coming of Jesus. This text is not about “being ready” for some mysterious future event in which some will be taken and others left behind. At least I don’t think so. No, it seems to me that Jesus is focusing on, as he does in other places in scripture, the practice of keeping awake—staying present, being open and seeing new possibilities.
For me, there is a difference in being ready and keeping awake. When I picture “being ready” I envision the suitcase closed and sitting by the door, all the doors locked and the lights out. Being ready feels like I have done everything I need to do and now I am just waiting for what’s next. But when I think about what it means to “keep awake” I imagine being fully present to the moment before me. I envision that suitcase still open inviting me to lessen the load or replace something or even add something that’s missing. To keep awake is an invitation to see new possibilities—to keep the lights on, and the doors and windows open—to risk failure and follow a dream, to love with abandon knowing that there is always the possibility of disappointment and hurt, to see the pain of others even if it breaks open our own wounds of loss and fear. For me, that’s what it means to keep awake.
In some ways, one might say that keeping awake is quite opposite to being ready. One is about bracing ourselves, and the other is about opening ourselves. Contrary to what our culture would have you believe, this season is not about being ready or even getting ready. It is about keeping awake, staying present, to the possibilities of each and every moment of every day. It is about staying awake to our true hearts and our tender moments. It is about being willing to keep our eyes open as we live both the expected and the unexpected moments in life.
Isaiah’s invitation is, “Come let us walk in the light of God.” Paul, in Romans, says it this way, “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Matthew says, “Keep awake.” All are inviting us to stay present to God in this very moment. In a counter-cultural way, Advent is calling us shake off the compulsion to constantly prepare; and instead it is inviting us to stay awake, to revel wide-eyed, in those unexpected places where the child is being born today—in you and in the world.
And so, the first lesson of Advent: Keep awake!