Matthew 24: 36 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son,but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. 42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
Focus verse: 44 “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
Happy New Year! No, I’m not confused about which month and day it is. I say, Happy New Year because, for many Christian churches and denominations, the church year of worship and Bible readings begins today, the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is the season leading up to Christmas and the celebration of Christ’s first coming, that begins today, along with the worship calendar year.
Am I the only one, or does that strike you as odd, too? That, for so many Christians, the church’s calendar year begins today, near the end of the secular calendar year, even, for us at least in Minnesota, at the beginning of winter? And if that’s not strange enough, this first Sunday of Advent and the church’s worship calendar usually begins with Bible passages about the end of time, the end of the world, not only about Jesus’ first coming, but also about Jesus’ second coming. What’s that all about?
Well, to get a sense for why that is, let’s imagine for just a moment that we were not Christians. I’ve been there, done that, and am glad its over. But as a Christian who is interested in knowing where people are when I testify to Jesus, I still find it helpful to step back into the shoes of non-Christians and see life from their perspective. Not only un-churched people, but people from outside the entire Abrahamic world view, who are neither Jews nor Muslims nor Christians, people like the Native American traditionalists, or the West African traditionalists, or the practicing self-described neo-pagans I’ve known. They all have some things in common, too.
Now, Jews, Muslims and Christians believe that time is going somewhere, that time and the world as we now know it will end with a day of judgment and the restoration of God’s eternal rule over everything. You can trace that back to the Bible and God’s prophets. Think of it as history moving in a line, one direction, toward an end, and one final new beginning.
But in the traditionalist, magical, pagan and neopagan world view, time and history move in an endless circle of birth, destruction, death and re-birth, with no end or resolution. Like the story of the Bambara people from Mali, in which a previous world was believed to have been destroyed by a violent, magical confrontation between an evil sorcerer and his virtuous son. All that was left of the universe by the violent showdown of their magical powers was an egg, from which hatched this world. This world was just one of many before it, and one of many to come, so on and so on, in an endlessly repeating cycle of worlds, like the cycle of the seasons, or the generations. Many traditional, tribal, pagan and neopagan people the world over see time and history in this eternally cyclical way.
And that’s why the Advent season, and even the whole of the church’s historic worship year, begins with Bible passages about the end of the world as we currently know it, and the answer to our prayers, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Not because we believe and teach that this hope is only part of an endless cycle of birth, destruction, death and rebirth, but precisely because we do not. That’s one way we respectfully differ, and the difference makes all the difference in the world.
Having the worship year begin with end-of-time prophecies sets the clock for how we view time and our lives all throughout the year. It tells us that we are not just prisoners trapped inside an endlessly rotating wheel of chance, like hamsters in a cage. Through Christ we are victors, “more than conquerors,” and not just victims lifted up by some mindless wheel of life only to be cast down and crushed as it spins over and over again in the same place. We are joint heirs with Jesus of a coming kingdom, travelers with the tribes on the road to Mount Zion, destined to sit with Christ on his throne, co-laborers with God as he re-creates his world, one never to be corrupted nor destroyed by sin again. That’s why, this year, the Advent candles are set up in a row, to be lit from one end to the other as the weeks pass, and not in a circle.
While that has everything to say about our one and only eternal future, it also has everything to say about our present, and how we live. And the chief words I wish to impress upon us, about how we live this life, while awaiting Christ’s return, are vigilance and standby. The focus verse for my message today is verse 44: “be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” Or, at “an unexpected hour,” the theme of Advent this year.
Knowing where time is going, but not when (the hour will be “unexpected”), Jesus calls us to a stance of lifelong vigilance. Be ever vigilant because, according to verse 42 “you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” His return is expected, just like his first coming, but the time is not.
Now the opposite of vigilance would be neglect or carelessness. Like texting while driving. We are constantly tempted by the spiritual equivalent of texting while driving, that is, being distracted by every noisy, clamoring, immediate fearsome thing at hand, and not paying attention to the bigger question of where we are going, or why. Many or most of these immediate things at hand may be good. But if we don’t know when and how to say No to any of these things, or “Later,” we will neglect the reason and purpose of our God-given lives; we’ll be cruising toward a crash. Advent is a month-long reminder, at the beginning of the church’s worship year, of where we are going, and what is the timeless and eternal destination ahead of us.
But how shall we be vigilant? If by vigilant we meant that we paid no attention to this life and took no responsibility for next week or next year, then millions of Christians should have starved to death, or come to retirement empty-handed, only to be burdens upon others. How can we be vigilant, ready and up-to-date for our eventual encounter with Christ, whether in this life or by death, and still be responsible, generous and gracious people, carrying out our stewardship? To that question I reply with the phrase, “on standby.” We are like hopeful airline passengers awaiting a call to board, if not for this next flight, then eventually one after that. Its going to happen, sooner or later, so don’t wander too far away from the gate, stay near so you can hear, and listen, even while you’re engaged in various things. If you believe that you will eventually go, then your bags should be packed, maybe one is even checked; take and keep what you need for the journey and the wait, but not much more. While you’re waiting, there’s no need to sit around twiddling your thumbs watching nothing but the screen behind the ticket counter. As long as you’re in range of the public address system and are keeping an ear open, you can grab a bite to eat, read the newspaper or a good book, work on your computer, catch up on your emails or call your loved ones. In fact, if you’ve even been on standby in an airport, you may have found it to be one of the most productive times and places to get some of the most important stuff done, or your best reading, because life now has one clear goal: getting to that desired destination. There at the airport, you’ve placed yourself out of the reach of most other possible side-tracks and distractions. Someone else will answer the phone at home, check the mail, mow the lawn, or shovel the snow. Or you’ll get to it later.
And at some moment, there will come the call for arrival and departure. The arrival of the Promised One, and the new age of justice, mercy and peace that he ushers in, and the departure of this world, life and time as we know them now. If not then, then before then, “in the hour of our deaths.” So stay near, so you can hear. Don’t get too absorbed and invested in anything, don’t wander too far away toward spiritual and moral places where you’ll miss the call or not be able to find the way back in time.
If living on such spiritual standby sounds difficult or frustrating, or not for cowards, that can be true. But the alternative is time without direction, history with no hope, life without logic, tied to the mindless wheel of fortune, spinning madly but going nowhere in particular. And don’t ask if it all has any meaning. Because if it doesn’t, then nor do our lives. And nor do we. No meaning means no value.
Then again, Advent is not just about the future. There are blessings and benefits to living on standby even now, before the fulfillment of all our prayers. Bishop Origen, of 3rd Century Egypt, wrote on today’s very passage and said, “I know another kind of end for the righteous person who is able to say, along with the apostle, ‘Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world is crucified to me and I to the world.’ In a certain sense, the end of the world has already come for the person to whom the world is crucified. And to one who is dead to worldly things, the Day of the Lord has already arrived, for the Son of man comes to the soul of the one who no longer lives for sin or for the world.”
Yes, in a way, the end of the world has already come for those of us on spiritual standby. If we know where our lives and time are going, then we know what in this life are worthwhile actions that will help us prepare for the end, and what are worthless distractions that will lead us astray. We can then simplify our lives down to the utmost essentials, and not lose sleep over all the options we forgo. Knowing how the story ends, knowing what comes after, knowing what is lasting and eternal, we can have confidence and peace, even while we wait. Indeed, our hope of a better world, and our prayers and labors for it, give us foretastes already of that better world to come. To live in vigilance, on spiritual standby, is like awakening ourselves from a bad dream, shaking off our slumber, and seeing the dawn breaking in the east.
So, not only can I say to each and every one of us, on this first Sunday of Advent, “Happy New Year!” I can say, “Happy New World!” For, to the disciple of Jesus, its not a matter of if it comes to us, but when. And to some extent, it has come for us already, because our lives and our time are oriented toward his coming. Let’s continue then this new year of worship as we begin it today, vigilant, and on spiritual standby, not a useless wait in which we sit and twiddle our thumbs, looking only at the flight status screen, but a productive, fruitful standby, in which we attend to those matters and relationships that will make us and the world most ready for Christ’s arrival, most fit to enjoy the destination, even to model it and bring it forward, while we remain awake and alert to the call that will bring all our labors to a victorious end, and answer all our prayers.