Today is the first Sunday in the season of the church year called Advent, the four week fast before the feast of Christmas. Sadly, we don’t have much of a concept for fasting and feasting in our consumer culture. Our culture was shaped by a form a Christianity that didn’t have much use for the liturgical calendar. The rhythm of fast and feast, Advent into Christmas didn’t mean much in Puritan America. These days we’re mostly interested in uplift. So of course, we go for the fun stuff – Christmas and Easter – but leave behind the darker, contemplative seasons like Advent and Lent. We like the feast but not the fast. As a result we neither feast nor fast. We just gorge ourselves for what we generically call the “holiday season” and wallow in a hangover of post-holiday guilt and dieting. It’s a superficial way to live. I would commend to you the quiet contemplation of Advent. Prepare for Christmas by prayer and fasting, with generous works of mercy and eyes firmly fixed on the Day of Christ’s advent in glory.
The word “advent” means “coming” or “appearing,” originally the appearing of a king or a god. When we speak of the season of Advent, we are referring both our Lord’s first appearance in humility as the Child born of Mary, and of His second appearance in glory at the end of this age. Advent is about watching and waiting for the coming of the Lord.
Yes, it’s also a kind of countdown to Christmas. When I ask the kids what the candles on the Advent wreath mean, they invariably say it’s how many weeks left until Christmas. And Advent certainly is a preparation for Christmas. Not in the sense of how many shopping days are left, but certainly in the sense of preparing for something big and bright and beautiful. Big celebrations take some planning and preparation. And when we’re celebrating the that God’s eternally begotten Son became man to save the whole world, that takes a bit of preparation.
Advent is also a sort of countdown to the birth of the new creation. I like the image of pregnancy for Advent. It’s the fullness of time. History is pregnant with the promise of
God. Expectant, hopeful. The birth pangs have begun. Wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, floods, disasters and diseases. “These are the beginning of the birthpangs,” says Jesus. The labor pains of the new creation. Think of a mother expecting a child. She lives in expectation, anticipating the birth of her child. She lives for it. She doesn’t know precisely the day or the hour, and so she must watch and wait. She knows the signs. She knows that the day is coming soon – inevitably and inexorably. She watches and waits with eager expectation.
Watch! Be alert! Be awake! Four times Jesus says it in four verses of this morning’s Gospel. That’s the spirit of Advent – watchfulness, alertness, sober vigilence. Be on the lookout, as they say. The Lord is near.
Jesus says it’s like a man who goes on a journey and leaves his servants in charge, each with the authority to do their work. And he posts a doorkeeper at the door, whose job is to do one thing. Be on the lookout! You never know when the master is coming home. The one thing you can be sure of is that he’s a sly old fox who comes when you least expect it. When everyone else is sound asleep he’ll come knocking at the door he’ll come knocking at the door with a bottle of wine under his arm looking for a party. So be on the lookout.
What keeps the watchman alert is that he has no idea when his Lord is returning. Could be nine in the evening, or the stroke of midnight (as in the parable of the bridesmaids) or at three in the morning or at sunrise. Or anytime in between. You never know when the divine Fox is going to make his appearance. That’s what keeps the Church on her toes. She doesn’t know.
The Church is a watchman, standing high Zion’s hill. Watching the signs and the passing seasons. Watching with eyes wide upon while the world sleeps in its on security, shops in economic certainty, and boozes its through the end of the year and into a new. But the church keeps vigil, watching, wondering, waiting, worshipping. Oh yes, we take our sleep too. And we shop and work and eat and drink. But we do all of it knowing that any day might be the Day to end all days, the birth day of the new creation that has already come in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Everything we plan for the future has the same “if” written over it as our congregation’s weekly calendar – If the Lord should delay.
What if the doorkeeper knew the precise moment of his master’s return? What if you knew the exact time the divine Thief was going to break into this world? You’d be ready, of course! You’d have everything in order. And until that time, you wouldn’t have to give it (or Him) a second thought. You could pretty much carry on your business as usual. His coming wouldn’t interrupt your plans in the least. It would be like keeping an appointment with your hairdresser or your doctor. You could pencil in “Day of the Lord” on your day planners and that would be it. Wouldn’t it be great if we could know the day and the hour when Jesus makes His grand appearance? We could greet him in style. We could be ready for him. We could have a special church service, and maybe, just maybe, lots of people might show up. Wouldn’t want to be missing from that divine service, would we? And up until that day, we wouldn’t have to worry about it all that much.
Or would that be so good? Look at all the silliness surrounding the year 2000. As predicted, things are getting goofier by the week. Some have been stockpiling food, water, ammunition, and supplies. All of this for an arbitrary, man-made, meaningless click on the calendar. Can you imagine the chaos if we knew with certainty the divinely-appointed Day to end all the days? It would make the whole Y2K thing look like minor glitch.
Thank God we don’t know, and can’t know, and won’t know, until that Day sneaks up on the world like a thief in the night. And then you won’t need a stockpile of food, water, or ammunition. All you’ll need yes-to-Jesus faith in a Jesus who works through death and resurrection.
If we knew the day and the hour of Jesus’ appearing in glory, there would be no faith. No trust in His Word. It would be works heaped on more works without an ounce of trust. No ongoing relationship with Jesus who is already with us. No wide-eyed expectation. No anticipation. No watchful waiting.
The twin obstacles to watchful waiting are drowsiness and distraction. We are easily bored. Our eyes grow heavy; our hearts grow dull; our minds are distracted. Our attention spans are more attuned to commercial breaks than vigils. We want instant results. Watchful waiting sounds a bit dull to us who live with cell phones, faxes, the internet and e-mail. We have instant meals, instant communication, instant lives. We expect instant cures to our illnesses, immediate rewards for our labors, quick solutions to our problems. And when we have to wait we get bored, impatient, angry.
And so it’s happened to the church in these latter days of her waiting. She’s grown drowsy, bored with the stories of her salvation, apathetic to her mission to baptize and teach, complacent in her worship, sluggish in her prayer. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the liturgy – it’s all become a yawner to a church hooked on entertainment, personal experience, and instant gratification. The church has lost her edge. She’s become sleepy at the wheel, distracted by every novelty that comes along.
This is nothing new. Even in St. Paul’s day there was drowsiness and distraction. People expected Jesus to reappear in their lifetime. They took Him seriously and literally when He said, “This generation will not pass away until all these things have been fulfilled.” They didn’t recognize that Jesus could talk His death, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the world all in one breath. And so watching and waiting, they become bored and distracted. Some fell away, turning to more immediately satisfying religions. Some became distracted by novel teachings. And so the apostle Paul penned these words of encouragement, which apply as well to us who watch and wait today:
But as to the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When people say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape. But you are not in darkness, brethren, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all sons of light and sons of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But, since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11)
It’s time to wake up! To be alert! Watch! You aren’t in the dark about these things. You needn’t be distracted, whether by the silly speculations on the one hand or by the millenial fear-mongers on the other. We are watching and waiting for Jesus, our Savior, who died for the world that we might live in Him. We are watching and waiting for a new creation, the dawn of an endless day at the end of this present darkness.
We’re not waiting for a stranger, but of this world’s Creator and Redeemer. We’re waiting on the One we already know, and who knows us. We’re watching for the coming of the One who already comes to us in Baptism, in the Lord’s Supper, in the word of forgiveness. In a very real sense, the world already had its last day in the darkness one Friday between noon and three. When Jesus died, the world died in Him. In a very real sense, you already had your last day when you were buried by baptism into Jesus’ death. And every Sunday, you experience a foretaste of heaven, an appetizer for which the main course is coming. Every Sunday is a Lord’s Day. And so the coming of Jesus is no surprise – only the day and the hour is.
Be watchful. Be awake and alert. Be on the lookout. Don’t watch the clock or look to the calendar. They won’t tell you anything meaningful. That’s our time, not God’s. Keep your eyes and your ears locked on Jesus. Live in the water of your Baptism. You already died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Eat and drink Jesus’ body and blood. That’s your wilderness food to sustain you through your Advent fast. Confess your sins; hear His forgiveness. Get used to the sound of forgiveness. Expect Jesus coming to save you, to forgive you, to raise you from the dead.
You can count on it. He is faithful. Watch! It’ll be worth the wait.
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.