Based on the Revised Common Lectionary readings:
It’s a bit ironic that Advent has become the time of frantic preparation for Christmas. Our lives are ordered down to the minute, they have to be to fit everything in. And so we control our time carefully in the leadup to Christmas day, making sure we can fit everything in, rush from one thing to another with never a wasted moment. And so we have calendars and daily planners, our days scheduled so we can fit everything in.
Advent, however, is supposed to remind us that we can’t fit God into our time, we are to fit into God’s time. Christ, we are told in today’s gospel reading, comes at an unexpected hour. Therefore we are to wait, and to watch. Into our carefully planned days and controlled hours breaks the parousia, the arrival, of Christ. Advent is not about planning for December 25th to roll around, but about readiness for Christ’s imminent arrival at any moment.
And so we are told not to rush, but to wait. Instead of don’t just stand there, do something (you know like that bumper sticker “Jesus is coming, look busy”, it’s don’t just do something, stand there. To wait, and to watch.
But if you’re anything like me, patience is not your strong suit. In a world where we are always in control, patience means living out of control. Patience is the kind of training that’s required for being a Christian.
Keep awake, Jesus says, for you do not know the day or the hour. Remember Jesus is saying this in the context of the seven day Passover festival. The disciples know what it is to “Keep awake, to watch, to keep vigil” during this time. Remember the night of the Passover, when the Israelites were rescued from Egypt, liberated from slavery, they had a whole ritual they undertook. Take a year old male lamb without blemish (from the sheep or the goats), then slaughter it together. Put the blood on the doorposts, sides and top. Then they were to have a meal, eating the lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread. The angel of death would pass by each house and passover those with blood on the doorposts. And at the end of the description of the ritual – which every Jew celebrated in remembrance every year – it says: Exodus 12:42 “That was for the Lord a night of vigil, to bring them out of the land of Egypt. That same night is a vigil to be kept for the Lord by all the Israelites throughout their generations.” We have to see Jesus’ words here in the context of a time of year when the disciples would be remembering their great liberation story, and keeping awake to do so. In fact on the night Jesus is arrested, they are told again: stay awake. Keep watch.
Paul too talks about this in his letter to the Romans – how this is the moment they are to wake from sleep, for the night is far gone, the day is at hand. So we are to do the kinds of things we would do in the daylight, when all can see us.
Let’s face it, if we do not know the time or the hour, it’s easy to forget or become lazy – there’s only so long you can be alert for, so we can allow ourselves to relax and become complacent. You can’t live stressed out on hair-trigger alert day in, day out indefinitely. But neither Paul nor Jesus are talking about being on hair-trigger alert, or having a temporary freakout flurry of activity to get ready, like cramming for an exam. They’re talking about living in such a way that when God’s future meets our present, our lives are ready for it, and we’ll fit right in. We’re talking about developing the kinds of habits that make inevitable a life that fits in with God’s dream for creation, God’s promised future. And we’re talking about bearing witness to God’s dream in the midst of a world that only knows its own nightmare. Advent is about marking the kind of patient time that allows us to develop the practices we need to be an outpost of the coming Kingdom even before it’s fully realised. And that means slowing down, not speeding up, and being deliberate about so ordering our lives that it makes Christlikeness easier.
But in order to know what kinds of practices we need to cultivate, we need to know what God’s future looks like. So what does it look like? We get a glimpse in Isaiah 2:
“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4He shall judge [make justice] between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they 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 any more. 5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
So it looks like all the nations of the world voluntarily submitting to the word of the Lord. And that word looks like wrongs righted, and the transforming of weapons into farming tools, of conflict into the service of human need.
This, by the way, is why the church needs to be nonviolent. Not because war is unjust, even though it is, or because it is destructive, dehumanising and immoral, even though it is. But because it is our job, the church’s job, here and now, to bear witness to the reality made possible by Jesus, God’s reality which has broken into our present. If the world is to have a concrete glimpse of God’s reality, that which we call heaven, it must be played out here and now by those who recognise Jesus as Lord. If we don’t, the very earth will cry out in our place.
That means obedience to the word of God – that’s why in Isaiah the nations come to God’s mountain – and obedience means listening, which is why the nations come to listen to God’s word, “that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths”. Today’s passage from Romans 13 is in the context of Paul’s encouragement in Romans 12 to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed/transfigured by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and complete/perfect.” Discernment, and transformation, takes time, and that means patience. But it’s not an inert or passive patience. It’s an active patience called preparation. And so we are to do the kinds of things that prepare us, like loving one another. Not with lovely gooey feelings, but in the practical. That kind of love, as Dostoyevsky says, can be a “harsh and dreadful thing” because it means continuing to act in another’s best interests even when we can’t be bothered, or when that person has hurt us. We are to love with the kind of patience that makes war impossible. That’s why Hauerwas says the church does not have an alternative to war, the church is an alternative to war. The church is that community across nations that in making the commitment to refuse to kill is forced to do the hard, patient, uncelebrated work of relationships.