Do you remember learning how to tell time? When my brother and I were very young, my mother gave us these cloth squares. On them were stitched the face of a clock and two adjustable hands. “Show me 2:30,” she said. And we dutifully moved the short hand to a place between 2 and 3, and the long hand to 6. Then we’d proudly show the cloth square to our mother.
I’m not sure how children today are taught to tell time. It may be harder for them than for us to learn to tell time on an analog clock in our digital world.
Advent comes to us each year and asks: “Do you know what time it is?” Perhaps, it asks an even more basic question: “Do you even know how to tell time?”
The time that Advent has in mind is not learned on those cloth squares with which we as children were taught how to tell time. Advent time is not measured in seconds, minutes, and hours. Nor is it a date on a calendar. There’s a different kind of time that we have to learn to tell.
In our first lesson, the Apostle Paul assumes that the believers in Rome know what time it is. Only he uses a word for “time” that we miss in the English language. Our language has only one word for time. The Greek in which the Apostle Paul writes has two.
First, there is ordinary, everyday time that measures the succession of seconds, minutes and hours. For this the Greek language uses the word chronos. We see it in our words “chronic” and “chronology,” for example. Then there is eventful time, decisive time, fulfilled time. For this the Greek language uses kairos. That is the word that the Apostle Paul uses here.
Author Mark A. Villano defines kairos as God’s time. More specifically, it refers to God’s breaking into our time.
Appropriately, the Apostle Paul also uses this word in Galatians 4:4: “But when the time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under Law, to redeem those under the Law…”
This is kairos time. It’s an event that intersects human history, so that there is forever a “before” and an “after.” Time afterward need not be the same. Indeed, it can never be the same, because it has been irreversibly altered by this event. It is the time in which salvation has appeared. That is why the Apostle Paul can announce in our lesson today: “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers.”
In his book Philosophical Fragments, the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard explored the unique significance that Christianity gives to time. In the Christian understanding of time, the time of God’s self-revelation is a decisive time that changes everything.
This includes each man and woman, especially those who comes to acknowledge this time. “When I, at some point, am confronted with the mystery that the eternal God became man in the fullness of time,” Kierkegaard writes, “then the moment in time must have such decisive significance for me that in no moment afterward will I be able to forget it.”
So many people today have not learned how to tell this kind of time. If you asked them: “what time is it?” they could not tell you. They think of time only as the endless succession of seconds, minutes, and hours…chronological time.
But this time can and does become a burden to them. They have time on their hands. They have empty, meaningless time to kill. Therefore, they live dishonorably in “reveling and drunkenness.” They don’t drink to spread the holiday cheer. They drink to get wasted, maybe even to obliterate the consciousness of time. There is pleasure only in the moment, and there are far too few of these in this brief span of life.
Or, they live dishonorably in “debauchery and licentiousness.” Mutual sexual attraction is not an invitation to explore deeper compatibility as the potential basis of a lifelong partnership. It is a signal to consummate the relationship before it even begins. It is a signal to hook up, to speak in today’s language. There is pleasure only in the moment, which one has to seize before it passes, never to return.
Or, they live dishonorably in “quarreling and jealousy.” Since their time is too meaningless to them to use constructively, they fritter it away in petty arguments and in holding grudges.
For so many people there is only chronos, chronological time. Jesus makes a similar point in our Gospel lesson.
“In the days of Noah, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. And they knew nothing until the flood swept them away.”
Jesus compares the coming of the Son of Man at the culmination of the age with the great flood. People become so absorbed, so preoccupied, and so anxious in the daily struggle to satisfy their basic needs—making a living and finding a spouse and establishing a household–that they know of nothing else. For them there is only chronos, chronological time. That is why that day takes them completely by surprise.
We have been speaking of “them.” And for good reason. For there will always be a distinction between those who acknowledge God’s breaking into our time and those who do not. There will always be two in the field: “the one taken and the other left.” There will always be two women grinding meal together: “the one taken and the other left.”
But that does not mean that we are immune from the temptation to live like them. Indeed, the warnings are addressed to believers! “Now is the hour for you to wake from sleep.” “Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
Do you need to hear these warnings today? Does it ever feel like you’re sleepwalking through life? Does it ever seem like you’re just going through the motions? Is it just another day at work, at school, at church? Or is it just another Christmas season? Are you so caught up in our daily routines and so absorbed in the preparations for the holidays that life for you also is merely a succession of seconds, minutes and hours, and nothing more?
Albert Schweitzer, the great musician, medical doctor, philosopher and Lutheran minister, gave up a promising career in Europe to open up a medical clinic on the West coast of central Africa. His hospital is still there. He wanted to witness to the Gospel through the service of healing, rather than that of preaching and teaching.
There is a well-known photograph of his hands writing a letter. In a place where supplies were sparse, he used anything he could find to write on—envelopes, scraps of paper—anything to keep in contact with people back home.
In one of his best known writings Reverence for Life, we read these words:
“You know of the disease in Central Africa called sleeping sickness. First, its victims get slightly tired, then the disease gradually worsens until the afflicted person sleeps all the time and finally dies from exhaustion.”
Then Dr. Schweitzer goes on to make this observation:
“There also exists the sleeping sickness of the soul. Its most dangerous aspect is that one is unaware of its coming. That is why you have to be careful. As soon as you notice the slightest symptom of indifference, the moment you become aware of the loss of a certain seriousness of longing, of enthusiasm and zest, take it as a warning.”
Schweitzer no doubt knew how prevalent is “sleep” as a theme in the Bible. Sleep is not good, spiritually. In the ancient world, sleep is a close cousin to death. “Awake O sleeper and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph. 5:14). Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane was deprived of the support of his disciples who fell asleep. In the Bible, sleep is symbolic of a lack of spiritual attention.
It is a kind of laziness, a kind of sloth. The great theologian Karl Barth said that the sin of our time is not pride, but sloth. He said that in the mid-twentieth century. But how much more does it apply to our own time? All this falling away from the faith, all this indifference to the truths of the Gospel. People have fallen asleep spiritually. The sleeping sickness of the soul is our pandemic.
Advent comes to the patient at her bedside and says “wake up.” Advent reminds her that the hour is late. And if the patient knows how to tell time, she respond to its warning. She wakes up, lays aside the works of darkness, puts on the armor of light, and lives honorably as in the day.
And why does she do this? Because for the believer, life is not only or even primarily chronos, chronological time. It is not only a succession of moments, that pass endlessly from the future into the past. The believer does not say with resignation or despair that “all life is future to past. Every breath leaves me one less to my last,” as the lyric from the 1992 hit from Dream Theater, “Pull Me Under” has it. There is for the believer kairos time.
Life is always open to kairos time. That is to say, life for the believer is always open to meaningful time, to time that can be redeemed, because God has entered into our time in the incarnate Christ, “born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, raised from the dead on the third day.” And because this is so, he will appear a second time, not to bear the sins of many, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him (cf. Heb. 9:28).
This is why we always say that Advent has a double focus. It does not only look back at the birth of a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. It also looks forward to the returning Son of Man in power and glory.
As author and Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge explains, Advent recognizes that we live in the time between, because the people of God live in the time between the first coming of Christ, incognito in the stable in Bethlehem, and his second coming in glory, to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him, as we have already mentioned. In the meanwhile, “our lives are hidden with Christ in God; when Christ who is our life appears, then we also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:3-4).
Believers know what time it is. It is the time of watching and waiting for the coming King. And we must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that we do not expect. The kingdom is something that we prayerfully await, not create. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven” just as we pray each Sunday—and hopefully every day—in the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray.
In his most recent book, How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now, James K. A. Smith writes about Advent patience. The practice of Advent patience pushes back on the temptation to take matters into our own hands. Advent patience refuses right wing Christian nationalism that would forget this waiting and try install the kingdom by political strategem. But it equally pushes back on any progressive utopianism that imagines that the kingdom will come through our own efforts at achieving social justice.
Our politics—whether they be right wing or left wing—our politics can’t make the kingdom come. Politics isn’t everything precisely because we worship the coming King, as we had occasion to mention last Sunday.
Smith writes that Christians should be distinguished from those in our own day who believe that the political is the ultimate. We are most prone to make the political the ultimate when we no longer believe. In a post-Christian society, where there is no eternity, where there is no Christ, where there is no kingdom coming, people are apt to treat politics as if it’s everything, and hence treat political differences as if they are ultimate differences. That means that my political adversary doesn’t just disagree with me; he is evil. If we don’t realize how potentially disastrous this state of affairs is, then we haven’t learned our twentieth-century history very well.
These people don’t seem to know history very well. Even worse, they don’t know what time it is. They don’t know how to orient themselves to the future, since they do not worship the coming King. This disorientation should not characterize us who believe. While we are not indifferent, we know that justice and peace will arrive only with the King.
According to Smith, even though it is the vision of God’s coming kingdom that motivates us to work for justice, our expectations about what we can accomplish until then are tempered. We adopt a Christian realism, enter into dialogue with those with whom we disagree, and recover the art of faithful compromise, which has long been lost in our hopelessly polarized and dysfunctional political system.
This is one way we can show ourselves to be those odd people for whom Advent is more than just a sentimental religious holiday. This is one way we can tell a world that cannot tell time what time it really is. Amen.