The church year begins by shoving us off balance. Instead of looking to the skies for a hint of gathering angel choirs, we read this–”There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Welcome, Advent!
Joanna Adams wrote of Advent a few years ago–and it rings true today–”This Advent I feel an urgent need for the light that comes from God, and I do not think I am the only one….The clouds of anxiety about the future are hovering so low and close that you can barely see your hand in front of your face.” (Cited by Kate Huey in Weekly Seeds, 12/2/12) She finds herself “holding on for dear life to the reassurance that God intends to make the world right again.” I know how she feels.
I daresay we could quickly come up with a list of things and events that make up that low-hanging cloud of anxiety–the impending “fiscal cliff” and on-going recession, the ice shelf melting into the sea, the rising of sea levels and the resulting extreme devastation of storms like Sandy, worries over our children or aging parents, nagging worries over changes in our bodies or financial situations, the struggles and concerns of those near and dear to us. And we’re among the most fortunate ones–imagine the anxiety of our neighbors who begin this month with a paltry sum for food and shelter, let alone any extra to buy Christmas presents for their children; or residents of the Rockaways or Staten Island or the Jersey shore whose homes were washed away; or refugees from the world’s wars–in Syria and the Congo, in Turkey and Jordan; those still living in the midst of war and violence. “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
“The stories of Advent,” writes one commentator, “are dug from the harsh soil of human struggle and the littered landscape of dashed dreams. They are told from the vista where sin still reigns supreme and hope has gone on vacation.” (Gary W. Charles, cited by Huey, op cit.) “Now when these things begin to take place,” Jesus tells his followers in Luke’s gospel, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” He doesn’t say, “When the Son of Humanity comes in a cloud with great power and great glory, then you can stand up and raise your heads,” but rather, “when these things begin to take place, stand up…for your redemption is drawing near.” The question is, “How do we remain faithful when these fear-filled and foreboding signs begin to happen? What do we do when the chaos begins?” (Mark Davis, Left Behind and Loving It, 11/27/12) Stand up and lift up your heads, Jesus says. One translator calls this “the imperative of expectation.” (Davis, ibid.)
I thought of that this week in the midst of the chaos here. I have infinite admiration for all those who kept facing into the chaos, who received each additional donation of “stuff” with good nature and thanks, who, after only very brief respites of sitting down and weeping, stood up and lifted up their heads, in expectation that Friday evening would indeed come, and the Snowball Bazaar would yet again open its doors to eager customers. The Imperative of Expectation. It was the expectation that kept them going. That’s what Advent helps us do.
Jeremiah looked out on the devastation of his own landscape–after shouting himself hoarse and warning the people and their leaders of the consequences of turning away from God and relying on other sources for their security. The Babylonian armies had marched and torched through and taken the leaders off into exile, leaving not only the cities but all the old ways of life destroyed. It is then, as one commentator describes it, that “the prophet looks out on the wasted landscape and begins to fill it with images of beauty, peace, and wholeness.” (Amy Erickson, Odyssey Network, 11/27/12, “After the Chaos Ends”) Jeremiah speaks of a “righteous branch,” drawing on the image of trees that is deeply rooted in the Old Testament tradition. “The tree of life in the Garden of Eden story links trees with ideas of abundance, fertility, and renewal,” (Erickson), and just rulers are often referred to as a “righteous branch.” With great imagination and drawing deeply on his call to proclaim God’s intention for, and even present making of, the future, Jeremiah points to the small green shoot of life in the gray landscape of death and destruction. “What is happening underneath, what we cannot see, is nevertheless real,” he says. (Huey)
Jesus points to another tree–”Look at the fig tree and all the trees,” he says. “As soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” The kingdom is already in our midst, already beginning to blossom, so be alert. Pay attention not only to the signs around you, but also to yourselves. What are you doing in this twilight time between times? Between the failures of the past and the emerging of who you are meant to be, who we all are meant to be? Are you numbing yourself with “dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life,” as Jesus says? It’s a question for our time and culture, as we are the most overweight, addicted, drugged, busy generation in our history. There’s a whole lot of numbing going on. “Be on guard,” Jesus said, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”
“The dreadful and terrible day, according to Jesus, will be known by its fruitfulness and its blooming as much as by its distress. And this, said Jesus, is how redemption draws near.” (Nancy Rockwell, Bite in the Apple, 11/25/12) … ” known by its fruitfulness and its blooming as much as by its distress.” It is understandable, even easy, to look upon Advent with a certain amount of skepticism. We’ve been to this movie before. Every year we start hoping again, hoping that this year, there really will be a new beginning, –for us, for our families, for our nation, for our world–that this year a child will be born among us who will make a difference in the life of the world, that this year, God will make the world right.
Nancy Rockwell interviewed perspective students for her alma mater. She was particularly touched by two of these bright 17-year-olds.
One young woman, who had been studying the classics, said she had responded to the Arab spring by deciding she could use her facility with languages and alphabets to learn Arabic. She found a summer program that took her to Jordan where she lived with an Arab family and learned a lot about the culture and the history as well as learning the language. Now she wants to become a diplomat. Urgently.
One young man, a jock through and through, captain of the crew, the swim team, the water polo team, has plunged into environmental sciences. Summers he is working in wetlands conservation, and this fall he’s written a paper on the pollution of the oceans. He wants to become an engineer who works to restore the now-endangered ocean waters. ‘All my pleasures come from water,’ he says, ‘and I need to give back. The planet needs a healthy ocean to survive.” (Bite in the Apple
The temptation to give in to frustration, despair, and fear, Rockwell writes, “will always be overcome by the light of those who pick up the pieces they know they can handle, and give the brief candle of their own lifetime to lighting the common way. There is something personal, something individual about the great and terrible–and fruitful day. It does come to each of us as a choice, what hope and expectation we bring to the world and how we use our lives.”
“Now when these things begin to take place,” Jesus said, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” The “imperative of expectation” calls us to order our lives so that we live each day as though the day when God makes all things right is already here, the green shoot of the righteous branch is already emerging, there already is enough for all and each of us is enough. We are all part of the same loaf, the same cup. That is what this table reminds us of. The sap of the righteous branch is running through us, the lifeblood of Jesus is flowing through our veins, and even now, new life is sprouting all around us. Let us keep the feast. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark