Keep Awake 

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Matthew 24:36-44.

Not long ago I had one of those nights – you know, the kind of night where it feels like you’ve been working in your sleep all night long. I woke up in the wee hours; and my mind started racing about all these things I needed to do; and I couldn’t get back to sleep, not real sleep, but I did doze after awhile; and in my sleep my dreams kept racing, one image blurring into another, all jumpy and jittery and restless; until I half-woke up again, and half-dozed again, over and over for hours. I finally decided I just needed to get up, get out of bed, wake all the way up, so I could get some rest. Sometimes waking up to reality is really a big relief.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

Now Jesus here is talking about something far more important than just getting out of bed after a restless night. Jesus is speaking about the future coming – the advent – of the Son of Man, the one who will be designated by God to bring judgment and renewal to the earth. Jesus warns his disciples that the Son of Man will come at a time they do not expect, when they are right in the middle of doing something else, anything else, eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, just like the people in the time of Noah, before the flood came and swept them all away. Jesus warns his disciples that the moment of judgment and renewal comes when everything else is going on, when the whole blooming bustling world is laboring and grinding along as usual, at a day and an hour and a moment that they would least expect.

“Therefore,” Jesus says, “Keep awake; stay alert; wake up your soul; because you want to see your Lord, and recognize your Lord, and greet your Lord when he comes.” “That way,” Jesus says, “he won’t have to break into your spirit like a thief breaking into your house, but you may welcome him in as Lord and Savior and Friend whom you have stayed awake to greet.”

And the wonderful and tricky thing about Jesus’ words here is that they can be understood on several different levels of meaning all at once.

On one level, of course, Jesus is talking about the end of the world, the apocalypse, the parousia, the unimaginable moment yet to come when God’s glory will be revealed in its fullness in everything, and everything that is not able to stand in God’s glory will be burned away, and everything that rejoices in God’s glory will be raised up and made new and made whole and made forever. That’s what Paul is talking about in the Epistle today, when he says to the Romans, “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 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” so that when the light comes, we will be able to stand in it. The teaching is that the end of all things will come at a moment we do not expect, so we must be awake for judgment and renewal at any time.

On a second level, Jesus’ words can be understood to refer, not to the end of the whole world, but to the ends of our individual worlds, the ends of our individual lives, when we will be judged and renewed in the nearer presence of God. Jesus in the Gospel today warns us that our deaths will come at a moment we do not expect. And that is not an easy thing for us to hear. We contemporary Americans like to think that we are functionally immortal: that if we’re just smart enough and careful enough, then nothing ever needs to go wrong in our lives – and if something ever does go wrong, then we ought to be able to find someone to blame. We don’t like to think that our busy, challenging, rewarding lives will end in death, and there’s no way we can predict or control when that death will come.

But then something happens that reminds us of the fragility of life – a school bus crashes; the doctor calls after a routine check-up and says, “We might have found something; I want you to come in for more tests”; a teenager accidentally bumps into someone on the street, someone carrying a gun, and shots are fired, and the teenager is killed, and the shooter says it was because he felt threatened – something happens that reminds us of the fragility of life, and we remember with a shock how close to us death can be. And Jesus says, “Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” The teaching is that the end of our lives will come at a moment we do not expect, so we must be awake for judgment and renewal at any time.

There is yet a third level on which we can understand Jesus’ words: a level that refers not to the end of the world, nor to the end of our own lives, but to the end – and the new beginning – that comes to us in every moment, every action, every experience of life. Every moment of our lives is the ending of one thing and the beginning of another: one moment I’m preaching, and the next moment I’m joining in the Creed; one moment you’re a parent of teenagers, with all the craziness and amazement that brings, and the next moment your kids have gone off to college and the house seems suddenly too big, too quiet, too empty; one moment of solitude is interrupted by the ringing of the phone, and the next moment you’re sharing comfort and compassion and hope with a friend who is grieving.

In every moment God calls us to let go of the past and be open to the future; in every moment God calls us to die a little bit to what has been so that we may live a little bit more for what is yet to be; in every moment God accepts what we have done with the possibilities God has given us, and God gives us new possibilities for what we can do and who we can be next. Every moment is a moment of judgment and renewal; every moment is a time when our Lord comes near to us; every moment is an advent of Christ in the glory of God. What we need to do is to wake up, to be awake enough to recognize Christ coming to us in all the judgments and renewals, all the endings and beginnings, that make up the moments of our lives.

And in a real way, that is what this season of Advent is all about: being awake to witness the coming of Christ, not just at the end of the world, not just at the end of our lives, but in every moment, in every ending and beginning that moves us on our way through life. We could even say that waking up to see the advent of Christ in this present moment is what prepares us, what trains us, what strengthens us, to welcome the coming of Christ to us at the time of our death, and to be partners in the glory of Christ when he comes at last “with clouds descending” to remake and renew our world. It is because we learn to see the coming of Christ now in the time of this mortal life that we will rejoice to see the coming of Christ in the time of the life that does not end. That is God’s Advent call to us.

And what will you do with that call this Advent? How will you wake up to recognize the coming of Christ to you in all the endings and all the beginnings of your moments? Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preaches about waking up from the nightmare that sin and hatred so often make our of human life, waking up to God’s dream of justice and peace and right-relationships for all people. How will you wake up for Advent? How will you look at faces and see the face of Jesus in them? How will you connect with the outcast and marginalized and build up with them the common good? How will you reach out to the lost and the lonely and the frightened and help them see the light of Christ, help them walk in the light of the Lord? How will you wake up for Advent?

Jesus said to his disciples, “Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Let it be our prayer today, on this First Sunday of Advent, that we may indeed be awake to see the coming of our Lord today, and tomorrow, and in all times and all places, and for all eternity. Amen.