Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday of Advent.

Luke 21:25-36

“There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor. Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.”

Jesus told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near. I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.

“Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life. Don’t let that day fall upon you unexpectedly, like a trap. It will come upon everyone who lives on the face of the whole earth. Stay alert at all times, praying that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen and to stand before the Human One.”

***

If we were really going to celebrate Christmas the biblical way, we’d have fig trees up here, not ye olde tannenbaum.  

Now, I am not about to start another Christmas war by suggesting we trade in our neatly trimmed Christmas trees for sprawling fig trees, but I do think it’s worth taking a second look at the arboreal metaphor Christ chooses for himself. 

We bring evergreens into our homes at Christmas precisely because they do not change as the seasons come and go—they stay green the whole year round. They are symbols of life even in the deadest winter. 

Fig trees aren’t like that. Like most trees on this planet, they drop their fruits and leaves each year, limbs turning barren to wait out the coldest months, before they begin to bud again. The trees don’t keep a calendar or an alarm clock, but somehow they know when it’s time to send up buds. They know when the cold is over and the sunny days they need are coming around again. 

The Jewish people had a calendar, of course; but they knew better than to declare springtime before the first buds appeared. Jesus reminds his disciples that they look to the trees to tell when the seasons are changing, not any manmade calendar. When the fig trees start to send up leaves, then summer is coming. Nothing any human can do can rush it or delay it. The trees have their own time. 

The trees have their own time. So does God. 

Today marks the first day of the season of Advent. It’s probably not preprinted on your calendar at home or on an alert in your phone, but it’s an important season in the life of the church, a season where we look back to the promise God fulfilled with the baby in Bethlehem, and look forward to the promise God is still waiting to fulfill, when Christ will come back to make all things new. 

There’s no date for that second coming on the calendar, and everyone who’s tried to pencil one in has been laughably, and sometimes tragically wrong. Jesus himself told us we’re not supposed to look to calendars of our own making to know when he will return. But still, he promises us there will be signs, if we are only paying attention. 

Now the kinds of signs that Jesus describes, I’ve always thought, would be kind of hard to miss. He pulls from the standard apocalyptic playbook—there will be omens in the heavens, the planets will shake, the nations will roar, the oceans will rise and the earth will quake, people will faint with fear. Honestly, I think even the least observant among us would notice that kind of thing. So why does Jesus give us such explicit instructions to stay alert?

I think it’s because not every sign is THE sign. We’ve had thousands of eclipses since Jesus day, millions of earthquakes and floods. Nations have roared in confusion and people have fainted with fear. If we are only looking for what frightens us, we will see apocalypses everywhere we look. But Jesus also says that when we see the signs, we should straighten up and raise our heads and look for Jesus. We should look for what gives us courage, what heartens us, what redeems us. 

Not every eclipse and earthquake is the sign of Christ’s second coming. But I think, if we raise our heads and look around, we will see in the midst of every frightening moment, Christ coming in to soothe and save, as softly and surely as those fig buds unfurling in the summer. 

Christ came first at Bethlehem, and Christ will come again, in glory so magnificent that no one could miss it. But in the between times, in our beteeen times, Christ comes and comes and comes and comes, in a thousand different guises, to strengthen and sustain us. 

If only we are alert enough to see him, the way the farmer sees summer coming in those tiny, tiny leaf buds. 

The funny thing is, the thing that takes our attention most off the world is the clock.

Time as we know it, oddly enough, is a relatively modern invention. Not the idea of time, or the passing of time, obviously, but the codification of it, the idea that we can and should constantly have time pinpointed, pinned down like a dead butterfly on a card. Until only a few hundred years ago, natural time—dusk and dawn, sowing and harvest and fallow, rainy and dry season—these were far more important than knowing it was 10:36 in the morning. 

I’m not saying people didn’t have clocks—they certainly did—but that man made time took a second seat to the rhythms of time god provided for us. It wasn’t until the trains started running that people began to standardize time across the country. Until then, time came in local flavors.

There is a darker history to time, though, to our human March to control and determine time, especially in the American south. During the era of slavery, overseers were given two tools—a whip and a watch. 

Rev. Katie Pocalyko, in a commentary on this passage, writes about how much learning about the history of the watch in college changed her relationship with time. A textbook by Mark M. Smith laid bare to her how how the clock gained acceptance in the pre-Civil War war South as “the legitimate arbiter” of time because of how slave masters used them to control enslaved people (8). She notes, “Enslaved people in the fields had no clocks. But give a timepiece to the master, and suddenly you can change how fast, how frequent, how much, and how hard your laborers worked”.[1] 

Yet, in those same field, the people sang. Over and against the ticking of the watch, they made their own beat. 

The song that we will listen to during our offertory today is called keep your lamps trimmed and burning. It developed organically among enslaved people in the south. At first blush, the steady rhythm of the song, like many slave songs, gave them a rhythm to work by, a natural rhythm to sow or plant or cut. The song also reinforced images from the Bible, but not just the ones they were taught about obeying their masters. The different verses remind them that the god of justice, who freed the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, is coming for them. That a new day, a free day, was not just possible but promised. 

Those lamps in the title are a callback to Matthew 25, to the parable of ten bridesmaids, who have to keep their lamps full of oil to be ready for the wedding to start. But also—also—they may have been a kind of code, a secret signal to let each other know that there were lamps burning in windows along the Underground Railroad to lead them to freedom. Some of them even here in Cincinnati. 

The time is drawing nigh, they sang. Not the master’s time. But God’s time. Time for freedom. Time to begin again.

The irony of course is that, eventually, the dependence on the man made clock spilled into white culture as well, in another example of how developing inhumane treatment for some ends up hurting all. Nowadays most of us treat the time as our own personal overseer, here to keep us on task, to control our work, to judge our worth. Do we manage or time, or does it manage us?

I know that I’m in the wrong season to ask you to give something up—that’s usually what I do in Lent. Advent is more often the season of acquisition. But I do think that there might be value in giving up our hyperfocus on time during this month, even though—or maybe especially because—it is so easy get over scheduled. What if, instead of listening to the calendar, we listened to the natural signs of our own bodies and brains—are we rested and joyful about the prospect of another party, or miserable but obligated? What if, instead of watching the clock, we watched the faces of our loved ones while we visit—are they ready for us to go, or are they still lonely and in need of a little more of our time? What if we took the snow day and didn’t work from home? What if instead of counting down the days to Christmas, we simply allowed ourself to be present in the moments—and to acknowledge that if something doesn’t get done, maybe we didn’t need to be doing it. 

It may sound like a bit of pop psychology, but practicing this kind of natural timing, is, I believe, a spiritual practice. Paying attention to the signs that our children are giving us, or the weather, or our own hearts, rather than chaining ourselves to a clock that we created, is a way of practicing for the return of Christ. 

Clocks are not evil. They are a tool, and like any tool, can be used in many ways. I am very glad you all showed up at 10am today, but even more glad that we can hold our time together a little loosely, and this worship service can be over at 10:52, or 11:03, or even 11:18. I am glad that here in this sanctuary we practice God’s timing together. 

Jesus asks us to pay attention, and that means giving some things up—the things we use to ignore God’s signs and plans and nudges. Drunkenness, Jesus says, and I would add anything we do in order to check out of the world God made. Daily worry, Jesus says, and I know, easier said than done—but still I have a wistful desire to follow him in that. What would it be like, I wonder, to take my eyes off the clock, off my todo list, off my strategic plan, even off my advent calendar, and just spend some time living in the world God made? How often would I see Christ coming into the world, in the laughter of friends or the peace of a starlit evening, in a donated meal or two neighbors working on a project together? If I took my eyes off all the things I’ve planned for myself, might I see God’s plans bursting into life all around me?

So this is my charge, this Advent. Look for the buds on the fig tree. The tiny things. The fragile things. The stubbornly uncontrollable things. The things that are just, maybe, by God’s grace, about to begin. 

The time is drawing nigh. Will we have time to notice?

Amen. 

[1] https://barngeeseworship.com/2021/09/08/november-28-keep-your-lamps-trimmed-and-burning-2/

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