a homily for Advent 1A
Text: Matthew 24:36-44
Waking up early
I woke up early on Thursday morning. Not to my alarm, but to my son saying “Daddy!” He was wide awake and ready to get up—a full hour ahead of my schedule. He and I walked out into the dark living room and waited for the others to wake up. I turned on two lamps and he got out the train tracks and wanted to play.
A short time later, my daughter and partner joined us. The sun was not yet up. The house still contained my slumbering parents, sister, brother-in-law, and niece and nephew.
Watching the tree-obscured sun rise out the back window, the sky lightening, changing its color scheme, my tired eyes had trouble accepting the beauty around me.
More stirred, the coffee pot went on, breakfast needed preparing, then the stuffing and the turkeys, the potatoes, the green beans and the feast’s preparation was in full swing by the morning’s close.
We love Thanksgiving about as much for the food as for the gathering, I must admit. We love the food. And I was eager to prepare it. I wanted in. When I was little, I was always helping—or at least asking to help. My Mom was the main preparer. This year was going to be different. I think it needed to be different. My Mom taught me how to stuff the bird, how to pull back the skin and cover the flesh in butter, and then coat the whole thing in butter. I made the sides, and planned most of the meal. We were eating by 3:30 and regretting how much we ate by quarter after 4.
And as is usually the case on Thanksgiving, we were half-asleep by 6. Everyone went to bed early.
What a startling contrast we awoke to this morning:
“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
“Keep awake” you say? Yikes! After that tryptophan! That early rising with the kids! How are any of us able to stay awake past 8:00 Thanksgiving night, let alone stay up until morning after a day like that! You want me to do this every night?
Keep Awake all night?
Here, toward the end of the gospel we call Matthew, Jesus speaks of the end of things…and the beginning of new things…in a way that confronts us and our need to plan—to have assurance.
He sets up this view of the end, which is stunning—the separating—like wheat and chaff. A separating that leaves the useful parts and sets the rest to be burned. Or perhaps re-purposed as ethanol. A view misunderstood as a great whisking away of the “good” ones to some delightful place in the sky as a reward—the total opposite of what Jesus actually describes—and what is described in Revelation as a heavenly kingdom made present here—around us.
More confrontational than a great sort is the conviction Jesus shows in describing our need to prepare—to be vigilant—to be ready for this time to come. A vigilance that might induce horror stories of thieves breaking into our homes, or that we might be, as the text continues, disobedient slaves cut into pieces.
I for one find the idea of keeping watch, of staying ready every day for the rest of my life a depiction of its own horror—a source of daily anxiety and fear for what is to happen or what I am missing. In this, the advent of the coming of the Son of Man is itself a source of fear, rather than joy. A certain description of Hell on earth.
It is tempting to read only half of this gospel: either focusing on the scariness of this future coming that Jesus describes or on that watchfulness as a need to be always ready. But even Jesus’s image of the thief in the night belies our tendency to hear Jesus literally. His metaphor involves staying up all night—an action that isn’t a daily action, or something that can be sustainable for more than a few days, any way.
Therefore, we may be tempted to throw this all away as impossible expectation—I’m just a simple person, trying to live right; all this talk about thieves and the end goes right by me. Resist that temptation. For Jesus doesn’t expect us to ignore these words either.
Perhaps we’re left with another option.
We know that the heaven Jesus describes is a heaven come to earth and the eternal life that Jesus describes in John is a vibrant living here and now. We know that Jesus’s most common instruction is to not be afraid. And we know that Jesus is telling us to always be prepared for the coming of the Son of Man—a moment that should fill us with joy and thankfulness.
This is a gospel, not of fear and anxiety, but of hope. Hope for what is coming and what will be. Hope for how we live. Hope for the manner of life that brings with it the very reunion we most want.
As we enter into this new year: a year known not for its chronology from the birth of a new era, but as the circular return to the beginning: what we simply call Year A, may we come with a great sense of hope and fascination for what is to come. May we find the joy of the season sustainable and insightful. May we be so filled with the Spirit, that the celebration of Christ’s human birth, known as the incarnation is not a relief from the pressure of the season, but the kickoff of a greater celebration of joy.
For it is in Advent that we explore the end of things and its new beginning. When we prepare for an arrival among us the way a mother expects, but cannot predict, the birth of her child. It is a time of mindfulness and watchfulness, because GOD is already among us. Not because we decorate, but perhaps, in spite of it. That GOD is with us, not born for the first time on the 25th, nor for a second time, but with us in Spirit as we gather and we prepare and we celebrate, and we ring in this new year in song and cheer and hope.
For this is our work. This is what it means to be a Christian: what it means to follow Jesus. We prepare for His being with us fully. We expect Christ to be with us at any moment. We don’t get to make the arrangements for His presence—it isn’t something we get to plan for—but we prepare our hearts. And we live our heavenly conviction here.
With love and charity and hope. With the better angels of our nature. With the ambition that we might seize this opportunity as if it were our only one. And we say this is why I sing Alleluia!