There’s a common scene in television and film that goes something like this: A group of soldiers is hanging out on a watchtower late at night, only half paying attention to their watch. Weeks, if not years, of seeing nothing has lulled them into complacency and so they relax and tell stories and bawdy jokes to pass the time, and maybe even take a swig or ten from a flask. Right at that moment, the enemy attacks. The sentries are caught unawares and are quickly overrun.
As the season of Advent is approaching, the urgency in the readings is increasing too — last week, Jesus spoke of bridesmaids forgetting oil; this week, Paul uses this trope of a sudden attack on a complacent stronghold to describe the need for vigilance and preparedness in the life of faith. Things are, as they say, escalating quickly:
You yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! (1 Thes 5.2f)
It’s easy to forget with language like this that Paul is talking about the great Day of the LORD — the day when God will come and make all things right — and not actually an enemy attack. But what he’s doing here is reminding us that, as much as we should look forward to that Day with hope and expectation, it will represent a crisis, a moment of truth for all the world. It is Good News, but God’s Good News is bad news for “the world” and all its systems of oppression. And so we must take care and be watchful, using the time we have wisely, so that our lives actually reflect God’s Kingdom and not the world’s empires. Do we value justice? Or do we hide behind law and order? Do we value peace? Or are we satisfied with an absence of conflict? Do we value mercy and compassion? Or do we want revenge on our enemies? Do we seek the truth and repent? Or do we prefer our comfortable lies and self-justification? Do we want our lives and the world transformed by the power of God? Or would we rather we “go back to normal” and preserve the status quo? The time is coming, Paul reminds us, when these will no longer be theoretical or abstract questions. A tree will be known by its fruit, and the harvest is at hand. Keep watch.
That said, despite the dramatic image, Paul isn’t quite as pessimistic about his readers as it would seem. Now that he has their attention, he shifts gear, reminding them that while, yes, Christ comes like a thief in the night, they are not like night watchmen struggling to discern threats between the shadows. No, they belong to the light and to the day; they can see clearly what is going on. He says:
But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. (5.4ff)
There’s a bit of a trade-off here. As Voltaire (not to mention Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben) would put it, with great power comes great responsibility. If we have been given the gift of seeing clearly, then we are expected to see clearly and to live accordingly. The daylight is for the things of the day; it’s not the time to sleep or to dull our senses and reflexes. It’s time to wake up and sober up, and do the work set out for us.
Today’s Gospel reading expresses a similar idea. A wealthy lord goes on a journey and entrusts his wealth to three subordinates. The first two, who have been given five and two talents of gold respectively, invest the money wisely and each double the lord’s money. But the third, who has been given one talent, is afraid, and buries the money instead of investing it. When the lord returns suddenly, he praises the two who had put the money to good use but casts the third out onto the streets.
What struck me most about this today is that the faithless servant is cast out not because he lost the master’s money (he didn’t; he gave the money back intact), or not even for making poor returns on it (the lord says he would have been fine if he’d just put the money in the bank and collected interest). And he wasn’t judged in comparison to the others, who had been given so much more in the first place. He was cast out simply because he didn’t try.
So again, we have an image of the Lord returning with the expectation that we’ll be doing what we can do with what we’ve been given.
These readings as we approach Advent are not intended to frighten us. They aren’t threats. After all, as the reading from 1 Thessalonians reminds us as it ends, “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him” (5.9f). We are destined for life and salvation, full stop. But, these readings are like alarm clocks, rousing us from complacency and reminding us what it really means to be “children of the light” and “faithful stewards” of God’s Kingdom.
Wake up! Let’s go!