Jesus describes his second coming as a sudden, turbulent event that will bring about deep change to our normal, day-to-day lives. Therefore, he urges people to stay awake, be aware, and wait expectantly, because the Son of Man will come unannounced.
[Jesus said to the disciples,] 36“About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But 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. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Advent is my favorite season of the church year – precisely because of its startling imagery and dark foreboding content – that you have to immerse yourself in for a bit before the light starts to be visible. Like, letting your eyes adjust at night, at first it’s alarming to be in the pitch black, but then you start to catch glimpses of reflections in the window that shed more and more light on your dark room.
It felt like it was an eternity until Vivian slept through the night. An eternity of 3 o’clock in the mornings – trying to get her to sleep and then trying to fall back asleep myself – googling – how to get 2-year-old to stay asleep. I found an answer to a question I didn’t know I was asking. Did you know that people used to wake up in the middle of the night regularly?? Throughout history we can see evidence of a period of wakefulness in the middle of the night, with a first sleep, and a second sleep. This period of wakefulness could be used for chores, housework, childcare, prayers, or just family time, resting together in the family bed.
However, the Industrial Revolution, the 40 hour work week, and most of all, widespread electricity, which prolongs the days, families began to stay awake later and later to delay their bedtimes, pack more into their evenings – relaxing while awake in the middle of the night was now a waste of time – and going OUT at night was the fashionable thing to do….and thus to suppressing the waking hours in the middle of the night.
There’s so much pressure to sleep through the night, to stay asleep, and value judgments – to get a good night’s sleep, to be totally unconscious for 8 hours and then wake with perfect hair and in a great mood. Add the pressure to sleep well at night, to the pressure we have to produce and succeed during the day- no wonder we are all so tired. I guess what I’m trying to say is the message Matthew is trying to communicate was worded for an entirely different culture. Perhaps one not so hampered by lights and screens and insomnia. A culture more in tunes to the rhythms of waking and sleeping.
Not that we shouldn’t prepare for the coming of the son of man, but perhaps our preparations will take on a different tone. We can make our own light now. We can artificially light up the whole world so that we can work all the time. And be awake all the time until we pass out. In our quest for light, we’ve forgotten how to rest in the dark. We’ve forgotten how to wait in the dark.
In order to keep awake, we first must be rested. In order to be rested, we must let go of our disordered obsession for light and work and productivity. We must let go of our impulses to control our days and our time – and allow the time to come as it will, to work as we need, and rest as we need. To know at the end of each day, that it is the end, and tomorrow is being made already. It is not the end of the day because I finished my to do list, it is the end because God’s will is that we care for our bodies and rest.
With that in mind – One of the themes of the gospel of Matthew is reminding his readers that the end is near. Jesus’ return is imminent. Proper preparation is key. Each year the first Sunday in the season of Advent calls us to attention and preparation to our Lord’s coming – Matthew gives us a little more enigmatic detail about the coming of the Son of Man.
Matthew writes, it’ll be just like Noah, right? You’ll just be going about your business, eating, drinking, having your relationships, when Bam! Everything is underwater. Merry Christmas? Unpacking what he’s getting at with this imagery require a careful knowledge of the story of Noah, but also Matthew’s goal.
The word Matthew uses for swept away, is the same one for taken. But in the story of Noah, everyone is swept away, no one survives, except for those who prepared, and boarded the ark ahead of the first inkling of flooding. Is Matthew retelling the Noah story so that some survive the flood?
But listen carefully again to Matthew – in Matthew’s imagery, you WANT to be left behind! Those who are left behind, to continue the work are the ones who are awake and alert to Jesus coming. The ones who are paying attention.
With our lights and our screens, and our sleeping pills, and our productivity. We can do anything we put our mind to it seems – the possibilities for human development are limitless. But we’re still learning and teaching war. We still have our swords and our spears at the ready. We’re still watching nation rise against nation and walking in darkness. To know that many things are very much outside of our control, but somethings we can grasp, and change, and move. We are called to work for the sake of the world, and that work may feel like a burden, or even an impossibility. Advent not only prepares us for Christmas – for the incarnation – for Christ to be born among us in Bethlehem, but is meant to prepare us for the second coming as well.
So let us stay awake, but let us also take the rest we need – the sabbath God has given us as a gift. Amen