December 1, 2019

Keep Awake!

Passage: Isaiah 2: 1-5; Matthew 24: 36-44

Synopsis: Advent is a time of waiting, but what are we waiting for? The prophet Isaiah envisions a world at peace where all will be eager to walk in God’s paths. Can we even imagine a world without violence and war? In Matthew 24, Jesus keeps repeating the admonition to keep awake and watch in the midst of suffering and social chaos. Being shaken out of our comfort zone may be necessary for change to happen. We need the call to stay awake but we also need a hope-filled vision of God’s new world coming—something we can give our hearts and lives to.


Advent is a time of waiting. When our children were small, Ruth and I always hung up an Advent calendar and our children loved counting down the day until Christmas. Each day had a Christmas symbol made out of felt which they took off of the calendar date and placed in a little pocket underneath. In was one day closer to Christmas! What they were waiting for was unwrapping coveted gifts, a family celebration with cousins, aunts and uncles, and lots of good food.


As we think about our lives and our world during this Advent season, “What are we waiting for?” In our congregational prayer, we recognizing that our world is filled with chaos and suffering and we cried out, “O God, what are you waiting for?”  The prophet Isaiah envisions a day when all people will be eager to learn God’s ways and walk on God’s paths.


As I look at the social landscape of our world, I need to admit that this requires hope that I’m hardly able to find within myself. Can I even imagine a transformed world? Isaiah imagines it as a time when God will mediate between nations and they shall not learn war anymore. Bloody implements of war will be hammered into tools used to feed and sustain people. As in that old African American spiritual sung by enslaved people before the Civil War—

I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield

Down by the riverside

Down by the riverside

Down by the riverside


I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield

Down by the riverside

I'm gonna study, study, war no more


I ain't gonna study war no more

Ain't gonna study war no more

I ain't gonna study war no more


In her book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, Karen Armstrong says that war, as we know it, has its roots in ancient agrarian empires. Elites in those empires invented standing armies to both subjugate their people and to expand their territory against neighboring kingdoms. This war-making greatly expanded with the emergence of modern nation-states and the invention of much more sophisticated weapons of war.[1]


Pope Francis recently spoke at the Peace Park in Nagasaki, Japan which commemorates the 74,000 people who died in the atomic bombing in 1945, three days after the bombing of Hiroshima, which killed 140,000 people. He denounced the use of atomic weapons as “a crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home.” He explained:

The arms race wastes precious resources that could be better used to benefit the integral development of peoples and to protect the natural environment. In a world where millions of children and families live in inhumane conditions, the money that is squandered and the fortunes made through the manufacture, upgrading, maintenance and sale of ever more destructive weapons are an affront crying out to heaven.[2]


Can we imagine what a world without war would look like? How would a nuclear warhead or an aircraft carrier warship be dismantled and converted into an instrument of peace? I don’t know. Even so, we need to keep this vision in front of us for the sake of the future of our children and our planet. That’s why I’m thankful that this monument depicting swords being beat into plowshares is standing in the north garden at the United Nations building in New York.


While Isaiah contrasts a grim present reality with his hope for a transformed future, the conversation between Jesus and his disciples in Matthew 24 is just grim. Perhaps he was having a really bad day—all this talk of doom, and destruction. It begins as they’re leaving the temple when Jesus shocks them by saying that the whole edifice will be torn down and not one stone will remain on top of another.


The astonished disciples later take him aside privately and ask him about the sign of his coming and the end of the age. I honestly don’t know what to make of all this. What is the end of the age? How do we understand the signs of this coming catastrophe? I’m not sure but I doubt that he was talking about the end of the world as we sometimes think.


Preaching on these texts at the beginning of Advent makes me feel like the grinch who stole Christmas. We all enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving Day and the kids are now dropping big hints about what they want for Christmas. We adults are thinking about how we will decorate the house and we’re beginning to talk among ourselves about the food we’ll make for our family gathering this year.


Jesus has other things on his mind in this scripture passage. He begins by telling his disciples about persecutions to come and terrible atrocities to take place. Biblical scholars think it refers to when Roman armies completely destroyed Jerusalem. Then he references the time of Noah when people just went on living their lives, oblivious to what was happening, until they were all swept away.


Next, he compares the Son of man’s “coming at an unexpected hour” to that of a thief breaking into our house. Really? A thief breaking into my house! This is scary stuff. As Matthew Johnson writes in the Christian Century, “I’m troubled that the Son of man might arrive with criminal intent. It seems contrary to the nature of holiness and the gift of grace. We claim he’s our Prince of Peace, not a thief.”[3]


That’s probably taking the comparison a step to far. The operative phrase here is to “stay awake and watch.” The next example is that of a servant who becomes abusive toward his fellow servants when his master is away. It’s the classic workplace behavior of kissing up and hitting down. But the master returns in an unexpected hour. He’s found out. Then there’s cutting into pieces and weeping and gnashing of teeth.


Finally, Jesus turns to the happier example of a wedding celebration. But, keeping to theme, things go wrong and the bridegroom is delayed. The five wise bridesmaids had brought extra oil but the five foolish ones had not. When the cry went out at midnight that the bridegroom had arrived, the five wise bridesmaids trimmed their lamps and were able to join the banquet but the five foolish ones completely missed out.


There’s an atmosphere of tension and expectation in the entire discourse. There’s a sense that a momentous change is about to happen. We therefore need to stay awake and be alert. Furthermore, there’s the challenge to be responsible as we wait.  The householder needs to be prepared for the thief that sneaks in during the dead of night. Likewise, the bridesmaids need to think ahead and have a reserve of extra oil. Matthew Johnson responds:

I don’t want to admit it, but I believe the Kingdom of God has to be sneaky—because otherwise I probably wouldn’t cooperate. . . If a new beginning is to take place, a number of things I value will need to be stolen. . . I have perfected the art of letting anger linger. I draw strength when finding the fault of others. I refuse, quite often, to let my aims be sidelined or even interrupted. I struggle to give any of these things up willingly. Having them stolen might be the only way I let them go.[4]


Hum, what are the destructive things I cling to so tightly that the Kingdom of God would need to come in the middle of the night and steal them from me. Likewise, what are the things that get me so distracted that I may completely miss out on God’s coming? How do I stay awake? What might be a wakeup call?


I honestly struggle to know how to preach on Matthew 24 in a way that’s edifying. Frankly, the text scares me. Perhaps that’s its purpose. Perhaps I’ve become a little braver now that I’m looking forward to retirement. I recognize that we sometimes need to get shaken out of our comfort zone to make necessary changes. Matthew 24 is all in on that! I also recognize that we can get stuck on judgment and portents of catastrophe. When that happens, we’re easily manipulated by people who feed our fears and insecurities.


To be truly motivated in a constructive way, we need hope. That’s why I like the way the hope filled scripture passage from Isaiah is joined with the reading from Matthew 24 in the lectionary readings for this Sunday. Sure, we need a loud and clear call to “stay awake and watch.” But, even more, we need a hopeful vision of God’s new world coming—something we can give our hearts and lives to.


[1] Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).


[3] Matthew Johnson, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century (November 20, 2019), 20.

[4] Ibid.

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