Keep Awake, Therefore

This sermon is from the first Sunday of our Advent series, which has as its theme “Spanning the Space Between”

Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44

We had a discussion last Sunday during Education Hour about the holidays — how we feel about them and where they are in tension with our values. It turns out the holidays are deeply unsettling for many of us: the consumerism and the destruction to our planet and its people that it represents, the compulsion to be merry when we are lonely or grieving or just don’t feel merry, the consumerism, the pressure of family rituals that are no longer life-giving or meaningful, the consumerism. 

And then, there are others of us who love Christmas. I count myself among them. While acknowledging all of the above, I also think we as northern hemisphere dwellers need this kind of winter festival. Long before there was a Christmas or even Christians, people held festivals of light around the winter solstice. To people without benefit of our scientific knowledge, this time of weakening daylight could be a time of fear: Would the sun — the giver of all life —  return? It the sun did not return, or if it returned only incompletely, they would die. And so ancient peoples would hold festivals to honor the sun, to encourage it to come back quickly. They lit bonfires on the hills, decorated groves of oak trees with candles  – all to drive away the darkness of fear and uncertainty and usher in the light.

Early Christians saw the deep symbolism of this season and placed the celebration of the birth of Christ during this time of the year. For what else can drive away the darkness of fear and uncertainty and usher in the light more than the birth of Emmanuel — God with us — our Light in the Darkness? And so we light candles; we bring into our sanctuaries and homes evergreens — those trees that stay green when nothing else does; we read the poetry of hope from the Hebrew prophets and some musical geniuses among us set that poetry to music that people have sung at Advent for hundreds of years— a “Messiah” sing-a-long anyone?

Here’s one of those poems of hope from the prophet Isaiah (read Isaiah 2:1-5).

This poem, which was written while the Assyrian army was threatening Israel, gave hope to a people besieged by violence. It told them that “regardless of where power seems to lie in the present, the day is coming when God’s reign will be established for all humanity to see” (From Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary). On that day, people will stream to Zion not so Israel can lord its power over everyone — as their enemies are doing to them — but so that all might learn the ways of God, so that there can be a reign of peace, when people will (say it with me if you know it) “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; (when) nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Is. 2:4). These words are carved into a wall opposite the United Nations General Assembly building in New York. What a vision of hope for the new world that is still coming.

Ah… but birth is a messy affair. Just ask the parents of the three babies that came up for our children’s time. The Gospel passage called for for the first Sunday of Advent always reflects this messiness. We heard part of this passage two Sundays ago. Jesus and his disciples are at the temple in Jerusalem — the building that signified the permanence of their spiritual and political world order — and Jesus predicts its utter destruction. It’s all coming down, he says, which will be a sign of the end of this present age.  There’s going to be a lot of upheaval and uncertainty and suffering as this old age ends.  And then, at some point the Son of Man — Jesus — is going to come back to render judgment on the old order and initiate the new order, the beginning of the reign of God. 

In our passage for today, Jesus gives his followers instructions on how to live during this messy birth, of how to live in the “space between” — this time when the old order is dying but the new order has not yet fully arrived. Here are his instructions: (read Matthew 24:36-44).

Jesus says very clearly here that no one, and I mean no one — not even the angels, not even him — knows when the new order will begin. Which makes you wonder how certain fundamentalist preachers have built whole careers out of saying they know the date when this will happen. Instead, people will be going about their business as usual — just like they did in the time of Noah, when people were eating and drinking, oblivious to the flood that was about to come. Interestingly, the Greek word translated as “flood” in our passage, is kataklusmou — cataclysm. So, these people are oblivious to the cataclysm that is about to come. Like in the time of Noah, people will be getting married and giving in marriage, assuming that there is “time for another generation to be born.”

At the time that Worship Committee held our Advent planning retreat, the wildfires were raging up north, and we thought of all those people eating and drinking, not knowing that the next day they would have to evacuate their homes. And we thought of the people we know who are deciding not to have children because they don’t know if there is going to be a future or if it’s a future they want to bring a child into.  I have heard this passage from Matthew my entire life, and never has it seemed more real. It used to just seem like fantasy; now it’s speaking “to our condition,” as the Quakers say.

So, too, Jesus says, people will be working in the field, earning their daily bread, or working in the kitchen, making their daily bread, and suddenly one of them will be taken and one will be left. Although folks often assume this means that one person will be “raptured to heaven,” while the other is left behind, the text doesn’t say that. Indeed, Biblical scholars are unclear as to who is better off here — the one taken or the one left. The Greek word translated as “taken” has the sense of being “taken in” to something–presumably, a good thing.  But the word translated as “left” isn’t necessarily negative. It can mean “sent away” but it can also mean “forgiven” or “released.” (These insights are from here.)

As one scholar said, despite not really knowing whether it’s good to be taken or left, the clear overall sense of these verses is that “life seems to be going on as normal.  In the case of Noah, there were warnings of cataclysm, but they were ignored, and people kept going about their daily business.”  They “knew nothing” until the cataclysm came and swept away their world.

But you, Jesus says, keep awake. Don’t be a “know nothing.” You’re not supposed to be like those oblivious people. You are supposed to be ready. You should be like the homeowner who keeps alert to the warning signs that a thief is staking out her place and stays awake and keeps the thief from stealing her things.

So how do we stay awake during this time of messy birth, during this space between? During our retreat, Beth said that one of the words she likes best in the Nez Perce language is waq — it can mean awake, spirit, animate and life. “So when people talk about waq’is — this is a way of living attached to life and of being awake. The passage about one person being taken and the other being left used to terrify me as a child. Being in those exact settings, gardening with my mother, it was just too real. But now I see being awake as not being paranoid but as living a spiritual life…. Living a spiritual life feels different from being vigilant and anxious about something that is ending… It means just being ready. This life can end at any second — anyone’s can. You have to live a spiritual life now.” 

Living a spiritual life can mean many thing. It can mean looking for those places where the realm of God has already broken through into the old order, those places where more just and kind and equitable ways of relating to each other and the earth are happening. Living a spiritual life can mean peering through the ordinary day to “discern the coming of the extraordinary day.”  And living a spiritual life might also mean expanding our idea of what is spiritually possible.

In preparation for our Advent retreat, we read a short essay by Charles Eisenstein on miracles (from his book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible). He defines a miracle not as the “intercession of an external divinity in worldly  affairs that violates the law of physics but as something that is impossible from within an old story” of how the world works but is possible from a new one. A miracle, he says, is an invitation to a larger spiritual reality. And then he tells the story of how this invitation happened in his life.

He was a 21-year-old Yale graduate in mathematics and philosophy teaching English in Taiwan. He was, like most people in our culture, a firm believer in the scientific method and believed that modern science had basically revealed everything we need to know about how the world works. And then that story got all messed up by the culture around him that believed a different story of how the world worked. One day, he sprained his ankle so severely he couldn’t walk. He was taken to a one-room cement clinic, he says, where the “doctor, smoking a cigarette,” dug his thumbs into his swollen inflamed flesh for five minutes of pure torture, put some paste on it, wrapped it up and sent him home. The net day the ankle was completely better. Well, Eisenstein reasoned, my ankle must not really have been sprained that badly. He visits a qigong  master, who taps a few spots on his body to “clear his meridians,” and sweat starts pouring from him. He walks out half an hour later feeling, he says, like a million bucks. Well, he reasoned, I was probably hot going into that place and as for the intense tingling I felt when he showed me what projecting qi was, I must have been imagining it. He sees a Taiwanese shaman in a shaking trance, carrying a burning hot container of coals in his bare hands. It must not have been as hot as it looked, Eistenstein says to himself. 

But, over time, living in Taiwan, Eisenstein came to see his dismissal of an entire culture’s perception of the world as a kind of conceptual imperialism. He also started reading books by Western physicists who upended his view of what’s real and what’s possible. If you start reading anything about the “new physics” or “quantum physics,” you’ll soon be in very surprising territory. As one article I read said, “The real linguistic challenge for quantum mechanics is that it needs to describe things that simply don’t make sense according to our view of reality. We know, for example, that the same object cannot be in two different places at once, or that the properties of an object are located in that object (my car is grey for example) and not elsewhere (my car’s greyness has nothing to do with my coffee mug’s greyness). And yet, that’s the direction in which quantum mechanics pushes us.” I mean I not sure I even know what that quote means.  But, that’s the point.

Maybe we live in a much more mysterious, miraculous world than we thought. Maybe many things are possible that we did not think were so. Maybe Jesus’ call to us to be awake during our time of messy birth, in our “space between” means awakening to a larger spiritual reality than we believed possible. Maybe we’re the ones “in the dark,” awaiting the advent of the light that will reveal to us the realm of God. Amen.