GOSPEL READING Mark 13: 31-37
31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, 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, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Waking, waiting, and watching are the tasks and gifts of Advent. This patient alertness, however, runs counter to the frenetic spending and socializing our culture prescribes. More than at any other time of year, the way of Jesus is especially counter-cultural during Advent. More than at any other time of year, I am grateful now for scriptural reminders to watch patiently, alertly, for signs of God. I need practice in these Advent attitudes.
As a young girl, I loved reading the old Nancy Drew mystery series. I admired how that girl detective could see what the average person overlooked: the telltale footprints in the garden that led her to the jewel thief, or the single thread of fabric at the crime scene that unraveled the whole case. I admired her because I was not observant.
To this day, I have no eye for detail. I don’t know what kind of car you drive. I have never noticed the shoes you’re wearing. I kind of hope you haven’t noticed what I'm driving or wearing. But I admire people who do notice, especially those whose observations lead to some deeper mystery. People like nature writer Annie Dillard.
Dillard once declared: “I wake expectant, hoping to see a new thing.”[i] That could be our Advent motto. Did you wake up this morning hoping to see a new thing? Did you ask God to show you something new and marvelous? Or did you walk into this day settling for the same old same old, assuming that what you saw yesterday is what you will see today, shutting your eyes to the possibility of freshness and change and revelation? Dare we expect that God might reveal something to us? After all, revelation might be just around the corner. I want to wake expectant. I pray God will show me a new thing. That is the Advent Attitude I want to cultivate.
Because Annie Dillard is alert, she does see the unexpected. She once caught sight of a mockingbird in a rare and spectacular free fall. This is her description of that everyday marvel:
“About five years ago I saw a mocking bird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a 4-story building. It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star. The mocking bird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating 32 feet per second per second, through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded a corner when his heedless step caught my eye. There was no one else in sight” (pp. 7-8). Annie Dillard lives her life looking for the extraordinary, so she finds it.
But wakefulness and watchfulness will not always yield something as beautiful and breathtaking as a mockingbird’s graceful landing. If you and I ask God to show us something new, the vision may not be pretty. Just dip into the book of Revelation, and you’ll see glorious images of the New Jerusalem, and horrifying images of a beast rising out of the sea with ten horns and seven heads. Just read the pages of the newspaper prayerfully, empathetically. Annie Dillard describes both the beautiful and the horrifying in the world. Here’s another sight she recorded:
“I was walking along the edge of the creek to see what I could see in the water, and mainly to scare frogs. Frogs have an inelegant way of taking off from invisible positions on the bank just ahead of your feet, in dire panic, emitting a froggy “Yike!” and splashing into the water. As I walked along the grassy edge of the creek, I got better and better at seeing frogs both in and out of the water. I learned to recognize, slowing down, the difference in texture of the light reflected from mudbank, water, grass, or frog. Frogs were all around me. Then I noticed a small green frog. He was exactly half in and half out of the water, and he did not jump. He did not jump; I crept closer. At last I knelt on the island’s winterkilled grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog in the creek just four feet away” (p. 5).
Before I finish describing what Annie Dillard saw, I want to pause long enough for us to see—to pay attention to—her method for seeing. Dillard is able to see something rare because, first of all, she slowed down. As we enter the bustle of the Christmas season, Mobilians may not be dashing through the snow this December, but many of us will be dashing along Airport Blvd. We need a season for slowing down.
And that’s what writer Annie Dillard models for us: she slowed down and she studied her surroundings. And she came very close to the thing she wanted to observe. She did not attempt to examine all the frogs beside the creek. She did not generalize about frogginess. No, she looked at an individual frog, face to face. Maybe it is helpful for us to put a face on abstractions like poverty, war, immigration. To know the world’s delights and woes, we may have to see closely one human being as she truly is, and through her eyes know the whole world a bit better.
Next Annie Dillard says she knelt at that creek bank. That sounds like a good method for seeing. Being eye-to-eye in creaturely mutuality is a way for connecting and understanding. Humbly kneeling by that little frog in something like a posture of prayer nicely pictures our best means of revelation.
And what does she see next? Another image of grace and beauty? Hardly. Instead, she catches the rare sighting of a giant water beetle just as its forelegs hook its victim, just as the beetle shoots a poisonous enzyme into the little frog to dissolves all its muscles, bones, and organs, and then sucks the life juices from the frog until it’s nothing but a crumpled sack of skin, floating like scum on the water’s surface. It’s a description so gruesome I’ll spare you the worst details. But the point is that revelations of this world are sometimes horrifying. Yet we cannot turn our heads and pretend not to see the homeless on our city’s streets. We cannot look the other way when disrespect and prejudice rear their ugly heads in our places of work. We cannot be blind to domestic violence. We cannot close our eyes to the planet’s environmental crisis. Because if we do not see the needs of the world, we cannot cooperate with God’s activity in the world.
Another favorite writer, Anne Lamott, says that the two most basic and sincere prayers we ever pray are these: “Thank you, thank you, thank you” and “Help, help, help.”[ii] But how can we pray those prayers if we are not awake and alert? To pray that basic prayer of thanks, we must attend to the glory around us. And to pray the second prayer of help, we must see the suffering that exists in the very same universe. Yes, tradition teaches us to close our eyes in prayer. But maybe we need opened eyes to pray and, afterward, to follow Jesus.
Progressive Christians have a chance to hear the Advent call afresh. We THINK we know the story. But what if there are dimensions yet to plumb? What if we slow down and pay attention and expect some new revelation this year? What if there’s a grown-up version of the Jesus Story we have yet to hear?
The children’s story called The Best Christmas Pageant Ever how some people were able to do that. It’s the story of the Herdmans, a family of six badly behaved children who lie and steal and set things on fire and hit littler kids and smoke cigars. They are having to practically raise themselves and have never set foot in a church before and have never even heard the Christmas story, but one year these 6 destructive little devils somehow grab the main roles in the church play and take over the entire pageant. Every other year, the church pageant had been predictable and orderly if boring. But the year the Herdmans participated, the rehearsals were a nightmare and everyone just knows the final production will be a disaster. And then the miraculous happens. In the middle of the performance, it is as if the Herdman children finally start to catch on and the story begins to work its way into their little hearts. Soon they are visibly overcome with awe as they grasp the meaning of Christmas: God is with us! Love has come down! And the congregation--which had seen for umpteen times the angels with glittered, cardboard wings--starts to notice that the Herdmans are deeply affected by it all, and they ALL see the story for the first time.
Revelation can happen for us this Advent. But we must watch for a new thing. If the Christmas star doesn’t shine as brightly for us anymore, let us search the night sky with eyes of wonder. Rather than skimming over words like “Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy,” let us expect the angels’ message to leap off the pages of our Bibles. And when we see “the little baby, lying in a manger, on Christmas morning,” let also take in the fact that his family is homeless, he’s in a cow stall nursed by an unwed mother, and his family will save his life by illegally sneaking into another country. Have we really seen God in that way? Because if we can do that, it might change how we see others in similar circumstances.
A priest once cancelled his subscription to the New York Times. He explained the disturbing stories of war and crime and politics prevented him from praying. Henri Nouwen was saddened by his fellow priest’s response because, Nouwen said, it falsely assumes that “only by denying the world can you live in it, that only by surrounding yourself by an artificial, self-induced quietude can you live a spiritual life.” Nouwen disagreed. He argued that “a real spiritual life does exactly the opposite: it makes us so alert and aware of the world around us, that all that is and happens becomes part of our contemplation and meditation and invites us to a free and fearless response.” Real spiritual alertness deepens our prayers AND strengthens our actions in the world.
In some ways, new church, Advent is OUR season. Let us as individuals make use of this period of awakening. And let us as a brand new congregation wait and watch expectantly for the unique role we can play in God’s Pageant. There are fresh ways of being church. There are new visions for enacting God’s love. There are gifts you may be called to share with us as we grow into our fuller potential. When asked why he keeps coming to church, someone once answered, “It’s strange, but I get this feeling here, like nowhere else, that something is about to happen.”[iii] Collectively, communally, we will follow the Spirit, wakefully, watchfully. God is still speaking and moving among us.
PRAYER: God of Vision, Wake us from sleepwalking through this life in lock step with culture. Help us to pay more attention to our relationships than the sale tables at Dillards. Let us watch for signs of your coming again and again into this world, that we may greet you afresh, that we may follow Jesus aright. Amen.