Advent 1 – Andy Philip, Chaplain – 1st December 2019

Wake up! Stay awake! Be ready!

These are the phrases that jump out from today’s readings as we enter the season of Advent. And it’s appropriate that they do so, for this is very much in the spirit of the season.

There is a prayer from the Northumbria Community that, for me, captures that spirit:

God of the watching ones,
give us Your benediction.

God of the waiting ones,
give us Your good word for our souls.

God of the watching ones,
the waiting ones,
the slow and suffering ones,
give us Your benediction,
Your good word for our souls,
that we might rest.

God of the watching ones,
the waiting ones,
the slow and suffering ones,
and of the angels in heaven,

and of the child in the womb,
give us Your benediction,
Your good word for our souls,
that we might rest and rise
in the kindness of Your company.

            (Celtic Daily Prayer, Vol 1, page 107)

I love how this prayer repeats and builds like the way we light the advent candles, building their light week by week, calling to mind what we heard the previous Sunday. More than that, I love its emphasis on WATCHING and WAITING. Although those words don’t appear in our readings, they are at the heart of what it means to wake up, stay awake and be ready.

In the Epistle, Paul urges us to “wake from sleep” (Rom 13:11) while, in the Gospel reading, as if he had already heard Paul’s words, Jesus gives us a clear command: “Keep awake […] for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Mt 24:42)

The purpose of waking from sleep and keeping awake is, as the parable of the Thief in the Night – that almost throwaway parable in today’s Gospel reminds us, to keep watch for the coming of the Lord.

Wake up! Stay awake! Be ready! Keep watch! This sums up Advent, but what are we staying awake for? What are we waiting for, watching for?

Well, it might seem obvious. As the prayer says, we are WAITING for “the child in the womb” and “the angels in heaven”. We are waiting for God come to us in the Christ child, to tear open the border between heaven and earth, between the human and the divine, to draw all nations of the earth to his presence as in Isaiah’s vision.

We are WAITING for God’s “good word for our souls”. The prayer is full of expectation that God will speak. It requests, even pleads for, a word from the Lord. It prods and pokes at our own desires and hopes: do we expect God to speak to us? If we are open it to, the Lord’s good word can come through Scripture, through other people, through circumstances. Are we looking and listening for the instruction that comes forth out of Zion, for the word of peace?

We are WAITING to “rest and rise in the kindness of [God’s] company”. As Paul says in the Epistle, “the night is far gone, the day is near” (Rom 13:12) and as he says elsewhere, we “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:7) — our Lord who himself says to us in today’s reading: “You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Mt 24:44).

Keep watch! Stay awake! Be ready!

Advent is, as our Gospel reading makes inescapably clear, the season when we think about Jesus coming back, returning to make all things new and to set us free to be the people of God.

So we are called by Gospel and Epistle to WAKE UP, to WATCH and WAIT and to BE READY for Christ, but what does this mean?

Waiting is countercultural. Everything is available to us at the touch of a finger on a screen; for next-day delivery through Amazon Prime; when we you want to see it on iPlayer or Netflix. But we are waiting for a Person who can’t be tracked on an app, won’t text to say the train is delayed, won’t call to say he’s stuck in traffic.

For all that it is countercultural, keeping watch does not mean that we are to head to the hills and all become hermits, waiting out the times and seasons in unceasing prayer and worship. No, the picture Jesus gives us in our Gospel text shows us men and women going about their daily business in the fields and the home. In each place, some people are ready and some are not. So whatever keeping awake entails, we do it as part of everyday life. It is a fundamental orientation rather than a set of special tasks.

Paul gives us a steer as to what this involves in the reading from Romans when he tells us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 13:14). The image is of someone who has just woken up putting on their clothes, readying themselves for work, which implies that putting on Jesus isn’t about a moment of conversion but is something we need keep doing. As he puts it earlier in the same letter, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (12:2).

How do we put on Christ? We do it through our spiritual practices and disciplines. We do it through prayer, worship and opening ourselves to Scripture in community and alone. All these things tune us into the movement of the Holy Spirit, mould our minds in the way of Christ.

If waiting is fundamental orientation, perhaps waiting in prayer is its best expression. I encourage you to adopt as an advent practice the habit of waiting silently in prayer for maybe 10 minutes’ a day. Or, if you already do this, to extend your waiting by 10 minutes. Perhaps you might want soundlessly to repeat some word or phrase from the week’s Sunday readings or the day’s word from our Advent Word series on Instagram. But as you join the watching ones, the waiting ones, as you rest in God’s company, listen out for the whisper of God’s good word for your soul.

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