Grace Presbyterian Church
December 1, 2019, Advent 1A
“Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.”
The old words of the King James Version of verse 42 of Matthew 25 conjure up an image that is developed in many different sources, including that first hymn we sang today – “Watchman, tell us of the night.” The image of a guard, possibly a lone guard, keeping watch from a tower over the bleak, dark night, watching for who knows what? Invaders? Lost travelers? Wild animals?
The NRSV version in your pew Bibles and that I read a few moments ago goes with the translation “Keep awake,” which may likely be slightly more accurate but doesn’t have quite the air of vigilance as that word “watch.”
Another advantage, I have come to believe, is that while the instruction to “keep awake” certainly makes sense in the context in which Matthew was writing, I’m not completely sure that it speaks to the situation in which we read the scripture today. Keep awake? Frankly, I have the strong suspicion that all of us could stand to get a little more sleep.
But keeping watch? Now there’s a challenge. We live in an age in which distraction if the order of the day. I started to say “busy-ness” there but I’m not even sure that quite catches the correct meaning. We live in a world that seems bound and determined to go off the ledge, and our own country might well be leading the way. There are more multiple-victim shootings per year than there are days of the year. We seem bound and determined to melt the polar icecaps at both ends of the planet, which just might bring oceanfront property to Gainesville. And yet with these and many other crises, wars and rumors of wars all about us, we manage to keep pretty well distracted. Sports (which don’t always promote a lot of good will), social media (which often seems determined to seek the opposite of good will), an entire entertainment industry devoted to distraction by whatever means necessary, and many more shiny things compete for our attention, leaving us not very watchful. (And I didn’t even mention Black Friday.)
And on this first Sunday of Advent, this is the world, a world that can barely keep track of its own attention, into which Jesus says “watch, therefore.”
What, then, are keeping watch for?
Matthew’s recounting doesn’t initially seem all that helpful. It does begin with the helpful remonstrance that no one, not even Jesus, knows when all this is to come to pass – “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, or the Son, only the Father.” It isn’t merely about waiting out the night, or waiting for the holiday with relatives pouring in; whatever this is, we do not know when it will be.
And what, exactly, is all this for which we keep watch? Well, back at the beginning of the chapter, the disciples got a private meeting with Jesus to ask “what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?”, so we know we’re getting into that end-of-time stuff that isn’t extremely comfortable to talk about. Some of the persecutions and tribulations in the chapter seem to refer, in retrospect, to the things that happened at the time of the Roman conquest and destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Other sections, including today’s reading, seem more pointedly eschatological – referring to the end of times. And the clues offered here are fairly bleak; a reference to the time of Noah, with, as you might recall, the Great Flood wiping out a large swath of humankind (which is a lovely story to tell our children); cryptic sayings about two working and one being taken; a thief breaking in during the night.
Not exactly the stuff of rejoicing, on the surface. On the other hand, if you’re the one living under the thumb of the empire (the owner of the house, so to speak), maybe the Son of Man breaking in at an unexpected hour to undo the bondage of empire does sound a lot more hopeful.
Still, Isaiah’s poetic prophecy sounds a lot more joyful, yes? All the nations of the earth streaming to the mountain of the Lord to learn the ways of God; weapons of war beaten and broken into farm implements; yes, that’s the stuff of rejoicing. Yet somehow we take both of these words, the prophetic utterances of both Isaiah and Jesus and hold them in tension, and learn why we are to keep watch and what we are to keep watch for: the ultimate in-breaking of the reign of God, and un-doing of the broken and destructive ways of fallen humanity.
The reading from Romans may seem an odd fit, but here we are reminded of the hard truth that keeping watch (or being awake, whichever you prefer) doesn’t happen unless we put aside those things that distract us. Again, we are good at finding so many things to distract us, and they certainly don’t have to be the big obvious vices that Paul names out to his Roman readers and hearers. Being sober and living clean itself does not guarantee watchfulness with so many other possible distractions available to us.
Whatever that distraction is, we really have to lay it aside in order to keep watch, whatever it is for which we do keep watch. It requires a trust we don’t do well; trust that the day and hour do not have to be solved to our satisfaction for the coming of the Son of Man to be our hope and our salvation, nearer now than when we became believers.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #97, Watchman, Tell Us of the Night; #—, Keep Watch; #384; Soon and Very Soon; #83, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus