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Keep Awake, Be Ready

Bible Text: Matthew 24:36-44 | Preacher: Charissa Bradstreet | Series: 2019 | Good morning. My name is Charissa Bradstreet and I have been serving as an intern here at St. Paul’s for the last several months. It is fun to now join you from the pulpit.

I want to start with a little advent story. This past Tuesday, I stepped out of the church office to go pick up a takeout order from the Thai restaurant. On my way, one of our neighbors who lives in a tent called out, “Can you spare a dollar?” I was out of cash and was in the process of saying so when he said, “Or could you buy me something to eat?” It occurred to me that I could certainly do that and I asked him what he would like. A little later, as I emerged from Metropolitan Market with a cup of soup and a piece of chocolate a man seated in a chair near the entrance called out, “Don’t you love Thanksgiving?” I looked up at him and responded, “Why, yes, I do” and then moved along briskly. I walked across the street, leaned into the entrance of the tent, and delivered lunch to our neighbor. From across the street I heard someone call out, “Thank you.” I turned and realized it was the man in the chair who loves Thanksgiving. I was surprised that he had noticed my interaction with the man in the tent and I was taken aback by the way he lived into the paradox of feeling gratitude for something that had been given to someone else.

Advent begins today and it is a season that invites us to live into deep paradox. We practice waiting for the arrival of Christ, while continuing to celebrate his death and resurrection. We await his first coming, his continued coming as he meets us in key moments of our lives, and his final coming in glorious majesty. We await the peaceable kingdom proclaimed by Isaiah as we also step into the work of bringing
that kingdom into life. We wait and we act.

Advent invites us to wait and act, or, in the language of today’s Gospel and Epistle: to waken and to stay awake.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus explains that no one, not even Jesus, knows the day or hour when the Son of Man will come. When that happens it will be at a time when everyone is going about their lives, like the arrival of the great flood. “Therefore,” he tells the disciples, “Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” and “you must be ready.”

I wish we had the ability to read this passage without being
burdened by the complicated legacy of the Left Behind series and ominous assertions of a rapture. Because I think Jesus is using dramatic language to point to the importance of this notion of keeping awake and being ready. I don’t think we are intended to focus on whether it is better to be left or to be taken, or meant to become anxious here about our eternal salvation. This passage is not about where we end up in eternity but about how we live in the present, it is about the choice to live as eternal beings even now so that we are ever ready to recognize the Christ wherever, and whenever, he appears.

Few people knew to expect a fragile baby when the savior arrived. No one knew, when the savior emerged from the tomb, to expect a resurrection. Most of us, on days we have encountered Jesus in some way that transformed us, didn’t wake up that morning expecting the miracle of that encounter.

Humanity is continually surprised by the arrival and the person of Jesus. And so, Jesus tells us, “Keep awake, be ready.”

Humanity’s failure to anticipate Jesus is a kind of sleepiness, a slow, disoriented drifting away from the kingdom of heaven, and also a kind of night-blindness in the face of systems that perpetuate harm. In the Old Testament, during periods when Israel collectively struggled to trust in God’s faithfulness and presence, we see a similar pattern of sleepiness and night-blindness. They abandoned the call to honor the widow, the orphan, and the alien in their midst. They leaned toward
the kind of certainty that other gods seemed to offer. They built wealth and weapons of war. Until periods where God interrupted the nightmare to remind them who they were.

In our own day and age, the promise of the Magnificat can fade into a dim memory for Christians who once took hope in its radical proclamation. We too can sleepwalk in our own cultural night-blindness.

And Jesus says, “Keep awake, be ready!”

The Apostle Paul speaks to this when urging readers to lay aside the works of darkness to put on the armor of light. Instead of unconsciously moving through life complicit with patterns of oppression and self-interest, we wake from sleep and put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Perhaps to be awake and to be ready is to pursue repentance and to act redemptively.

Once again, I don’t think the reason for repentance and right action is to avoid a threat of eternal judgment. We have already been declared the children of God. Assured of grace and forgiveness, we can then bravely face that which invites our repentance. Assured that the kingdom of heaven is already taking shape, we can waken to what is emerging and engage in acts of justice and mercy.

Advent is often described as a season that invites stillness and contemplation. And it does! However, because it is a season of paradox it also invites alertness and action. Practices of stillness help  us know where to direct the plough, where we need to look within our hearts and minds to turn over old soil; stillness helps us understand where alert tilling and cultivating is needed if the kingdom is to come into fulfillment. Contemplation leads us to a kind of grinding stone
where we take what we have received – our talents, our treasure, our sufferings – and convert them into actions that bless others, actions that correct injustice. One can mindlessly tend the plough, or grind the meal, or one can do so alive to the coming of the Lord.

The season of Advent beckons habits of contemplation and action so that we may keep awake and be ready for the coming of the Lord.

Last Tuesday I encountered a man in a chair outside Metropolitan Market who was awake. He was ready to witness and to celebrate when the person of Jesus received soup in his tent. I was only half awake until I heard his words of gratitude.

This Advent, may we collectively waken. May our patterns of prayer and contemplation draw us into repentance and redemptive action. May the bread and the wine we receive, rouse our souls from any sleep and make us ready to greet the Lord.