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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School, Duke University. He retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Bishop Will Willimon: Awake in Advent

December 22, 2009

Sleep is the predominate posture for the church. I first noticed this in the Book of Acts. Some of the most important intrusions of God, such as the revelation to Peter (Acts 10) and the release of Peter from prison (Acts 12), occur while the church and its leaders are fast asleep.

Jesus urged us to stay awake in Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42), but we fell asleep. Now, as we move through Advent, the church continues to have difficulty keeping awake. Jesus warns us about God's advent in which "he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly" (Mark 13:36) and urges us to "Keep awake" (13:37). It is no accident that Mark has placed this parabolic assault on dormant disciples' right before Gethsemane and the cross. As Jesus comes, and as Jesus goes, we are often asleep.

Whenever the master is absent, it is an occasion for a test of the servants.

"Now class, I am going down the hall to the principal's office for a few minutes. I certainly hope that I can trust you to act like responsible fifth graders. But just in case, I'm leaving the door open. I have asked Mrs. Moffat, across the hall, to listen for trouble. Now I hope that you will show me how responsible you are. I'm leaving now. I had better not hear a word out of you. You have work to do while I am gone...."

It is a worthless servant who can be trusted only when the master is in town. It is an irresponsible class which can be trusted only when the teacher is present.

We long for presence, for we are at our best when the master is with us. "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus," is our advent prayer. "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," is the advent hymn. "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down" (Isaiah 64:1). When the master is with us, visibly, actively present, we are at our best. When the master is away, things do not always go well.

We identify with the deep yearning of Isaiah 64. The encroaching December dark, the subdued quality of Advent hymns, this morning's headlines all testify to a waiting, unfulfilled world. So we light a hopeful candle on the Advent wreath and wait for the coming of the light. It is dark and we flight off the anesthetizing comfort of sleep, feeling that we should be awake, just in case anything happens.

But we wait in the confidence that something has happened. Isaiah prays for the heavens to be cracked open because the prophet remembers that they have been before. Mark's parable says that the slaves who wait are those who have met and have known the master. This master is not only an absentee who has gone on a journey, he is also a wonderfully reckless boss who has "put his slaves in charge, each with his own work" (Mk. 13:34).

Everything that the master is, and all that he owns has been given to his servants. What sort of master would leave town and place all that he has in the hands of his servants? I have noted, when I was a campus pastor, the best way to make a young person responsible is to give that person great responsibility. The "Therefore keep awake" admonishment of the parable must be read after the "puts his slaves in charge."

We are waiting here in Advent, "for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ" (I Corin. 1:7). But we are not waiting for the advent of a God whom we do not know. We are waiting for the return of the One who knows us and is known by us. His promised Kingdom is not a future hope, something that might happen by-and-by. His time is now; his Kingdom is here. Already, he has put his servants in charge, now, each with his work. Now, at the office, in the classroom, over the kitchen sink the master's servants are "in charge, each with his work."

The church gathers this Sunday, lights one candle on a four-candled wreath, prays and then trembles upon remembrance. The Kingdom of God has been left in the hands of servants.

--William H. Willimon

[Taken with permission from the website of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.]


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