Those of you who were here over the summer when I preached a sermon entitled “Pay Attention” are probably getting tired of the propensity of young preachers to employ sermon titles toward mundane ends. You may be thinking, “Apparently ‘pay attention’ didn’t go so well, so now he’s hoping we’ll just stay awake!” Just you wait until Dean Hill assigns me to preach the parable of the wedding banquet, when the sermon title will be “Show up!” No, far be it from me to discourage any impulse to congregational vigor during the sermon. Nevertheless, like last June, I hope the sermon itself will draw attention to other ends toward which the title might be pointing.
May God be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray:
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armor of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
As a matter of fact, it should not be too terribly difficult to keep awake during this first, (or is it the last?), Sunday of the Christian year. After all, anxiety makes it hard to fall asleep. Advent is nothing if not an anxious time, the first Sunday especially. Time itself seems to have gotten wrapped around. It is the start of the Christian year but simultaneously the end of all time. The hallmark of advent is the theme of waiting, waiting for the Christ child to come and waiting for Christ to come again, all at the same time. And so, perhaps, we can understand something of our experience, about this time last year, that may not have been as strange as we once thought, when we found Dean Hill meandering through the basement of the chapel, singing “Have an anxious, edgy advent, it’s the worst time of the year…” (to the tune of, “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas), in his out-of-tune way.
Indeed, it is an anxious time in anxious times. We don’t know quite what to expect. Will the stock market continue its dramatic climbs, as it has since the next economic team was announced? Or will it take another staggering drop as yet another financial firm, or an automotive company, announces insolvency and bankruptcy? Of course, it could be that our anxiety about the economy is blinding us from other concerns that should be more pressing. Will ten men with guns, wearing designer t-shirts and blue jeans, come shooting into our favorite restaurants and hotels, even our places of worship, as happened this past week in Mumbai? No! Say it isn’t so! This is the season of HOPE! At least, we hope so.
Surely, some of the hostages in the Oberoi hotel harbored a few apocalyptic thoughts, perhaps along the lines of those proffered in our prophetic text this morning:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
It seems like a good idea, we think, for God to show up right about now and overcome our adversaries. As we hide under a table, we can imagine the archangel Michael striding forth, knocking the gun out of the young man’s hands and cleaving his head from his shoulders with a fiery sword. After all, surely we are God’s elect, and our Gospel lesson tells us, “he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”
Imaginations of supernatural interventions in the face of extreme terror and distress are probably coping mechanisms. They distract us from the carnage going on about us and provide a sense of calming and assurance that holds back the instinctual fight or flight reactions that could draw more attention to us. To such ends they are surely good things. But what are we to make of them when the terror and carnage stop? How might we understand such experiences in the light of day? And what are we to make of the fact that there was no angel with a fiery sword? The first thing we might do is give thanks that the God who creates us creates us with coping mechanisms so that we have a better chance of surviving such acts of terrorism. Not all did survive, we know, and for them, their families and friends we pray especially this morning.
Of course, it may be that the next morning, in the light of day, we find ourselves quietly relieved that no angel with a fiery sword actually showed up. If one had, then there really would be some explaining to do! No, in the scientific age, our problem is less explaining why God does not intervene in mundane affairs and more how to understand our traditions
and texts that make claims to past and future divine interventions. Such understandings are especially hard to come by when it is Jesus who predicts the intervention. After all, no one wants to be caught claiming that the Son of God was wrong! On the other hand, it may be less that Jesus was wrong and more that there is something inadequate in our interpretive framework, more specifically in our understanding of time. Let us consider, for a few moments, what Christ’s coming, and our watchfulness, might mean from the perspective of eternity.
A recent dean of Marsh Chapel is fond of pointing out that “God is not in time, time is in God.” God’s perspective is not temporal; it is eternal. And eternity is not static; it is dynamic. In eternity, the past, present and future of things are held together. In time, things have pasts that do not change and futures that are open except as constrained by the unchanging past and present choices. But in eternity, we are both our present selves, conditioned by all of our past choices, and our past selves prior to having made those choices, and all of the future selves that are possible given the choices we have, or might have, made.
That’s enough metaphysics for one sermon, or perhaps too much. But what does it mean for our texts? It means that Jesus is absolutely right that no one but the Father knows the day or the hour. The day and the hour is a concern of temporal creatures, not a concern of the eternal God. God comes to us in all the modes of time: past, present and future. God comes to us in the present by offering us our past selves, out of which we choose to continue or change course in light of future possibilities. God comes to us in the past as the value we have achieved in our choices as they were present according to the possibilities that were future. God comes to us in the future as the possibilities we might actualize by changing past actualizations in present choices.
And so Jesus was also right to say that, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” By the time each generation passes away, God has come to all of the members of that generation in their past actuality, in their present choices, and in their future possibilities at each moment of their lifetimes. So too, “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Heaven and earth are parts of creation and so are subject to temporality. Time passes. This is obvious. But Jesus’ words will not pass away. God is eternal and so God comes to us in all of the pasts and all of the presents and all of the futures of our lives.
What, then, does it mean to keep awake? Does it mean that we are to be on the lookout for angels with fiery swords? Well, maybe for those brief moments while the gunmen are shooting up the dining room and we are appropriately cowering under the table. But the rest of the time, to keep awake is to attune ourselves to the coming of God in every moment of our lives in eternal perspective. God is continually coming to us in each moment as it has a past, a present and a future. Jesus is surely right that we “do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn.” We do not know when because “when?” is a question of temporal creatures. The eternal God comes to us in the evening and at midnight and at cockcrow and at dawn as each watch of the night passes from future possibility into present choice and then into past actuality.
But before we go on about our way, happily rejoicing that God is eternally come, it is important to pause for a moment and remember that God’s coming is not always such a happy or pleasant thing.
Did you hear it? Did you hear last week, as the choir sang Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata 147: Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben? Well, perhaps you didn’t if you don’t speak German. But hopefully you read it in the translation. “Heart and mouth and deed and life must give testimony of Christ without fear or hypocrisy that he is God and savior.” Indeed, all of this talk of God coming to us in each and all of the modes of time is a giving of testimony that Christ is God and savior. But to what do we testify? The tenor recitative declaims Mary giving thanks for the Christ child, and we too give thanks, but it also announces Christ as both liberator and judge. We can rest comfortably with the freedom Christ brings, but are we willing to welcome the coming of Christ in judgment, as our rose window depicts? Later the bass depicts Christ coming both to throw down and to lift up. Surely we all know both moments in our lives worthy of being cast down and times worthy of being lifted up. As the tenor sings at the beginning of the second half of the cantata, we are in need of help to acknowledge God who comes to us “in prosperity and in woe, in joy and in sorrow.” Bach leaves us resting in the arms of a loving and caring Jesus, but we would do well to remember that God’s coming is as sure as the sunrise and not always so docile: our God is a consuming fire.
Here, in the first week of advent, time does indeed collapse together and we catch a glimpse of the coming to us of the wild God who creates the world out of eternity. The good news for us today is that a day of peace does shine for us, albeit dimly. It shines to us out of the future through which God is also present to us, through our hopes and prayers and dreams. It shines to us who are awake to the eternity out of which we are created and judged. “And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake.”