I have a friend that I went to university with, we played hockey together, lived in the same residence. He liked to take naps in the afternoon, in fact he liked to take naps all day long, and he had this expression that he was fond of repeating: “sleep is never a waste of time.” And you know, part of me agrees with him, mostly because I like taking naps too. Sleep is good for us, and besides, saying “sleep is never a waste of time” is a great way to justify taking a nap.
But the problem with sleeping, especially if you’re sleeping at the wrong time, is that you can miss things. Pity the doorkeeper, the greeter, the security guard who falls asleep. Someone might come and they would never even know it. So beware. Keep alert. Keep awake.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the first day of a new church year. One of the gifts of a new year is that it provides us with the opportunity to reflect a bit about the past year, and perhaps to learn some lessons or make some resolutions that we can carry forward into the new year.
So let me ask you a question: what did you sleep through during the past year? What were you not awake to in your own life and in the world around you? What did you miss because you were asleep?
Of course, that’s a hard question to answer. We may never know what we missed while we were asleep, or pre-occupied, or not paying attention. But as I was reflecting on that question this week, it occurred to me that what I’ve most often slept through this past year were the people around me. What they were thinking or feeling, what they were celebrating or what they were struggling with. So often I’ve been unaware of how my words and actions impact people that I love. Some people I didn’t see at all, like the man on the train who sat beside me while I was busy with something else. There were many times that I was so pre-occupied with my own stuff that I missed the people who came into my life.
The word Advent literally means “coming”. This is the time of year when we are reminded to be alert to the things that are coming into our lives. Beware. Keep alert. Keep awake. You don’t want to miss it. You don’t want to miss the people who are coming into your life. You don’t want to be asleep when God comes into your life.
Do you remember last week’s gospel reading about the sheep and the goats? Do you remember the one thing they had in common? They were both surprised. They had missed it. They had encountered Jesus in their lives and they had slept right through it. “When was it Lord that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you?” Neither the sheep nor the goats were awake for their encounter with God.
How about you? Are you awake? Will you see God when God comes?
It’s not easy. God’s presence can be subtle. God’s coming can be veiled, hard to see, not obvious. That just calls for heightened wakefulness on our part. It can be frustrating, especially when things are not going well. Just listen to Isaiah’s frustration in our first reading. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” Isaiah isn’t looking for nuance and subtlety. He wants God to come like a wildfire, like an earthquake that shakes the mountains, a coming that is impossible to miss, a coming that would wake the deepest sleeper.
Times of suffering and crisis present a challenge to our wakefulness, a challenge that Jesus speaks to in today’s gospel.
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light.”
When times are hard, when we suffer, when we face health or relationship challenges, when the world crumbles around us, it’s hard to be watchful. It’s hard to see in the dark. Sometimes we turn inward, we cocoon in an attempt at self-care or self-preservation. Whether the crisis is global, as in the Roman occupation of Israel that is the immediate context for Jesus’ words, or personal, as in his pending arrest and trial, which is also the immediate context for Jesus’ words, times of suffering and crisis can consume us and make us feel isolated. They also make us feel like God has abandoned us. We hear the anguish of abandonment in Isaiah’s words, “you have hidden your face from us,” and we will hear it even more clearly from Jesus on the cross, “my God, my God why have you forsaken me.”
And yet, here in today’s gospel, just two days before the cross, Jesus makes a startling promise. When you see these things taking place, when we suffer, when it is dark all around us, know that God is near, at the very gates. God is coming.
That promise is intended to give us hope. We are to be a people shaped by hope, a movement heading in the direction of hope, the hope that God will come. Beware, keep alert, keep awake.
When will God come? “About that day or hour, no one knows.” Today’s gospel and the season of Advent itself, they play with our sense of time. We begin Advent with apocalyptic readings, readings which point to the future, to the end of time. Then, like time-travelers, we will move backwards in time, to John the Baptist and Jesus as adults in the year 30AD. Then we travel even further back in time, to the Annunciation, to the teenage girl Mary who is just about to find out that she will conceive a child. And then, time reverses and ticks forward again as we move rapidly towards Christmas, the birth of the child that tells us that God has come. Advent plays with time, past, present and future swirling together. The same can be said of our reading today. On the one hand, our tradition tells us that when Jesus talks about the Son of Man coming in the clouds, he is talking about the future, the end of history, when God will remove the veil once and for all, to be seen by all. But for Mark’s community, those for whom this gospel was written, the suffering and the destruction of the temple are clear references to their own present time, the First Jewish-Roman war of 66AD. And yet, looking again, we can also see that Jesus’ words refer to his own coming as the Son of Man and the suffering of the cross in two days hence, when the veil which prevents us from seeing God will be ripped apart, and God will be revealed on the cross for those who have eyes to see.
God has come, God is coming, God will come.
We are shaped by the past. We move towards the future in hope. But we are awake only in the present.
And so keep awake. Beware. Keep alert. Live not as people who are asleep, who sleep-walk their way through life. Live rather as people who are aware that God is near, that God comes suddenly, that God draws near to us in suffering and in the need of others, that God is with us. Advent is the season to get ready, the season when we think about God’s coming, when we look for God’s coming, when we practice wakefulness, when we intentionally live our lives in such a way that when God comes, we won’t miss it.
Watchful. Waiting. Prepared. Expectant. Hopeful. Awake!
Homily: Yr B Advent 1, Dec 3 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 64.1-9; Ps 80.1-7,16-18; 1 Cor 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-37
Image by Ana C. (Creative Commons)