|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
December 3, 2017
First Sunday of Advent: Year B
Watching and Waiting
First Sunday of Advent – Year B
The night before my first child Isabelle was born, I couldn’t stay awake. Melody was in pre-labor, and she could tell that things were starting to happen. She was, of course, wide awake. She kept getting up and walking around the house, and then climbing back in bed. Frankly, I remember feeling a little annoyed at all the coming and going. But I couldn’t stay awake. I was sure that the doctor had told me to get my rest as much as possible, because I needed to be ready to help whenever the time came. It didn’t occur to me in that moment that the time had, indeed, come, so I kept trying to doze. Well, finally, around 2:00 a.m., she nudged me hard and said in a clear voice, “If you fall asleep one more time, I will kill you.” So, I got up with her, and we went for a walk around the neighborhood at 2:00 in the morning, and when we got back to the house, her water broke and we drove to the hospital, and Isabelle was born a few hours later.
Don’t you feel like the more you want to sleep, the more you sit wide awake in bed, and the more you want to keep awake and alert, the more your eyes just want to shut? Sometimes staying awake is just plain hard! But Jesus tells us that staying awake can be the most important thing we do in life – and not just so your wife won’t kill you as she goes into labor with your first child. Jesus says we need to stay awake so that we’re ready for the arrival of God.
Today we begin the all-too-short season of Advent, and as we do every year, we start the season by hearing Jesus tell us about the end of the world. Jesus shared this vision with only four of his disciples – Peter, James, John and Andrew – as they sat on a hillside overlooking Jerusalem during Jesus’ fateful, final week of mortal life. As they looked down on the glorious city, he told them that everything they saw would one day be destroyed, that all the majesty of the temple would disappear and everything would be overthrown. And not only would it happen to Jerusalem, but the sun and moon would also fade in the sky, and the stars would fall out of their constellations, and “the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
I really can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like to stand there and hear Jesus say these words the first time, but I don’t think he said it to scare them. He said it to comfort them. They needed to know that even something as great and terrifying as the end of the world would be held in God’s good hands. He wanted them to remember that even when darkness falls all around, even when it seems like chaos has come to dominate and dwell, God is sovereign over the darkness, and God creates out chaos. He wanted them to know that God will be in charge right up until the very last day, until the moment the Son of Man comes on clouds and the total restoration of the cosmos begins. And he wanted to them to watch for his coming to them – even in the darkness, even in the chaos – because he promised he would come to them (John 14:3).
Nearly 2,000 years after he first said these words to those four bewildered and fearful disciples on a hillside overlooking Jerusalem, Jesus wants us to know the very same things. Just like then, today it can seem like darkness and chaos are running amok all around us. Just like then, it can seem like the doomsday prophets might finally be right and things are beginning to turn the corner to the end of time. Just like then, today we can wonder if there’s anyone in charge up there, or if God has left us to fend for ourselves. And so, just like then, Jesus wants us to understand that even when things seem to have reached new levels of strangeness and darkness, we can trust that our world is always and forever held in God’s good hands. God is sovereign in darkness as well as in light, and he will always and forever be in charge.
This is why we hear the little apocalypse on the first weekend in Advent every year. Not to make us afraid, but because this vision of the end is actually part of Jesus’ good news – the good news of the end of the world: that when the end of the world comes, it will not be because God has abandoned us to darkness and chaos, but because God is finally and fully here, having come in power and great glory to make all things new.
In the meantime, Jesus says our job is to stay awake and to watch. Not to “watch out,” like TSA Security in the airport on the lookout for suspicious activity, but to “watch” like first-time parents waiting for the arrival of their baby. It’s not an exercise of fear or dread, but an exercise of hope and faith. We are called to keep awake and watch for him as the watchman looks for the morning, trusting that dawn will break and the sun will rise and it will be good.
There is a story told about a total eclipse that occurred centuries ago in colonial New England. Among all the panicked people plunged into darkness, there was a group of state legislators meeting in a session who also began to panic, and there was a motion to immediately adjourn the session. But one legislator stood up and said, “Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move you, sir, that candles be brought.”
That legislator was on to something, because the sort of watching and waiting Jesus calls us to is active and engaged. Sometimes it seems like the world has gone numb to all the places of brokenness and sin, like too many have just gone to sleep rather than take an honest look at the very real problems we face as a world. But Jesus’ sort of watching requires us to look at ourselves and our lives and the world around us with honesty and truth. It requires compassion and hope and engagement. And it requires us to be awake.
Think about it this way: what happens when we fall asleep? We dream. Our subconscious departs from reality and imagines some other world, a world that may have nothing whatsoever to do with the life we actually live. (case in point…just the other day I dreamed I was a Mexican rapper. I wonder what Freud or Jung would say about that?) Now, dreams can be good. The Bible is full of dreamers, from prophets to magi, whose dreams were holy and important and godly. But dreaming can also be a sort of escapism, can’t it? – a way of pretending you’re somewhere else for a little while in order to leave an undesirable “real life” behind. This escapist sort of dreaming is what we’re lured into every December as we’re marketed a constant barrage of fantastical and expensive commercial dreams. This is why Jesus commands us to stay awake, to be alert, to keep watch. He warns us not to nod off into dreams so that we neglect the very real world around us – a world he loved enough to enter into and for which he gave his life.
We, like those early colonial legislators, stay awake—and keep at our work—even when things get dark and it seems like the end must be near.
We must stay awake— and refuse to lose hope or stop working for justice just because things have gotten hard.
We must stay awake—and not be lured to sleep by the deterioration of morality in our society and among our leaders.
We must stay awake—and keep our eyes open to the very real world around us, rather than escape into numb complacency or weak resignation.
We must stay awake—and not give up working on issues like racism or violence against women just because things seem to be going backwards right now.
We must stay awake—and keep looking for the presence of Jesus in the least and the lost, even when it’s so very hard.
We must stay awake—not because we’re afraid of what lies ahead, but because we’re waiting with longing for the child coming to be born into our midst.
This Advent, keep hoping and believing and watching and waiting on the one who came that first Christmas morning, and who promises to come again with power and great glory, because I promise you’ll want to be awake to see it.