Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be
acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
(10 seconds of silence)
You just experienced ten seconds of waiting for something you expected to happen. Well, the Church has been waiting for something expected for nigh on 2000 years. Of course, I’m speaking about the Second Advent of Jesus Christ. This poses a problem. A preacher can keep you in suspense for ten seconds without losing your attention. A skilled dramatist might keep you enthralled in a state of suspense for a couple of hours. But 2000 years is a stretch! To be honest, the Church has stopped waiting with bated breath for Christ’s return.
Today we are reminded to wake up and pay attention to our spiritual lives before it’s too late. And that is wise advice, even if you think that you won’t live to see the return of Christ in glory. For whether we prepare for the unexpected Day of Judgment, in which all creation is judged, or whether we prepare for our own personal death and judgment, we all need to be prepared to face God at an unexpected hour.
Jesus tells his disciples that, on that great Day, some will be plucked up and saved, while others will be left behind to their fate. God will judge the heart of each person and decide who is to be saved and who is not. And the choice isn’t random. Those who are saved are those who stayed alert and who prepared for that Day.
Today’s Gospel reading doesn’t give us a recipe for preparing ourselves for that Day, but elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, we find plenty of helpful advice. We have the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount: to be poor in spirit, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be pure in heart, to be peacemakers, and so on. Jesus advises his disciples to keep the three traditional Jewish acts of piety: to pray, to fast, and to give alms. We have a hidden commandment in the Lord’s Prayer to forgive others their trespasses. We have the continuing guidance of the Ten Commandments. And finally, we have the Summary of the Law: to love God and to love our neighbor. We are not wanting for instruction in righteous living.
But it takes real effort to maintain such righteousness. And it takes attentiveness. It’s so easy to fall asleep spiritually. Going to church can get to be a chore, so maybe we begin to go just once a month. Surely that’s enough to satisfy God! Maybe we cut back our giving to the church. After all, they’re not going to take care of us if we run out of money! Then there’s daily prayer—it can be so tedious, and surely it doesn’t do any real good anyway. And so we drift asleep.
Well, Jesus is telling us to wake up and smell the coffee! Now is the time to prepare for our judgment. And St. Paul chimes in, “The night is far gone, the day is near.” Whether or not we can muster any sense of suspense after 2000 years is really beside the point; we are still being called to live in hope and expectation. And what a hope the world is promised! The prophet Isaiah foretells of a time when war between nations will cease. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” Later Isaiah prophesies: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together.” Now that’s a world to hope for. That’s a world that’s worth staying spiritually awake for.
The other day, my mother was watching an animated film with my grandnephew, age 4. The film was Ice Age, and it’s about some prehistoric animals trying to return a lost human baby to its father, despite the fact that the father is a hunter. After the film, my mother commented, “What kind of God creates a world where people hunt innocent animals and where animals survive by eating one another.” She said this in all sincerity, despite the fact that she had just consumed salami for lunch and was planning on eating turkey for dinner. Her reaction was one of spiritual inattentiveness and despair; she was unable to make the connection between her vision of the world as it should be and her own actions in the world as it is now.
My advice to you and to her is, don’t give in to despair. Instead, wake up and take action. If you think that consuming flesh is wrong, become a vegetarian, for God’s sake. And I mean “for God’s sake.” If you find yourself complaining about the state of the world after watching the evening news (as is my habit), write down one thing you saw on TV, and do something about it. Pray about it. Write a letter to the editor of the newspaper about it. Sign a petition about it. Send money to help. And don’t forget to share your concern with others, so that they can join you in action. (If you want a starter project, I have one for you: I’m currently collecting socks for the homeless.)
The Christian hope that Jesus promises us is a conditional hope. It depends very much on us. Will we be alert to the needs of the world? Will we live righteous lives that are focused on God and our fellow man? If the answer to these two questions is, “We will, with God’s help,” then we are already that much closer to the Kingdom.
As Christians, we are called to live into the expectation of God’s Kingdom while we are still waiting for its fulfilment. Theologians have a term for this concept. It’s called “proleptic ethics.” Proleptic is a fancy word for “in anticipation.” The idea of proleptic ethics is that we try to live as if the Kingdom of God were already here. We love people who aren’t particularly lovable. We turn the other cheek, instead of giving a slap in return. We give to others expecting nothing back. We forgive those who aren’t the least bit sorry for what they’ve done to us. And if we think that killing animals is bad, we become vegetarians. Each of us individually, and together as a community, can bring the world closer to the Kingdom by living in the Kingdom right now.
And if we do that, if we live the life of God’s Kingdom each and every day, we will be prepared to be judged, whether it’s at the great Day of Judgment or at the day of our own death. So be alert to your spiritual habits. Take action. Live into your baptismal promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons. The reward will be well worth the loss of spiritual slumber!
Let me close by mentioning an event that presumably will precede the Second Coming, and that’s the parish centennial. The other day, I happened on the fact that this December 5th is the 100th anniversary of Incarnation’s existence as an independent parish. And we’ll be celebrating proleptically. (There’s that word again!) More specifically, there will be a birthday cake in the parish’s honor after the 10 o’clock service today, or so I’m told. This centennial, like the Second Coming, “snuck” up on us. And to be honest, we didn’t have time to prepare for anything grander than a cake. I’m afraid that we were all a bit somnolent in this regard and woke up to the fact only at the last minute. Fortunately, I don’t think God cares all that much about whether or not we threw a proper shindig for the parish centennial.
But, you know, God just might care whether or not the parish exists for another hundred years. At the last vestry meeting, our pledge secretary announced that our pledges to date cover less than one-third of our annual budget. Sleepers, wake! If you value this little patch of God’s Kingdom and want it to survive another century, you need to support it with your money, as well as with your time and talent. And so, I stand here begging you. If you haven’t pledged, do it today. If you have pledged, consider increasing your pledge. And if you have never brought a friend to church, now would be the time to do it. We have no control over the timing of the Second Coming, and we have little control over the timing of our own demise, but there are things we can do to prolong the life of this parish. So, please, hold on to hope, and do whatever you can to bring new life to this blessed plot, this other Eden, this holy church, this Incarnation.
© 2013 by Darren R. Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
You can find the readings for Advent I here