Ever since I was a small child, I have loved clocks. It’s a fascination I have inherited from my maternal grandfather. He had chiming clocks in just about every room, and the whole house would erupt in bells and bongs and cuckoos at the top of each hour. I thought it was magical. Like my grandfather before me, I have a collection of clocks, and watches, too. But I confess that now as an adult, it’s a love-hate relationship I have with time pieces because when they chime, they remind me that I am forever running behind. A glance at my watch makes me smile with delight, but it also jolts me with the realization that there are always too many things to do and not enough time to do them. Always, always, time marches on.
So when I hear St. Paul’s words from the book of Romans this morning – “You know what time it is, . . . “ I think, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I do know what time it is.” It’s the first Sunday in Advent, and we have begun the official countdown to Christmas, with all of the anxious clock-watching and watch-checking that we will all be doing in the next few weeks as we rush to accomplish all the gift-buying, cookie-baking, card-sending, tree-decking, and charity-giving that are cherished traditions of this season. The clock is ticking.
But which clock? Advent warps our sense of time because the season unfolds in more than one time frame. Today our immediate context for this season is that there are 28 days until our celebration of Christmas. At the same time, this season reminds us of the days before Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea some 2000 years ago. But there is yet another Advent – the one in which we are waiting for Christ to come again a final time. That’s the season in which Paul was writing, and in which we still live – after Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, but before his final coming. So when St. Paul writes – “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” – of course, he’s not talking about waking up to everything that needs to be done before December 25th. He’s referring to everything that needs to be done before Christ comes again. In today’s Gospel from Matthew, Jesus reminds us that we “must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” And this need for preparedness inspires a whole different kind of clock-watching anxiety because, if Jesus is coming soon, we need to get busy recycling tanks into tractors and transforming minefields into soccer fields, as we prayed together when we lit the Advent wreath. We must wake up for Emmanuel is coming!
But I believe it’s also possible to hear Paul’s alarm-clock call as an invitation to wake up to Jesus’ presence among us, not just as he will come in glory, but also in all the small and subtle ways he comes among us now. When we’re feeling rushed and frazzled and behind the clock, it is as if we were sleepwalking through this present moment. We go through the motions, but without being conscious of what we’re doing because we’re thinking about everything else that needs to get done. Was it that way with your Thanksgiving? Were you so consumed by watching the clock to make sure that the turkey didn’t overcook and the sweet potatoes had enough time in the oven and that all the side dishes were ready at the right time . . . that you weren’t able fully to enjoy the blessing of the people gathered? Were you so worried about dinner time that you missed out on opportunities to connect deeply with the people you love? If you answered yes to either of those questions, then you may have sleepwalked through Thanksgiving. It’s time to wake up. Because I don’t want you to sleepwalk through this holy season.
Anxiety, especially about time, can dull our senses to the blessings and opportunities that are before us every day. So here are some strategies for how you might suspend your anxieties and wake up to Jesus this Advent.
+ You might suspend your anxiety over time by carving out spiritual pauses, even though you think that adding something else to your to-list is crazy when there’s already so much on it. But if you could suspend your anxiety about time and commit to reading the daily Advent devotions or lighting an Advent wreath or praying morning prayer, you might just find Jesus waiting to bless you with his presence now.
+ You might suspend your anxiety over getting everything done for the Christmas holiday by choosing simplicity. Your decorations don’t have to be HGTV-worthy, your meals don’t have to rival the food of your favorite celebrity chef, and your gifts don’t have to be trendy or chic. If you can simplify your holiday plans, you will have more time for the simple but true blessings of this season.
+ You also might suspend your anxiety over time by choosing not to wear your watch from time to time. I’m not suggesting you leave your watch off until Christmas – I don’t want you to miss your appointments, and I surely don’t want you to be late for church! But you could think about leaving your watch off and suspending your worrying around time issues when you gather with friends and family, or when you attend a holiday concert, or when you come to worship. If you can reject the need to watch the clock, even for short periods, I strongly suspect that you will be more awake to Jesus’ presence in the people around you, in the music of the season, and in our worship together.
These are just some strategies. Obviously, there are others. How can you slow down your clock and the agitated beating of your heart this season?
The purpose of a clock is to measure the passing of time. And because time is a finite resource, it often makes us anxious. But time is also relative. Do you remember how, as a child, the time dragged as you waited for Christmas? The countdown to Christmas was agonizingly slow because, as children, we were focused on just one thing: the presents that Santa would bring. But somewhere along the line, we grew up and picked up responsibilities and found that we had to focus on many things at this time of year – and our sense of time speeded up, too. But time is relative. And God has, literally, all the time in the universe, and has chosen this moment to reveal Godself to us. May you have a child’s focus this Advent – watching and waiting patiently, without worry or anxiety, for the one thing that makes this season shine with hope, the one thing that makes our every day bright: Jesus is near. Come, Lord Jesus.