Here’s the scene:
Our hero is about to embark on some dangerous – and sneaky – endeavor. Hero may be interrupted by any number of forces – maybe ninjas dressed all in black, or perhaps huge voracious three-headed dogs ala Harry Potter. Hero, not wanting to be interrupted by any of these, appoints a sidekick to stand guard. Along with offering frothy quips, it’s Sidekick’s job to make sure Hero isn’t caught by surprise when on this dangerous endeavor. Hero goes off on the mission and leaves Sidekick behind as a watch guard – with a plan to alert Hero in case any ninjas pass by.
So Sidekick sits, and Sidekick waits… and Sidekick finds himself yawning… And suddenly, Sidekick is awakened by an annoyed Hero. Apparently, Sidekick had fallen asleep and did not keep watch like he was supposed to. And someone snuck by him. Hero managed to escape a tricky situation and is now looking very displeased.
“I’m sorry,” Sidekick whines. “I swear I didn’t see them slip by.”
“Sidekick, sidekick,” Hero mutters while shaking her head.
Hero doesn’t have much sympathy for her sidekick – but I do. Every time I see or read a scene like that, I feel great empathy for the one left behind. The person seems to have a simple job – just keep alert to anyone that might come by – but that job isn’t as simple as it sounds. It’s physically exhausting to stay alert for a long time. The longer you sit there, scanning your surroundings with attentive eyes and ears, the more energy you use, the more tired you become, the easier it’s going to be to be caught sleeping on the job.
And the longer you sit there, waiting in the dark, your mind starting to play tricks on you, the greater the danger that even if you do stay awake, you won’t recognize what you were looking for as it passes right by. The person you’re on lookout for could walk right by, perhaps go as far as to wave “Hi,” and he or she wouldn’t even register on your tired mind.
It’s because of this tired state, one I’ve felt while waiting for professors to call on me for example, that I have such sympathy for sidekicks all over. It is also this tired state that makes me appreciate the challenge that comes in waiting. And it is this tired state that gives me some small, very small, semblance of an understanding of what it might have been like to wait for the Messiah.
A perennially oppressed people, the Israelites waited years, hundreds and hundreds of years, for someone who would rise up and deliver them from their oppression.
The Israelites waited… and they waited… and they waited. And during this time, they spoke boldly and proudly about the power of God. The prophet Isaiah spoke of a God who would “tear open the heavens and come down.” Mountains would quake – quake like a pot of water boiling atop a raging fire. Whole nations would tremble at the sight of this great God coming down from the heavens. God’s coming would be truly awe-inspiring – and definitely noticeable.
A silent night, however holy, would not usher in the coming of God. God would come to deliver the people with huge displays of power that would been seen and heard from the ends of the earth. And whatever Messiah the Lord sent would be come with such an explosive exhibition.
Throughout the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Roman occupancies, the people of Israel waited for this marvelous power of God, waited for deliverance. Finally, one night, a night marked only by a bright star and a singing telegram for some shepherds in a field, the Messiah came. God came. While Mary may have moaned and wailed as though the heavens were being torn apart, mountains did not quake and all the nations did not immediately tremble. And a people who had waited for so long did not all see the answer to their prayers when it came.
Yes, there were signs like the star and people like Herod and the wise men who recognized a powerful someone had arrived – but these signs were not exactly like what the people were expecting – this Messiah was not exactly like the people were expecting. And so even though Jesus walked among them, performing signs and miracles, many people did not see him. He walked right by, waving “Hi,” without them even noticing. The years of waiting had numbed them, so that though they looked they did not perceive, though they listened they did not understand.
The Israelites are not the only waiting people whose expectations were not met. The earliest followers of Jesus, those who did look and perceive, listen and understand, were waiting too, waiting for Christ to come again. They waited for him to come down in the clouds he had been taken up in. Soon, they believed, would he come. After all, Jesus was recorded as saying that “this generation will not pass until all these things – until the Son of Man comes again and sends out the angels to gather the elect – this generation will not pass until these things have taken place.” And so, the people waited, living in the moment because they believed at any moment, Christ would come again.
Whether or not Jesus was speaking of a generation like we would think of it, the people of Jesus’ generation did expect him to come again before they passed. When he didn’t, the following generations had to deal with that disappointment. Perhaps they began to look more closely at Jesus’ saying that no one – not the angels in heaven nor even the Son – knows when the day and hour will come. Only the Father knows. In the face of this unknown, as each generation passed, the people waited, some with more urgency and alertness than others. They waited… and they waited… and they waited until “they” became “we.”
It’s 2,000 years later and we are still waiting. In this season of Advent, we recognize especially our inheritance of the charge to be alert, to keep awake, to stand guard waiting for the Lord. During these four weeks we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ. Though we celebrate especially the coming of Christ years ago as a child, this is not the only coming we await, not the only advent we celebrate.
Like our ancestors of faith, we keep alert for the coming of Christ into this world again; we await the time when the sun will be darkened, the moon no longer gives light, the stars fall from the sky, and the Son of Man comes in the clouds with great power and glory.
Like the ancient Israelites and the first followers of Jesus before us, we are now the watch guards, awaiting the arrival of Christ our Master, watch guards who will – of course – recognize the Son of Man as he’s coming in those clouds…
While I think you and I are truly beloved people, graced people made in the image of God, I harbor no illusions about our ability to stay awake. It’s hard work to keep constantly awake, to keep continually alert for the coming of Christ. While the Son of Man may indeed come in the clouds, while the sun indeed darken and the moon no longer shine, we should take to heart the reaction of those who waited for the Messiah before us. We, too, may fall asleep, may find ourselves numbed to the signs, blind and deaf to the heralding of Christ’s coming.
Or perhaps we will be like the others – like the hemorrhaging woman, like the beggars in the street, like the fishermen who answered a call – those who saw Christ and knew, or at the very least had an idea. They may not have been expecting the Messiah to be a poor carpenter, but when he passed by them, when they heard stories about him, they knew there was something about this man, something that called them to faith.
Whether we will be like those who did not understand or be like those who saw in a humble man the Son of God, depends on whether or not we can keep awake, keep alert to the signs. A challenge, to be sure. But one we can, with God’s help, rise up to meet.
Our ability to stay alert for Christ over in this season of Advent, in the months and years beyond this season, may be found within the third kind of advent we celebrate this season. As we celebrate Christ’s coming as a child, Christ’s coming again, we also celebrate the ways in which Christ is manifested here and now. We celebrate the light of Christ in each and everyone of us. And it is this light, this coming of Christ here and now, that will help keep us awake.
If you want to be prepared for the hour and the day when Christ comes again – then look now for Christ around you. In every person you meet, look for the light of Christ. Sometimes seeing Christ will be easy – the kindly matron who serves at the soup kitchen, the sweet man who takes care of all the stray animals that come his way, the adorable child who offers hugs and expressions of love with such abandon. Christ just radiates from people like this.
Seeing Christ in some people is going to be much harder, take much more effort. There is no denying that it is hard to see Christ in people who appear to know only how to hurt, to see the light of God in those who inflict pain as easily as others express love. And yet as all people are made in the image of God, all people have the light of Christ within them. Truly, some people’s lights will be so covered with darkness that you and I may never see it. But that doesn’t mean we do not keep trying, do not keep looking for that light. If we stay alert, we might be surprised with a glimpse of light shining from even the darkest person.
As you prepare for a joy-filled Christmas Day, as you put up the decorations, plan what you’re going to eat at the big feast, get ready for friends and family from far and wide to come home for the holidays, keep awake for the coming of Christ. Keep alert to the presence of Christ among you here and now. For if we keep awake, keep alert, then when the master does finally come home, we will not be caught asleep. Instead, whether in the evening, at midnight, at the cockcrow, at dawn, when Christ arrives we will be prepared, we will rise up and greet him with delight, saying “Hello, dear friend, prince of peace, king of kings, sweet savior – welcome home.” What a joyous day that will be. Amen.