Five hundred fifty miles…and change. One way. My family, like so many others, spent this past week visiting family and friends for Thanksgiving. We drove…a lot, to Northern Louisiana and Southern Arkansas.
And, we, like so many others I am sure heard the same question asked over and over again: “Are we there yet?”
Raise your hand if you heard this question…or asked it yourself!
Are we there yet? How much longer is it going to be?
We are not a patient people, it seems. We want instant results…instant deposits and withdrawals. Instant mashed potatoes even. Fast food culture. Fast internet service. We do not like waiting for things… Lucky for us the church, especially, the fathers and mothers in Alexandria, Egypt some fifteen hundred years ago—or so—began to observe this time before Christmas by…of all things….waiting. The church invited her members to wait, to practice anticipation…to slow down and mark time, to spend time in a different way…a way that asks a great deal of us in our consumer-driven, 24 hour news channel world.
Welcome to Advent my friends….the Season of waiting and anticipation. Advent is a wonderful time—and space—to practice waiting—which is very much a spiritual discipline. It is a season in which we gather to practice paying attention. It is a season of mindfulness…of watching and waiting…of wondering and hoping when and where Christ will come among us.
Maybe the texts from today’s Lectionary readings seemed strange to you. From the prophet Isaiah,
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
So that the mountains would quake at your presence…
And what about the Gospel text from St. Mark? You know, today marks the first day of the church’s lectionary year B, the year we focus on St. Mark’s account. And, just in case you didn’t notice, St. Mark has a particular “flavor” that always catches me off guard:
Jesus said to his disciples, “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.
What about the Christmas carols? Baby Jesus? The lights and elves and trees and songs and tinsel and ornaments and the red and green….what about all that?
Not yet. Wait for it…
There are no Baby Jesuses here….instead, we have dark clouds and a hidden moon, with the heavens being torn open with the mountain quaking.
You see, we would always do well to remember that Advent is an apocalyptic season…a season where we wait on God to appear in our midst, in ways that more often that not rip our preconceived notions of “how God works” to shreds. Advent is the time when we seek to be mindful of how Jesus comes into our lives—is born in us—to usher in the Kingdom of God, a Kin-dom that shatters the cultural norms of competition, greed, consumer-obsessed self-worth, racism, poverty, alienation…
It is a Kin-dom, as Canon John Bolton mentioned a couple weeks ago, in which we realize that “God means what God says” about how God’s vision of wholeness is embodied.
Our practice during this time of the year is to pay attention…to keep our eyes and ears—and hearts and minds—our souls—open to the ways God is breaking into our midst.
But, oh how we are uncomfortable with this waiting. On Saturday the 13th, we are having an Advent Quiet Day here at Grace. Six hours of silence and prayer…Quiet Days are wonderfully rich spaces when we sit and wait…watch and pray…practice this spiritual discipline of holy anticipation… And, oh, how we get uncomfortable. In the many retreats I have led, I have discovered people in their cars working on laptops, walking around on cell phones, bringing work with them, even climbing in one lady’s bed at a home-retreat and taking a nap! Waiting is hard work, make no mistake about it.
We resist waiting…. It seems like we crave distractions…and the pressure gets to be too much…and we cry out: “Are we there yet?”
We want to jump to the head of the line and skip the rich anticipatory work we are called to do, the practices of being mindful and searching our heart and souls to “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Because, Jesus isn’t going to send us a text ahead of time to warn us he’s coming into our lives. That’s not how it works. Look at how St. Mark describes Jesus’ coming, his Advent into the world:
But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come…
Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
But we are a people who are asleep. The mystics tell us that we are asleep, going through life on autopilot, following the whims of the culture—the insanity of consumerism that tells us we’ll be happy with more stuff…that our prosperity as a nation, a society, is somehow dependent on the success of a Black Friday. The insanity of the culture that tells us that some people are less worthy because they happened to be born with different color skin or speak a different language. The insanity of nations with enormous means allowing poverty and hunger to persist in the world… The insanity of any culture that seeks to build walls when the Son of God constantly seeks to tear them down.
My Old Testament professor Dr. Brueggemann used to say that the Hebrew prophets constantly tried to do one thing to the people: wake them up…shake them alert from what he called their “psychic numbness.” It’s an image that convicts me…psychic numbness…
Because, we all know that, if we don’t practice our spiritual disciplines, if we don’t share in the liturgy, in “the teaching of the apostles, in the fellowship and breaking of the bread” as our Baptismal rite says, something like gravity will pull us back to the whims of the culture at large… A spiritual lethargy will kick in and we’ll just…..fit in….being tasteless salt. And the Gospels tell us what that’s good for…
So, here are Isaiah and St. Mark on this First Sunday of Advent telling us…screaming at us…to Keep Awake! Because our Advent Prayer is that God “would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake…”
Advent is a strange, wonderful, counter-cultural time and space. It makes us a bit uneasy, and that is the beauty of it! And we are invited to participate fully in it. Making a wreath for our homes…lighting the candles at meal times and talking together about what it’s like to wait on God to show up…to break into our lives…on how we struggle to stay awake.
And, we’ll mark the time here together with our own Advent wreath…watching each week as the wax drips and the candles melt down…and we smell the beeswax and watch the flicker of the flame….and sing the wonderful Advent hymns.
I invite you to practice this year…practice Advent…practice the mindfulness of anticipating where God could break into your life. Come to the Quiet Day…sit in silence and pray. Visit the chapel during the day and spend some time in prayer and meditation. Explore the devotionals we have available for you all…as we pray together.
Take time and visit the two new oratories—prayer chapels—off the narthex. One has an ancient Coptic—Egyptian Christian—icon of Jesus and St. Mennas as friends. Jesus comes alongside St. Mennas and journeys with him…
How is Jesus coming alongside you?
The other oratory has an icon of the Annunciation: Gabriel telling Blessed Mary that she’s going to give birth to God Incarnate! As you meditate on that icon, maybe your prayer can be, “What would I say if an angel told me that God was going to be born in me?” That’s a good prayer, because it’s the deep truth of our Christian faith…that God is going to be born in us, around us, within us as a community, amongst us…
That the heavens will be torn open as Christ comes among us…
O come, O come, Emmanuel…
The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham
Advent I, Year B
Isaiah 64:1-9; St. Mark 13:24-37
November 30, 2014