Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning— lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Welcome back to in-person worship! Though everything continues to be uncertain, I’m relieved to be able to gather with you all again after our two-week suspension and am even more excited that we have now entered into a new liturgical year. We’ve started over again; we’ve returned back to where we always begin every year. But the funny thing about Advent is that we begin at the end: the end of all things when Christ returns “in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead.” This is in itself the main point, not only of the season of Advent, but indeed of the whole Christian life. We start at the end. Everything we do is defined by the hope of glory that God has given us and that inspires us to do the good work that God has prepared for us. This hope for the return of our Lord is what empowers us to “cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light.”
It is no coincidence, however, that Advent is placed where it is in the calendar year. Winter is coming -- at least for us in the Northern Hemisphere -- and it is in this season that the Church bids us to prepare ourselves for the coming of our Lord: both in the coming of the Word made flesh in the Nativity and in the coming again of our Lord in his glorious majesty.
I’m currently in the third consecutive year of my informal fall and winter tradition of re-reading The Wind in the Willows -- the beloved children’s book by Kenneth Grahame. It’s a charming little book on its own, but it also serves as a beautiful meditation on the passing of the seasons as Mole and Rat go through the year of their adventure together. When winter first arrives, Mole is enjoying the comforts of the cozy riverside home of Rat and the story proceeds as follows:
It was a cold still afternoon with a hard steely sky overhead, when Mole slipped out of the warm parlor into the open air. The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things as on that winter day when Nature was deep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off. Copses, dells, quarries and all hidden places, which had been mysterious mines for exploration in leafy summer, now exposed themselves and their secrets pathetically, and seemed to ask him to overlook their shabby poverty for a while, till they could riot in rich masquerade as before, and trick and entice him with the old deceptions. He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple.
What a profound depiction for the season of Advent. Mole goes out into the winter landscape to discover that “he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things”; he appreciates the cold and barren country around him which has humbly set aside the “old deceptions” of all that grows and covers the world in spring and summer; the bleak midwinter scene before him allows him to “get down to the bare bones of it” and see it for what it really is -- its inner strength and simplicity.
Advent is about something like that. It’s about looking beyond the old deceptions of all that is fleeting and passing away. It’s about seeing into the insides of things as they really are -- that is, as they appear in the light of the coming judgment of Christ. But that judgment is delayed at the moment; it has not yet arrived before our senses so as to experience it directly. It is shrouded in mystery and ignorance, for no one -- “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son” -- knows the hour of the Lord’s return. Only the Father knows. The practice of Advent is thus the practice of watching and waiting, which is why our Lord exhorts us to “take heed” and “watch.” We are supposed to keep watch because, again, “you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning— lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.” The season of Advent directs our attention to the end of all things -- the day when “heaven and earth will pass away” at the coming of the Son of man. As one of our hymns this morning puts it, now is the time when the alarm goes off: it’s time for the Sleepers to wake up!
But our Lord’s commandment to us to take heed and watch adds something to what we ordinarily consider to be the tasks of the Christian life. We’re used to being encouraged to keep the faith and observe all the normal routines of religion: going to church, loving God and neighbor as best we can, doing good deeds, etc. And as commendable as all of this is, if we fail to “watch” while we’re going about our lives as Christians, it’s very easy to lose something essential not only about Advent, but the whole duty of being a disciple of Jesus as well. Without the discipline of a constant vigilance, a keen attention to the coming judgment of Christ, even our most devoted practices of religion can become too comfortable in the here and now. Too at home in this world. If we do not keep watch, we can forget that we are indeed “strangers and pilgrims upon the earth” who have no abiding city here. The life we live as Christians regards nothing in this present world as the permanent sources of our security. That is the truth, the standard, but of course every one of us is bound to a daily struggle to live as if this is the case. And in our weakness, we fail at this continually. All idolatry ultimately comes from this failure: this false identification of God with the things of this world. And if we think of God or religion as just another thing in this world -- another activity among others -- then we no longer need to keep watch.
When you’re a kid and a friend is coming over to play, the only reason you keep looking out the window with anticipation is that the friend is not here yet. Your friend is not yet present with you, and until she arrives, nothing else in your house is really that interesting. You look out the window for something that’s beyond the present moment and beyond the present circumstances. Because if you were to keep on playing by yourself as though indifferent to when your friend finally arrived, it would likely mean that you either weren’t that excited to play with your friend in the first place or that you were perfectly content playing by yourself. But this kind of contentment is simply not available for the Christian; it has to be consciously renounced again and again. We have to be like the kid looking out the window. We have to keep watch for our Lord.
In a sermon on today’s Gospel, John Henry Newman says that the Christian who watches for Christ is the one:
...who has a sensitive, eager, apprehensive mind; who is awake, alive, quick-sighted, zealous in seeking and honoring Him; who looks out for Him in all that happens, and who would not be surprised, who would not be over-agitated or overwhelmed, if he found that He was coming at once.
To watch for Christ is to live your life in such a way that -- like the wise bridesmaids from a few weeks ago whose lamps are ready and filled with oil when the bridegroom comes -- were our Lord to come again at this very moment, he would find that you really didn’t have to change much of what you were doing already. No scrambling around throwing all the dirty laundry into a closet when the doorbell rings unexpectedly. He would find you living as though you knew he was coming, even though you didn’t. “This then is to watch,” Newman continues: “to be detached from what is present, and to live in what is unseen; to live in the thought of Christ as He came once, and as He will come again.”
So this is the point of Advent. This season provides us with the opportunity to see into the insides of things, like Mole -- inside ourselves most of all. But the “old deceptions” will return, and likely sooner than spring or summer. The works of darkness will entice us yet again, as they always do, to grow complacent and to abandon our watch for the Lord. We must “put upon us the armor of light” if we are to resist their enticements and keep watch. Remember this Advent that the armor of light is the armor of obedience and expectation. Remember also that, as Newman puts it, “any obedience is better than none,” for “every act of obedience is an approach -- an approach to Him who is not far off though He seems so, but close behind this visible screen of things which hides Him from us.” Advent comes to us each year so that this visible screen is a bit more transparent than it usually is -- when, like Mole, we can look out on our world and our lives as though they’ve been stripped of their finery. Advent allows us to see down “to the bare bones of it,” where we discover that the only thing that’s “fine and strong and simple” is the inevitability of the coming judgment of Christ. So take heed and keep watch.