You’ve probably heard it already this year—it’s December now, after all. And if you haven’t heard it yet, I’m sure you will soon.
You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
It’s one of those ubiquitous songs of this season, bouncing along through speakers in the grocery store or gas station. Sort of a cozy, sentimental number, one that may conjure up images of a warm fireplace and a steaming mug of cocoa.
I also think it’s not so far from the way many of us may hear the passage from Matthew’s Gospel that Patti read just a moment ago:
You better watch out,
You better not cry
You better not pout
I’m telling you why:
The Son of Man is coming to town.
For lots of us, Jesus’ words about watching for his return can sound like one of two things. They can sound like the sort of finger-wagging warning a parent might give when leaving the house for a few hours: Now you behave yourselves and be good. Don’t do anything silly, and clean up after yourselves so that things aren’t too much of a mess when I come back!
Jesus’ words can sound like that sort of joy-killing moralism, or they can sound trite and quaint, a part of the season just like Santa Claus, neither particularly offensive nor particularly thought-provoking. A tune to hum in line at the grocery store. Certainly nothing to change your way of life over.
We may hear this passage in one or both of these ways at first. But when we pause and dig into Jesus’ words a bit, when we dwell with them a while, it quickly becomes clear that Jesus and Santa are not exactly two peas in a pod.
For starters, Santa makes his arrival date very clear. My sister and I faithfully laid out cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer on December 24th every year, and every year by the next morning, nothing but crumbs remained on the plate. Like clockwork—an arrival you could count on.
But not so with the Son of Man. Jesus makes it very clear that uncertainty is the name of the game when it comes to his return: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36). There’s no magic date for setting out a snack for Jesus or hanging stockings for him to fill. Jesus himself couldn’t tell his disciples the day or time.
And while Santa is known as one who brings something to homes—whether toys or treats or lumps of coal—Jesus describes returning as one who takes something: “if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into” (Matthew 24:43). The Jesus of this passage is sort of an anti-Santa, really: a mysterious figure who won’t tell you when he’s coming and who doesn’t say a word about presents. In fact, he may well be in the business of breaking and entering when it comes to our lives.
And what’s more, Jesus says nothing here about “making a list and checking it twice,” keeping track of “who’s naughty and nice.” Jesus doesn’t actually seem particularly interested in tallying everyone’s behavior and dolling out rewards and punishments—he never does. Jesus simply describes his return—which will be sudden, surprising, unpredictable, and demanding—and offers two simple words of gift and challenge for the meantime: Keep awake.
Welcome to the wonderful season of Advent. This is how Advent begins every year: with an admonition to stay alert and watch carefully. It can seem like an awfully strange way to begin the year—especially when everyone knows that Christmas is now just over three weeks away. In fact, it’s exactly three weeks, two days, and thirteen hours away. So if it’s Christmas morning we’re to keep awake for, then we can tune out for the next three weeks, two days, and twelve hours or so.
Of course, that’s not the kind of keeping awake that Jesus has in mind—and it’s not really the kind the church has in mind in Advent, either. Jesus makes it abundantly clear that alert watching for his return is not a formality to go through once a year, a box to check off on a pious checklist. Keeping awake for his return is the way of life for disciples: it’s part of what we’re meant to do.
Advent reminds us of this year-round calling. Because when we enter Advent, we name something powerful and brave and vulnerable that’s missed if we jump straight to Christmas. We name the incompleteness of our lives and of the world around us. We name the fact that, like those first disciples, we, too, are waiting for renewal, for new vision, for new life. We name the promise—each year—that Jesus will return, and we name the vital need to keep awake. Which sure makes it sound like Jesus’ return is actually something you could miss if you weren’t watching for it carefully.
We tend to think of Jesus’ return in cosmic terms only, one final blaze of glory and the fulfillment of all promises. That hope remains part of our creed each week and part of our faith in Advent. But I wonder if that’s what Jesus is talking about here—because it doesn’t sound like you’d need to be particularly awake in order to catch that kind of return. It sounds like you could be a full-fledged zombie and not miss it.
So maybe the kind of return Jesus is speaking about is in fact quieter than all of that—less obvious, less earth-shaking, but not an ounce less real.
In her book Breaking Clean, Judy Blunt describes growing up and raising a family in the harsh and sometimes unforgiving landscape of rural northeastern Montana. She describes windstorms and dry summers and terrifying wildfires. And she describes the winter night her oldest daughter became ill with a dangerously-high fever. She and her family lived 50 miles from the nearest hospital, a treacherous nighttime drive over unpaved roads that had turned to foot-deep mud. They did everything they could to avoid the drive, but when her daughter’s fever hit 106, she knew they had to go.
They left in the middle of the night, and the roads were as bad as they’d feared. They slogged along through the mud, hoping and praying for safe passage. And as they rounded a bend early in their trip, they found that word of their trip had gotten out. Neighbors had gotten out of bed and driven cars and pickup trucks to the ends of their driveways—one beacon after another lit the long the stretch of road. The lights of each car would blink once as she passed, “like a nod. Good luck. Safe journey.”
Maybe that’s what keeping awake means. Keeping awake like each of those neighbors, offering a small bit of light for the passage of someone who needs it. Keeping awake like the author who could name that experience for the incredible gift that it was. Keeping awake for the presence of Christ still coming into this world and still seeking to come into this world through you and through your life.
Keep awake. The great hope in those words is that God is not finished—not with you, not with our community, not with the creation. Keep awake for all that God yet promises to do. When we remember this deep grace, we remember that the church’s song of this season is not the candy-cane cheer and “you better watch out” warnings of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” but rather the bare and certain hope of another song, sung through the ages and into this day as well:
Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel
 Judy Blunt, Breaking Clean. Vintage: 2002, 273.