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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Staying Awake

We simply don’t know how much time we have – personally or eschatologically – so we are strengthened by our God to make the most of the time we have, to live today as if that is the only day we have.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, First Sunday of Advent, year B; texts: Mark 13:24-27; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 (adding James 4:13-15 as well)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Every once in a while I have a bad dream about preaching, usually on a Thursday or Friday. I’ll dream that I’ve slept late on a Sunday, and it’s 9:00 or 10:00 a.m. Worse yet, I haven’t written my sermon, so I’ve not only missed the first liturgy but I have no idea what I’m going to say at the second. Sometimes in this dream I have no dress clothes to wear (it’s usually that I’m missing pants, or in a less stressful version, my shoes), or I’ve left my robes somewhere else and they’re not at church. There are usually several levels of unpreparedness in these dreams, and a deep anxiety. And I always wake with relief to find out that I still have time to get ready to preach, and that I have clothes and shoes or whatever else I need to do my job. I feel the relief to the depths of my soul – I have more time.

When I was in college I had essentially the same dream, except it was about final exams, or major papers needing writing. Apparently I have an internal anxiety about preparation, about being ready. That’s why Advent is a good time for someone like me. Advent is a time of preparation, the most obvious preparation being getting ready to celebrate Christmas. But the Church has primarily used the time of Advent to remember to prepare not only to celebrate Jesus’ first coming, but to be ready for his second. These short four weeks are one of our yearly wake-up calls to remind ourselves that our time here is limited, that one day the Lord Jesus will return, or we will go to join him, that one day we will wake up and find out that it isn’t a dream, that there is no more time.

This First Sunday of Advent continues a theme we heard as the last Church Year ended, that at some point, there will be no more time to serve our God. It is that urgency Jesus is trying to convey in his teaching today: “Keep awake,” he says. Now, if only we could learn how we can stay awake, learn to do what needs to be done while we still can do it.

The hard part, of course, is not knowing the time. We don’t know how long we’re going to have to stay awake.

Advent is four weeks, Christmas is a set date – you can plan your get-togethers, your gifts. But the apostle James would remind us that even with set dates we don’t know the real time. James says in chapter 4 of his letter: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ ”

James is right. And people used to take him at his word. They’d say “the Lord willing” whenever talking about future plans. But you don’t hear that much anymore. People make plans as if there are as many tomorrows as they need. I know I do.

And yet, we don’t need James, or Jesus in our Gospel today to convince us of the folly of that. Our experience will tell us that our time is uncertain.

When I was in my first parish, something happened after the First Sunday of Advent that brought this home to our whole congregation. I’ve remembered this ever since, of course. But this week I went back to find out what year it was, and to look at the sermon I preached on this Sunday back then. And I realized it was more powerfully a wake-up call than I ever remembered.

It turns out it was the First Sunday of Advent in 1993. It was November 28, and like now, we were entering Year B, so it was actually this Gospel reading. I want to quote you a couple things I preached that day 18 years ago. I said: “I have plans that reach into 1994, and I’m sure many of you do. And yet we never really realize how quickly things can change, and how soon our plans become worthless. And how unsure our length of time on this earth is.” And later I said, “Accidents happen so quickly, and change our lives permanently. And people die without warning all the time.”

The first thing I had forgotten about that sermon (and probably why I said what I said) was that in the week before Thanksgiving one of our teachers at the K-12 school in Cleveland had died suddenly, though I don’t recall the reason. And I had said in that Advent sermon that at the memorial service at the school I found myself sitting behind and a little to the left of her grieving husband and thinking how a week ago he never thought he’d be sitting here on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. I’m sure he and his wife had all sorts of plans – where they would be, who was cooking, what the menu was, which family would be there. None of which they would now be doing.

The reason I went looking for this sermon, however, was Scott. He was a man in his late thirties or early forties whom I had baptized only two months earlier. He’d married one of our members, and had come to faith, and it was a joy for the whole congregation to celebrate his baptism. He was in church on this Sunday, and heard me talk about accidents happening so quickly and changing our lives permanently.

The next day he was killed in a highway accident. He was a truck driver, and his quick-thinking reaction to someone else’s careless driving saved the life of another person, but doomed his vehicle and himself. His life was going in a great direction, then . . . Now, it was then and is now a joy to me that he was in church the day before that happened, and I know that he knew he was in the hands of his Lord. But it was such a stark reminder, such a horrible blow.

As I said, I’ve always remembered Scott’s death in the first week of Advent, and it has shaped my Advent life ever since. But the second thing about this sermon that I didn’t remember until this week was that this was Advent 1993. And that I said in that sermon, “I have plans that reach into 1994, and I’m sure many of you do. And yet we never really realize how quickly things can change, and how soon our plans become worthless.”

Because I not only did not know that Scott had only a day left. Here’s what else I didn’t know on that First Sunday of Advent 1993:

Mary was pregnant. I’m sure we figured that out within a couple weeks, but at that moment we had two daughters and no idea that 1994 would bring us the gift of Rachel in July. Now she is 17 and I can’t imagine life without her, but with all our bold plans we had no idea what was ahead. A huge joy and grace were ahead – and we were oblivious.

But 1994 was also the year we found out my mother had ovarian cancer. One week after Rachel was born, she got that diagnosis. And I realized last week as I was looking at my sermon from November 28, 1993 that her cancer was already spreading throughout her body on that day and we had no idea. She had no idea. And whatever plans we had, well, they were about to change. A huge pain and struggle lay ahead – and we were oblivious.

That’s what makes life so hard. We like to plan. We need order in our life so we can cope better. But our experience is, no matter how much we plan, we never know. And all of us here have experiences like these where this powerfully comes home to us.

And then there’s this: that only deals with part of the picture, that we don’t know the hour of our dying. In Advent we also remember that we don’t know when Jesus will return, when all things here will end. And even though Isaiah and the psalmist today call eagerly for the Lord’s return – that God would come down and save us – we don’t know when that will be. And even though Jesus gives signs in texts like our Gospel today – enough signs to get some people to try to figure out the date – he also is clear: no one knows the day or the hour, not even Jesus himself.
So we’d be foolish to live as if we have all the time in the world to get ready to meet our Lord. We’d do well to be prepared, as best we can. The question is, how?

Well, it’s all about making the most of the time we do have, about doing our faithful work while we have the time to do it. It’s about living in the now, the present, as if it’s all we have. Because it is.

The first thing is that we begin to learn to live by faith. People who, like James, say “the Lord willing,” and understand that our lives are lived in God. And that’s enough. We trust that our time is in God’s good hands. So yes we plan, but always knowing that we don’t own our time, God does. And to that end, we constantly seek the presence of God.

I think this is more the sense of the psalm today – that we just want to have God with us. To spend the time we have with God, and the relationship God has established with us. To seek God in the Word, in worship, at this Table, in Christian friends. To get to know the God who loves us in Jesus.

Then our lives will be lived in the One who holds our time for us. And then when we meet our Lord, either in death or in the second coming, we will be meeting a well-known friend, a trusted Master, not a stranger.

The second thing we can do to stay awake is to stay awake – that is, to live our lives in a state of preparedness. Have our affairs in order, not just on our death bed, but now. Which raises some questions: Are there wrongs you have done that you need to make right? Are there people whose forgiveness you need to ask? Are there things you need to stop doing? Things you don’t want to be found doing when your Lord Jesus returns? Are there things you’ve felt God was calling you to do and be in this world, in your life, that you haven’t done yet? Are there things you need to bring to God for forgiveness and assurance that you are loved and blessed by God?

Then do all these things, Jesus would say. And we should prioritize. Remind ourselves of what is most important in life, and then spend time on that. Family, loved ones – these are our gifts. Our relationship with God, and God’s people around us.

And the third thing we do to stay awake is to live a life knowing we’re already a part of God’s coming kingdom. We seek God’s power and love to help us live the life of a child of God. We love and care for people as if it were their last day on earth, rather than believing we have time later. And we resolve to let Jesus’ will and love enfold us and guide us how to live. That’s what Paul’s talking about today: God will strengthen you to the end, Paul says, so that you will be blameless on the day of Jesus Christ. So we ask God for such love and grace to live in the kingdom already, even while we wait.

Jesus invites us to stay awake, be alert – and making the most of the time we have is how we do that.

The time we have could last a long time, or it could be short. But as a Christian living in God’s time, I can say this: I have today. If the Lord wills it, I’ll have tomorrow. But today I know I have. So today I’ll love and serve the God who loves me beyond death. And that’s all I need to know.

Next week, if the Lord wills it, we’ll gather together here again and continue our preparation for Christmas and our preparation of our lives. But for today, in the time we have, let’s live prepared lives in God’s time; and even more, let’s live in the joy that even though we don’t know the day or the hour, we know who it is who is coming for us.

Knowing that, it’s almost worth looking forward to, isn’t it?

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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