Stay Alert

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
November 30, 2014—Advent I
Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

Isaiah 64:1–9 • If only you would tear open the heavens and come down! Mountains would quake before you like fire igniting brushwood or making water boil. If you would make your name known to your enemies, the nations would tremble in your presence.
When you accomplished wonders beyond all our expectations; when you came down, mountains quaked before you. From ancient times, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any god but you who acts on behalf of those who wait for him! You look after those who gladly do right; they will praise you for your ways. But you were angry when we sinned; you hid yourself when we did wrong. We have all become like the unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag. All of us wither like a leaf; our sins, like the wind, carry us away. No one calls on your name; no one bothers to hold on to you, for you have hidden yourself from us, and have handed us over to our sin.
But now, LORD, you are our father. We are the clay, and you are our potter. All of us are the work of your hand. Don’t rage so fiercely, LORD; don’t hold our sins against us forever, but gaze now on your people, all of us:

Mark 13:24–37 • “In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor. Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven.
“Learn this parable from the fig tree. After its branch becomes tender and it sprouts new leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that he’s near, at the door. I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until all these things happen. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.
“But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows. Watch out! Stay alert! You don’t know when the time is coming. It is as if someone took a trip, left the household behind, and put the servants in charge, giving each one a job to do, and told the doorkeeper to stay alert. Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows in the early morning or at daybreak. Don’t let him show up when you weren’t expecting and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: Stay alert!”

 

Click below to listen to the audio recording of this sermon.

I. BEGINNING

As a kid, there was something that would happen routinely every October or late September that would shatter my foundations. That was the arrival of the JC Penny Christmas catalogue.  This would set in motion for me a period of anticipation and waiting for Christmas that would practically drive me insane. I would become obsessed with the coming of Christmas; I would see all of these presents, all of these toys arrayed in the catalogue.  All of these things that I wanted and all the things that I thought maybe I had a shot at getting. Especially if I’d been good and Santa had been paying attention.  I would write off that letter and hope and hope and hope.  And that Christmas day could not. Come. Fast. Enough. And it seemed almost as if the planet was slowing and the days took longer.  Every day just dragged on and the waiting was interminable.

One of the differences between childhood and adulthood for me is that that no longer happens.  Christmas shows up a lot sooner than I’m ready for, which is strange, because I’m in a profession that is all about getting ready for Christmas. Yet, every single year it catches me by surprise.

The other major difference between childhood and adult expectations is that as an adult I’m not really that anxious any more about getting toys. As a kid, I remember thinking that there were basically two kinds of presents you could get for Christmas: toys, which made sense to want; and then there were pots and pans, which it seemed like all the grownups got. And I didn’t understand why they were so excited by these kinds of presents.  Honestly, I could do with a new set of cookware. And socks would be welcome.  My younger self would be appalled to learn that I would appreciate some good over the calf socks. Or just a nice brick of really good cheddar.

So, some things have definitely changed from my childhood to my adulthood in terms of my expectations for Christmas.  But I will say this: there are certainly things that I am waiting for. There are certainly things that, on some level, I’m almost driven mad waiting for.

I can’t stand, really, to wait that much longer for a world where women can walk down the street without getting whistled at. I can’t really wait for a world where people aren’t left out on the street without a place to live, or who don’t have adequate shelter or food.  I can’t really wait for a world  in which there are not millions displaced by war and violence, huge migrations of people seeking simple relative safety.  I can’t really wait any longer for a world in which we settle our disputes through reason and collaboration rather than at the point of a gun.  I can’t really wait for a world in which people are treated with equanimity based on who they are rather than simply on the color of their skin, or their national origin, or their background, or whom they love. I can’t wait for a world in which people who are religious and people who are not can have a conversation without hurling invective at each other and condemning each other to hell or ignorance.

There are a lot of things that I’m tired of waiting for. There are a lot of things that I just want to get here already.  I just want fixed already.  More than I ever wanted that Millennium Falcon for my Star Wars action figures.  More than any of those things together. I’m just tired of waiting.  And it wears on you.

II.  ADVENT

It’s the kind of waiting that Advent brings to the fore.  Advent is that time of waiting for us.  It is that time of expectation. And in that time it’s as if all the old expectations are dredged up for us.  And so when we read that passage in Isaiah where the prophet writes:

“If only you would tear open the heavens and come down, mountains would quake before you like fire igniting brushwood, or make water boil. If you would make your name known to your enemies, the nations would tremble in your presence.”

If only, God, you would just show up—like we’ve been waiting for you to do—and make everything right.  Just come down and fix everything. So here we are in Advent, longing, waiting.  And it’s almost like that we are reminded that we are spending an entire life in that anxiety between expectation and delivery. That childhood anticipation for the baubles of the holidays is expanded to that great existential anticipation of the world as it should be.  We find that this is an uncomfortable place, a place of tension, between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet.’

As Christians, we have some reason to believe that we are already in the ‘already’ because we are an ‘Easter People.” We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ as that moment that created the Christian reality. A world changing moment.  The resurrection of Christ is supposed to be one of the signs of the ‘already,’ heralding the end of history and the resurrection of the dead, when God comes to judge the living and the dead, and all is set right. That moment is meant to be one of the signs of the ‘already.’

As an Easter People we believe that, indeed, something is already happening.  In the resurrection of Jesus, in the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the formation of the church, something radically new is underway.  Something new and amazing has already happened.

And yet…

We are also an Advent people, and are still very much … waiting.

The Jewish Theologian Martin Buber, who said the Jews had a hard time accepting the Christian claim that the world has already been redeemed. He wrote that Jews “sense its unredeemed nature.” There is a feeling that the world is not how God intended it to be. If we Christians are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the world is not how we intend it to be. That we are in this paradox, this tension, this uncomfortable place in-between, waiting for it to be fulfilled but with faith that we know the one who fulfills it.

And so here we are, between the already of Easter and the not-yet of Advent.

On one hand, we are reminded of the brokenness of the world. We see it everywhere: racism, injustice, oppression, bigotry, violence, war, poverty, sorrow, suffering, death.  On the other hand, we do see some glimpses of the Kingdom. More than just the things we confess to in the ancient creeds—Christ’s resurrection, the coming of the Spirit.  We see it in the small, but powerful ways.

Wherever we see racism, we see dedicated people of God working for racial reconciliation.  Working to change the status quo, working to change the way we relate one another.  Helping to lift up in each other the image of God inside of us.  And we see that kingdom already in our midst.

Wherever we see injustice we also see people of faith working for justice, for equal access to the structures of power, wealth, and all those other disparate things. We see people standing on the front lines, working for the sake of the marginalized. We see something of the Kingdom already. 

Wherever we see oppression, we see those standing in solidarity with the oppressed, working to tell their stories. In those places we see something of the Kingdom of God already. 

Wherever we see violence, there are the peacemakers. Wherever we see poverty, there are those who are giving of themselves.  Wherever we see sorrow there are those comforting.  Wherever we see death, there are those who are sharing the blessings of life. We see these ‘alreadys’ in the midst of our ‘not yets.’

III. WHERE OUR FAITH CALLS US TO BE

There is something fundamental about our Christian identity as an identity that exists in this tension in between. But there is something else, too.

In the passage we heard read earlier, Jesus tells us:

“Therefore, stay alert. You do not know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight or when the rooster crows in the early morning or at daybreak. Don’t let him show up when you weren’t expecting and find you sleeping. What I say to you I say to all: stay alert.”

What does it mean then for us, who are in this in between, to stay alert? For those of us who are crying out like the prophet, O just come down already! What does it mean for us? It means more than simply staying awake. Staying alert means staying ready.  But ready for what? We are waiting, but our waiting is not a passive thing.  Our waiting is an active thing in which we model what it is we’re waiting for.  All of these ‘alreadys’ in the midst of our ‘not-yets’ are the ways in which we stay alert.  They are what Jesus is calling us to do.  To live into the kingdom that is coming.  To live into that reality that we expect to be brought in its fullness. That’s what it means. Hunkering down here in the chapel waiting for God to show up doesn’t do any good, but when we go out and stay alert, when we witness to all the things we expect. When we witness to justice, and to love, and to peace, and to reconciliation, and to hope, and to light.  When we witness to all of those things in the middle of a world doing precisely the opposite, that is us staying alert.  That is us staying on guard. Staying attentive.

Waiting and ready for our master to return. That is what Jesus is calling us to do.

IV. END

In the same way we anticipate Christmas by making the Christmas season a time of spreading happiness and joy, we anticipate the coming of Christ by trying to spread the joy and hope of the world to come.

Tom Petty was right: the waiting is the hardest part. It’s the hardest part of faith, realizing that we aren’t where we want to be. That waiting can be just as tiring as it can be for a child waiting for Christmas day to roll around. It can take a lot out of us.  It can exhaust us. But that’s why we do it together. It’s easier to stay awake is easier when we are together. It’s easier to stay on our game when when we are in community with one another, when we remind one another of what it is we’re waiting for, working for, hoping for.

In that community we find the strength to continue to live in this tension between the already and the not-yet.  We find the strength to face a world that is so full of brokenness, and to live into the wholeness that awaits it. We find a way to build that reality in a small way,  microcosm of that reality in our midst, so the whole world can see it.  As if the mountains themselves were shaking and trembling, our building communities of righteousness and peace can shake the foundations of the structures of the world.

Advent is not an easy time.

Our culture tells us that Advent is a time to rush, a time to hurry. The Christmas decorations were put up after Halloween, Christmas music started in November. And we can get impatient.

But it’s precisely in that waiting that our moment is.  It’s precisely in that tension between the already and the not-yet, that our faith is most fully known and understood. As we become the ones who live into the reality that we await, that we hope for, that we long for, but that we see made manifest every day in and among us. And that one day will be made manifest to the whole world.