Does anyone know what this is? It’s a shofar, Hebrew for ram’s horn. Do you know how it’s used? On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, it’s blown in the synagogue. My son, Teddy, a sax player, can blow it, but I (who can’t even whistle) cannot. However, when it is blown, it’s very loud. Tekiah, it says in Hebrew. “Wake Up!”
I find it interesting that the beginning of the Jewish year, Rosh Hashanah, and the beginning of the Christian year, Advent, share this theme: wake up, pay attention, stay alert! Look around you, look at one another, look at yourself. “For you do not know when the time will come.”
It’s true. We do not know when the time will come. My friend and colleague, Julia, experienced this last Tuesday when she received a call that her twin brother had died suddenly, with no warning, of a prolonged seizure. We do not know when the time will come.
My sister-in-law, Heather, got word Friday that her father had collapsed on a hunting trip and been kept alive by friends who knew CPR. After open heart surgery and five bypasses, for now he’s stable. We do not know when the time will come.
Saturday, in the wee hours of the morning, the US Senate passed a 479-page tax bill that will impact the lives of millions. Most of us, including many Senators, still don’t know all it contains. We do not know when the time will come.
The truth is, we never know what’s going to happen. We may remember the past, we try to be aware of the present, but we cannot know what’s yet to come. So, the Season of Advent exhorts us to stay alert, not because God wants us to be suspicious or paranoid but because God yearns for us to be awake. As Jan Richardson writes in The Advent Door:
The wakefulness that Jesus describes is a state—a practice, a way of being… Jesus urges us toward a kind of awareness in which, whatever else we are doing—even in resting and sleeping—some part of us remains open, stays alert, pays attention to what is unfolding and reflects on what it means.
I realize this might sound exhausting: like we must be “on guard” all the time. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant. He wasn’t suggesting we be anxious or worried. Rather, he was encouraging us to wake up, spiritually; meaning, to be open and available to the signs and sounds of God, no matter what else is going on.
So, what could this look like in Advent 2017? I mean, it’s been quite a year, my friends, and the ante just keeps getting upped. Or so it seems. But, honestly, it’s not so different from the year 17. Or 1017. Humans are humans. Power is power. Thus, the message of Jesus remains relevant, no matter what the cultural or political flavor du jour.
I know many of us would prefer a gentler entrée into the Advent Season than the one offered by this morning’s gospel reading. But, the lectionary text for the first Sunday of Advent, whether from Matthew, Mark or Luke, always exhorts us to wake up! It’s called the “little apocalypse,” and apocalypse, despite its colloquial connotations of devastation and destruction, means, “uncovering.” In other words, “revelation.” And, what is revealed to us each Advent? God is with us, no matter what. In Jan Richardson’s words:
Though the images can be intense, ensuring that Advent always begins with a bang, the heart of Jesus’ message for this first Advent week is that the healing of creation is at hand. In a time when so much of the world we have known is coming to an end, the gospel reading for this Sunday comes to tell us that somehow, the presence of Christ is in each ending, and that he is at work, drawing near to us as he brings about the redemption of the world.
So, Advent 2017, like any other Advent, offers us an opportunity to reevaluate. Just as the Jewish New Year urges people to confess when and where we’ve “missed the mark” and make reparations to those we have wronged, Advent is, traditionally, a time to purge ourselves of wrongdoing and recommit to rightful living. It’s not just “pre-Christmas.” It’s a season unto itself, lasting from today thru Christmas Eve. And this “beginning of the church year” is a time to ready ourselves for all that lies ahead.
I think one of the most wonderful things about our Christian tradition is the message that “God is with us:” Emmanuel. For me, it’s what the Nativity Story is about: Incarnation, God here, present with us, in the world. It’s both amazing and mind boggling, isn’t it? The notion that the Creator of the Universe is present in the most mundane matters of our lives: the struggle, the joy, the power, the pain…
And Advent is about “waking up” to this reality, realizing we’re not alone. Ever. Whether we’re “naughty” or “nice.” For, despite the confusion in our culture, God isn’t Santa Claus! No matter the view you grew up with, God does not “make a list and check it twice.” God doesn’t need to. Because we’re already on it. Each one of us. We are each loved, valued, and cherished. WAKE UP! It’s a brand new day.
As for the crazy world in which we find ourselves—as I said earlier, it’s been crazy before. “Cray cray,” as my friend Robin would say, is nothing new to God. Humans have been around for a long time. Which is why Nancy Rockwell so aptly writes:
… the world does not rise and fall on the actions of the Caesars who strut the stage, nor in the proclamations of the Herod du jour, but in the presence of God in grace-filled moments, that lie within our lives, and beyond our times.
Yes, because the “little apocalypse,” or revelation, is eternal, not temporal. It’s a Kyros or “God’s time” happening. Meaning, it happens all the time. When Mark wrote, “This generation will not pass away without these signs and the presence of God coming among us,” I have no idea what he, personally, expected to happen. He most likely lived at the time of the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem, and, believe me, that was one of many horrible times to be a Jew. But, no matter his personal expectation, he was correct! Because in God’s time, the Jesus story takes place again and again. As Nancy Rockwell writes:
… in a new Bethlehem: in an out-of-the-way town in the middle of nowhere, in a nondescript country, to a below-middle-class couple who were away from home and huddled in a stable where no one noticed them, except a few shepherds who thought they had heard angels…
In other words, Jesus comes at all times and in every generation! He is present in all the marginalized places. In all the towns and homes and hearts that feel forlorn and forgotten. He is present wherever he is needed.
And that’s an interpretation of the “little apocalypse” I can get my head and heart around. I love the idea of waking up and noticing Jesus all around, Jesus and everyone he loves. Which includes you. And me.
So, Advent 2017, let’s be present: to ourselves, to one another, to God. Let’s “wake up” and see what’s been revealed: that no matter what kind of suffering life brings (personal, political or other), God is with us. We are with one another. And that’s a reality more powerful than any darkening of the sun, falling of the stars or moon that does not give off its light (Mark 13:24-25).
Just look outside tonight. *
* Supermoon 2017: A supermoon is a full moon or a new moon that approximately coincides with the closest distance that the Moon reaches to Earth in its elliptic orbit, resulting in a larger-than-usual apparent size of the lunar disk as seen from Earth. (Wikipedia) December 3 (the first day of Advent) was the date of the only supermoon in 2017.