“Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep,” the Apostle Paul writes. “The night is gone; the day is near.” Paul must have been a morning person. (Then, you are here at 8:30 on a Sunday morning, so maybe you are morning people, too.) Where Paul is blissfully sounding the eschatological alarm clock (and y’all are whistling on your way to church), I am prone to groan and push the snooze button. I have never been a morning person. I cannot stand getting up before the sun brightens the sky. I routinely fall back to sleep after my alarm has gone off. The snooze button is my friend. (And I cannot imagine why you would come to church at 8:30 AM since 10:30 is a much more civilized hour.)
Today is the first Sunday in Advent. It is a little more than four weeks until we celebrate the birth of Christ, and today begins the period of waiting and preparing, not only for Christ’s first coming at Bethlehem, but also for his second coming to complete the redemption of the world. Most Christians I know, even the over-sleeping procrastinators, love to celebrate and prepare for the birth of Christ. This afternoon I will get out my Advent wreath, and by next weekend I will have my Christmas decorating finished, complete with half a dozen nativity sets. But in my experience, many Presbyterian Christians do not talk much about the second coming of Christ. To do so seems theatrical, superstitious, judgmental, or irresponsible. For Paul, though, the dawning of the Kingdom is anything but. Where we see theatrics, Paul sees celebration in every corner of the earth. What we call superstition, Paul calls reality. Where we fear judgment, Paul promises grace. Where we become irresponsible, Paul calls us to radically active love. If Advent is the alarm clock to Jesus’ return, then all you morning people must be on the right track. But what is an over-sleeper like me supposed to do?
Step one in the over-sleeper’s guide to Advent is simple: get a dog and take if for walks. Seriously. A dog does not come with a snooze button, and he will not let you forget when it is time to get up and hit the trail. If we are to prepare for the coming of Christ into the world, we must wake up and begin to really believe that Christ is coming. This is not about the theatrics of superstitious end-time predictions. Matthew makes it quite clear that even the Son himself does not know the day or the hour of his return. It is about retaining our sure hope that God, who has already been “with us” once in the person of Jesus, will be with us again to teach us his ways until all of our swords are beaten into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4), until the poor have justice, and the wolf lies down with the lamb (Isaiah 11:4, 6).
When we fall asleep in our faith, we turn Advent into little more than a planning session for Jesus’ birthday party. We celebrate Christmas as a nice, warm remembrance of something that happened in the past. But Advent is more than a Christmas to-do list, and God’s work on the earth is hardly finished. So whether you get a dog or find a hope-filled friend – however you do it – you, we, must awaken to the hope of God’s promised reign that is, in Paul’s words, closer to us now than when we first believed.
While I still would not call myself a morning person, I have come to appreciate the first hours of the day on a whole new level since Eric and I added a terrier to our life. I have even seen a few sunrises over the marsh along the Spanish Moss trail. These early dawn hours where the night is passed but the sun has not yet risen must be what Paul means when he writes that “the night is far gone; the day is near.” They are mornings where the air is heavy with the dawn that is just over the horizon. The stars are no longer visible, and the moon is just an outline of its nighttime self – and yet, it is not day. In the bushes, a lone bird sings to her own echo. It feels as if the whole of the Lowcountry is on the cusp of something entirely new and breath-takingly fresh. And then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, the sky begins to lighten as the morning sun’s rays dance off the clouds and the water. Even as my own anticipation builds for that moment where the sun will finally show her face, the birds gradually begin to wake and sing in chorus and response. I am frozen with excitement, afraid the even breathing too deeply or blinking too long might cause me to miss the long-expected moment. The night is far gone; the day is near.
Step two in the over-sleeper’s guide is to catch a sunrise or two. When Christ lived and ministered on the earth, he proclaimed that in him God’s kingdom had come near. Our Advent alarm clock is a call to be alert to the small wonders of God’s kingdom that is already alive on earth. Take in a bird’s song with the same enthusiasm you heard Handel’s Messiah last weekend. Take note of small mercies extended from one pilgrim to another, maybe the sharing of bread with the hungry or friendship with the lonely. Delight in the simple innocence of children. When invited to say the grace at our Thanksgiving table this year, the 6-year-old son of my cousin’s boyfriend thought for a moment and then told everyone at the table to say “grace.” He counted – one, two, three – and on queue we all looked at one another and said “Grace.” The family laughed as we appreciated such a simple and profound prayer. Advent watchfulness means keeping your eyes and your heart open for signs of the peaceable kingdom being lived out by Jesus’ followers.
So let’s review:
Step one: get a dog or otherwise awaken your hope in the promise that Christ is indeed coming again and his return is good news for a world in desperate need of peace, justice, and love. Step two: catch a sunrise and begin to watch for signs of the kingdom of God in the places where you already live, work, and play.
Step three in the over-sleeper’s guide to Advent is to get dressed and get a job. The reign of Christ for which we are waiting during Advent may indeed be a reign of justice, peace, and love, but it is not complete yet. It may have begun in Jesus of Bethlehem and Nazareth, and it will be completed by Jesus the Risen Lord, but waiting for the kingdom does not mean that Christians are permitted to wash our hands of the world’s troubles and expect God to clean up the messes on earth. Waking and watchful followers of Christ have work to do. The unemployment rate for kingdom builders is zero percent. Everyone has a job to do, and the uniform of the day is the armor of light.
When Jesus talks about his own return in Matthew’s gospel, he paints a picture of men and women being swept up into his eternal kingdom in the midst of their mundane, daily work – chores like tending the fields and grinding grain into flour. They are people who eat and drink and give weddings for their children. Like you and me, they are ordinary people balancing the responsibilities of home, work, and family. Kingdom work is not done in the midst of our regular daily living, not apart from it. Your armor of light is worn right on top of your work shirt, right on top of your apron.
Paul does not leave us with vague admonitions to work for God’s kingdom. He spells it out for us in Romans 12 and 13, and he sums it all up with the command to love your neighbor as yourself. Kingdom work is the work of love. It is the work of making peace. It is the work of comforting those who grieve, celebrating with those who rejoice, welcoming the stranger, and feeding the hungry. The armor of light is trimmed with humility, hope, joy, and enthusiasm. The Advent alarm clock is a call to put love to work in a way that anticipates the fullness of God’s reign!
And yet, a word of caution is in order to us waking and watchful kingdom workers. We are called to action, but we must remember that our action – no matter how faithful – is not itself God’s kingdom. Just as no action of mine could make the sun rise any faster over the Beaufort River, so no human activity can hurry in God’s future. Restoration, recreation, and redemption of creation falls on the Creator alone. If we try to do it ourselves, we begin with arrogance, risk excluding those who challenge “our way”, and end in hopelessness when our human capacity proves to be insufficient. We work to prepare the way for our coming Lord.
If you are a morning person, you may already know the mystery of the sunrise: that, more often than not, the very moment for which I hold my breath never comes. Rather than rise in a moment of glory where birds and angels rejoice while the dewy marsh grass dances, the sun always seems to sneak up on me. Before I realize what has happened, the individual rays of light which peek over the horizon have turned the whole sky that perfect shade of morning blue. The sun does finally show her face, but by the time she does, the earth is already awake. This, I believe, is what the coming of God’s future should look like. When the people of God heed the Advent call to awaken our faith in the coming Christ; to watch for and celebrate signs of God’s coming kingdom; and to work as kingdom builders with acts of radical and selfless love, then our individual rays of light may peek over the horizon of earth’s darkness. And when at last the dawn breaks and Christ returns, it is my deep hope that we may have so brightened the world that the distinction between night and day is almost imperceptible.
May it be so this Advent. Amen.