A time to stay awake | Advent 1


Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44

We’re still a month out from the ball dropping, the changing of our calendars to 2017, but in the liturgical cycle, this is the new year.  Year C has ended, we’re back to Year A, starting today.  The church calendar resets with Advent.  This is day 1.

So we begin.

We begin with birth.  We begin actually before birth.  We begin expecting birth.  We all start out pregnant.  Whether or not you feel it, we start the year collectively in a state of anticipation, watchfulness, alertness.  We are just enough out of sync with our other way of keeping time that it forces us reconsider our frame of reference.  What time is it?

We spent Friday with my family on the farm in Bellefontaine.  As I’m reminded every time we visit, I come from a family that has developed its own unique way of keeping time.  Probably every household has to decide for themselves how to set their clocks.  Do you set them to the actual time, or do you set them slightly ahead so you can get away with leaving the house 8:03, drive for 15 minutes, and still arrive at your destination at exactly quarter after eight?

This maybe isn’t as much an issue in an age when our main time keeper is our always reliable cell phones, but long before those days, the Miller family selected the strategy of mental trickery, setting clocks ahead.  I was never enthusiastic about this, partially because we went well overboard. The main authority on time in the house, a clock that hangs on the wall in the kitchen, still there, was often set 8, 10, even 15 minutes faster than the time that the rest of the world operated on.  The intention was to help us be on time to events, be relaxed about having more time than what first meets the eye, but what it actually did was cause more confusion than clarity.

For one, you had to remember how far ahead the clock was set, so you could do the math in your head to figure out how much free time you still had before you really had to leave.  Also, whenever someone in the house would call out and ask what time it was, they’d always get an answer from someone around a clock, but then have to ask a second question as to whether that person was using our time or the real time.  Since we had sort of established our own little time zone, we affectionately started calling it Miller time.  In Miller time you can walk out of the house and arrive at your destination earlier than when you started.

So being out of step with normal time is something that feels quite normal to me – although Abbie and I have firmly decided to end the practice of Miller time in our own house.

But all of us are in this together when it comes to sacred time.  We’re starting a new year well before the other new year is here.  We’re in our own time zone, moving to a unique sort of rhythm, taking our cues about what time it is from the sacred schedule of liturgical time.

The first voice we hear to get us oriented comes from the great Hebrew prophet Isaiah.

He says: “In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains…and all nations shall stream to it.  Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord.  God shall arbitrate, for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore.”

This is where it all starts for us.  This vision is spoken at a time of great national turmoil in Israel.  They were threatened with moral failures from within the nation, and military invasion from without.  Things seem to be coming to an end.  But this word breaks through the darkness and serves as a new beginning by offering an alternative ending to the story.  Instead of a scattered and fractured humanity, there is a common center to share, the mountain of the Lord, which acts like a magnet as it draws people from all nations to learn the ways of peace.  And everyone around it becomes a peace evangelist, recruiting others to join them.  “Come on, let’s go to the mountain of Yahweh.”  It’s a place where arbitration is happening.  Grievances are being heard and reconciled.  Restorative justice is being practiced.

The culmination of this vision involves instruments of war being converted into instruments of peace and creativity.  Isaiah imagines collecting up all the bloodied swords that were used in battles, putting on blacksmith clothes, and pounding away until the metal is reshaped into plowshares, tools for farmers to use to bring in the harvest.  It’s like driving all the tanks back to the foundry, flying all the weaponized drones back to the manufacturers, melting down the steel, and recasting it in the form of garden rakes and hoes and tillers.  Nations shall not learn war anymore.  A time when we close down the war academies and retrofit the buildings to be schools for music and philosophy and literature and medical research.

This prophecy is our starting place.  Year A.  Day 1.  And this is much more than political idealism, or a naïve hope.  This is what we might call God’s dream for the world, and the ever present ache within us for that dream to be realized.  It’s not as much a prediction of what’s certain to happen one hundred years from now, or in some near future administration, as it is an expression of the deepest longing of our humanity.  The vision is a gravitational center, drawing us in to the heart of the matter.  This is an impractically beautiful vision that encompasses all of creation.  We can feel the distance between where we are and where we’re being drawn.

We start with a prophetic ache, even a groan, and without this ache there is no new beginning, just more of the same with no end in sight.

Our first act of the new year is to express a longing deep within our gut that we believe originates in the very Creative Spirit who is the Master of the Universe.  We start with the impossible belief that in days to come all nations will learn instruction on how to live together in peace, and that harms will be repaired.

The recently departed poet, Leonard Cohen, who groaned his lyrics into song, sang: “There’s a blaze of light in every word, it doesn’t matter which you’ve heard, the holy, or the broken Hallelujah.”  What time is it?  It’s time to see a word breaking through our darkness, a blaze of light guiding our desires and actions.

The ache of Isaiah gives us our bearings as we enter into the apocalyptic words of Jesus from Matthew 24.  “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man, the Human One.  For as in the days before the flood they were eating, and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Human One.  Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.  Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

A quick reading of the context around these words of Jesus shows that the unknown day he is referring to is not one of universal peace like Isaiah’s, but one of near universal collapse.  And near universal collapse is exactly what Matthew’s original audience was experiencing.  Jewish nationalists had taken the temple out of the control of the Romans and their puppet priests, only to see the Romans retaliate by laying siege on Jerusalem and destroy the temple.  The entire world of these early Jewish Christians was left with literally no stone on top of another.  This is Matthew’s version of the Synoptic Apocalypse which we considered two weeks ago in Luke’s gospel.  It’s a time of unveiling.  The lectionary loves apocalypse this time of year.  It ends the old year, and begins the year.

Jesus’ words are not merely words of lament and distress.  His message is that even though everything seems to be falling apart, it’s not the end of the world.  Even though God seems distant, absent, the Son of Man, the Human One is still coming into the world.  Even though it looks like we’ve lost our humanity, the One who teaches us how to be Human is still on the way in.  Our humanity is still in the process of realizing its divinity.

The task for us who live in apocalyptic and fearful times is to pay attention.  To be watchful.  To keep doing the things that the master has asked us to do.  To keep ourselves from becoming numb and to continue feeling the ache of Isaiah.  To not accept the state of things as ‘normal.’  The key phrase that gets used for this here in Matthew is to “keep awake.”  Don’t fall asleep to the Human One’s presence in the world.  Don’t let the violence and suffering around you lull you into some kind of trance.  Keep living like a human being so that you can stay sane in an insane world.  If you fall asleep, you get swept away in it all.

Jesus uses the days of Noah as an example of how to stay awake.  Noah and his crew were paying attention, and nobody else was.  Everybody else got swept away and only Noah and his family were left behind.  Contrary to popular belief, and an entire best selling book series, it’s actually good to be left behind.  You don’t want to get swept away by the floods of popular opinion and general hopelessness, as in the days of Noah.  You want to stay grounded in God’s ache for justice that Isaiah spoke so clearly.   The ones who are sleeping and have nothing of substance to hold them down are the ones who “get took” and the ones who keep awake are the ones who are left to keep going about what life requires.

So two people could be working side by side out in the field, or in side by side cubicles in the office, or two people will be teaching in the same school, or two parents will be caring for their families in a time of turmoil — one is getting swept away by despair or fear and the other stays grounded in something solid.  And then maybe the next day it’s the other one who feels like they’re getting swept away, and the other has found some footing.

What time is it?  Time to stop sleep walking through life and allow ourselves to get prodded awake by the Human One who even now is coming into our world.

In our off kilter calendar, it is the season of watchfulness.  Christ comes to us at an unknown hour.  It’s time to synchronize our watches and live with anticipation.  This Advent, and this year we will be visited by the Christ.  Christ will ask us to be in solidarity with those for whom the coming of justice and compassion is a matter of life and death.  Even more personally, the Christ that you carry within you, will seek to be born.  You and me, like Mary, carry the Divine seed that has a life of its own.

“When will these things happen?” ask the disciples.  “No one knows,” Jesus replies.  “They’re always happening,” would be another good reply.

Christ is coming, present tense.  It’s up to us to be awake and accept the prophetic ache as our own.  The new year is here, and it’s time to wake up.