Fr. John Allison
November 27, 2022
Christ Church, Hudson
“You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”
Usually, reminding a congregation to wake from their sleep would be an admonition better served at the end of a sermon, but Paul’s words do well to orient us to this season of Advent that we begin today. Indeed, today, twenty-four weeks after we celebrated the Feast of Pentecost, we begin a new church year and in this first week there is a bit of overlap between our anticipation of Christmas, of Christ’s first coming as the baby Jesus, and his second coming at the end of time. The long season of ordinary time, as we call the season after Pentecost, has come to an end and we are called to a new beginning. As Paul says, “the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Paul is writing to the early followers of Jesus in Rome and he is offering a bit of encouragement as they grow restless in their wait for the expected return of Jesus. And here we are, two-thousand years later, still waiting. Still restless, perhaps even a bit weary as we learn to live in what is sometimes referred to as the in-between time of already but not yet, the time between Jesus’ birth and his promised return and all the joy that that entails.
It’s hard to wait but over the next few weeks we will hear again and again the importance of waiting, of being awake, of being alert because, as Matthew says in our Gospel today, “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour,”—and we better be ready. Every liturgical season has a focus that I like to think presents us with a task and Advent is a time to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, to wake up. The difficulty in this is that we, like those early Roman Christians, have many things that preoccupy us, many things that discourage us, many things that make it hard to really maintain hope. It was hard for those early Roman Christians and they had only been waiting for thirty or so years, so for us, who have been waiting for so much longer, the call to wake up can seem like a broken alarm clock. Paul’s sense of urgency is dulled and we are left with heavy eyelids and an urge to roll over and go back to sleep.
Even though I recognize all these things in myself—spiritual lethargy, acquiescence to various injustices, the reluctance to really wake up—the yearning for God’s promise remains. We have a glimpse of that promise in our reading from Isaiah: God’s house will be established on the highest mountain and will be there for ALL people. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. This is a promise for all the peoples of the world. For the original hearers of this promise it would have seemed unbelievable; in the chapter preceding today’s reading they had endured war and murder and slavery and all sorts of destruction. Indeed, the end of chapter one is smoky, dark, and wretched. What we hear today, however, chapter 2, is God’s new beginning and describes the reach of God’s grace. For a people exhausted by senseless war and violence and exploitation, these words would have stirred hopes and longings that had long been forgotten. For us, for me at least, they continue to stir hope, to give some vision of a better future for a world where wars continue to rage and innocent people die as a result of gun violence, where countless people continue to suffer in poverty and hunger. This is not a hope that asks that we close our eyes to the reality of suffering that goes on around us. That’s not Advent hope.
A friend from the city once told me a story about taking his family to a mountain cabin far into the woods, away from all the busyness of life. As they got ready for bed and turned out the lights one of his children said that it was so dark inside that cabin that it actually seemed darker with his eyes open than with them shut. There are moments like that for all of us, when it feels darker with our eyes opened. Such darkness comes in the wars and violence I mentioned earlier but also in illness and chronic pain, in caring for a loved one who is dying, in broken relationships, in loss of livelihood—in the stuff of ordinary life. Sometimes, in all of these things, we want to close our eyes and go back to sleep because it feels darker with our eyes open. But that’s not Advent hope.
In our Gospel reading Jesus says, no one knows when will be his coming, and then gives indications that it will happen as we go about our normal lives: eating, drinking, marrying, working. The key, he says, is to keep awake. To keep our eyes open. Christ’s return is not so much about sorting the innocent and the wicked as it is about awareness. “Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken one left.” There is no suggestion that the one taken up was good and the one left behind evil. What makes the difference is awareness. The one left behind was unaware and unprepared for something the one who is taken was aware of and ready for. The priest and author Martin Smith says, “Our risk is being unaware of and unready for what God is preparing for us. If we remain in our ignorance and lack of readiness, we will exclude ourselves.”
The key question, then, is what is it that God is preparing for us? As I said, earlier, Isaiah gives us a glimpse in his depiction of a world without war and strife and that is certainly an aspect of God’s promise, but ultimately God’s promise to us is union, to be as the Second Letter of Peter says, participants in the Divine Nature. We grow into this union with God as we begin to open our eyes to the world around us and to ourselves. One of my favorite definitions of contemplation is, a long, loving look at the real. This is intimacy with God and we practice it through prayer.
In prayer we open our selves to God—our fears, our needs, our frustrations, our regrets. We look at the world around us and seek to live into Jesus’ example as one loves the stranger and cares for the sick and feeds the hungry and befriends the prisoner. In prayer we cultivate awareness that we are bearers of God’s promise of hope. When we stop doing that, when we shut down our spiritual life, our prayer life, we close our eyes. We go to sleep.
But, “you know what time it is, how it is now time for you to wake from sleep.” Now is the time to cultivate awareness and alertness in everyday life. Now is the time to see with eyes wide open to see as God sees, to take a long, loving look at the real, in all its joy and all its pain.
In the well-known prayer of St. Francis, though it wasn’t actually written by him, we pray, Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. To do that, to be instruments of God’s peace, means recognizing and attending to the often times harsh realities of the world, not closing our eyes to them. It’s in that recognition, that waking up to what is around us and waking up to God’s call to us to be instruments of God’s peace that we begin to cultivate that small spark of hope that will grow to a beacon of love. We’ll see that hope symbolically grow over the next four weeks in the lighting of each successive Advent candle but also, tend that tiny flame of hope in your own hearts. Shelter it and cultivate it and let it grow as we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child. That’s our Advent task and with God’s help may we grow in light to be bearers of God’s love to all people. Amen.