Keep awake!

Advent 1A, December 1, 2013

Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the first day of the new church year.  It seems hard to talk about new beginnings this time of year; the days are still getting shorter, the landscape is cold and dead and covered in snow.  Nights are longer.  I don’t know about you, but I find it a lot harder to get up in the morning when it’s still dark outside.  And things are only going to get colder and darker from here.  It will be months before the world around us starts to look new, before days lengthen and snow melts and new plants push up from the ground.  It seems a funny time to begin, and to look to the future.

Isaiah must have felt the same way when he received the vision that is recorded in today’s first lesson.  Judah, his nation, was under direct threat.  The Northern Kingdom, Israel, had been destroyed by the Assyrians, and Judah had survived only because it was small and poor and out of the way of the major roads through the area. They used what wealth they had to bribe Assyria so they would go away.  But Isaiah knew that Judah’s survival was only temporary.  Judah was a small nation caught between huge empires, and could only exist as long as God protected them.  Judah, like their brothers and sisters in Israel, had sinned.  The rich exploited the poor and vulnerable, religion was given mere lip service, and the whole nation had fallen short of what God intended them to be.  God had called them to be a light to the nations, an example of the kind of righteousness and mercy that God brings.  Instead, the people of Judah were neither righteous nor merciful.  God had been speaking to the people of Judah through priests and prophets, calling them to turn back to God’s ways, and they had not listened.  And Isaiah knew that sooner or later, God’s patience would wear out and he would stop protecting them from their more powerful neighbors.  If Judah had chosen to live by the sword, by violence and corruption, well, Judah would fall by the sword.  Isaiah knew there were some pretty dark days ahead.

And yet, amid all the darkness of knowing just how far astray God’s people were, in the middle of watching his nation crumble, God gave Isaiah a vision of hope.  A vision of the future.  A vision of what Judah would be like when they returned to God’s ways to participate in God’s reign of peace and justice, righteousness and mercy.  “In days to come … many peoples and nations shall stream to the LORD’s house,” to learn God’s ways and walk in God’s path.    In days to come, God will be judge and arbiter between nations and peoples, helping them to treat one another with justice and mercy.  In days to come, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”  Swords and spears won’t be necessary any longer, for there will be peace on earth.

Now, we don’t quite get what a big thing it was for swords to be beaten into plowshares.  We live in a resource-rich nation with modern mining techniques.  Metal is cheap and easy to get and make into things.  Judah, however, was small and poor, and there isn’t a lot of metal in the Holy Land.  And this was back when mining metal and forming it into useful things was a lot more difficult than it is today.  Swords were expensive.  So were plowshares!  Every spear a family bought to defend itself, that was money that couldn’t be spent on farm equipment, homes, and all the other things people need to feed their families.  Every sword a ruler bought to defend the nation, that was money that had to be taken in taxes and couldn’t be used for roads and all the other things governments do to help their people prosper.  Imagine it in the modern equivalent: they shall turn their tanks into combines.  If we didn’t have to be afraid of war, if nobody on earth had to be afraid of war, and all the money that currently gets spent on defense and the military could be spent instead on things that help people feed themselves, imagine what that would be like.  But even more than that, imagine what life would be like if nobody ever had to be afraid.

In a time of darkness, in the middle of a war-torn land, with enemies at every side, among people who gave only lip service to God’s Word, God gave Isaiah a vision of a better world.  A world of peace, a world where justice and peace, righteousness and mercy ruled.  A world where all people truly hear and listen to God’s Word.  A world where God’s light shines in all the places that used to be dark.  You can hear the prophet’s longing for that world.  “O house of Jacob,” Isaiah cries, “come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”

We, too, long for that world.  We, too, walk in darkness but crave the light.  We, too, long for a world in which all people walk in the light of the LORD, where no one needs to be afraid of violence, and where people can take things meant for destruction and use them to build and grow.  We know that it will come, for we God has promised it to us.  Isaiah’s vision and visions from other prophets have been given to us.  But the problem is, we don’t know when.

Jesus was quite clear in today’s Gospel when he said that even he didn’t know when that day will come.  For all that we try to read the sign of the times, for all we try to make predictions, we don’t and can’t know.  All we know is that we need to keep awake, keep watch.  “Keep awake, therefore,” Jesus said, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming…. The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  It’s not just that we don’t know when; the only thing we can know is that that day will come when we least expect it.

What does it mean to keep watch?  Some people have sold all their possessions when they thought the Kingdom was near.  It’s been 2,500 years since Isaiah’s vision, and 2,000 since Jesus told his disciples to keep awake.  Predictions have come and gone.  There have been times when Christ’s coming in glory was all people could think of, and times when Christians have largely forgotten about it.  How do we keep watch, for something that could come today or could come two millennia in the future?  How do we prepare?

Notice what Jesus says people will be doing when the day comes: they’re going about their ordinary lives, doing their daily work.  You couldn’t tell from the outside which of the workers in the field was going to be swept away like a flood and which was going to remain as Noah did.  And the same goes for the two women doing their household chores.  Looking at them from the outside, both were pretty ordinary.  The ones who remained, as Noah did, hadn’t sold everything and gone to sit on a mountaintop and wait.  They kept on keeping on, doing their daily work like normal.

So what was the difference?  How did they keep awake?  They put on the armor of light; they put on Christ.  They knew they were living in a dark time, in a time when there was sin and brokenness and evil and fear and hate and injustice.  But they trusted in Christ even in the midst of the darkness.  They strove for the light, they listened to God’s Word.  They tried to live lives of righteousness and mercy even when it would have been easier not to.  I’m sure they failed, sometimes; I’m sure they fell short of the life God was calling them to, sometimes.  In this broken, dark world, no one is perfect.  Putting on Christ doesn’t mean that we become perfect.  It means that we allow Christ to be our guide, to lead us through dark places and pick us up and forgive us when we fall.

Keep awake.  It may be easier to bury your head in the sand and forget the promise of a world full of light and peace.  It may be easier to go along with the way the world does things, and forget the promise of a future filled with righteousness and mercy.  But we know the promise is coming.  We know the light of Christ.  We know that Christ is coming, even if we don’t know when.  So keep awake!

Amen.

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