Scripture Readings: Isaiah 2:1–5 | Psalm 122 | Romans 13:11–14 | Matthew 24:36–44
“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.” (Matthew 24:42-44)
Have you ever pulled an all-nighter, staying up until the sun rises again?
I don’t really recommend it. But when I was younger, it was kind of an exciting thing to attempt on certain occasions… and I still remember the first time I was able to stay awake all through the night: way back in middle school, along with a handful of friends, I was invited to an overnight birthday party, and as you might expect, we found lots of ways to have fun and wind each other up, and several of us decided to try to stay up all through the night.
But slowly, one by one, my friends all started to turn in… until only myself and one other friend were left awake. While the others all snored in their sleeping bags, the two of us quietly talked for hours. We looked out the window and together stared into the heavens… I saw my first shooting star that night too. We talked about all sorts of things… keeping each other company, and deepening our friendship… until we started to see the light of dawn slowly filling the sky. After all that waiting, we had made it. And what started off as a childish challenge turned into a special and treasured part of my story… a memory of friendship that even now remains close to my heart.
Staying awake can be hard work. It can take lots of effort, especially when all is dark around us. But of course, it’s much easier to stay awake when we have company.
As we know, today is the first Sunday of Advent: a season of anticipation and waiting for the coming of Christ.
We wait for His coming, at Christmas… for the celebration of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, as the eternal Son of God takes on our humanity… and is born as a helpless babe.
But we also wait for His coming again in glory, as we say in the Creed… for Christ’s return not as a child, but as our Saviour King, coming to bring God’s eternal Kingdom to completion. To rescue and restore His creation for good.
Each week in Advent, we contemplate a different aspect of the Christian life in this time between Christ’s first arrival, and His final return… and this first week we reflect on the gift of Hope.
Hope is deeply intertwined with waiting. It is impossible to hope without also having to wait… and it is intolerable to have to wait without having hope. It is something essential. Something we can’t do with out, even though we don’t always understand it. In fact, there’s a lot of confusion these days about the nature of hope.
Hope is not simply wanting something to happen… that’s just a wish or a fantasy. A dream or desire we have that has no real roots in reality. There are lots of things we may want in life that will never occur. And to be honest, that’s a not a bad thing… because so much of what we humans tend to want would actually cause us more grief than good.
Hope is much more than wanting something to happen. And it’s also not simply expecting something to happen. That’s called optimism… choosing to “look on the bright side”, which sounds great, but can at times be just as disconnected from reality as our fantasies are. Optimism assumes that things will work out on their own, or that all the troubles we see aren’t as bad as they might seem. But the danger of optimism is that we just ignore the real challenges that lie before us, not taking them as seriously as we should. In other words, if we just expect things will work out, we’ll be blindsided when they don’t… setting us up not just for disappointment, but maybe even despair.
So what is hope?
We can say hope is the willingness to act in accordance with what has not yet come about. To not just want, or expect, but to behave… to live in line with what we’re hoping for… to reorient what we do each day towards its guiding light.
And hope is hard. It’s much easier just to dream of days gone by, or idealized visions of the future. Or to lean on optimism to try to stay positive… seeking for signs of something good on the horizon, or gazing at the dark clouds in search of a silver lining. Ultimately, dreaming and optimism ask very little of us… but Hope can be hard work.
Hope calls us to hold on… to endure… even when we can’t even imagine how things might get better… and even when we can’t see any signs of a silver lining… when we’re surrounded by the dark. Hope calls us to carry on and trust in what cannot be seen… to not give up because we believe in Someone who will truly see things through.
Hope means enduring even in the darkness, and choosing to act as though the dawn is on its way.
Our Scripture readings today all invite us to hold onto the Christian Hope… which is grounded firmly in the light of what the Living God has done… and what He has promised to do.
In our first reading from the prophet Isaiah, we hear the word of the LORD pointing His people ahead to a time when they would become a beacon of hope for the nations… when their lives would serve to invite those from far and wide to draw near to God, saying:
“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.” (Isaiah 2:3).
Of course, this was God’s purpose for His people all along: for them to become a sign of hope for the whole world… their lives in communion with Him shining out into the night, so that all would be eager to share in His fellowship and eternal life.
This message from God is a wonderful promise, but at the time it must have seemed more like a fantasy. Far from being a holy community united in God’s love, in Isaiah’s day, God’s people had fragmented into two rival kingdoms… and both were living in spiritual darkness… chasing after their own desires instead of seeking God’s ways.
And rather than the nations recognizing in God’s people the brilliant New Life they had been longing for… drawing them near to share in its glory, the nations were gathering like storm-clouds, ready to pour out a flood of violence and destruction, washing away these two tiny kingdoms into Exile.
There was no way to draw a straight line from where they were standing… spiritually compromised, cut off from each other, and encircled by threatening empires… to the promised future God had offered to them: as agents of His world-saving love.
But even so, Isaiah invites God’s people to hold onto hope: to act in line now with the LORD’s promised future… to put into practice now what He says will one day come about. Isaiah 2:5 “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” Though on their own, they could not hope to bring about this hope-filled promise, the right response to God’s promise is to live now in His light.
God called His people to endure… to turn from the darkness, and choose to act now as though the dawn was on its way.
This leads us to our second reading from the letter to the Romans. Through much of this letter, St. Paul was walking his fellow Christians in Rome through the message of the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, and the amazing implications of His death and resurrection.
But just like Isaiah, St. Paul was writing to a divided community: the Churches in Rome we made up of Christians from Jewish and Greek or Roman backgrounds , who were struggling to stay connected, and had all sorts of issues getting in the way of their fellowship… which also got in the way of their mission to share the Gospel of Jesus with their neighbours too.
One serious issue he explores has to do with deep disagreements about how to live as a Christian… the dos and don’ts of disciples, so to speak. Did they all need to obey the Laws of Moses? Or was it enough just to believe the right things, and then they could do whatever they wanted, like their non-Christian neighbours?
We don’t have time to unpack all of the letter to the Romans this morning, but this is the context for our reading today: a letter to Christians confused and fighting about what God was calling them to do with their lives.
St. Paul’s response throughout this letter is to point his readers to Jesus, the Risen Lord… to what He has done to rescue, not only Israel and Judah, but to fulfill His promise through Isaiah to draw all nations to Himself… to reveal to them what it means to walk in His holy ways… and share in the New Life Jesus has won for us all through His cross and resurrection.
So, St. Paul writes to this divided and confused community, and calls them to live together in hope:
“you know what time it is,” he says, “how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”
It's so tempting at times to sleep in. To hit the snooze button and stay in bed. Especially when it’s cold and dark outside. As Christians too, it can be so tempting to stay spiritually asleep. To let our hope of God’s Kingdom, which calls us to take part in its work here and now, begin to drift into dreams of our own, disconnected from God’s calling on our lives.
But St. Paul reminds us, that even though it still may feel like the middle of the night, it’s actually time to get up. Like an alarm clock, beckoning these believers to shake off their spiritual doziness and get ready for the work of the day, St. Paul reminds them, that the object of their hope, Christ’s coming Kingdom, is truly on its way, calling them (and us) to put this hope into practice… not simply by following religious rules, or by rejecting them… but by choosing to behave each day as those who belong even now to the Kingdom of Jesus Christ: “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Romans 13:11-14).
In short, we are being summoned to keep the hope of God’s salvation awake in our hearts by keeping our lives in line with the light of God revealed in Jesus Christ our Lord. This is not the time to become spiritually sleepy, but to be alert and active. Walking daily in God’s ways, and actively awaiting Christ’s coming Kingdom.
This leads us to our Gospel reading this morning, from Matthew Chapter 24, which takes place within a much longer passage where Christ is calling His followers to faithfully endure even the dark days ahead, holding onto hope, knowing in the end God’s salvation is assured.
What stands out in this passage, supported by the dramatic imagery of the suddenness of the flood, is the call to be ready… to not be distracted or lulled away from the work of the Kingdom of God… whose final arrival will be even more world-changing than the flood, or the COVID-19 pandemic combined.
We aren’t given the time or date, in part because the point of the Christian life isn’t for us to puzzle together clues to predict how or when Christ’s Kingdom will come in all its fulness. The point is that we don’t put off the good work we are called to do today… faithfully enduring even incredibly difficult circumstances because we have placed our hope in God’s promise not simply to rescue us, but to bring an end to all the injustice and brutality and evil in our world, trusting His word to us that Christ Jesus the Crucified and Risen Lord:
“shall judge 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.” (Isaiah 2:4)
One final word: Even so great a hope can be hard to hold onto alone. Each one of us, no matter how strong our faith, face dark nights when we struggle to endure. That’s why along with the gift of hope, we were given the gift of each other… the gift of the Church… of a community, a family of believers, our brothers and sisters in Christ, who share our hope, and who can help us stay awake while we wait for the dawn to break.
In this time between Christ’s first and final arrival, we are meant to lean on each other, to lift up each other, to draw near to one another, and strengthen each other against the challenges we all face in this world. Without one another, the hope of God’s salvation can easily grow cold and drowsy. One by one, we can simply drift away, and spiritually fall asleep. But if we endure together… if we learn to share this hope more and more with one another, we will find our fellowship deepen, and our love grow stronger, and our longing to share the hope of the Gospel with those around us grow brighter.
Brothers and sisters, we need to stay awake. So let’s stay awake together, looking forward in hope for the dawn of Christ’s good kingdom at last. Amen.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School