ADVENT I, NOVEMBER 27, 2005
No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house in charge of his servants, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!” (NIV)
The worst case of poison ivy I ever caught was in a place where people were accustomed to itching. Actually, I mean this figuratively rather than physically. For a number of years, our family took vacations in places where people had gathered in communities to wait for the end of the world. They were eschatological communities, communities that anticipated the “eschaton” or the end of all things. We visited Ephrata in Pennsylvania, New Economy in New York, Shakertown in Kentucky and New Harmony in Indiana. (That’s where I caught the poison ivy.) Possessed by what some have called an “eschatological itch,” the people who lived in these now vacant villages gave up possessions, marriage, personal ambitions and many other things. They didn’t just sit around doing nothing, however. Some of their efforts are well known. The Shakers, for example, made contributions to music, architecture, furniture, cattle breeding, crop hybridizing, etc. I became fascinated with these groups who waited so fervently for the end of time. They have all died out, since they produced no future generations. And with them, much of the talk about end times in our culture has disappeared. Occasionally, we hear some discussion about it, as we did at the turn of the millennium, or when Aunt Mary gives her analysis of the meaning of all the hurricanes. By and large, however, eschatological itching seems to be a thing of the past—unless, of course, we’ve missed something that the first Sunday in Advent gives us a chance to explore today. The new church year actually invites us to reflect on the meaning of time and our place in it.
ADVENT REMINDS US THAT TIME IS LINEAR
The season of Advent combines a number of unrelated emphases. Although most of us have come to think of it as a season preparing us for the birth of Christ, it originally had quite a different emphasis. In the early church, Advent began a time of repentance and preparation for the church’s second most important time for baptisms, Jan. 6. Christmas celebrations as such didn’t really take place until the fourth century. Our text today really takes us back to those early days in which Christians renounced the sin over which God’s judgement stood, and prepared to accept the new birth in Christ.
Behind such remembrance, there is a specific concept of time, and it’s helpful to reflect on the meaning of time in this context. Basically, there are two approaches to time. One can assume that time is cyclic or circular, that it continues forever. There are various religious perspectives that operate with such a concept. In Hinduism, for example, there is always another day, another opportunity, another lifetime within which one can continue to practice the perfect living which may ultimately lead to Nirvana. The other concept of time is linear. It assumes that time has a goal, a destination, and then it is no more. Within the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, time is linear. Such a perspective encourages at least two things. One is a sense of urgency. In the text for today, the parable says that people are not just to sit around waiting for the master to return. They are to keep busy with their assigned tasks. In the old General Prayer of the Lutheran church, typically read every Sunday, there were these ominous, ringing words: “Help us to do the work it is ours to do while it is day before the night cometh when no man can work!” Even as a child, I knew that had something to do with the final darkness at which words could only hint.
The other thing encouraged by a sense of linear time is living with a sense of yearning for what is to come. The eschatological vision of Scripture has always pointed us toward a future in which injustices are righted; in which the divisions caused by race, nationality, greed, hostility, sickness and sorrow are set aside. This is not just good news for people in Darfur where starvation is imminent or Baltic ports in Ukraine where AIDS is now proportionately higher than anywhere else in the world. This is good news for you and me as well. And unlike the good news promised by many a prosperity evangelist on TV who assures that God’s will for us is riches and success, this is good news that assures that life has a goal, a destination, a final harbor, and a kingdom coming with lasting dimensions. Knowing what the future holds because Christ’s death and resurrection have assured our place in it is at the heart of our Christian confidence. We seek to allow Christ to make present in and through us, here already, now already, those characteristics of the coming Kingdom that have lasting dimensions to them. We have an eschatological itch to realize the promised future here already, now already. We can see it coming.
It may be fun to joke around about people carrying signs announcing the end of the world. Or to put up billboards saying “God is coming— and boy is he mad!” It’s quite another matter, however, to reflect on the meaning of linear time and to think not just about its ultimacy, but also about the kind of ethic which such a concept allows. The self-centered or careless values to which Jesus gave the death sentence at the cross are replaced by new values which will be realized completely once God’s kingdom has finally come and time is no more. We have the privilege to capture a sense of that kingdom’s power and grace even now—and that’s no joke!
ADVENT REMINDS US OF JESUS’ PRESENCE FOR THE JOURNEY
As we reflect on the impact of linear time on our lifestyle, this parable brings another dimension to our thinking. One might think that the servants who are told to watch for the master’s return need to wait in fear lest they be judged for some inappropriate behavior. On the other hand, it is worth noting that the master who is returning is the same one who left. There are, of course, unscrupulous servants and tyrannical masters. There are also faithful servants and benevolent masters. There is no reason to see in this parable anyone other than a loving Lord. The Lord who has left us to go on ahead is the same one who has loved us to death on a cross and who has opened the future to us through his resurrection. He is the one who will accompany us to the judgement seat of God. In the language of the parable, we are confident that he will claim us as his own, speak well of us and commend us. Our own humanity is often frail and fallible, but we live with a sense of urgency and anticipation knowing that the one to whom we belong at the end of time is the same one who has been our gracious Lord from the beginning.
Morris West, one of America’s great novelists, tell the story about eschatogical itching in an interesting way. In Clowns of God (William Morrow and Co., 1981), he writes that the pope has a revelation that Christ is returning for the final judgement. He shares this with the cardinals and they decide that it is best to say he is senile, so they exile him to the monastery at Monte Cassino. He gets the message out to some people in Europe and tells them to start forming cell groups of Christians all over the world. As time passes and these cell groups begin to form, Christmas Eve approaches. While the world brutalizes itself with wars and surfeits itself with excesses, one cell group meets in the hills of Bavaria to share the celebration of Christ’s birth. An interesting Middle Eastern type joins them for the celebration and when he is asked if he is a believer, he says: “I am not a believer; I am he.” “Give us a sign,” they say. “If you were really he, you would say, ‘Ask and it shall be given.” “Ask,” he said. “Time,” they said. “Enough time to change a world, to beautify it, to cleanse it, to prepare it for you.” “I accept,” he said. “How much time do we have,” they asked. “I won’t say,” he said. “Not much—but enough!”
The story sends a little chill down our spines because that’s what we always want to know. We want to know that we have enough time to say, “I’m sorry.” We want to know that we have enough time to heal and old wound, to change course in mid-stream, to say “no” instead of “yes,” to say “yes” instead of “no.” We want to know that we have time to love him even more, who has loved us so much. How much time do we have? Are you feeling the eschatological itch? In this season of Advent, as we think about all the things for which we so typically prepare, is there time to decorate the manger of our hearts with repentance, with new determination, with a more constant and focused love?
There is enough time, for Jesus accompanies you this day and every day, helping you to live joyfully and expectantly, to pray for his future for us, here already, now already.
Time moves irreparably forward, and we have an itch to see it go. We know that it takes us closer to the meaning of our lives and we long for what “eye has not seen and ear has not heard, but God has prepared for those who love him.” We long to hear the master say “Watch” because we know he is giving us not much time—but enough.
Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus