Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 1st Sunday of Advent + December 3, 2017
Readings: Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
This Wednesday I felt like just about every conversation with other human beings started by jumping right into the particularly hot topic of current events right now: the ever-growing list of famous men who have been accused of sexual harassment. Their names came up while I talked with people waiting to see Jolene; they came up while a few of us got to know our new nursery attendant; they came up while we were gathering for our Worship Planning meeting. And then I got home, and a friend came over for dinner, and started the conversation with, “Did you hear about Garrison Keillor?” And I wanted to scream “Yes, I heard, and I know, but I’m hungry and I don’t want to think about all these guys anymore!”
And while some of the particular men being accused may surprise us, or some of the details of the stories of harassment may be particularly gross and shocking, most of the people I’ve spoken with — especially the women — have not been surprised by the high number of incidents or people involved. And that’s because we all already knew that harassment and abuse happen all the time. It’s a fact of life; it’s been a fact of life for pretty much ever, and unfortunately I think most women are used to just putting up with it. Until very, very recently, it was hard to imagine anything changing, even if we did speak up; it was hard to imagine even being taken seriously. For many of us, I bet it’s still hard to imagine any change happening in our own circles. And for those of us who took deeply to heart the childhood lessons to “not be rude” or “not cause a fuss,” it’s hard to imagine actually complaining or accusing, anyway.
In life in general when we feel “that’s the way it’s always been,” or “that’s just how it is,” it’s hard to imagine any change, and even harder to try to be the one doing the changing. And often we don’t even see the need for change, because we’ve only ever known things the way they are. It’s “the water we swim in”; we take it for granted; we don’t think about it. We just live in it.
But we are entering a Church season where we look towards radical, foundation-shaking change. Today is the first Sunday of Advent. This is the season of the church year that leads us to feel our deepest longings: longings for the “way things have always been” to change. Longings for God to send a prophet or messiah to break apart all that tells us “that’s just how it is” and to bring about real justice and real rightness and real peace. Longings for even Godself to disrupt our world: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”
As we begin this season of praying that God would come and disrupt “the way it’s always been,” maybe it’s helpful for us to enter Advent acknowledging that we, as a whole, have such a strong tendency to let things go on the way they are going, to let things be “the way they have always been.” There are a huge range of reasons why we do this, from just not thinking about it, to believing we can’t change anything anyway, and all the way to recognizing that we benefit from the way things are and fighting to keep them this way. In any case, we tend to preserve the way things are, to “go with the flow,” even if it’s not good for others, sometimes even if it’s not good for ourselves.
So maybe it’s helpful for us that right now, as Advent begins, our news sources don’t go five minutes without reminding us that we have lived in the habit of overlooking or hiding harassment and assault all this time. Maybe that will help us to notice some of the other things we put up with or let keep on going that we shouldn’t, whether those are other society-wide things, or unhealthy patterns within your friends or family groups, or personal habits you’ve let slide for too long.
Advent is a time to remember that God wants change, that we need change. Things aren’t going to stay the way they are: God is coming, and God is going to shake things up.
In today’s gospel lesson we read of how Jesus told his disciples that the great day was approaching: the day when God’s messiah would come into the world and change everything, knocking away everything contrary to God’s will. Some of the images he used were disturbing: “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light…” But at the heart of Jesus’s message here is a promise: God will gather God’s people together. Things seem awful and scattered and violent now, but God will make them okay. The messiah is coming, and he will make things good and right and just.
In the meantime, Jesus said, while you wait, do not go about business as usual. Do not fall into the patterns of the world as it is. “Beware, keep alert…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. And what I say to you I say to all: keep awake.”
In this passage Jesus reminds me of a character in the Harry Potter series, Professor “Mad-Eye” Moody, and his catchphrase: “CONSTANT VIGILANCE!”
With Jesus it is the promise of God’s coming that calls us to constant vigilance: Keep awake, be on the lookout for the promise to come true. Watch — always watch — for the moment when God does “tear open the heavens and come down,” when God comes to change all the awful ways things “have always been”, when God establishes God’s perfect kingdom. We aren’t living for “the way things have always been” or for the way things are — we are living forward, towards that promise.
The emphasis in our gospel lesson is on something big and final: that future event we call the Last Day or Judgment Day or the Apocalypse. But Jesus’s command here – “Keep awake!” — doesn’t have to be only about that one day.
Because as we are keeping our eyes peeled open for the messiah’s return, watching out for the signs that it’s finally happening, our constant vigilance will help us catch onto what God is already doing here and now. With our eyes wide open, we might see past “the way things have always been” to the way things could be, the way God wants them to be. We might see the ways God is already here, already pulling apart the things in our world that cause (or allow) suffering and injustice and evil.
God is at work in the testimony of those who are suffering (Listen.); in the efforts of those trying to change things for the better (Watch.); in the little voice in the back our heads that says, “This isn’t right; God wants things to be different than this. Better than this.” (Pay attention.) We need to keep awake, keep alert, so that God can pull us past our habit of accepting the way things are and into a future built on God’s promises, God’s vision for the world.
During Lent we often choose to give something up or take something on as a way to challenge ourselves for that season: to try and rid ourselves of a bad habit, or encourage a good one; to become more aware of others’ suffering or to make a bigger place for God in our lives.
As we begin Advent, let’s take Jesus’s words here — “Keep awake! Keep alert!” — as inspiration for an Advent practice. From now until Christmas, is there something you can give up that would help you be more aware the need for change in our world and more alert to God’s work around you? Is there a practice you could take on that would help you to know God more or to remember to look for God around you? In the midst of this busy time, full of planning and parties and buying presents and travelling, is there one thing you can do to keep God at the center, to keep yourself grounded in God’s work, to not get distracted or lulled by the ways of the world, but to keep alert for the promises of God?
Think and pray about it for a moment now.
Let us pray.
God for whom we wait and watch: keep our eyes open for moments when you break into our usual way of doing things, moments when you come bringing good news, healing, and salvation. Open our hearts to receive you and the Word you bring, whether it be a word of comfort or of challenge. Strengthen us for service in your mission, until your kingdom comes in full and your will is done on earth as it is in heaven. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray, Amen.