As many of you know, I grew up in Dallas, Texas, which is very much the buckle of the Bible belt. I spent a lot of time in the coolest downtown neighborhood, holding talks in the back room of a hip bar on Tuesday nights, much like the Theology on Tap events we sponsor at this parish.
This neighborhood was thick with record stores and restaurants and clothing shops, and I recall seeing a t-shirt that somebody had designed to tweak the religious sensibilities of the average Dallas resident. This t-shirt got to be pretty popular, and it hung the display windows of a number of downtown shops. The t-shirt read simply: “Jesus Is Coming. Look Busy.”
Well, that’s a facetious thing to say of course, the sort of sarcastic humor that goes well on a t-shirt but doesn’t fit the Scriptures very well.
Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, which the church in its wisdom assigns for this the first week in Advent, is about how Jesus is indeed coming. But I want to suggest today that looking busy may not be the best way to handle the second coming of our Lord.
First let me say something about the Christian view of time itself. A number of questions are bound to pop into our heads when reading a mysterious passage like this one. Much of it seems startling: There are people suddenly disappearing, there is an analogy to the terrible judgment that fell on humanity at the time of the Flood, and Jesus even likens himself to some sort of burglar.
The passage does seem to concern the future return of our Lord Jesus to earth and his final judgment of humanity, which is a sobering topic. I also think though it tells us something about the future itself. For the Christian mind, the future is arguably the most important dimension of time.
It has not always been thought so. The ancient pagan mindset tended to think of the past as the essential dimension of time. For the ancient pagans, history had very little meaning, because frequently in their view time was viewed as a cycle that simply repeated itself. Sure, superficially different things happened, but there was a strong conviction that the essential was already behind us, and nothing genuinely new really occurred. It was only the same old stuff over and over again. Tomorrow’s war or famine or upheaval was not really different from the last war or famine or upheaval. Kings and kingdoms rose and fell, wars were fought and won and lost, and so it had always been and so it would always be.
For Christians though, something decisively new happened in the Incarnation of God the Son as the man Jesus of Nazareth. This was not the same old thing all over again but something unexpected and dramatic, the direct intervention of God into human history. So the future then came to be thought of by Church as the really interesting dimension of time, because it is toward the future we can and should look for something genuinely new and unexpected. Matthew 24 then is not just about a future moment in time, it is about the meaning of all time, of all history, which gets its significance from Jesus Christ’s saving work within human history. And this remains true for us today as well, because while Jesus’s life and ministry on earth is part of the past, his promised return is not; we still await his return to us, an event that will be as unexpected and surprising as his first arrival.
We know it will be unexpected and surprising because Jesus himself promises as much. In the verse immediately before today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says no one knows when this will happen, not even he knows; only God the Father is in possession of this information. Remember that the next time a Texas televangelist tells you he knows when the end is coming.
But that he will come again is certain. That we don’t know when though means not that we should look busy but that we should be in a state of constant readiness. There is an old-fashioned word for this sort of readiness, and that word is vigilance. To be vigilant is to be keeping a vigil, and a vigil is what happens when we deliberately stay awake to be alert to the unexpected. One who is keeping a vigil has stepped out of the ordinary pattern of time and worldly concerns. While others sleep she is awake. While others rest she is doing her nighttime labor. And this labor is important, and the time we spend being on vigil is meaningful because we are not waiting for nothing. We are waiting for someone who is the beginning and end of all things.
This is the meaning of the householder’s wakefulness in verse 43. If the householder knew when his house was to be burgled he could go to sleep and wake up five minutes beforehand to stop the intruder. But he doesn’t know when. And we don’t know when. So we have to stay awake the whole night long.
There is a special time of year that the Church encourages this sort of vigilance, and that time of year is Advent. It is at Advent, today, that we are called to wake up and pay attention for what is coming over the horizon. Advent in Latin just means, “coming toward,” because during Advent we are meant to be aware of what is coming at us. Principally of course we are looking out for the Incarnation, the feast of Christmas, our Lord’s nativity. But we don’t just remember the past at Advent.
Advent is grounded in the past, but it opens onto a radical future, an unforeseeable future. Our task during this time is not to look busy but to get ready. Readiness, vigilance, is neither about complacency nor at the opposite extreme about obsessive activity. It is not about withdrawing from our usual responsibilities or losing ourselves in them. It is about going about our business while keeping one eye on the horizon.
Notice that the two men in the field are both doing the exact same work of tilling the fields. Likewise the two women are both doing the exact same work of grinding grain. Outwardly they look just the same. Yet one stays and one goes. Inwardly then there must be a great difference. It is not even clear whether it is better to stay or to go, but one thing that is clear is that judgment means that a sharp division is imposed between work well done and effort wasted, between time spent fruitfully and time squandered, between things of value and things to be discarded.
In the month to come there will be plenty of opportunities for looking busy. There will be shopping and visiting with friends and family, parties and travel, and those are all fine things. I am not saying we should avoid such activities, but I am saying we should pursue them with vigilance toward what our Lord may yet be asking of us.
This church is named in honor of the Advent season, so we of all people I think should take the lesson of Advent to heart. The church has always taught that Advent is a sort of mini-Lent, a time to undertake some new discipline or to adopt practices that will advance us in spiritual maturity and sanctification, a time to wake up not from our daily activities but to wake up within them and assess their true inner value. Is there something in your life that is keeping you from greater holiness? Now is the time that it should be discarded. Is there something in your life that you know the Lord is calling you to do but that you are putting off? Now is the time to follow him without delay. As St. Paul exhorts us in today’s epistle reading, cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. The time for that is right now.
I had the privilege this Thanksgiving week of being able to hear from some parishioners about what they are thankful for. They spoke very movingly about what the Church of the Advent means to them. Some said it was hard for them to get to mass on their own on Sunday mornings, but they are thankful that their fellow parishioners drive them in each week. Some said they are away at school, and they are thankful for the love and welcome they receive here when they are able to be back in Boston. Some said they were thankful for the difficult but rewarding work they contribute to sustaining the life of this community.
We have these things to be thankful for because you are actively responding to who Jesus Christ was, and we look out for one another, and we welcome one another, and we work for this parish for the honor of the one we call our Lord and we do it all in his name. Our ongoing task is to seize the past, to seize upon the Lordship of Christ Jesus and to carry his name forward into an unexpected future. So what would our Lord have you do for him this Advent? I have suggested this year that the Advent season might be a good time to deepen the practice of daily prayer, either here at the parish or at home with family. Or what about lending aid to your fellow parishioners in some concrete way? Perhaps this season would be a good one to invite friends or neighbors to see how blessed it truly is to be part of the life of God’s people here in this place.
Advent is the beginning of the church year. Today is the beginning of a new year in our life together. So let’s make it what it is: genuinely new. It’s really not the same old thing all over again, but if we are consumed with looking busy it will be hard to see the newness, the unexpected call of Christ upon our lives. Looking busy does not help. The people of Noah’s day looked pretty busy when the flood overtook them; they were eating and drinking and carrying on with normal life.
But Advent is a time to put normal life on hold. So let’s not look busy this year. Let’s get ready instead. Ready to remember Christ’s first coming among us. Ready to anticipate his coming anew. And ready to do for him whatever he asks of us this year. Amen.