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Advent: Expectation that Necessitates Preparation

Denson Staples
Sun, Nov 27

Texts: Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

Today’s readings come from Romans and the Gospel According to Matthew. Much has been said about these passages and much could be said today about them, but for our purposes suffice it to say the following: the text from Romans is a letter of instruction from the Apostle Paul to early Christ-followers of various kinds in Rome. Among other things, the letter highlights moral action or ethical change, perhaps, as one hallmark of true discipleship and one means of preparing for the coming of salvation. The passage from Matthew underscores the unexpected nature of the coming of the Lord by likening it to the sudden arrival of the flood in the story of Noah’s ark, or an unforeseen theft in the night. Along with emphasizing the unexpected nature of the arrival of the Son of Man, Matthew calls for vigilance: watching and waiting with anticipation for that arrival.

Notably, both passages use the language of wakefulness and awakening to convey the state we should be in as we anticipate Jesus; despite their differing authorship, purposes of composition, and audiences, both Romans and Matthew found the metaphor of sleep and waking useful to convey something about the proper way of orienting oneself given the coming of the Lord. While we may be quick to focus on being awakened, since that is what the scripture prescribes for us, I am inclined to start elsewhere: sleep. You see, I am inclined to ask, “What is important about sleep within this metaphor?”

One immediate response might focus on sleep as being in opposition to wakefulness. In this light, sleep is something to be avoided. After all, Romans teaches us to “wake from sleep,” and Matthew enjoins us to “keep awake.” Clearly, the scriptures intend to call us out of sleep: for us to awaken and remain in a state of wakefulness. If this is where we are headed or hope to end up, then let us first meditate on what comes before – on where we are, perhaps. Let us meditate on sleep.

For these human bodies there is, after all, a necessity for sleep. When we sleep, our bodies rest; our bodies are repaired, are rejuvenated. So much occurs in our bodies when we sleep, in fact, that science has only just begun to demonstrate in the past couple of decades all of the work and changes our bodies undergo as we sleep. For example, we now know that most muscle growth, tissue repair, and protein synthesis occurs when we sleep. We now know production of some hormones occurs exclusively during sleep – without sleep, then, our bodies lack their full complement of biochemical resources. Without sleep, our bodies are incomplete. We now know that sleep also plays a crucial role in the transformation of our bodies. What do I mean? Sleep has recently been shown to be intimately linked with changes in the structure and organization of the brain. In other words, sleep facilitates changes in the very makeup and architecture of our brains. So it seems there is an entire cosmos of activity unfolding within each one of us as we rest. It is clear that sleep enables our bodies to build, maintain, and transform themselves. Sleep, in this light, is an experience of formation, of preparation, of anticipation, of making ready, of putting in order. When we sleep, our bodies are not merely sleeping: they are preparing for life after sleep.

So while it is high time for us to wake up, according to the scripture, let us do so with the fruits offered us by our slumber: rest, repair, rejuvenation for our awakening.

Which may lead us to ask: what, then, of this awakening? If sleep is such a monumental preparation for the moment of awakening, what are we to make of that awakening?

We read in Matthew that we should not only “keep awake,” but also “be ready,” even as Romans instructs its audience to “live honorably,” “lay aside darkness” and “put on” the Lord Jesus Christ. Be ready. Live honorably. Lay aside darkness. Clearly, our awakened life entails action: we might think of it, like sleep, as a readying, a preparation, and as a particular way of living – with honor – as well as a cleansing or purging – a laying aside of darkness.

Here’s where I get excited, First Church. You see, Advent is so often acknowledged as a period of expectation, of anticipation, of preparation. But Matthew and Romans remind us that we are not watching and waiting in an idle way, but rather that to live with expectation – to truly anticipate the coming of light into a dark world – requires us to do something. We must adopt a certain way of being in the world. In other words, the expectation of salvation means I must live a particular kind of life. If today we light a candle to signify that hope is truly still alive in the world on this first Sunday of Advent, surely, then, that means something for the way we live. Surely a hopeful existence is markedly different from one without hope, from hopelessness. So what is this difference? What are the marks of living with hope? How does life differ when we “Watch for the Light” in the midst of stunningly deep darkness, rather than merely submit to that deepening dark?

I think the key is the Advent emphasis on expectation that demands preparation. A life defined by hopeful expectation is, I think, also a life of eager preparation. After all, the Prophet Isaiah tells us that “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” An authentic expectation of God, for Isaiah, necessitates preparation for God’s arrival. And don’t we already know this to be true? For those of you who hosted guests for Thanksgiving, I’m sure your anticipation of their arrival demanded some level of preparation. I can’t imagine many of us welcoming guests for Thanksgiving and preparing for their arrival by not lifting a finger. Can you imagine? “SO glad you made it to town this year. It’s been ages. We’ve been looking forward to your arrival. But there’s no turkey or dressing, the guest bed doesn’t actually have sheets on it right now, and you’ll have to excuse the mess, because we didn’t get around to preparing for your arrival.” No, of course not! Life is not “business as usual” when we truly expect a guest. How much more so, then, with the coming of God? “O Christ, how shall I meet you,” the hymn inquires, “how shall I welcome you aright?”

By preparing for the moment of meeting. Early in the Book of Matthew, we’re also given a model for living with the knowledge of the arrival of Jesus. Chapter 3 begins with the appearance of John the Baptist in the wilderness proclaiming a message of repentance, precisely because John was also preaching that the kingdom of God was near. In preparation for the coming of that kingdom, John took action by preaching and proclaiming the necessity of repentance. What’s more, Matthew chapter 3 then interprets John’s actions in light of the words of the Book of Isaiah, calling John “the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke.” With the genuine expectation of the coming of Jesus, John prepared for that coming by going into the wilderness, preaching, and “preparing the way of the Lord.”

When we live with expectation, with anticipation, we prepare. We prepare despite the darkening days. We prepare despite a sense of gathering gloom. We light a candle of hope even when things have, for some of us, never seemed so hopeless.

I confess, First Church, that I can recall no other time in my adult life that national events have made me feel so hard-pressed to find hope. Now, perhaps that’s a product of my youth, but as a person who identifies as biracial and queer, the results of our recent presidential election felt, to some extent, like a mandate against my existence. The results felt like a mandate against the existence of so many of my loved ones: the communities of color I call home; the people of color I call “love”; nuestra familia LatinX gritando “chinga la migra!”; mine and your brown and black sisters, brothers, siblings, kin; women and girls, gender-benders, people who identify as genderqueer, people who identify as trans* and transgender, hell, anyone who isn’t an adequately-masculine man; Muslims who are as faithful to the word of God as ever, but who now live under powers and principalities that raise the specter of World War II-internment camps as the proper place for them within U.S. borders. Regardless of your politics and political affiliations, what does it mean that we have handed the keys of power to a fellow citizen who trafficks daily in rhetoric that targets the powerless? Beyond this, what does it mean that the runner-up in this election – the only other likely winner of the presidential contest – also has an ethically questionable, and sometimes downright morally reprehensible, track record of policymaking and public leadership?

This is the context in which I am processing the meaning of Advent this year. Perhaps the here-and-now is the most important context for any Advent season. After all, now is the time to awake from sleep, Romans tells us; now is the time to “Watch for the Light,” now, in this season of darkness, is the hour to kindle a flame we call “hope.” Yes, now is a time for preparation.

What does preparation for Jesus’ arrival look like for you? How shall you, and I, and all of us live these next four weeks leading to Christmas if we adopt the mindset, the belief, the view that the world is far too dark a place, and yet a light is already on its way?

For me, preparation means disavowing a mandate of social death, even and especially when it comes from those comfortably situated in seats of power. It means vocally, unapologetically defying such a mandate, whether around the Thanksgiving table with family members of different political leanings, or from a pulpit; whether through organizing for power and protection with fellow divinity school students, or, perhaps most importantly, by turning to our sources of spiritual instruction. If you choose to live a hopeful rather than hopeless existence, an existence of expectation that requires preparation, what does living in that spirit of preparation, of making ready, look like for you?

That answer will be different for each of us. And, yet, the good news is that we do not have to come up with the answer alone if we recall that God has intervened in human history countless times. In this house, we are rooted in the particular entry of God into human life that brought us Jesus of Nazareth. And in the accounts we have of that life, the accounts we call the gospel, we have a model of how to be in the world: to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. I can think of no better way to prepare for the coming of Christ during Advent than to bring the kingdom of God ever more into our world, and to do that by living a life modeled after Jesus’ own, for in those gospels, in the accounts of that life, we have another kind of mandate: a mandate for existence. A mandate for my existence, and your existence, and, yes, a mandate for all of creation. And that mandate we call the Good News reminds us that we have slept – we have rested – but now is the time to keep awake. That mandate we call the Good News reminds us that waking to the reality of the coming of the Lord means preparing here and now for God’s arrival. It reminds us that salvation is coming at an unexpected hour, and yet we are expected to have prepared for that arrival.

Let us prepare a way for God, First Church. Let our preparation be a testament to the authenticity of our expectation, to the strength of our conviction of that coming salvation.

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