Saint James Fordham • Advent 1b• Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said, Therefore, keep awake; for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.+
Anyone who has raised a newborn child, or been around one, knows what it is to be awake in the middle of the night. Infants have their own internal clock, and when that clock says “feeding time” the automatic siren goes off, harder to ignore than the most annoying car alarm. This usually happens just as you are in the midst of a particularly restful sleep, something that you’ve not had too much of in the last few weeks, as you tend to this new, small, noisy houseguest with the demanding appetite and the loud voice. Babies know how to keep you awake in the middle of the night.
The season of Advent is upon us. And as we look towards Christmas just a few weeks ahead of us, we are reminded that a baby is due, a very special baby. And over the next few weeks we will be reflecting on what this special baby means to us, and what the man this baby grew up to be means to us. For this baby is no one other than Jesus Christ.
I said that having a baby in the house can keep you awake in the middle of the night. Well, this baby, this Christ Child, is a baby that keeps the whole world up in the middle of the night. At his first appearing, announced by the star to the wise men, announced by angels to the shepherds in the cold midwinter, Jesus broke the silence of that silent night with his first birth cry, the first breath taken by the Word made flesh. Thirty-three years or so later that same voice was raised in Jerusalem’s Temple precincts, warning his disciples to keep awake, to keep alert for the coming of the master who would shake the world.
How important it is to be awake when the master comes, to be ready to stand up, ready to welcome him! And the only way to be ready, is to be ready, as the old Scout motto has it, to “Be Prepared.” Preparedness, by its very nature, is not something you can do at the last minute!
We are called to be awake, alert in the middle of this world’s long night. But we are also called to be awake in the middle in another sense. Have you ever watched an outfielder in a baseball game, or a goalie in a soccer or hockey match? They have to be “awake in the middle” — awake and alert in the middle of the patch of territory they are assigned to protect and guard. They have to be watchfully alert and ready to move, back and forth, free to catch or deflect the ball or the puck whenever it comes, wherever it comes from.
That’s the kind of “being awake in the middle” I’m talking about. The particular “middle” we are in is the middle Jesus speaks of, the middle between his first coming among us as a child, and his coming again in power and great glory, the middle between his first advent and his second.
We are also, right now, in the midst — and I hope it’s the middle in that we may be coming out of it before too long! — of one of the worst global financial crises in living memory. And most of us are “in the middle” between the people who predict dire catastrophe, and those who think it will all work out if we just leave it alone, or who think we can fix it by continuing to pour more money down the hole. We are in the middle between those who foresee total meltdown and another great depression, and those who see an eventual healthy recovery. It is hard to be prudent, and take appropriate precautions, without giving in to the extremes at either end.
Then there’s the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some even see in our struggles there a fulfillment of ancient prophecy; that Armageddon and the second coming is right around the corner. Well, as I’ve done before I’ll do again, and assure you that they are definitely wrong, for two reasons. One is common sense and the other based on Scripture.
First, these are in large part the same people who had everybody hoarding canned goods as the clock ticked down on December 31, 1999 just under a decade ago. I’ve still got a case of bottled water under the table in my living room, and the bottles have begun to squeeze up because the water is evaporating through the plastic! Remember that? Well, some of us were here at Saint James Church that night, and the Lord did come among us — though not in cloud and majesty and awe, but in the quieter way he’s been coming to Christians for as long as they’ve gathered in twos and threes in his name to break bread and to pray.
I also do not believe those who claim that our current struggles over the Middle East represent the fulfillment of ancient apocalyptic writings, because Jesus himself, in today’s Gospel — known as the “little Apocalypse of Mark” (and isn’t that nice, it’s just a “little” Apocalypse!) — Jesus himself says, “About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So those who claim to know when Jesus is coming are claiming to know something that neither the angels nor Jesus himself knew! The very reason Jesus told his disciples to be alert, to stay awake, was because even he couldn’t tell them exactly when he was going to come again— since that secret was known by the Father alone.
Jesus didn’t know when he was going to come again to judge the world, only that he was going to come again to judge the world. And so he said, Be alert, keep awake.
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At the other extreme are those who act as if the world will never end, that the last judgment is just a bit of folklore that a sophisticated modern person should discard along with other quaint legends. But this error by the secularists misses the mark just as much as the error by the doom-sayers who repeatedly try to pin down the second coming and always have an explanation as to why their predictions are wrong.
If anything is clear from our Gospel it is that, as the bumper sticker puts it, “Jesus is coming, Look busy!” To dismiss the Second Coming as simply a fable robs the universe of purpose. We believe that God had (and has) a purpose, an aim in Creation, and anyone who’s pitched a ball knows that if you have an aim,you have a target. God had an aim as he cast creation into being, as it arced on up through the history of the chosen people, on to the coming of Christ at his incarnation, and on forward toward an as-yet-unknown future when he will come again and make the whole creation new. To deny the Second Coming robs the First Coming of its significance, and makes creation a literally aimless exercise.
So it is, my brothers and sisters, that we are called to keep awake in the middle between these two extremes; neither thinking we’ve got the timetable for the last judgment in our pockets, nor imagining that there is no last judgment coming. No, we are called to stay awake in the middle, in the middle of the night, in the middle of our lives, in the middle of a world that alternately panics or ignores. We are called, and we have been warned, to be alert to our salvation when it comes. For that is God’s purpose, God’s aim for us, that we might be saved.
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During his great Antarctic expedition, the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton left a small group of men behind on an island off the coast, assuring them he would return. But every time he made the attempt to get back to the island, the sea-ice blocked the passage. Then one morning, perhaps due to a shifting current, a passage opened in the pack-ice and Shackleton was able to get through. He found his men on the island ready, packed and waiting, and they quickly scrambled aboard the ship with all of their gear. No sooner had the ship reached safety than the ice crashed back closed behind them. They had only been saved because they were ready to be saved. Shackleton, somewhat in awe at the narrow escape, said to his men, “It was fortunate you were all packed and ready to go!” They said, “It wasn’t fortune, sir. We never gave up hope. Whenever we saw the sea was clear of ice, we packed up and said to each other, ‘He may come today.’ And today, you came.”
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Jesus may come today. He may come next month; he may come a million years from now. When he comes isn’t for us to know. That he will come is the substance of our faith. And because we have faith that he will come, but do not know the hour of his coming, we are called to be awake in the middle of this world’s long night. We are to keep awake, to be alert, for we do not know when the cry of alarm will sound, the last trumpet blow, the king return in glory. May we be found ready for our rescue, prepared to grasp our Savior’s outstretched hand.+