“Be Alert” Colchester Federated Church, December 2, 2018, (Luke 21:25-36) First Sunday of Advent

Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the new year in the Christian Liturgical Calendar.  Advent is a unique season and highly symbolic—our colors change to blue or purple, we light candles every week in our Advent wreath, and some of us may even have Advent calendars at home.  Yet it’s not exactly a comfortable season if we get to the depths of its meaning.

Because Advent is about waiting, and how easy is it to wait?  Some have argued that our human attention spans keep getting shorter, and now our attention span is less than that of a goldfish.  Goldfish have average attention spans of 9 seconds and supposedly humans now have attention spans of only 8 seconds.  You still with me?  Probably not, let’s be honest.  Benedictine nun and Worship scholar Joan Chittister explains the meaning behind the season of Advent by writing that, “The liturgical year does not begin at the heart of the Christian enterprise.  It does not immediately plunge us into the chaos of the Crucifixion or the giddy confusion of the Resurrection.  Instead the year opens with Advent, the season that teaches us to wait for what is beyond the obvious.  It trains us to see what is beyond the apparent.  Advent makes us look for God in all those places we have, until now, ignored.”[1]

Advent begins with apocalyptic readings—showing us a potential future of chaos, destruction, and judgment while imploring us to be alert and watchful, for we never know the day that Jesus will return.  As we recently discussed, apocalyptic thinking can be used as an excuse to passively sit back and wait for God to take care of everything.  It can make us fatalists who think that we have no power to change anything that God has preordained.  Therefore our actions don’t matter at all.  Though shouldn’t we be loving God and loving our neighbors all the time, whether the world is going to end in a big fireball of chaos tomorrow or not ever end so dramatically?  Shouldn’t we be helping to create the Kingdom of God on earth (built out of love itself) instead of sitting back and waiting for the Son of Man to come on a cloud and punish all those mean, nasty people we don’t like and clean up all the messes that we too often create here on earth?

In the Gospel according to Luke, we just heard the passage called the Little Apocalypse—the sun, moon, and stars showing signs.  Dismay among nations.  Roaring seas and surging waves.  And the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great splendor to judge the people.  The text suggests that these signs of cosmic disturbances will be universally visible.  Nobody will need to guess at what’s happening and apparently everybody is going to be terrified.  It’s strange and unsettling to begin Advent with apocalyptic scriptures.  Yet it happens every year.  Why?

Well the good thing about apocalyptic thinking (taken on a more metaphorical level because we don’t have to take this all literally and leave this sanctuary scared out of our minds) is that these images point to things beyond our comprehension or control.  We figure out pretty quickly whenever we read scripture passages like this on the First Sunday of Advent that ultimately we’re not in charge of the universe.  The universe doesn’t, in fact, revolve around us.  God is in charge.

This is rather liberating when we pause and think about that!  It can remind us of the poem “God’s Wheel” by Shel Silverstein.  The poem reads, “God says to me with kind of a smile, ‘Hey how would you like to be God awhile and steer the world?’  ‘Okay,’ says I, ‘I’ll give it a try.  Where do I set?  How much do I get?  What time is lunch?  When can I quit?’  ‘Gimme back that wheel,’ says God, ‘I don’t think you’re quite ready yet.’”[2]  We can be thankful that God is the one in charge and we’re not because we probably wouldn’t be so great at steering the world after all.

So apocalyptic thinking does liberate us on the one hand as we recall that God’s in charge and there will always be some aspects of existence beyond our ability to comprehend.  In Luke’s Little Apocalypse the moral of the story is to be alert and keep awake.  And hopefully be decent human beings all the time because we don’t know the day or the hour when Jesus will return (if Jesus will even return like these images suggest in the first place.)  As Luke implored his original audience, “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.”[3]

Methodist Worship Scholar Laurence Hull Stookey writes that, “Watchfulness is the key [and yet the] Christian faith is less about precise knowledge of the future than about a passion for God’s justice and holiness in the present.”[4]  Even though there is so much future orientation in the Little Apocalypse, it’s balanced with the message to be present, and to be about the business of God’s justice and holiness now.  That’s our job as followers of Jesus Christ and how we can help God steer the world just a little bit.

Because the present well lived is what can lead us to the fullness of life.  This is important to remember in December of all times of the year.  And it’s hard for some of us to stay in this mindset.  It’s the mindset that mystics across all the religions of the world attempt to teach—to stay present and to focus on the here and now.  To know that we can make a difference in the lives of one another if we’re actually paying attention to each other and tapping into our deep resources of compassion.

In the end, the Advent invitation of being alert, paying attention, and focusing on God’s justice and holiness in the present reminds me of the time that I was taught Vipassana Meditation as a hospital chaplain back in the day.  In Vipassana (which means to see things as they really are) the goal is to totally rid yourself of mental impurities and heal human suffering.  It’s a spiritual practice that’s all about self-observation and being fully present in the moment.  One pays disciplined attention to the physical sensations of one’s body as people explore the common root of the mind and body.  If done correctly, Vipassana Meditation results in balance and a mind full of love and compassion.  And I have never failed more miserably at a spiritual practice than when I was forced to learn Vipassana Meditation.[5]

When taught how to do it, I was instructed that you have to stay in the same physical position the entire time of meditation.  If you feel any pain in your body, you are to acknowledge that pain, and then push it out of your mind.  You are not to move or make yourself more comfortable to fix that pain.  If your mind starts racing, you are to acknowledge your scattered thoughts and then gently set them aside, focusing on your breath.  I tried this form of meditation for about 20 minutes.  After the time was up, the instructor immediately turned to me and said (in a group setting with other chaplains present mind you) that I seemed annoyed and angry by the whole thing and why was that?

In my frustration, I snapped at this very sweet Catholic nun who was teaching our group this form of mediation—who does that?  But here’s the thing, if I’m on the ground in pain for twenty minutes when my foot falls asleep maybe five minutes into this spiritual practice, why wouldn’t I just move my foot to make it better?  How could I possibly get deeper into meditation if I was distracted by something that I could easily fix?  My instructor just smiled throughout my little tirade and said that it seemed this particular spiritual practice didn’t make my heart sing (understatement of the year).  But that I shouldn’t give up either.  Maybe because it’s so hard, this is exactly what’s needed to push myself because who said anything about spiritual practices and your relationship with God being easy?  She smiled sweetly and asked me, “In your Christian tradition, did Jesus have it easy, dear?”

And isn’t this the point as we begin the Season of Advent?  Because learning to wait and hope and explore and be still and dig deeper are keys to spiritual development, and the whole purpose of the season of Advent.  We’re invited to stop the chaos.  To think and be quiet and be fully present before we get to that mountaintop of joy that is Christmas.  Sometimes we will fail, though the open invitation remains.  So a hope for all of us in this Season of Advent is that we keep alert, remain watchful, and try our best to be fully present in the mysterious waiting for the coming of Jesus Christ who will be born into our midst.  Maybe let’s not rush off to stores and parties and presents without taking in and appreciating the world around us now.  Let’s look for God in the most unlikely of places.  Let’s see what is beyond the apparent.  And let’s be passionate about the justice and holiness of God now.  May it be so with us.  Amen.

[1] Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life, 59.
[2] Shel Silverstein, “God’s Wheel,” in A Light in the Attic, 152.
[3] Luke 21:34-36, CEB.
[4] Laurence Hull Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, 122-123.
[5] Vipassana Meditation, As Taught By S.N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, http://www.dhamma.org/en/vipassana.shtml