You may have caught on to this already, since Target has been draped in tinsel for weeks, but Christmas is coming! Today we begin a new church year and the season of Advent. Advent, the four weeks preceding Christmas, is a season of waiting and preparing for Jesus’ birth.
But Advent isn’t just about getting ready for the baby Jesus. The first Sunday of Advent always begins with an apocalyptic text. I don’t know about you, but when I get to church in December I want to hear sweet stories about Mary and Joseph getting ready to welcome baby Jesus. Instead, we get stories of women disappearing while minding their own business. That doesn’t usually show up in Advent Calendars, does it?
No matter how uncomfortable they make us, these kinds of apocalyptic texts are pretty common in the New Testament. They understand Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as part of an as of yet incomplete journey for human kind. Jesus has already done the work of saving us from ourselves, but the work of completing the Kingdom of God—a time when peace and justice will mark humanity’s relationships—is still to come. Theologians call this time we are in the parousia: the already, but not yet.
We are already saved by the incarnate, resurrected Jesus, but our world is not yet fully redeemed. Our world is still marked by human brokenness. In Advent, we are called not just to remember the infant Jesus coming into the world, but we are also supposed to prepare for his return.
And how do we prepare?
We stay awake. Not literally awake, of course. Jesus doesn’t want to come back to be greeted by delirious believers clutching bottles of “5 Hour Energy”. Jesus wants us to stay awake spiritually.
There are Christians who believe if you compile all the parts of Scripture together that reference Jesus’ return, you can map out roughly when he’ll come back. But our passage today refutes that notion. Jesus reminds his listeners that Noah’s contemporaries could not have known that there would be a great flood. In the same way, Christians cannot know when Jesus’ return will happen. We don’t need to obsess over it. We don’t need to try to predict when it will come. We just need to stay awake.
In our culture, we are experts at doing anything but staying awake and alert to our present. Our culture has trained us to long for what is next. Our next meal out, a fancier car, a better job, a more elaborate home. We think about the future all the time. We worry about the future. Will we get married? Will we be able to have kids? Will we have jobs we love? Will we be able to afford retirement? We can even put off our own happiness, thinking that our happiness will come at some point in the future—when we make a little more money, when we lose the weight, when we meet Mr. Right.
In the same way we can put off our own spiritual lives. Oh, I’ll start going to church when I have kids. I’ll start studying the Bible when I retire. I’ll go to that fellowship event once my work settles down a bit.
But this one Sunday a year it is my job to say this to you: Wake up.
You don’t know what time you have left. Jesus could come back tomorrow. You could get hit by a bus on your way home. Our time on this earth is short and unpredictable.
Would you be ready if you had to give an account of your life today?
Have you checked in lately with God to find out where he is calling you to serve? Have you been paying attention to the needs of your neighbors? Are there widows, orphans, or other people on the margins in your life who need attention?
These kind of questions make us feel vulnerable and nervous.
In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown tells us that we numb ourselves to avoid feeling vulnerable. We put ourselves to sleep to avoid the pain of our lives. We put ourselves into a stupor by endlessly checking Facebook, by watching TV, by drinking every night, by stuffing our faces with brownies or queso. We would rather sleep walk, than live fully awake.
We only have this one life. We only have this one life to feel the joy and pain of what it means to be human. We only have this one life to take emotional risks. We only have this one life to love and serve other people.
When I yell “Wake up!” at you, it may sound like a nag. Like something your mother used to do when you were just exhausted before school and all you wanted was a few more minutes of rest.
But I really mean to yell “wake up!” at you as an invitation. Jesus invites us to live a full, rich life drenched with meaning. Jesus invites us to live lives in service to God and other human beings. I want you to wake up, not so you can check off a checklist of “good deeds” you’ve done. I want you to wake up so you can feel the exquisite joy of being a human being made in God’s image. I want you to wake up so you experience the human life that God made holy by his incarnation in Jesus Christ.
Your life is ordinary and extraordinary. Just as it is now—with the same job, home, marital status, friends, pets—your life is really something special. You don’t have to sell everything and ditch your life to follow God. Your path to a meaningful, holy life is right in front of you. So wake up! And live!