A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 29, 2020 (I Advent, Year B)
One of the tricky things about living with semi-adult children is that they stay up much later than I do. And while that’s usually fine — it’s not like I have to tuck them in or read Hop On Pop before bed — at least once a week, just as I’m slipping into that delightful REM stage, I get jarred awake. It may be the inadvertent slamming of a kitchen cabinet or clomping around the mudroom looking for a lost charger. But whatever the cause, it always takes me forever to fall back asleep.
I don’t think this is exactly the point of the Advent call to keep awake. But then, the lines between the spiritual and the secular often get blurred this time of year. One person’s holiday lights are another’s Light of Christ. And that’s fine. But the start of Advent is not a seasonal reminder to hang the garland over the fireplace or string lights on the tree. Advent is a season of preparation and anticipation for the coming of the Christ-Child. Most of us understand that, and deeply appreciate this time of waiting and watching. Even as we put up an inflatable Santa in the front yard or hang the stockings by the chimney with care.
But the spirit of Advent doesn’t end with the babe lying in the manger and presents being opened on Christmas morning. Calendar-wise it does. But the deep truth of this season, the reality that transcends even the 12 days of Christmas, is that we’re invited not just into a four-week season of anticipation, but to live anticipatory lives.
Living an anticipatory life means living in the present, but also waiting for something more. It means anticipating the fullness of life that is the reign of Christ, but also participating fully in the here and now of our daily existence. It means anticipating the coming kingdom and all of its promised joy, but still engaging in fruitful and meaningful relationships right here on earth.
And this whole idea of living an anticipatory life is rooted in Advent. During this season, we wait for the arrival of the Messiah at his First Coming in Bethlehem, even as we anticipate his return at the Second Coming to judge the world.
We hear this poetically set out in that beautiful collect appointed for the First Sunday of Advent, which calls upon God to “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility” — that’s the manger part — so “that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal” — that’s the anticipatory part. So there’s a right now part to our faith, and there’s a still to come part to our faith.
Which is why Jesus is asking us to stay awake. “Beware, keep alert,” he says. “For you do not know when the time will come.” Like the disciples in the Garden of Gesthemane who could not stay awake to pray with him for a single hour on the night before our Lord’s crucifixion, Jesus doesn’t want us to get lulled into spiritual apathy. Which is so easy to do, at least when things are going well.
I admit that, as with everything during this difficult and trying year, I continue to hear familiar passages in new ways. In the grand arc of our faith, Jesus is reminding us to be ready for his return. Not to fall asleep at the spiritual wheel. Again, that’s the anticipatory side of faith. But I’m also hearing the call to keep awake as an urgent cry to remain vigilant against that which this pandemic has revealed. To be attuned to the sin of oppression, to remain alert to the demonization of others, to stay awake to racial and economic inequalities.
Frankly, it’s easy to fall asleep on these issues. At least when your privilege doesn’t keep them front and center. If you’re not the one feeling hunger pangs or if you’re not the one who can’t pay the rent or if you’re not the one getting harassed because of the color of your skin, it’s easy enough to fall asleep to the urgency of these situations.
But then Jesus bangs some pots and pans and tells us to wake up! To not fall asleep on the poor and the vulnerable, the harassed and the helpless, the poor and the downtrodden. Especially not now in the midst of a global pandemic where the comfortable class works from home, while the working class and those on the front lines are put at risk every single day. Jesus shakes us awake and tells us not to forget the least and the lonely and the lost; reminding us that from a spiritual perspective, when it comes to our fellow children of God who are struggling and hurting, there can never be a mentality of out of sight, out of mind.
This is what it means to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armor of light. The light of Christ reveals what we so often seek to deny. Jesus demands that we rise up and wake from the debilitating effects of spiritual slumber. The cost to humanity is too great to sleep through the spiritual alarm clock. We can’t keep hitting the snooze button and expect others to do the hard work of justice. This alarm being sounded is the clarion call of the Christian faith. To take up the cross and follow Jesus. And Advent is the perfect season, and this is the perfect moment, to wake up and get to work.
We often talk about the cost of discipleship. That following Jesus places demands upon each and every one of us. The yoke may be easy and the burden light, but it does restrict our freedom to act however we want and do whatever we want, especially when it comes to the impact upon others. I know I’ve found it incredibly disheartening to see so much self-interest and self-centeredness taking hold in the world. Just this week so many of us sacrificed greatly by limiting our Thanksgiving gatherings and denying ourselves time with family and friends. And this sacrificial love is what our faith is really all about. It’s certainly what Jesus’ life was all about.
I’m aware that the start of Advent is a tangible reminder that as we move ever closer to Christmas, the reality that we will not be gathering together inside this sacred space becomes ever more real. And that is a hard truth. We are all sacrificing to care for one another these days — by not gathering for in-person worship in a building that really can’t sustain it; by not traveling during the holidays; by not having Christmas parties; by not seeing family members. None of this is easy. But I find myself ever more proud of this extended St. John’s community. And I am grateful for each and every one of you.
May we remain ever-vigilant, may our eyes remain ever-open, and may we remain ever-watchful for the arrival of the Christ-child, the one who comes to us in great humility and everlasting glory.