The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
First Sunday in Advent
November 27, 2016
These chimes are called the “Westminster Quarters.” They probably played in your grandmother’s house when you were a kid. They did at mine. They play from Big Ben in London. They play from the clock tower at the University of Texas where they would ring out over the entire campus. You would always know if you were late to class or not. You always knew just how much time you had until that dreaded test that you weren’t ready for. And that was the problem with the chimes at UT. There was no way you could tell your professor, or your date, that your clock was just running slow. Because everybody knew exactly what time it was.
Today is the first Sunday in Advent, and the chimes of our church calendar are ringing in a new year. Today, the first Sunday in Advent, marks the time for us. Advent is this moment when God calls us to assess our lives: do we know what time it is? Have we been faithful this past year? Are we prepared for the year ahead of us? Are we closer to Jesus this year than we were last year?
And Advent also brings a warning. A warning that Jesus is coming. In the church year Advent is the time in which we prepare for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. But it is also the time in which we prepare for the second coming, when God fully returns. Now, as Episcopalians, we can get a little squeamish around this second coming business. And I don’t blame you, I think the “Left Behind” series of books and movies has so completely distorted Christian theology of the second coming that we’ve found it easier just to ignore the whole enterprise. But I am not going to let us off the hook this morning. Jesus is coming. The chimes on the UT clock tower signaled just how long I had left until that dreaded test; and the chimes of the church year keep pulling us forward until that day on which we will meet our Maker. So we must ask ourselves, “are we ready?”
Jesus says, “keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
And oh yes, how often and how deeply have we slept. In our spiritual laziness, we have fallen asleep to the call of Christ. In our slumber, we have lost our vigilance and allowed sin to creep in unawares. While we slept, we wondered why God hasn’t answered our prayers, when in reality, we have left our prayers unsaid. While we slept, we said that we don’t read the bible because we don’t understand it, when in reality, we haven’t even tried. While we slept, we have filled our life with more stuff, more money, more greed, more booze, more drugs, rather than filling our life with God, and yet we wonder why we feel so unhappy.
While we slept, the powers of evil and darkness have been gathering. And we do not have to look far to see this in truth. The Episcopal church of my spiritual director at seminary was heinously attacked a week ago; racist messages were graffitied on a sign advertising their Spanish language worship service. The darkness has been gathering while we slept. One only has to remember the horror of 21 men on a beach in north Africa giving their lives to God, saying “Jesus is Lord” with their final breath.
While we slept, the thief has broken into our house. The thief has broken into our hearts and stolen our desire to love God fully. The thief has broken into our society, and has stolen the respect and dignity that we are to extend to all people, all people. The thief has broken into our churches, and stolen our passion for the living God and replaced it with nostalgia for some fictional past.
Keep awake, therefore. Be ready. For if we had been awake, the thief would not have broken in.
And the clock keeps ticking. The chimes keep playing. The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. As I insinuated earlier, I do not think that when Jesus returns he is going to snatch us all away to heaven. That’s the story in the “Left Behind” series, but I don’t think it does justice to what we really believe about the end of all things. God is not going to abandon this world that he so lovingly created and sustains. Rather, I believe that God will return to fulfill this world. To finally drive away the powers of sin and darkness. I believe that Jesus will return to restore all of us to right relationship with God.
Advent is the time in which the Church ask us, “are you ready?” This Advent, I call on all of us to stay awake. To remain vigilant. Both internally and externally. When we see the powers of sin at work in this world, we must be bold enough to stand against them. When we see the gathering powers of darkness – of racism, of misogyny – we must be willing to stand in the light. As followers of Jesus, we must remember that Jesus first went to the poor, the marginalized, the powerless. And it is these people that we, the Church, must stand with. With the woman who has been sexually assaulted, but whom no one believes. With the priest who arrives at her church on Sunday morning and must scrub graffitied swastikas off the building. And do not discount the darkness because it may seem initially small or inconsequential. What starts as a little joke, or an off-hand comment, or a Facebook post, is just opening the door for the thief to steal us away, to fester and become a cancer upon society. Words mean things. Symbols mean things. God is calling us, the church, to stay awake. To watch and make sure the thief does not break into our society.
And do not let the thief break into your own house, into your own heart. The thief, the devil, the evil one, has many ways to draw us away from following Jesus. But none so easy and prevalent as laziness, as falling asleep. I think it’s laziness that is the single greatest hurdle we must overcome in order to become closer followers of Jesus. In the church, we call this “acedia” or “sloth.” Simply not caring about our spiritual lives, not having the energy to be a follower of Jesus. Acedia, sloth, laziness is when we fall asleep spiritually even as we know that Christ is coming. It’s when we don’t study for that big test even when we hear the clock tower chimes ringing us ever closer to the dreaded hour. In “The Screwtape Letters,” C.S. Lewis put it this way: “It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
Keep awake, therefore. When you are lying in bed on Sunday morning and it’s nice and warm under the covers, do not give in to acedia. Do not be lazy. Wake up, stand up, and make your way to this altar to give glory to God. When it’s the end of a long day and you are tempted to mindlessly scroll through Facebook or play yet another round of Candy Crush, do not give in. Wake up. Stand up. Say your prayers. Read your bible. Keep awake.
Think of the clock that is ticking away the hours left to you. No one knows the day or the hour at which you will be called to stand before your Judge. So seize the day. Do not let a day, an hour go by in which you do not stop to thank God. Think of Advent, not as the end, but as the beginning of the next part of your spiritual journey. If there is some prayer that you have been waiting to say, if there is some work that you have been waiting to do, if there is some calling to which God has always been calling you, now is the time. Now. And wake up to see the gathering darkness, and do not hesitate to stand in the light. Because you do not know if you will ever hear those chimes again. Keep awake, therefore, because the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.