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Sunday, December 1, 2019. Rev. Jen Dunfee, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44

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It is human nature to organize our lives around routines and schedules, and to feel a little out of control when we lose them.   A few weeks back I was visiting a friend with a 3 month old who described the difficult adjustment to the unpredictability of a baby’s eating and sleeping schedule.  Later that day I went to a rehabilitation center where the person said something similar about the challenge of no set schedule where each day can be an unpredictable guess as to when and how many sessions of therapy occur.

Families with children in Fairfax County and other schools are on day 5 of no set schedule vacation, and Monday will be a tough wake up for us, as we immediately abandoned all reasonable bedtimes and organization.  I am looking forward to the return of the comfortable and secure routine of work and school, meals and homework. Not so sure about my kids!

Life is balance between the beauty of routine – cruise control days, and those things that shake it up and wake us up from it: school vacations and new babies, transitions like retirement, new jobs, difficult changes like medical events, grief, relationships ending.  In these times we are required to pay a different kind of attention on the road, where moving forward seems less straightforward; the path not clear. 

The transition to Advent from Ordinary Time is about shaking it up and waking up, about being required to pay a different kind of attention to our lives and our faith.  It may surprise you that this is the first Sunday of Advent given that when I went to buy Halloween Candy, on October 31st around 4:45 p.m., I grabbed whatever bags were left to the procrastinators in a bin next to a full-on Christmas display.  In October.  Good people can debate when it is appropriate to start celebrating the Christmas season (as my family does) but if you want to wait until Advent it will require a lot of muting the television and shielding your eyes through stores.  

And yet Advent is not Christmas.  Advent asks us to wait even a little longer by giving us scripture readings like this one that always begins Advent, a reading about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.  Not a natural fit for the Christmas season of putting up lights, decorating trees, and drinking peppermint coffees.  That transition to Christmas doesn’t ask us to be anything more than attentive consumers to the latest sales and trends.  The transition to Advent that slams the breaks on us is the one that asks us to “Keep awake because you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”   Waiting requires a wakeful, watchful, readiness:

Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.  Keep Awake, Keep Watch, Be Ready. 

The entire church year and therefore Advent and Christmas begin with the words of Jesus that he will return one day, note that it assumes Christmas, O Come Emanuel has come, and he is coming back again.  That he hasn’t in about 2,000 years makes it harder for us to feel an urgency about this.  If we knew tonight was the night we would stay up all night waiting and watching, but it would be impossible to stay up all night every night.  The need for sleep would overtake us, we would find it hard to keep the necessary adrenaline and sense of urgency, and we would quickly return to our routines.

Yet every year on this Sunday we ask again, How do we keep watch for the Lord?  How do we stay awake?  First, we focus attention to where the Lord shows up in the midst of our daily living.  The folks in Noah’s time who are described as marrying, drinking and eating and living their lives are not doing anything wrong, they are just not doing enough right.  The opposite of being awake, vigilant, and watchful is to be asleep, dull, and distracted. To think the comfort of the ordinary, predictable, and safe is all that is required of us.  To use routines as a shield from what God may be calling us to do in the name of Jesus Christ.  To be lulled into the wrong kind of waiting, where instead of waiting for the Messiah, Jesus, to show up in our lives now, we are waiting for enough bandwidth in our attention to give him.   Waiting for the kids to be older, waiting to be more secure in our job, waiting to have a little more money saved, waiting to be more organized, waiting to have less to do.

Although I believe Jesus has compassion on all the rationalizations I and we give for why we just can’t right now, Keep awake therefore, because a life of waiting for the right moment is a fallacy, for you do not know on what day your Lord will Return with a capital R, but he is returning to you again and again and telling you that there is more of him for you to know, more of you for him to know, more of your life to design around his love.  Jesus Christ calls to you from the edges of your ordinary experience waiting for you to wake up more of yourself to the work of the Lord, to turn more of your attention his direction

I have heard the parenting context in the advent of cell phones described as one of continuous partial attention, another word for it is technoference.  When I talked with the 6th graders at the National Presbyterian School about cell phone usage, how to align their digital footprint with their faith and values, how to manage and moderate social media, the number one thing the students always said to me was – “I am nowhere near as bad as my parents.  My parents set rules they don’t follow, they don’t have the first clue how much time they spend on their phone.” Going around the room, each kid could identify the exact phrase his or her parent used when answering the kid’s question, without looking up from his or her phone “Oh yeah, okay honey.”  Anabel (story told with permission) called me out on that just the other day, asking me to repeat what she just said after I gave her an “okay honey.”   That was a “keep awake” wake-up call, to the difference between my actual behavior and what I like to think I am like. 

I read a quotation that wisdom is knowing what is worthy of your attention and what is not (from a lecture by Rodger Nishioka) and I missed it in that moment with Anabel. We miss it in our relationships and we miss it with Jesus even more.  Advent is about what is worthy of your attention and can startle us out of patterns that dull our watchfulness for places where the Lord is showing up right now in our lives.   I am reminded each Advent of the subtle urgency in Annie’ Dillard’s line, “How you spend your days is how you spend your life.”  (Found in a writing by David Brooks, often quoted on internet.)

How do we keep watch for the Lord? How do we stay awake? To begin, we look to see where we find Jesus in our everyday lives, while also, staying alert to the promise that this world is not all there is.  That as Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon claim, we are resident aliens on this earth (from their book, Resident Aliens) and already living in the realm of the Kingdom of God.  Waiting for the Messiah means we should expect our everyday lives to be awakened by signs of the Spirit, when Jesus disrupts the formula for how circumstances yield outcomes, so that simple equations become multiplied, and we receive more than we deserve, and stuck places become redeemed.  When we thought we walked into a cave only to find it a tunnel with a light on the other side, when Jesus heals what feels most broken and opens what feels most closed.  When we let go, and forgive, and reconcile, all with a power beyond what we know ourselves capable of.  These are the signs that the Son of Man who comes in power and glory is working in our lives, for how else would we be as okay as we are, given the suffering that is part of each human life?  Or how else would we know that God’s power is at work in all the places we are still not okay, and our world is still not okay.  When Jesus returns in power and glory he will set up an everlasting kingdom like Isaiah 2 describes, peace to the nations, swords into ploughshares.  All through the power of Jesus, because when I look out into the world, I don’t see it happening any other way than Jesus working through the Spirit working through his people.  

It is part of being human to look for signs that this world and this realm of living is not all there is, that there is spirit and power to access from elsewhere, and for some this might come in the form of horoscopes and superstitions.  There was a whole lot of this on display in the DC area in October where basically all the Nats fans I knew, ourselves included, had certain beliefs about how where one sits, what one wears, what one eats or where one is when Howie Kendrick hits a grand slam, that actually influences the outcome of a game being played by professional athletes.  Anyone willing to admit to this?   I spent an inning or two in the bathroom of Game 7 before I could convince myself that I wasn’t controlling the game by my actions.  Looking for signs that there is power and connection, that there is something at work in our lives beyond what we can see, is common around us.   For Christians in Advent, it is a very specific reminder that the something beyond ourselves is from Jesus Christ, whose coming into the world signals that the ordinary can be extraordinarily filled with mercy and grace, and that Jesus power will never stop being at work in our lives until the day when he comes again in Glory or we join him in his, until the nations are at peace. 

The writer Kathleen Norris (actually it was Mary Anderson, in an Essay “Time’s Up” for the Christian Century from 2003) says that in response to a scripture like this, we are 

“to live with the intensity of last days while living our regular lives. 
End times call for tall towers of hope.
They call for a lightning speed reordering of priorities. 
End times call for alertness, sharpness.” 

Our tall tower of hope comes from the chance we get again, in this first Sunday of Advent, to give our attention to Waiting for the Messiah.  Keep awake.  In this advent seasons, refuse to fall into absentmindedness, love in a way that resists all the distractions of this season, focus your attention on the Lord’s presence at the edges of our routine and draw Jesus closer in, remember that the ordinary is alive with miraculous possibility because this world is not all there is.  The good news is that we wait for a promise of the Messiah, who came and who is to come, and who is waiting for us to wake up, and will not give up his waiting on us, until we turn our attention more fully toward him.   To God alone, and his son our Savior, be the glory.