When I was in college, one of my best friends had a poster in his room that said, “Stay awake! Jesus is coming.”
I hated that poster.
The words come from both of our New Testament readings this morning. (Matthew 24:36-44 and Romans 13: 11-14.) Both readings admonish people to stay awake, and the fact that I hated my friend’s poster might give you a sense about my feelings for how these passages are usually interpreted.
I hated that poster for two reasons. First, I love to sleep. As Carrie will tell you, I’m good for nothing past 9:00 pm. I might watch television for half an hour, but I’m usually in bed by 9:30 and sawing logs, so she tells me, by 9:35. And the members of the youth group who have been on the mission trip will tell you that while they are playing basketball, or working on a puzzle, or playing a silly card game where someone blinks and another person dies, I’m probably off in the corner of the room sleeping.
So, I love to sleep, but there’s a more serious reason that I hated that poster. It creates anxiety. Both New Testament passages refer to what theologians call the parousia. It refers to the Second Coming of Jesus. The parousia passages are often interpreted to sound like this: “Stay awake! Jesus is coming back! Make sure you are behaving so that you can get to heaven.” And I have to tell you, that version of Jesus sounds too much like Santa Claus to me. The older I get the creepier Santa Claus seems. Take that song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”: “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sakes!” And we have our children sing this song?!? I mean, c’mon. He sees you when you’re sleeping? That’s creepy. But even worse, that kind of moralism makes me anxious. The Santa Claus like god is always looking over your shoulder, making a list and checking it twice to make sure your behaviors add up so that God will then shower you with grace and love.
My friend’s poster, and our passages, can easily begin to produce fear and anxiety about being good enough for God. The problem with the Santa Claus like god is that you never know where you stand with that god. Have you been good enough? Well, you don’t really know and so you begin to get fearful and anxious about God. And I don’t know about you, but I already have enough fear and anxiety about being good enough in my life – am I a good enough parent? Am I good enough in my work, or in school? Am I good enough for my friends? And like everyone who is married asks during Thanksgiving and Christmas: Am I good enough for my in-laws?
We have enough anxiety in our lives about judgment; I don’t think we really need an all-powerful god threatening us with judgments and demands to stay awake and behave … or else!
I’d much rather take a nap than believe in that god.
But I don’t think my problem with this view of God stems from my psychological or biological make-up. I think it stems from the fact that Jesus had a big problem with the anxiety producing god, too. In fact, Jesus actually taught his disciples to not be anxious or fearful about God and to trust that, no matter what, God valued them and cared for them. In his most important sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his disciples, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what to wear…Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than them?” (Matthew 6:25) We will see between now and Christmas that before Jesus’ birth, angels came to Joseph and Mary, and to shepherds keeping watch over their flock at night and told them, “Do not be afraid.” (Matthew 1:20, Luke 1:29, 2:10). Throughout the New Testament we find these themes: You don’t need to be anxious and you don’t need to be afraid of God. Jesus also says in the Sermon on the Mount that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” This means that God’s love and grace reaches out to everyone, whether we deserve it or not. (Matthew 5:45)
Jesus plainly teaches us to not be anxious about our relationship with God; he teaches that whether we are good or bad in the eyes of our society, that in the eyes of God we are loved; the New Testament teaches that God is perfect love and perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:8 and 1 John 4:18). Because of those plain teachings, whenever I read a passage from the Bible that produces anxiety, I know there’s something wrong with my interpretation. Yet, as I studied these passages last week, I kept stumbling across the phrases “Keep awake” and “it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” The question is, what are we supposed to wake up to? I’m convinced that in his first coming, Jesus tried to wake humanity up to the things that matter.
Obviously, there are things in life that matter and things that don’t matter. What’s difficult is knowing the difference between what actually matters and what doesn’t. Sometimes we quarrel and even go to war over things that seem very important, but don’t matter at all – not to God anyway. As René Girard, the interpreter of mimetic theory observes, when we are in conflict we insist on how different we are from our enemies and it’s that difference that matters the most to us. But when each side insists on their differences, they become blind to what actually matters to God – their shared humanity, in which lies the hope for reconciliation.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent and earlier we lit the Advent candle of Hope. The Latin word Adventus means coming, and so the season of Advent invites us to prepare our lives for two things: The first coming of Jesus at Christmas, and the parousia, or second coming of Jesus at the end of history. Advent also invites us to wake us up to the things that mattered to Jesus. What mattered to Jesus at his first coming will be what matters to Jesus at his second coming.
What mattered to Jesus at his first coming? Jesus wanted to transform our relationship with God and to transform our relationships with our fellow human beings. It is in this transformation that we find hope for our world.
Throughout history, we humans have had an anxious relationship with the “gods.” Whenever bad things have happened, we’ve assumed that we’ve sinned, that we’ve been bad and lost favor with the gods. Humans have thought that we needed to go to the gods and perform a sacrifice, sometimes sacrificing another human, sometimes an animal, to regain favor with the gods and relieve our anxiety.
But Advent, when we wait and prepare for the first coming of Jesus at Christmas and the second coming of Jesus at the parousia, transforms that understanding of God. You see, the Christmas story isn’t about us going to God; it’s about God coming to us. God so loved the world that God came into the world to be with us. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. This allows us to begin to relax in our relationship with God because whether we are good or bad is not the point. Jesus reveals that God meets us where we are in the Spirit of love.
One of my favorite theologians, James Alison, puts it like this in his course Jesus the Forgiving Victim when he states that he hopes “you will be able to relax into the realization that being good or bad is not what [faith] is about. It’s about being loved.”
I’m beginning to relax about my relationship with God, but I imagine that trusting Jesus’ assertion in the unconditional love of God will be a life-long process.
That’s because love in our human relationships is usually conditional. We all know that the world can be very cut-throat. We live in a world where our sense of goodness is often created by comparing ourselves with someone who is bad; where winners can only win because there are losers; where some people are included and others are excluded; where love and acceptance are conditional upon living up to the expectations of family members, friends, neighbors, and employers.
Our passage from Romans this morning speaks to this when it says, “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” We see the works of darkness that includes some and excludes others everywhere, and it can begin to consume our lives. The news is always full of violence and war, political rivalries, and devastating natural disasters. In the midst of such vulnerability, how can we find hope?
We find hope by waking up to what God is already doing in the world. In our Old Testament reading today we discover that Isaiah caught a hopeful vision of God working in the world to create peace where there once was violence. Isaiah states that the nations of the world “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” This was not simply a vision of some future heavenly realm; it was a vision for now. Isaiah implored the leaders of his nations to “walk in the light of the Lord” who desires the nations to stop learning how to wage war.
In a few minutes we will sing the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The last stanza is a reflection on Isaiah’s vision. It goes like this:
O come, Desire of Nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; make envy, strife, and quarrels cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Isaiah’s vision is not just about the relationship among the nations; it’s about the relationship among individuals, too. We frequently experience envy, strife, and quarrels in our lives. They are part of the works of darkness from our passage in Romans. Envy, strife and quarrels can spread like a contagious disease throughout our communities.
But love can spread throughout our communities, too. The hope of Advent that Jesus reveals is that God is love. As the letter 1 John states, “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” That is our hope. God’s love is reconciling and restoring the world and all of humanity, putting an end to national and personal envy, strife, and quarrels so that God’s love can be shared throughout the world. And soon, we hope, the whole world will be filled with heaven’s peace.
So during this advent season, may you relax into God’s love for you and for the world. May you intentionally set aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. And may you wake up from the sleep of envy, strife, and quarrels to share God’s love for the world. Amen