To Be Awake

Isaiah 2:1-5

Romans 13:11-14

Matthew 24:36-44

If any of us were tempted to think of Advent, which begins today, as only a preliminary to Christmas, the feast of the incarnation of God in Jesus, our texts today would disabuse us. Advent is not preparation for the coming of Baby Jesus: it celebrates the Second Coming of Jesus in judgment. The theme of our texts is that we should wake up for that judgment and be ready. The theme for next week’s texts is that we should repent in the face of impending judgment. The mood of Advent is urgency.

Because Advent and the Christmas Incarnation repeat every year in the liturgical calendar, we know that they are not simply historical matters. The long-ago birth of Jesus was not significant only for its time. It has an eternal once-for-all significance that Christians need to reconsider and appropriate every year. The same with Advent: its significance is eternal and once for all. Because the imagery of the Second Coming seems to be in the historical future, the fact Jesus has not come in so long tempts many people to dismiss the message of judgment. If Advent referred only to a future event, the chances of it happening in our lifetime are so remote we can safely forget it. The urgency of Jesus’ preaching about immanent judgment cannot be sustained very long if it means merely a future event.

Already in the New Testament writers such as John and the authors of Ephesians and Colossians were saying that judgment is less a future temporal event to be anticipated than an eternal state of affairs that is always relevant now. The theological term “realized eschatology” means that we are eternally before God, which means in part “judgment now.” Realized eschatology is the opposite of literalist views of the Second Coming as a future event, made popular in our time by the “Left Behind” series of books. The literalist reading of Jesus’ apocalyptic language, and that in other parts of the Bible, gives rise to some unexpected policies. For instance, many of our evangelical colleagues strongly support the State of Israel, not for the sake of Israel or Jews or out of respect for Jewish religion, but because of their hope that enough Jews will convert to Christianity to trigger the Second Coming. That is actually an anti-Jewish policy. Sometimes literalist readers of apocalyptic biblical passages are in favor of war and chaos, a literal self-destruction of civilizations, also in hope that this will trigger the Second Coming. How far that is from the ethical injunctions to peacemaking that form the content of Jesus’ particular judgment! The result of repeated non-appearances of Jesus, despite temporary excited expectations, is that people finally dismiss Jesus’ apocalyptic language with a “ho-hum.”

The real point of Jesus’ message, I believe, is that we stand eternally before God and everywhere and always are under judgment, not later but now. The problem, Jesus said, is that we are like sleepwalkers and are unaware of this. We are like people before the flood, eating, drinking and marrying without knowing what is going on. Two people will be at work as if everything were normal and suddenly one dies. The householder sleeps on while the thief breaks in. The Gospel of Matthew is filled with parables about people being asleep or unaware of what is going on, such as the story of the tenants who thought they could kill the landowner’s agents, even his son, and get away with it, or the story of the marriage feast where the poor guest did not know what occasion to dress for and was condemned to the outer darkness, or the story of the sleepy virgins who missed the bridegroom, or the remark about the people who can’t tell from the buds on the fig tree that summer is coming. Jesus said, “Keep awake.” “Be ready.”

To apply Jesus’ point generally to our lives does not take rocket science. We know how easy it is to become so immersed in the daily struggles of life that we forget life’s real significance. Mundane things seem difficult enough that we don’t have time for religious matters, except insofar as they can become our mundane routine. Of course we recognize that we have moral struggles, with selfishness, neglect of others, failure to be attentive to people’s needs, and the rest. We know we need to do something about that, and we will, tomorrow. For today we have to get the term paper written, pay the bills, or get some relief from life’s stresses. To this Jesus says, “Wake up,” because tomorrow you might be dead. What you might do later to make amends is suddenly irrelevant. Jesus says, live before God as if you were ready to die. Part of the urgency of the Advent season is that this one might be our last.

Jesus had in mind something more specific than this point, however. When he thought of people standing before God in judgment, he understood that the ethics according to which they would be judged is that derived from the Torah and the Prophets. He liked to quote Isaiah, for instance, and our passage from the second chapter of Isaiah is particularly instructive. For Isaiah, the divine judgment was not so much God coming to judge individuals, as in Jesus’ examples, as it was the glorious elevation of Jerusalem, God’s city. Isaiah envisioned a future in which Jerusalem would be the capital of the world and all of the nations would come to it for judgment. The reason for nations to stream to Jerusalem, Israel’s Holy Hill, would not be that Jerusalem has a particularly powerful or wise king. Rather it would be because God, not some human king, will instruct and judge the nations. “Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples.” Perhaps Isaiah was hoping that this would be the future of Jerusalem, which in his time was sore pressed by the Assyrians. The point for us is that nations lie under judgment, and given the choice would, or should, go to God for instruction and judgment. Isaiah’s image of Zion as the place to stand before God is like Jesus’ images of heaven, or the coming Son of Man.

The religious result of Isaiah’s imagined encounter of all peoples with God on mount Zion is like the heart of Jesus’ teachings: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Isaiah’s prophetic song of divine-human encounter in the Lord’s place was a song of peace. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, said, in the Beatitudes, that the peacemakers are the children of God. When Jesus said we would be judged, at the heart of his prophetic message was that we shall be judged as peacemakers.

We’ve gone to sleep on that one, haven’t we? Because the world has enough people ready to go to war when they think they can get away with it and advance their cause, Christians particularly ought to be peacemakers. Peacemaking is not only truce-making, a catch-up response after a war is started. Peacemaking is seeking out the frustrations, angers, and greed that give rise to war in the first place. How ironic it is, then, that the Western imperial nations sought to spread Christianity around the globe through their conquests but then failed to be awake to the peacemaking lesson of Christianity when our empires collapsed. The retreat of European and American imperialism from Africa, from the Muslim world stretching from Morocco to Indonesia, from India, Pakistan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Cuba, left a vast terrain of landmines ready to e
xplode with slight provocation: ruinous divisions of the rich from the poor, puppet governments that did not care for their people, corrupt rulers and ruling families, national boundaries drawn without regard to cultures, and apartheid structures of one sort or another. India alone seems to have emerged stronger in its days of freedom than in its imperial days, and that is probably because its revolution was led by a pacifist peacemaker, Mohatma Ghandi; even India seems to have a perpetual war with Pakistan. Why were the so-called Christian imperial nations asleep to the ways their withdrawals set conditions for ongoing warfare? Why have Christians since then been asleep to what should be done to alleviate poverty and ignorance, stamp out corruption, and redistribute the world’s wealth, so that the Third World doesn’t need to look on the First World with envy and hate? Of course, Western imperialism is not responsible for every nation’s ills, and many Christians indeed have acted as peacemakers—they are the heroes of our time. But the so-called Christian nations have been deep in slumber about the responsibilities of preventative peacemaking.

And what are we Christian Americans to say about our current situation? Granted, something needed to be done after 9/11, and it should have been aggressive, pre-emptive peacemaking. Instead, the government declared a war on terror and pumped up the inflated rhetoric of patriotic warmongering. The war on terror itself has been a bust because the terrorists just duck; the top leaders are still at large and the rank and file is growing. The government has gone to war with Afghanistan and Iraq, however, two countries that did not attack us. Iraq had neither weapons of mass destruction nor any close connection with terrorism. Whatever our government’s real motives were, disguised by its lies about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, we are now engaged in continual wars from which it seems we cannot withdraw without causing even more damage. The Taliban are gaining in Afghanistan, and Fallujah was liberated by being destroyed, with the insurgents driven out to new hideouts. Now disaffected young men of the Muslim world are flocking to Iraq, a terrorist recruitment of our own making. The government seems to think that only more war can solve the problem. Meanwhile our poor soldiers occupying Iraq and Afghanistan are the targets of people whom they were misled to believe would welcome them, dying in a war that should never have been started.

How could Christians have been so soundly asleep as to support the government’s policy of glorifying war and defining peace as only what can be sustained by the threat or use of violent force? We know that 70-80% of the regular church-going Christians voted to support that government. We are a church of sleep-walkers. Too many Christians have been hypnotized to believe that war is the road to peace. Too many have fallen asleep to the Christian witness to help the poor. Too many have slept through Jesus’ lesson that humility, not arrogance, is the only way to lead. Too many have gone to sleep believing that only their own culture is worthy. Too many have been dulled by the narcotic of fear rather than awakened to the power of Christian courage. Too many have been anaesthetized to complex, critical thinking by the sound-bites of religious jingoism. Too many have translated the Gospel into their parochial culture without remainder.

And now the Son of Man is calling us to account. “Wake up,” he says. See what you are doing and remember the foundations of your faith, the gospel values for which Jesus died and to which the martyrs testified, the instructions of God on Zion. This Advent is for the sleeping Christians. It is not a season of comfort yet, but of urgency. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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