In Anne Tyler’s 2004 novel, The Amateur Marriage, we witness a sad series of events. The book’s main characters are Michael and Pauline, a pair of World War II-era sweethearts who get married and eventually have three children. But then one day their oldest child, Lindy, just disappears. She runs away from home and promptly falls off the face of the earth. For the first days, weeks, and even months, they watch for her return. They seize on any and every clue as to her whereabouts. They pace, they peer out windows, they listen for a key scratching at the front door’s lock, they sit bolt upright in bed in case they think they hear footfalls on the driveway. And when the phone rings, they cannot answer it fast enough.
But Lindy does not return. Over the years, her absence becomes just another part of life. They never finally give up on the idea that they’d see her again, but they stop watching for her. At first they were certain she’d be back soon. They would not have been at all surprised had she walked right back through that front door. Years later, though, the surprise flipped: after a while, they would have been surprised if she had come back.
In a recent sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, I used this as an example of how exhausting abiding watchfulness can be. Actually, never-ending watchfulness is not only exhausting, in its most active sense, such watchfulness may be impossible. Oh, we can all put up with some watching when we have a pretty good idea of when the watched-for event is going to take place. You watch for the traffic light to change, you watch for lab results to show up in your online health account, you watch for a loved one coming down from the gate area at the airport.
But when there is in fact no assurance that the thing you are hoping for will actually will come to pass—or when you have zero idea when it will happen—you just can’t stay in a tensile state of watching for days, weeks, months, or years on end.
Advent is about watching and waiting. Yes, we re-await Jesus’ arrival in Bethlehem, but that’s the easy part. That’s fake waiting and watchfulness. That’s memorial watchfulness. But we are also called in Advent to remind ourselves that when it comes to his second advent, Jesus told us to keep watch for it. In about the same breath he also told the disciples they would have no idea when that return on clouds of glory would happen. Nonetheless, keep on watching for it.
But that’s a tough assignment, Jesus. You don’t really expect us to be on tippy-toes for years, decades, centuries on end, do you? We’re not supposed to live with a constant flutter of anticipation in our bellies—the way we feel when we are eagerly watching for a long-absent loved one to walk down from the gate area at the airport—are we? Who could function like that on a rolling basis?
The sermon I mentioned a bit ago came from Matthew 24. And in that context Jesus gives us a vignette for what such watchfulness looks like in his opinion. What Jesus shares, however, is utterly surprising. It is so mundane. Listen:
“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other servants their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find at work when he arrives.”
Really? That’s it? That’s watchfulness? Just do your job, do it well, do it on time and in this way you display watchfulness for the master’s return? Yes, apparently that’s it. Can it be possible that being faithful to our Lord in our everyday routines demonstrates holy watchfulness for his return? Is being an honest office manager, a careful school bus driver, an ethical attorney, a thoughtful housewife or househusband really a sign that we are aware that Jesus is coming back? Yes, it is. Because we Christians know that when we are buried with Christ in baptism, we arise as new creations. Our lives are literally drenched with grace.
It is by grace that we have been saved of course. But it is also by grace that we live out every moment of our lives. Indeed, when we let God’s grace flow through us in our parenting and in our marriages, in our friendships and in our daily work, in how we behave when we’re stuck in traffic and how we interact with store clerks and restaurant servers, then we show watchfulness because we display an abiding sense of what Jesus has done for us. When you live with a constant awareness of Jesus’ grace, you also live with a bent toward his second coming.
In that Anne Tyler novel, eventually the daughter Lindy does return home. But her mother Pauline does not live to see it. When Lindy shows back up, her father says to her, “Your mother never gave up hope, I could tell.” Oh, of course, Pauline had gotten on with life. But she just had a way of glancing out the window that let you know the hope was still there. When she had the chance to take a cruise with a group of friends, she refused. She came up with a dozen excuses but everyone knew that deep down the real reason was that she didn’t want to be gone in case Lindy came back. “Your mother never gave up hope. I could tell.”
In this Advent Season and beyond, let’s be faithful. Let’s feed the kids, sweep the floors, do our job faithfully, take care of those we encounter in life (wherever and however we encounter them) and in this way display holy watchfulness for the One we do believe is coming back. And as we do and when people peer into our lives—into our Monday afternoons and our Friday mornings—we want others to be able to say something akin to what Michael said of Pauline. “Those Christians, they never give up hope. We can tell.” Amen.
Thanks for a helpful reflection, Scott.
Another good thought-provoker…
“You don’t really expect us to be on tippy-toes for years, decades, centuries on end, do you?”
Doesn’t it depend on how we view the benefits of being “in Christ?” If we place too much emphasis on the day to day Blessings and spend too much time in comparisons to other non-believers, we may become dull to the Prime Advantage …
Peter summed it up perfectly centuries ago (think of how long he was willing to wait for it),
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
(John 6: 68-69)
Scott, this was really good. Thanks.
This is a very different perspective for me. Thank you for this.
I apreciated the sermon when I heard you preach it, Scott, and am grateful to “hear” it again in this posting. It’s helpful–just what we need as we wait.
I think we can so emphasize the absence that we loose sight of Christ’s promise, ” I will be with you always to the end of the age”,
Thanks for such a beautiful and inspiring message.
Mundane and surprising! May my master find me at work when he arrives!
My meditation for today:
I think that watching, waiting, hoping, and having patience are all involved here, and they are not just emotions or feelings bu tinvolve similar actions. Watching-Actions are all those that are NOT Not-Watching-Actions. A Watching-Action would be faithfully doing your daily task.
So what counts as a not-watching action?. The other two Biblical pictures are of watchmen wating in Psalm 130:6 or farmers waithing in James 5.7.
A not-watching action by watchmen would be deciding, “This is hopeless, I’m going back to sleep.” [Ps 56:10] or saying “Forget this! Let’s just eat, dring, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
A not-watching action by farmers would be deciding, “This is taking too long; the land is not yielding its harvest. Let’s dig up the seeds to see if anything is happening;” or any actions that would looking to human power, to unholy alliances, or to finding some way to force God to act sooner as in “putting God to the test” by jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple.
Thanks, Scott. This is the complement I needed to Debra’s recent reflection.
Me too! I do think that when our spirits are faltering, we have hope by acting hopeful anyway “Hope is in the hands and knees/ even when the heart lies still.”
Thanks, Scott, for your insight into the meaning of “watchfulness” for the Christian as he/she waits for Christ’s soon return. I see that your perspective is not necessarily in regard to a soon return or even an eventual return. We don’t know the exact time of his return. It will be like a thief in the night, coming when least expected. But Scripture also make clear that it will be soon. Paul and Peter both thought that Christ’s return was at hand, in other words within their lifetime. There was an urgency to their expectation. I don’t see that in your call to watchfulness. It seems to me that your call to watchfulness is no more than a call to daily love God and neighbor, “do unto others….” And we do that whether Jesus returns today, tomorrow, or two thousands years from now. It’s already been two thousand years, why not another two? The return of Christ isn’t really a factor as to watchful living. So at this advent season we may be called to watchfulness, whether there is a return of not? Have Christians just given up on anything soon? Is it really even going to happen?
Thanks for your Advent watching meditation. I am a member of Faith Fellowship CRC in Fairview Alberta. We are a small congregation of about 25 people. Needless to say, we do not have a pastor, (Pre-covid we did get classical appointments once a month) so we have a lot of reading services. It is sometimes a challenge to find a sermon. Lets just say sometimes we are into the reruns. This coming Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent 2020 and I was wondering if I could use your meditation- Advent Watching- as a sermon. I feel it would be a beautiful meditation to build our first Advent service around.
We are always looking for sermons (of the reformed kind) because the ones that are on the CRC website, have been used and reused here.