The Vision Awaits It’s Time
This is "Wake-Up" Sunday—the first Sunday in Advent. It is the day to begin celebrating that long-ago event in Bethlehem, where a baby was born in a stable to a bewildered woman, Mary, and an equally bewildered man, Joseph. The baby was Jesus. Without that baby and without that day, we would each have been somewhere else this day with nothing to celebrate, and we would have been without an Advent—with nothing to look forward to. As it turned out, we have something to celebrate: the journey to the manger and Jesus' birthday, and something to look forward to: the coming of Jesus into this world again.
A stable would not be the best place in which to enter the world. But God comes in even worse places, for we have a God who comes to us as we are and where we are, and into a world as it is. God comes to places you and I would be reluctant to visit, to people we most likely would not want to meet, under conditions we would not even want to imagine. But still God comes, because it is God's world, and God comes even to us, because we are God's children. God comes again and again to claim every human being as his own. God comes to us most fully in that manger baby,
Jesus was later identified as the Messiah (God's Deliverer) who had long been expected by Israel, the One who would come to deliver God's people from their enemies and to establish the Kingdom of God, the rule of God, upon the earth. Christians have come to understand Jesus as the Messiah. But we have wondered, have we not, why the nations of this world don't look more like God's kingdom? Why isn't the world more Christian? Why aren't Christians more Christian? Does that bother you? We need the Messiah not only to save us from our enemies. We need the Messiah to save us from ourselves! Even as we pray, "O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel," we also pray, "O come and ransom captive us."
When the adult Jesus left his disciples and other followers for the last time, they were still asking about the establishment of the Kingdom of God upon the earth. "Lord," they wanted to know, "is this the time?" He answered, "It is not for you to know about dates and times which the Father has still within his control." 2000 years later we are still asking the same question and still awaiting the answer, which we should have memorized by now: God will set the time. Your assignment and mine is to continue awaiting the Second Coming as the Hebrews have awaited the first.
Yet there still is this overarching problem: the work of bringing God’s Kingdom to its earthly fulfillment. What Jesus had been called to do had not been completed by the time he left this earthly realm. He had left instructions for his small group of followers to continue to work for the vision of life that God intended. But something has gone wrong. Some of his followers have gone astray—yes, all of us— like shepherdless sheep. The plan is unmatchable, workable, and designed with people in mind. Yet even with an endless line of victories, large and small, the story is yet unfinished, the work not completed. The world is filled with multitudes of poor and homeless. Sickness and pain, suffering and dying abound. Wars and rumors of wars are frequent headline makers, and justice is more talked about than realized. Meaning and purpose in life are hard to come by, and people everywhere long for some way to be saved from their own sins and the sins of others.
In the long history of the church, it is hard to find any basic agreement on what all of this means. Many today are seeking an understanding of Jesus' promise to come again: what he meant by that and what it may mean for us. According to the original plan for Jesus, the love of God was translated into the person who grew from being a baby to being a Savior. Some 2000 years ago, it was thus and still today he works through the Spirit, in our world and in our lives, meeting us where we walk and work, live and love, suffer and sin through thick and thin.
Advent literally means "coming to." Jesus is always coming to us. He came into human life then, in Bethlehem. He comes even now—again and again—into our lives and into our world, meeting us at every corner. Still, his work has barely begun; it is far from finished. So he came, so he comes; so he must come again. With this Second Coming, whenever and however it happens, it is God's plan to bring into being a new age and a new life for all of God's people. Does he mean all people? Everywhere? At all times? I hope so. When the Second Coming will happen and how it will come about are known only to God. The timing and the details are God's decision. One of our great hymns, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," offers hints of this Coming and how it may affect the peoples of the nations. We sing this— and yes, we can still pray this:
O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel...
O come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind.
From dust Thou brought us forth to life; deliver us from earthly strife.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel.
"Emmanuel" is the Hebrew word for "God is with us." So we look forward to this season to celebrating first of all God's "coming to" be with us in the remembrance of that first Advent. We pause by the manger for a look at the One who has come.
For the most part, we ignore the fact that His First Coming led to the crucifixion. We pass by on the other side of those things which took him to that hill. Yet we want him to come again, do we not? We want, or say we want, that Second Coming. We have been given a foretaste in the resurrection. We want him to fulfill his promise that all humanity will realize the coming of God's Kingdom on earth. Can this really happen? He said it will, and he said that he will be on hand when it does. He also said that he does not know when it will happen—or how. No one knows. Only God knows. What we perhaps really want to know are the requirements for us when he does come. I suspect they will be similar to the ones he left us when he went away. Perhaps we need to do our homework. For starters, the "Sermon on the Mount" might be a good beginning. When he comes we can be confident that instructions, guidance, and inspiration will abound—along with challenge, commandments, and field work.
In the meantime (have you noticed that life is filled with "meantimes?"), have you noticed that a plan has already been recommended by Jesus for us to follow while we await the Second Coming. It is not a plan that allows us, like the old soldier, to "quietly fade away." It is not a retirement plan. It can be simply stated, however, in three words. Here they are in the shorthand of Jesus. Watch! Wait! Work! Three steps which are the guideposts on the road to the Kingdom. Simple words, profound meanings, hard to fulfill.
Perhaps those early Christians were wondering why Jesus could not tell them when he would return. Perhaps they were wondering if there was any way to avoid the impossible assignment Jesus had given them to fulfill on their own. Jesus seems essentially to be telling them (and us as well), "Just do it!" He was reminding them that God is still in charge of the universe, and if they have any sense they would just keep their eyes open for indications that his coming would be imminent. Meanwhile, they would have to wait. And while they were waiting, they might as well work. In fact, they must work! Even as we, also, must work.
There is a parable in today's Gospel of a man who went on a trip. He left the servants in charge with instructions to watch carefully at all times, since they did not know when he would return. But he will return, so the doorkeeper must be ready, and all of the work given to them must be completed by the time the man returns. Meanwhile, all of them must be watching and waiting even as they work. They must be alert and ready for the master's return when he comes.
The feeling of watchfulness can be understood through the image of a sentry standing guard at the lookout tower on the wall surrounding a city, looking intently for anyone who might be coming to invade the city. The sentry (the watchman) must be ready, alert, watchful for any sign of a possible enemy. It is dark, and the sentry hears a sound. He calls out, "Who goes there?" There is a French phrase which captures the essence of that call: Oui vive— literally, "Who lives?" It also implies, "Who dies?" The sentry on the lookout for an invader is dealing with matters of life and death: Qui Vive? Who lives? Who dies? That is the feeling of watchfulness the parable offers those who are looking for the coming of Christ. We must always be ready—not in the sense of knowing or guessing or imagining details, but in the sense of being responsibly prepared and ready at any time for whatever and whomever may come.
Our call to be Christians—followers of Christ—is to stay ready and waiting for any coming of Christ into our lives. "Watch" covers the whole field of life: Look out! Be careful! Be aware of what you are doing—to yourself, to others, to God. Be awake to the one who comes, lest you miss his coming into your life, however and whenever he may come. So we must watch and pray—not that we may be found worthy, for that is not possible, but that we may be found faithful. It is our assignment, then, to watch and pray against the sin which so easily trips us up, the compromise with wrong—so reasonable at the beginning, so deadly at the end. Watch, lest we reject the renewal of life in communion with God, lest our empathy and concern and caring harden against those most in need of our being there for them. Watch, lest the opportunities for binding the wounds of others in the name of God be lost to our indifference when we pass by on the other side.
What can we expect when we watch? Well, the most obvious is that we can expect the Second Coming to happen. We cannot expect to know the schedule, nor can we expect to have a magnificent, dramatic Hollywood production. I think we can expect the unexpected—perhaps, for example, an endless line of small events and opportunities for witnessing to our God and to his people. And then one day in eternity—be ready!
A few years ago at a family Christmas celebration, I observed an episode which may turn out to be a simple foretaste of the Second Coming, and may focus for us the meaning of watchfulness. We were involved in a typical exchange of gifts. Four-year old Zachary had just received a gift from his parents which had to be assembled. All of us were waiting quietly for his reaction. The gift was a large wooden auto race set-up, the road joined like a toy train set. The road went along the straight-aways and curves and up and down hills. Zech was excited when he looked at the layout. Then he took one of the wooden cars, set it on a hill, watched it run down the hill and across the level roadway and up the other side, around a curve and back down again. Then he was more than excited. He was ecstatic. "Daddy, Daddy! Look at this! Look at this!" As the car proceeded along the track, his enthusiasm was unlimited. "Daddy! Look at this!" Again and again he repeated his request for the exhibition. I say to you, that boy had some good preparation for the Second Coming'
Watch! Someone's coming! Look at this! Be careful! Pay attention! Be prepared. Behold! See what God is doing! Look what is happening now! Get ready! And stay ready! You haven't seen anything yet! Keep awake! Be on the alert!
Watchfulness tells us also to keep looking for this to happen. Look at this! Don't miss what is happening, or what can happen in your life. Look! He is coming again. No one knows when. All the more reason to stay in touch with the life God calls you to live. So be ready. And wait. Advent is about Christmas, yes. Advent is even more than the coming again of Christ into your life and into our lives - whenever and however. Like getting ready for the Olympic Games, we want to know as much as we can ahead of time.
But we must be patient and wait, and be ready, when the flame is carried in from its journey across the world. We want to be sure not to miss the opening ceremonies. Along the way, we want to be in on all the stories and triumphs. And at the end we want to be there when victorious participants are awarded their medals.
Advent is a time of preparation which leads to the ultimate triumph. So we must wait. To wait is to stand between what has already happened and what is going to happen. You may wait a day. You may wait a year. You may wait a lifetime, a millennium, or some other part of eternity. There is not much that is easy about waiting, but sometimes that is all you can do. At the very least, you can learn something about patience. We must wait. He will come.
My oldest son didn't see it that way when he was about four. I was home on a Friday afternoon and stopped in the living room for a few minutes to watch TV with my son David. He had a favorite TV program, "Ruff-n-Ready" which he watched every week on Saturday. He said to me, "Dad, is Ruff-n-Ready on?" I had to tell him, "No Dave. Ruff-n-Ready comes on Saturday." "What day's today?" he wanted to know. "Today's Friday," I replied. He said, "If you don't say it's Saturday, I'm going to shoot you in the eye!" Apparently, he wasn't prepared to wait. (I got out of there as quickly as I could!)
We are wise to wait—even if we "just can't wait"! In fact, we have no choice. Since we must watch, we must also wait. If we accept this in hope and expectancy, we are ready to receive what Advent —every Advent—offers us: the gift of God's coming!
The summary word for "waiting" comes from Albert Schweitzer when he writes: "I tell you, don't let your hearts grow numb. Stay alert!"
We must wait. "Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again." What are we to do in the meantime? We are to do the will of God. In the long meantime, there is plenty to be done. There is even something beyond waiting that we can do. We are to work. Kahlil Gibran knows the Advent basis for work when he writes that "work is love made visible."
So it comes about that we are required by our faith to feed the hungry, heal the sick, welcome the stranger, house the homeless, give even the enemy a cup of cold water in Jesus' name. We are to love our neighbors and our enemies, even if our neighbor is our enemy. There is no shortage of work. There is only a shortage of workers. Therefore, we are also to find more workers.
It is said that Johanan, pupil of the noted Rabbi Hillel, advised his pupils, "If you are planting a tree, and you hear that the Messiah has come, finish planting the tree, then go and inquire." Even as we watch and wait, we must also work.
In the Advent season, we celebrate the coming of Christ, who invites us to Watch, to Wait, to Work. And then: Look at this!
Charles E. Gruenewald
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