All Saints, Morton–Matthew 24:37-44, Romans 13:8-14, Isaiah 2:1-5
One of my brothers—many years ago, when he was a teenager—worked in a McDonald’s restaurant. I enjoyed hearing him tell some of the “inside” stories of an operation than is such a ubiquitous part of American life. One of the facts of life for McDonald’s employees was the knowledge that, at any moment, members of an inspection team from the corporate offices could walk through the door and make a spot check. People’s jobs depended on the results of such inspections. The scariest part was that the employees might never know the inspection team had even been there until it was well beyond too late to do anything about it. As likely as not, the team would be “disguised” as ordinary customers, who would come in, wait in line, order a meal, sit down and eat it, and probably use the restroom. So, with the possibility of a corporate inspection at any moment, the employees simply had to conduct themselves accordingly, to make sure that the way the food was prepared, the way customers were treated, and the way the restaurant looked, was up to the standards defined by the corporation. As long as these standards were being met, no one had anything to fear. In fact, they could even look forward—with pride—to such visits.
The season of Advent is upon us. And at the beginning of the Advent season, the liturgy of the church invites us to pay attention to the fact that an “inspector” from the “home office” could burst through the clouds at any moment and call us to account for the way we’re living our lives on this planet. Do we greet that prospect with joyful anticipation, or with fear and shame? On the occasion of his first visit to earth, Jesus compared his second coming to that of a “thief in the night”, a burglar who sneaks into a house when its residents are least expecting—and least prepared for—company. He also compares it to the time of Noah, when people were caught unawares and swept away by the rising waters of the flood. The Great Litany includes a petition for deliverance from “dying suddenly and unprepared.”
Just knowing we’ve got to die is bad enough, but the thought of dying without being able to get ourselves and our loved ones ready for it is particularly chilling. Yet, maintaining a state of readiness, a state of preparedness to come face to face with our maker and judge is like swimming against the current in a mountain stream. The demands and details of just coping with life-as-usual are so consuming, that any energy spent on something as mysterious and other-worldly as the Second Coming of Christ seems like a self-indulgent luxury.
The people in the days of Noah, Jesus says, were consumed with the ordinary business of life—eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. The sheer ordinariness of their lives—their vices and their virtues—stopped their ears to the warnings that Noah was shouting at them. It is entirely too easy for us today to be similarly deaf to the warnings that God is shouting at us, through Jesus, and through the liturgies of Advent. It is entirely too easy for us to be so pre-occupied by life-as-usual that we fail to notice how God has acted and is acting and will act in human history. We fail to take notice of the larger context—the “cosmic” context —in which we live our lives. We live in a time of transition, a time when “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, all the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” are surrendering to the rule and sovereignty of the maker of heaven and earth.
To us, creatures of time, this period of transition seems to be dragging on and on—two thousand years now. But from the perspective of him to whom a thousand years is but the twinkling of an eye, we all live and die in the midst of a single moment. Our calling, during Advent, and the rest of the year as well, is to develop a keen and habitual awareness of our place in that moment, that moment of transition. It’s like that ten week period between a presidential election in November and the inauguration of a new president in January, when the executive branch of our federal government is in a moment of transition. You can be sure that those whose jobs are considered political appointments, and those who want jobs that are considered political appointments, are keenly and habitually aware of their place in a time of transition, whether they’re on the way out or on the way in. They are, if they’re smart, ordering their lives and their priorities in the light of that transitional moment.
This is what the scriptures mean when they say, “be watchful, stay awake, maintain your vigilance, be prepared.” When Jesus talks about the people of Noah’s time being surprised by the flood, and people at the time of his return being pre-occupied with the mundane chores of working in the field and grinding flour, he’s giving us a warning. “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” St Paul echoes the same warning when he tells the Christians in Rome, “…salvation us nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” The Prayer Book collect for this first Sunday of Advent borrows its imagery from the very next verse in this passage from Romans 13: “…give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility, that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal…”.
Is the prospect of our Lord’s return to this earth dreadful … or joyful?
It’s supposed to be joyful, a vision of hope, a vision like Isaiah’s image of “the mountain of the Lord’s house”, with all the nations of the earth streaming into it to worship the Lord, beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks as they make their way up the hill. If the prospect of Jesus’ return fills your heart with fear, rather than with hope and anticipation, then the beginning of Advent is your wake-up call! It’s still not too late. Let loose of life-as-usual long enough to look around you and pay attention to what God is doing.
In a few minutes, during that part of the liturgy known as “the Great Thanksgiving”, part of our prayer will be to offer thanks to God “because [he] sent [his] beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.”
Indeed, so be it.