By Fleming Rutledge –
It is dark early at this time of year and that reminds us of a darkness in our world. There is Christmas tinsel in the streets and Christmas music on the radio, but there is a cheapness at the core. The clock on the bank says it is day, but the hands on the church clock point to midnight.
It is Advent – the deepest place in the church year.
Advent – for the world, is a time of counting shopping days before Christmas. Advent – for the church, it is the season of the shadows, the season of “the works of darkness,” the season in which the church looks straight down into its own heart and finds there … the absence of God.
Now. Come back with me into the very first century AD when the Gospel of Mark was being put together. The young Christian church is going through a crisis of identity. It hears mocking laughter outside, voices saying, “Where is your King? You thought he was coming back, but he has not returned. You have made a very stupid mistake. How can you live without your Lord? He has abandoned you – for this, you want to risk your lives?”
And in its perplexity, the young church repeated a story to itself, a story once told by Jesus of Nazareth. It is one of the so-called crisis parables. It is the Gospel for the first Sunday in Advent, the parable of the doorkeeper.
There is a great household with many family members and many servants. There is a master, who established the household in the first place and gave it its reason for being; he is the one who gathered its members and assigned a place to each. It is he who put the whole operation in motion, who gave shape and direction to its existence. The master has gone away, but his orders are that there is to be a watch at the door, a constant alert. This is the command to the doorkeeper – “Stay awake” – but what he has said to the doorkeeper he says to everyone: “Keep awake.” This state of readiness is to be maintained through the ceaseless vigilance of each family member and servant, each in his own work, until the master returns.
Perhaps you begin to feel the tension in the atmosphere of this parable. Were it not for the master, the household would have no reason for existing; yet he is away. The expectation of his return is the moving force behind all the activity that takes place; yet no one knows when the return will be. Everybody has been ordered to keep awake; yet the days and months and years pass, and still he does not come. Over and over again, the household repeats to itself the charge that it was given – “If he comes suddenly, he must not find us asleep.”
The heartbeat of the parable is strong and accelerated – it is a parable of crisis. It is the story of the church, living in a crisis for two thousand years. The church calendar is not the same as the world’s calendar. The Advent clock points to an hour that is later than the clock on the bank. There is a knocking at the door! Take heed, watch – your Lord and Master may be standing at the gate this very moment. Keep awake, for if he comes suddenly, he must not find you asleep. “A thousand ages in his sight are like an evening gone” (Isaac Watts, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”). There is no way for the church to adjust its calendar to the world’s calendar.
The church is not part of contemporary culture, and never should have been. The church keeps her own deep inner rhythms. New Testament time is different from the world’s time; Saint Paul says, “My friends, the time we live in will not last long …. For the whole frame of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:29, 31). New Testament time is a million years compressed into a single instant – and the time is now. “The hour cometh, and now is” (John 4:23). There is no way to alleviate the overwhelming tension produced by the Advent clock; the only way to be faithful is to be faithful at each moment. “Keep awake, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming.”
The church lives in Advent. That is to say, the church lives between two advents. Jesus Christ has come; Jesus Christ will come. We do not know the day or the hour. If you find this tension almost unbearable at times, then you understand the Christian life. We live at what the New Testament depicts as the turn of the ages. In Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God is in head-on collision with the powers of darkness. The point of impact is the place where Christians take their stand. That is why it hurts. That’s why the church has to take a beating. This is what Scripture tells us. No wonder there are so many who fall away; the church is located precisely where the battle line is drawn.
It is the Advent clock that tells the church what time it is. The church that keeps Advent is the church that is most truly herself. The church is not supposed to be prosperous and commonable and established. It is Advent – it is dark and lonely and cold, and the master is away from home. Yet he will come. Keep awake.
He came among us once as a stranger, and we put him on a cross. He comes among us now, in the guise of the stranger at the door. He will come in the future, not as a stranger, but as the King in his glory, and “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” (Phil. 2:10). “The coming of the Lord is at hand,” says Saint James. “Behold, the Judge is standing at the doors” (James 5:8-9). Keep awake, then … if he comes suddenly, he must not find you asleep.
Fleming Rutledge is an Episcopal priest, best-selling author, and a widely revered preacher. Her many books include The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. The article is taken from her year-long devotional book, Means of Grace: A Year of Weekly Devotions (Eerdmans).