The writer of this morning’s Gospel text has two words for us, “stay awake!” We preachers are grateful for such backup, not to mention the encouragement to keep alert in case I do utter something relevant to your life. But that writer did not have you in mind when he wrote the text. If I fail to keep your attention the likely reason is that you are bored, distracted, numb, or indifferent. Keeping awake under those conditions is one thing, keeping awake in the context of our Gospel today is quite another story.
Lutheran Minister John Petty reminds us that “at the time of Matthew's writing, c. AD 80, and for all of the New Testament writers for that matter, the situation was dire. Christianity was small and fragile. In the time of Matthew, there were, perhaps, a few thousand people who would have identified themselves as followers of Jesus. They were beset, on one side, by an oppressive government, and on the other by a Jewish majority which no longer wanted anything to do with them. Moreover, the vast majority of the people continued to live in abject poverty under the domination of Rome, a nation which had recently devastated the country during the Roman-Jewish War, AD 66-70, and destroyed the Temple. For Matthew, the "coming of the son of man" will be sudden, immediate, personal, total, and universal. It will be like a flood, like sudden death, like a thief in the night. This is not bad news, but good news. The word used for "coming” in this text literally means, "being alongside." Also, the verb translated as "coming" is in the present tense, not future.
And while few of us have ever been in situations or lived through times as dire as those most of us have experienced some pretty challenging times in our lives. So try to imagine “keeping awake” in those times. What do those words mean to you in those situations? What they say to me is being aware that something important, something life-changing, something healing, could happen and I do not want to miss it. I am not “keeping awake” because I am bored, I am keeping awake because all around me is bleak and dire and opening my eyes to a new reality stirs me to imagine hope.
The person who has taught me how to “keep awake” more than any other is my friend Brian Williams. Whether in static times or challenging times Brian’s photographs keep me awake. Some of you heard Brian’s story at the first Jazz Vespers service I led in 2016 when he talked about his battle with addiction. Brian lost everything to his addiction and ended up homeless and hopeless in Toronto. An intervention by the Salvation Army saved Brian’s life and from there came healing, recovery and faith. Along the way he also met the love of his life Heather. A few years ago Brian retired from his work as a Sherriff and took up a passion of his, photography, with new intensity. Brian purchased a high-end camera and set out most days to photograph images most of walk by every day in Halifax. Each week I received 20-25 photos from Brian, usually with captions, each one revealing something sacred and playful. I’ve mentioned these before and a few of you have asked to receive these pictures, I send them out to 25+ people who are as inspired as me. Brian keeps us awake to what the Divine is doing all around us.
When people are in dire circumstance they are both numb and lost and hopeful for a rescue. The Gospel writer wants us to know that with faith comes the belief that there is something, someone, to keep awake for.
The people who heard these words from Matthew thought Jesus would return very soon. Acts 2 records the selling of possessions; people were expecting Jesus in days, weeks at the most. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13 Paul is reassuring people. It is clear that people have died before Jesus has come and this has been a struggle to understand. He concludes "Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord together. Therefore encourage one another with these words." The hope and idea of the return of Jesus, based deep in the Jewish traditions of apocalypse, is a longing for justice, and for God to set things right. It is a good hope.
And the warnings about not being deceived, that no one knows the day or the hour, still stand. The Harold Campings of the world lead to people sell their houses, and be utterly deceived about the nature of life and of the future. False prophets long for the petty power of holding our attention and stoking our fears. Some are honestly sincere, too. But no one knows the day or the hour. We shouldn’t listen to them.
I don’t know about a “Second Coming” in the sense of a rapture. But I do know that each and every person who has been the victim of an injustice or just a victim of a challenging and dire experience wants a saving act. We long for something or someone who will put things right; for us, for those we love, for those we see suffering in our midst, for those we hear about who suffer, for those half-way around the world living in abject poverty and misery and for our dear planet Earth, so vulnerable, so mistreated, so polluted by our abuse.
Here is what I have learned about such “healing of the breech”, that when we call out to God to save us and make ourselves vulnerable to each other, there are often little angels who come into our midst, who are “alongside us”. Whether we are keeping awake for the ones who will be coming alongside or we are the ones who are coming alongside there is a moment of grace and healing that occurs. And after such a traumatic moment, which our Gospel writer today likens to a flood, there comes the rainbow.
Through these last number of weeks death has hit this congregation very hard. We have experienced wave after wave of funerals and grief. And through this you have remained open and supportive and caring. This has been hard, hard emotionally, hard work, and hard on our hearts. I believe now is the time to open our eyes and keep awake to the signs of God’s love and care, of God’s joy and hope. After two large funerals in two days I was driving home through the St. Margaret’s Bay Road and saw this sign. And there it was, a message that read “be grateful.” And I was. Like a rainbow after a storm. I like what Lutheran Minister John Petty says, “You might say that the second coming of Christ is any time when he is present in the midst of our own apocalypses.”
My friends do not turn away from the storm. It is part of life, it is part of the walk of faith. Engage the storm with all your heart, mind and soul. But keep awake to what comes after the storm has passed, the moment, the sign, and the experience that makes life worth living. Cherish that. Be grateful for that. Amen.