Sunday, November 27, 2022

Keep Awake

November 27, 2022 – First Sunday of Advent
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44[1]

We live in a time of uncertainty. There is certainly plenty to cause us anxiety these days. There is the ongoing war in Ukraine, rising tension between China and the West, deadly protests in Iran, and never-ending conflict between Israel and Palestine. There is inflation, or maybe it’s easing up. There is the triple threat of COVID, RSV, and the Flu. And always, the political strife in our country. Things can seem pretty dark in the world right now. Are the nations beating their ploughshares into swords, and their pruning hooks into spears? It seems that way sometimes. And it seems as if there is little we can do about it except worry.

I worry about how I’m going to pay for college for Zach and Nathan. I worry about my retirement fund, the health of my mother-in-law, and when the cars are going to give out; and I worry about what I see and read in the news. What does it all mean? Where are we headed? And is there anything I can do about it? Sometimes, dare I say it, I fear for the future. I’m sure there are times when you do as well. Change comes faster and faster these days, and it’s hard to keep up with it all.

Part of that fear, I suppose, is because I think I’m supposed to know the answers. I’m a faithful person, I believe in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, the Church Universal, etcetera. I’m supposed to have it all figured out, right? But my faith doesn’t always help me figure out the right thing to do. There are times when I have no idea what God would have me do in a given situation. There’s nothing in the Bible about smart phones, Twitter, antibiotics, electric automobiles, or radioactive pollution.

The disciples lived with uncertainty too. In our passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus, whom the disciples have followed for years now, has entered Jerusalem and cleansed the temple. He has just finished a lengthy denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees in the previous chapter. The disciples, who know who Jesus is, are starting to worry that things are not going how they expected, and in their fear, they anticipate the end times. They ask Jesus, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”[2]

Religious leaders, scientists, and philosophers have been making predictions for the end of the world for centuries. They’ve predicted the destruction of the world through floods, fires, and comets—none of which have come to pass. The apostle Paul got it wrong; and even Jesus predicted that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”[3]

Jesus tells them about many signs of the end of the age; but more importantly he says, “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son.”[4] There is some mysterious day in the future when the judgment will come, but even Jesus doesn’t know when that will be. Yes, Jesus doesn’t know everything; and you know what? We’re not supposed to know everything either. Uncertainty is to be expected. It is nothing to fear. And faith certainly doesn’t mean living without uncertainty, not for the disciples, and not for us.

It is possible to live with uncertainty, to keep moving steadily into the future with no guarantee that we’re on the right path. We can live with the questions, seeking different answers if the old ones stop making sense. In order to keep us steady through the uncertainty of life, Jesus points us toward the everyday tasks of living – eating and drinking, marrying, working in the fields and grinding meal – doing them faithfully in wakefulness. Keep living your life, keep an eye on what is to come, but keep your focus on the here and now.  Live a faithful life, and keep awake.

“You know what time it is,” Paul wrote to the Romans, “how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”[5] Things may seem dark in the world today, but “the night is far gone, the day is near.”[6] It may be dark now, but a change is coming. When the doorbell rings, it will be too late to clean the house. Jesus is coming; quick, everyone look busy!

Don’t just stand around watching the skies and waiting for the rapture. We don’t have time for that! We should do good works. We should do the best we can, uncertain whether we are right or wrong at times, but faithfully going about the work we believe God would have us do in this world. And, fear not! We’re not supposed to do everything ourselves. We’re not supposed to save the world. That job is already taken. Our role is to be God’s hands in the world, to work toward the realm of God, and the work that we do will be enough. Our task is to keep faith, joy, and love alive in the midst of dark times, and watch for the signs of hope.

What we must do is choose how we go about that work of doing good in the world. Mark Yurs, a pastor in Wisconsin wrote, “The key element for Jesus is not the work, important as it is. The indispensable part of faithful work is [what] Jesus names as watchfulness or wakefulness.” [7] The disciple is the one who is watchful for the signs of the coming realm of God. “Hope will come,” Rev. Yurs continues, “the deepest, best, and highest shall come – not from our work but from somewhere outside and beyond it.”[8] The disciples don’t bring the hope, they point out where hope is present.

We are faced with an uncertain future. Things look grim, for many people around the world, for people in this community, and for people in this room. And so, we must make a decision. We can’t go backward, searching for halcyon days that weren’t as golden as we like to remember them. We can’t stick with the old reality. If we do that, things will only get worse. We have to start living in the now, and living into the future. The decision we face is how we shall live. Will we fear the new reality, or will we face it with hope? Do we trust the signs? Do we trust the prophets? Do we trust Emmanuel?

How do we live into the future? Do we allow ourselves to be motivated by fear, or do we watch for signs of hope? Do we point out all the things that give us reason to give up, or do we keep our eyes open for ways in which we can make a difference? Do we turn our backs to the poor, or do we work together as people who have faith that things can be better? As Christians, we live into the future with glad anticipation, with hopeful urgency, awake with expectation of the dawn. “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”[9]

Let us pray. O come, O come, Emmanuel. God be with us. Cheer our spirits, disperse the clouds of night. Show us the path of knowledge, give us hope, and fill the whole world with heaven’s peace. Jesus, as we come to your table, take from us our fear, and give to us your hope. Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Matthew 24:3.

[3] Matthew 24:34.

[4] Matthew 24:36.

[5] Romans 13:11.

[6] Romans 13:12.

[7] Mark E. Yurs, “Homiletical Perspective” on Matthew 24: 36-44 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 21-25.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Isaiah 2:2.