May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, oh God, our strength, and our redeemer. Amen.
I’m 15 and my hands are at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel. My father is sitting next to me in his ’67 Plymouth station wagon. I’m turning left onto Trout River Boulevard, and my knuckles turn white. Trout River Boulevard follows the shoreline of the Trout River, and boy is it twisty and narrow.
“Keep your eyes down the road,” my dad would say. “Don’t look at what’s right in front of you. It’s too late to do anything about that. Look on down the road a ways. Anticipate what’s coming next. If you’re always looking ahead, you’ll always be ready.”
Isn’t that how we live our lives today? Don’t we sit in church starring at the preacher, mentally writing the grocery list for the week? Don’t we drive to see relatives over the holidays, thinking instead about how bad the traffic will be coming back? Don’t we worry about whether we can take a vacation next summer, worry if we have enough to send the kids to college, enough to retire, enough to live in some comfort as we grow older. We are constantly looking ahead, trying to anticipate, trying to make sure we’re prepared, fixated on tomorrow but ignoring today.
And yet, here we find ourselves at the start of the Advent Season, a season where we turn our full attention to preparing for and anticipating the wonderful miracle of the coming of the Christ Child. In three weeks and three days we’ll wake up to a beautiful newness, a world completely changed by a simple birth under humble circumstances. We won’t quite be able to put our finger on it, but wafting out there is that memory of when we were seven and it seemed Christmas Eve took years to come, and Christmas Morning was cold and dark and bright and warm, and we just knew that time itself would forever be divided by what came before and what came after that glorious day.
On this, the first Sunday of Advent, we are charged with looking down the road, anticipating, preparing, watching, being ready.
It has always seemed strange to me that we kick off our vigil of preparation for the birth of the baby Jesus by hearing the story of the adult Jesus teaching us about preparation and vigilance for his return and the end of days.
Jesus is talking with his disciples, not about what is happening right now, but rather what may yet come. “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” He is saying: Don’t lose focus. Be vigilant. Be prepared. The end of days is coming.
Then Jesus drives home the point with this familiar passage: “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.”
So, are we being asked to prepare for the birth of Jesus by remembering that there are thieves, and thieves don’t work on timetables?
The Wikipedia entry for “How to Preach Advent One” says to stay with the twin themes of preparing for the coming of the Savior, and anticipating his arrival through reflection and discipline, but not to get too distracted by the consequences of the end times. After all, Jesus’ birth begins the new message of the Word. It can be somewhat problematic conflating that with the apocalypse.
As I was mulling over this reading from Matthew, though, I kept stumbling over a part of the homeowner/thief story that is actually left as an implicit fact.
The thing about thievery is that a thief is only a thief if the thief takes something that’s meaningful to the victim. It’s not theft if the thief takes something inconsequential, like a pine cone, or an extra deep breath, or too much time in the bathroom. The taking part of thievery implies that what is taken is important to the one being taken from.
The fact that the homeowner would need to stay up all night waiting for the thief implies that there is something there that the homeowner needs to protect. It’s not the house itself—houses are notoriously hard to fence—but something inside the house. We’re not told what it is; if you own a house, you must have stuff in the house, and presumably it’s that stuff that the thief wants. In the immortal words of George Carlin, “That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn't have so much stuff, you wouldn't need a house.”
But it’s not just any stuff the thief wants. The thief wants stuff you care about. If you didn’t care about the stuff, you wouldn’t care about the thief taking it. But when you care about something, you have an obligation to protect it.
Jesus didn’t say anything explicitly about the homeowner having an obligation to stay awake, but he sure implied it. Jesus said, “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.” Jesus’ message is clear: Vigilance is the homeowner’s obligation.
So I started thinking more about obligation.
One type is an obligation born out of duty. A duty is an obligation that is externally imposed. You do not choose what is important to protect, someone else does, but you take on the job to protect it. We see a ready example of this kind of obligation-through-duty in the dedication of our service men and women.
The second type of obligation is based on debt. Say you’ve borrowed something. The thing you borrowed is not yours, but while you have it, it is your obligation to protect it as if it were yours, until finally you are able to give it back, freeing yourself of your debt.
It turns out that there is a third type of obligation that comes neither from external duty nor from debt. This is an obligation no one is compelling you to take on. It’s one where there is nothing asked of you. If you ignore it, tomorrow will be the same as today. This is an obligation between you and yourself. Let me explain.
God’s love is absolute. We can mess up, commit sin, be human; God will always love us, and always provide a path for us to be redeemed. And if this isn’t enough, God has heaped on us abilities and reason and capacities that, frankly, none of us deserve. Amazingly, God asks comparably little in return.
This has not stopped us from trying to codify what God wants of us with rules, regulations, and prohibitions. Some use God to construct theocracies
that oppress people rather than glorify God. Some use God to conduct wars and atrocities in God’s holy name. Some find in God’s word excuses for
hatred and intolerance instead of love and hope. And this has pushed many to simply ignore God.
The truth is, you can ignore God. Ignore God, and tomorrow you’ll wake up with all of the same abilities and reason and capacities that you had the day before. Ignore God, and your Sundays are free, your purse a bit fuller, and your friends will not find you weird.
It is true that you are under no externally imposed societal obligation to make repayment for, or even full use of, your abilities and reason and capacities.
And here’s the point.
In addition to all that God has given to you—abilities and reason and capacities—God has also given you the opportunity to be obliged to use them to the glory of God, to the care of God’s creation, and to the support and love of all of God’s people.
This third type of obligation is not born of duty or of debt. You are beholden to no one. You have no externally imposed expectations. Yet what you do have is the opportunity to oblige yourself to God, not because God has given you abilities and reason and capacities, but because God has given you abilities and reason and capacities. The meaningfulness of this obligation begins with you and only you. How you respond, though, may forever divide time between what came before and what came after that glorious moment you took up the opportunity.
Be vigilant. You will find opportunities—sometimes in your mailbox, but always in every moment of your life, both outside of this church and inside of it—you will find opportunities to oblige yourself to God. This works only because no one expects or demands this of you. How you step into this obligation is entirely up to you.
I’m 15 and my hands are at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel. My father is sitting next to me. I’m looking far down the road, anticipating what is coming, preparing for what is coming.
I’m 56 and it is the first Sunday of Advent. I’m looking far down the road, anticipating what is coming, preparing for what is coming, forever thankful for the opportunity to do so.