You know what time it is (or do you?)

First Sunday of Advent

In the name of Christ, who is coming.  Amen.

One of the changes in my life, since the pandemic, is that I very rarely wear a watch anymore.  When we were on lockdown, schedules tended to be very flexible.  And when I did encounter things that were on a tighter schedule – worship, Zoom meetings, etc. – I could pretty easily pull out my phone, or look down in the corner of the computer screen that always seemed to be in front of me and be where I needed to be, when I needed to be there.

But, as those watchless months stretched on, it got harder and harder to wear one.  It felt strange on my wrist.  Encumbering.  So I’ve almost entirely let it go.  Again, there’s almost always some other way of figuring out what time it is. 

It’s been going pretty well, until a couple of weeks ago when I was away on retreat at Holy Cross Monastery.  It didn’t even occur to me to bring a watch.  But, on that first night there, I really wanted to lean into my process of disconnecting, so, I left my phone in my room.  After settling, I grabbed one of the books I was reading during my time there and headed downstairs to sit in one of the big, comfy, padded chairs that abound in the common spaces – content to read until it was time for Vespers.

After a while – I can’t really say how long it was because I had no watch and no phone, and I couldn’t find a clock in my line of sight anywhere – after a while, I began to sort of subtly panic.  I had no idea how long I had before I needed to be in the chapel.  With the end of Daylight Savings Time and the sun setting so early, once about 4:30 comes, it could be any time.

Michael will tell you: I can be a bit annoying about punctuality.  I hate being late, even if it’s only late for some arbitrary deadline that I’ve set in my head.  Leaving my watch behind has never changed that about me.  I still check the time constantly.

I knew the monks would ring the chapel bell about ten minutes before the service began, but I didn’t want to be stopped short.  And I wanted more than ten minutes to prepare myself for worship.  Eventually, I had to walk back up to the third floor to get my phone.  My worry was getting in the way of my purpose.  I needed to know what time it was.  I needed to know what to expect.

Time has an often-unconsidered spiritual dimension.  The ways that we measure time are certainly a human construct, but the sequential ordering of events is out of our hands.  Time, by whatever measure, keeps marching on.

Today (a measure of time), on the first Sunday of Advent (another measure of time), and the first day of this new liturgical cycle (still another measure of time) the readings and prayers that we share seem to all point us toward considering time – at least in one way or another.  This collect for Advent 1 mentions “now in this mortal life” and “the last day, when he shall come again”.  The first words we read from Isaiah are “in the days to come”.  But where it really starts to get serious is in the conversation that’s set up between Paul and Jesus.

In this section of his letter to the Christians of Rome, Paul begins: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”  But Jesus says the opposite – “About that day and hour no one knows.”  “You do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”  “Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

The thing is, I think they’re both right.  We do know what time it is.  And, we have no idea what to expect or when to expect it.

In our own lives, we are in a kind of “between times”.  Thanksgiving has just passed, but if your house is like ours, the leftovers aren’t quite gone.  We’re into Advent, turning our hearts and minds toward Christmas, but it’s not even December yet.  Christmas decorations have begun to pop up here and there, but they’re nowhere near what they will be in just a few weeks’ time.  There will be parties here and there leading up to Christmas, but for most of us they won’t be our main celebration of Christmas – the one we have with food and presents while gathered with family or friends who are family.

It may be “beginning to look a lot like Christmas”, but it’s not Christmas yet.  And there’s nothing we can do to change that.

In the story of our faith, we are in the “between times”, too.  We are between the times when God was with us more than we realized, and the times when God was striving to show us in new ways that we were together all along.

The truth is, whenever God breaks through whatever barriers we’ve erected and we suddenly see Christ anew, it is an unexpected hour, as Jesus foretold.  We can’t schedule it.  We can’t predict it.  Seeing Christ in new ways always stops us short.

I’ve often told the story of one time when I was in college.  I was driving along, feeling sort of down, and listening to what was at the time one of my favorite pieces of music, Schubert’s Deutsche Messe.  I came to a particularly moving moment in the music, during the Sanctus, when the orchestra and choir swelled together – the point at which, in our setting, the words say, “Heaven and earth are full, full of your glory,” and at precisely that moment I came to a clearing in the road, with a field at my left, and with the multi-colored sunset dancing above it.  It all lined up perfectly.  I knew what time it was – that sunset was coming.  I knew the road I was driving on – I’d driven it hundreds of times.  I knew the music that I was listening to.  But even so, that moment caught me off guard.  Even though I knew all the pieces of that moment, I couldn’t have imagined or planned how they would all come together in that moment.

For me, that’s what it is like when we see Christ anew.  And that’s how Paul and Jesus are both right.  In these between times, when we’re waiting for something to happen, and also willing it into happening, we do know what time it is.  But we also have no idea about that day and hour that is coming.  We know it’s coming, but we can’t expect it.  When it’s real, it will stop us short.  When it’s real, we will marvel at how we saw it coming all along and still were surprised.

It may not be on Christmas Day, but it will be a kind of Christmas when it comes.  So we have to be ready.  As the saying goes, if we stay ready, we ain’t got to get ready.  So be ready.  What we expect is coming at an unexpected hour – and it will surprise us in every way.  Amen.