Advent I: Standing Watch

I preached this sermon at First Church Simsbury on November 27, 2016 on the First Sunday of Advent.

Isaiah 2:1-5

Matthew 24:36-44

Many of you know that I was an officer in the Navy. For two and a half years I was stationed on a ship, the frigate USS Ouellet out of Pearl Harbor. Whether in port or at sea, ships operate twenty-four hours a day. To make sure all the systems operate properly and safely the entire crew are assigned to stand watches overlooking various aspects of the ship’s operations. In port I was qualified as the Command Duty Officer or CDO meaning I was responsible for everything that happened on the ship after the Captain had gone home for the day.

CDOs were allowed to sleep at night while several sailors would stand watch, checking machinery readings, making security checks, and standing at the brow, checking sailors on and off the ship. But I was always anxious about what might happen while I was sleeping. One night as I slept the ship got a call from the Honolulu police that two of our sailors had caused a terrible car accident, they had been drinking, speeding through a tunnel, hit another car that crashed and burst into flames, killing the occupants including a baby. The sailors then fled the scene and were later apprehended. When the call came in, the sailors standing watch came in to wake me up, I am told, but I fell back asleep and didn’t hear about the accident until I woke up in the morning. I remember the feeling of dread that consumed me as I realized that I had failed in my responsibilities and slept through this really important incident. At a minimum I should have woken up and called the Captain. When all was said and done, no additional harm came of my failure. But I can still recall that fear following my inability to “stay awake.”

This memory came to me when I read the Matthew passage in which Jesus implores his disciples to “stay awake” suggesting dire consequences should they fail.

This is what is known as an eschatological text, a teaching about the end of human history as we know it, and the beginning of a new heaven and a new earth, God’s eternal reign of peace. Every year, the Lectionary for the First Sunday of Advent, begins with one of these eschatological teachings or stories. And I can tell you, most preachers I know hate it, myself included! Why? First, because it is hard for many of us to wrap our minds around. So called “end times” are the stuff of bad books and movies. And second, because it is terrifying. These lessons bring up that same fear I felt at having slept through something important, failed in my responsibilities, sure I would be judged with terrible consequences.

This is the first Sunday of Advent. The church is decorated, we are looking toward Christmas with excitement and anticipation! I think these parables are inserted at the beginning of Advent as a way of framing Jesus’ birth as an end of the old order and the dawn of a new era. But really, is it necessary to scare the bejesus out of us just to say, “Something good is coming; get ready?”

But this is the text we have been given, so let’s see what we might find here to lead us from fear to hope?

Following the teachings of Judaism, many of Jesus’ followers believed that his death, resurrection and ascension to heaven would be followed in short order by his triumphal return to inaugurate a new age of peace and justice. This is what the prophet Isaiah anticipates when he says, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and…nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” Most of Jesus’ contemporaries thought this would happen in their lifetime. However years passed, and instead of a triumphal return, really bad things happened. The Roman army laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the temple.

Matthew is writing to a fearful community of Jesus followers with a couple messages. First, no one knows when this will happen, not the angels nor Jesus himself. Only God knows the time when God’s plans for peace and justice will be fulfilled. And because no one knows, everyone better pay attention so as not to miss it when the realm of God breaks through.

Well, now almost two thousand years have passed and God’s promise of a new heaven and earth has still not been realized. So how are we left to understand passages like this?

We have three choices.

First, we can wait as Jesus’ followers did, for a once and for all end to our conflicted human history and the dawn of a new age with no more suffering or crying or pain.

Or, second, we could understand that this promise of life everlasting is fulfilled not at the end of human history, but for each of us as individuals at the time of our death. Many Christians share this hope that death will deliver us from the suffering of this life into eternal rest in the realm of God.

But there is a third understanding of eschatological passages like this one; we can find here God’s promise to us today. Each day is a day of judgment, God is forever revealing a new heaven and new earth if only we stay awake and pay attention. We can recognize these God moments, and choose to participate in them, or we may fail to see or willfully ignore them, and oppose God’s activity among us.

These understandings are not mutually exclusive, and many people of faith embrace some aspect or combination of the three.

But I believe that the third, the idea that God is beating swords into plowshares right here, right now, is especially compelling for us today. This reading makes sense of Jesus’ intense, almost threatening tone in this passage. He isn’t just saying get ready for good times; rather Jesus is saying I am revealing the realm of God to you in this moment, yet you refuse to see and accept it; and you’re refusal has consequences. Wake up!

So, how might we stay awake to recognize, and participate with the ways that God is breaking into our lives each and every day?

To do this, I want to return to that metaphor of standing watch.

My favorite watches to stand were bridge watches as Officer of the Deck underway. I especially enjoyed the mid-watch, stood from midnight until four in the morning, when we were out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Captain would be in his stateroom asleep, and I would be on the bridge with three other sailors, a helmsman, a lee helmsman and a quartermaster.

I was responsible for the safety of the ship. This meant staying alert for any danger, reading the chart with the quartermaster, looking at the radar, tracking the course of any other ships to make sure they would remain a safe distance from us, receiving reports from the engineering watch about the operation of the boilers and engine, and ordering the helmsman and lee helmsman to make the necessary corrections to our speed and direction to say on course.

But something else would happen on the bridge of the ship on those mid-watches. While staying alert for peril, I would also have a heightened awareness of the moon rising over the ocean, of the phosphorescence illuminating the bow wake, of the Milky Way undimmed by city lights, and of the taste of the salt air.

The Confirmation class learned recently about “thin moments,” experiences where the boundary between the mundane and sacred become porous, permeable, or thin. I had many thin moments on the bridge of the Ouellet.

Beyond seeing God revealed in the magnificence of creation, there was something about that darkened bridge of the ship that made one mindful of the relationships between us. A ship’s crew is a wonderfully diverse assortment of humanity. You’d get kids right off a farm in Nebraska alongside men who grew up in inner-city Detroit. I can’t say that we had deep conversations about philosophy or religion, but we had very genuine conversations. Along with funny stories about escapades in the last port call, we would talk about being homesick, of our hopes and dreams for the future, of having our heart broken.

These conversations were also thin moments. Though I wasn’t even active in a church at the time, I can look back on standing watch on the bridge and see the gentle stirrings of what would later become a call to ministry.

Thomas Merton once said:  “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through everything.  The thing is that we normally don’t see it.”

This is how I read this morning’s Matthew passage. Stay awake! Pay attention! God’s realm of peace and justice is being revealed, all the time, right here, right now.

Some describe the experience of giving birth as a thin place where human flesh kisses the divine. This is why Paul draws on the language of birthing in describing humanity’s relationship with creation, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” And this is why the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are uniquely powerful, human life is affirmed as holy.

I remember cupping Abby in the palm of one hand the day she was born, sure I was looking upon the face of God. Though being the father of a teenager is a considerably thicker experience, that divinity still lives in her and lives in each of us if only we have eyes to see. One of my favorite contemporary hymn writers Brian Wren expresses this beautifully in his poem Good Is the Flesh:

Good is the flesh that the Word has become,
good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body for knowing the world,
sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
feeling, perceiving, within and around,
good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
growing and aging, arousing, impaired,
happy in clothing, or lovingly bared,
good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell,
glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell,
good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Beginning with the uncertainty and anxiety we share with angels, this Advent we are asked to develop the art of watchful living. What lies before us is far from certain, but certainty is not required to act in a spirit of wakefulness.

Good is the flesh that the Word has become. God is shining through everything. So watch! Pay attention! Stay awake!

 

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