Articles, Essays & Sermons

Watching and Waiting in a Half-Spent Night

A sermon prior to covenant Sunday

Ken Sehested
Circle of Mercy, 28 November 2004
Matthew 24:36-44

Background to this sermon. Circle of Mercy Congregation has no indefinite members.
Each year, on the anniversary of our founding, both new and renewing members join
in a covenant reaffirming our vision and mission, on the first Sunday of Advent
(or second, if the first falls on Thanksgiving holiday weekend).
See "Covenant Vows for new and renewing members.")

            One summer, during my college days, I worked with a road construction crew in Waco, Texas. It was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done . . . or, maybe not because the work was so hard, but the working conditions were so severe, when you factor in the hot Central Texas heat, frequently working close to hot asphalt paving equipment. And the constant cloud of dust broiling up from bulldozers and scrapers.

            I came home every evening, drank a quart or more of water and fell into bed, just to gather enough energy to cook dinner.

            Occasionally I fell asleep. One day in particular, it was a deep sleep.

            I suddenly awoke with a start. Some unfamiliar noise roused me. The first thing my eyes saw were my two roommates, fast asleep. Then I noticed the half-light, half-dark of the sun just beneath the horizon. Then my clock.

            OH, MY GOD! It’s seven o’clock. I’m supposed to be at work at 7 o’clock.

            So I leapt out of bed, threw on my clothes and shoes, stumbled down the stairs, into my car, and raced over to the worksite.

            But no one was there!

            OH, MY GOD! No one’s here!! They’ve moved to another location, and I’m too late to find out where. I’ll get fired for sure.

            My first thought was: Go home, call the office, find out where they’re working today, show up late with a sheepish apology and promise I’ll never do it again. But I was too embarrassed to make such a call. So my mind starts working up a description of some illness that’s kept me in bed for the day.

            As I turned my car around and started heading home, it suddenly occurred to me that the smudge pots were still lit and arranged for traffic direction. That’s usually the first thing we did every morning—we douse the flames and move the pots back out of the way.

            And then something else began dawning on me: The fading light seemed awfully funny somehow.

            Suddenly it hit me. It wasn’t early morning, and I wasn’t late for work. Actually, I was nearly 12 hours early.

            It was still evening. About 7:30 p.m. When I got back home, my roommates were up and preparing dinner. And worried about me: “What made you bolt out of the house, squealing tires down the driveway?”

            It’s the most disorienting feeling I’ve ever had in my life. My roommates spent the whole summer laughing about that episode.

            Staying awake, paying attention—“walking in the light,” in the words of the Prophet Isaiah—are important images for the spiritual life, particularly during Advent.

            Advent is the season of half-spent night, when we “wait for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning.”

            Half-spent night, when we know that there is a power to redeem, but it’s nowhere on the horizon, and we wonder if our dark vigil is a silly exercise.

            Half-spent night, when, in Isaiah’s fantastic imagination, we are urged to envision the day when nations shall beat their swords into plowshares. What are the political prospects of anyone getting elected on such a platform.

            Half-spent night—or, as the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Rome, “the night is far gone, the day is near . . . now is the moment for you to wake from sleep.”

            “Stay awake,” Jesus admonished in this strangely apocalyptic teaching in Matthew. “Stay awake, get ready, pay attention.”

 

            Unfortunately, we are often world-weary people, victims of too many half-spent, sleepless nights. And left wondering if we’ve been duped.

            There’s a line in a new recording by Tom Waits: “I want to believe in the mercy of the world again.” And so do we. But is it possible, when there’s such overwhelming evidence to the contrary? I mean just look at the world . . . open your eyes to what’s going on all around us! What kind of fool do you think I am? If swords-into-plowshare were a stock option on the futures market, would you invest?

 

            Maybe you’ve heard the story of Michael May, a 43-year-old man who lost his sight after a chemical explosion when he was a young child. Last year he agreed to undergo experimental eye surgery, developed by medical researchers based on some scientific breakthroughs and technological developments.

            To everyone’s astonishment, the surgery has restored sight in one of his eyes. What’s even more astounding, however, is the fact that while May can now identify simple shapes and colors, and can spot the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains from his northern California home, can marvel in the vibrancy of plants and flowers, and can see objects in his way when he walks down the sidewalk, researchers now know that full recovery of sight is more than an optical issue.

            What they’re finding is that while May now has the capacity to “see” things, seeing things and interpreting their meaning are very different things. May still has great difficulty with three-dimensional patterns and other complex objects such as the faces of family and friends. He still strains to describe the difference between a man and a woman. He describes a cube as a square with extra lines.

            In other words, “seeing” means more than having a functioning eye ball. In order for sight to be fully useful, what we literally see has to be interpreted in meaningful ways. Which is to say: Vision, like language, is something that must be learned.

            Next Sunday represents a significant new marker in our common life. It’s the third anniversary of our meeting together. For the first year, we dated regularly. Then, in the second year, we decided to go steady, and for the first time people actually made pledges of financial support. This year we got engaged—we hammered out common language to describe who we are, what we do, what we believe in and long for. So, if you carry forward that metaphor, next Sunday is something of a wedding day, since for the first time we’re actually asking you to formally declare if, and how, you plan to affiliate with this body.

            (Each of you has a packet which contains the latest versions of our founding documents, along with a card which asks you to indicate your affiliation and your financial pledge for the coming year. Please bring this card with you next Sunday and we will ritually collect them as part of our liturgy.)

            Many of us have wedding jitters. What if this doesn’t work out? What if the thrill of romance fades? Can I put up with people that might irritate me?

            Here we are, watching and waiting in a half-spent night, trying to decide if the meager light available is merely the foretaste of the coming dawn—or maybe it’s the beginning of a long, dark night. Is it sunrise or sunset? It’s possible to get confused.

            The strange teaching from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel indicates that no one knows exactly what lies ahead. “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Abba.” But whatever the case may be, we will need each other’s help learning to see, learning to interpret, learning to discern the movement of the Spirit amid the world’s chaotic and conflicting claims.

            If the prospect of this kind of covenanted community seems like good news, join us next Sunday for the festivities.