There is a bittersweet gentleness to Otis Redding’s classic song “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” as the singer looks homeward to Georgia while “wastin’ time” on the San Francisco docks. Everyone has experienced a longing for home, whether at summer camp as a child, as a student away at university or as someone separated from home for more somber reasons—as a refugee, for example, or an economic emigrant. And everyone has had to process that longing, sometimes by whiling away the time, thinking about home or doing nothing at all. But if one gets caught in this mode for too long, the longing for home can become overwhelming and drive a person to despair or hopelessness.
This is the spiritual warning that Redding’s song brings to mind during Advent. Our true spiritual home is calling all of us, which means that wherever we are, we all feel that twinge of longing at one time or another. But that longing cannot be allowed to devolve into hopelessness, by drawing our focus away from the life we are leading now. Thinking about our eternal home is necessary, but this life is not intended to be a way of just “wastin’ time” while we wait.
When we read the prophet Isaiah, though, it is no wonder that we contemplate our future home, imagining the time when God, the king of all peoples, invites us to “the mountain of the Lord’s house” and “all the nations shall stream to it.” It is a time when “out of Zion shall go forth instruction [Torah] and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” This instruction leads to a new ethic among the nations, which, Isaiah says, will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” How does one not spend some time reflecting on and waiting for this glorious time?
Jesus and Paul, however, warn us that the time of advent is also to be a time of preparation. Paul says: “It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” This armor is protection against “reveling and drunkenness…debauchery and licentiousness...quarreling and jealousy.” Paul speaks of Christians not gratifying “the flesh,” by which he means not bodily desires specifically, but all that pulls us away from God’s desires for us.
Even the goods of this world can draw us away from God as they tantalize us by their very goodness, but which, when loved out of order, lead us to desire the creations instead of the creator. It is for this reason that Jesus warns us even about things that in proper order and in proper place give great joy and meaning to life, but that out of order can distract us from the greatest good, God. Jesus, therefore, draws an analogy between “the days of Noah” and “the coming of the Son of Man.” In the time of Noah, “before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark.” Food, drink and a wedding—good things indeed; but in Jesus’ telling, these good things blinded them to the flood, which “swept them all away.”
Jesus says that the “coming of the Son of Man” presents us with an analogous situation. It is not a situation, as some read today’s Gospel passage, concerning the “Rapture”—a concept wholly unattested in Scripture, by which certain Christians are plucked from this world as a means of bypassing time, escaping from this world—but rather of proper preparation for the God’s arrival. It is preparation that requires a proper use of time. This time, now, is not the time to despair and to forget that God is calling you home, “wastin’ time” by forgetting that there is an eternal home or turning away from God’s coming judgment by trying to forget the true home through forms of escapism, whether material or spiritual. Preparation for the arrival of the Lord determines who is ready to go home when called. What time is it? Time to get ready, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”