November 29, 2009, 1st Sunday in Advent

November 29, 2009
The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
Jeremiah 33:14-16, Ps. 25:1-9, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36
Advent 1, Year C

Blessed Advent, everyone. Today we enter into this time of waiting, of expectation, and of patience. We live in an impatient world; we live in a world that is always hurrying up the process and rushing ahead to the next thing. Life is a linear reality that has a relentless forward-driving energy. Even at Christmas time. Only 14 shopping days left! You need this to make that goal you set or to make your kids happy! Get to the next holiday party; who knows who you might meet! Even the traditions we have of making certain foods or making decorations fall victim to it. But the coming of God, the awakening of our souls to the deep truth of the unifying mystery of the divine, doesn’t follow this pattern. God isn’t worried about beating the buzzer or final sales or getting to the top of the list. Paradoxically, the coming of God is meant to give us freedom from this ceaseless striving and also give us the very best gift there is: the living God, the living Christ, alive in our hearts.

It’s not obvious though how we arrive at this exhortation to patience from today’s readings. The portion we read of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is a lovely reminder of our need for each other in this Christian walk and our need for God to increase love and strength in our hearts. We never cease to need God working in us not matter how long we’ve been at this Christian thing. Where Advent fits in is not so clear.

The Gospel is even harder to make sense of. It is speaking of the coming crucifixion of Jesus, which happens at the end of the story. It’s a provocative reading. I always imagine that all Jesus is talking about does indeed take place in his death and resurrection. That idea, probably heretical to many, gives a whole new shape to what we mean about the second coming. Is it not the second coming of the Risen Lord on Easter? An intriguing thought, but one that doesn’t get us much closer to the question why now? Why do we hear this to begin Advent? A clue is in the line to be alert. For while this text is speaking towards a particular event it is also speaking in the sense of the continual coming of the Risen One that shakes things up and turns things on their heads. God’s promise can and will be fulfilled in times that look so unlike what we imagine God’s reign or action to be.
When things are getting turned upside down and things are changing or maybe even falling apart, patience is hard to come by. It is even harder to stand up and raise our heads. We want to hide, to look away. We are often frightened and afraid in the middle of such uncertainty and often turmoil. We are tempted with resignation to a dismal reality or to simply give up. It’s so hard and it’s taking so long. Yet we are to be aware enough that we can see Jesus when he is coming into the world or into even something so small as an individual heart. We are to be patient that he will come when the time is ripe. The question for us is will we be ready for it, aware of it, or not?

Which brings us to the reading from Jeremiah. We hear words of great comfort. The promises will be fulfilled. After exile and occupation, Israel will be its own people in its own land with its own ruler—a branch from the house of David. After hundreds of years the people are to hold up their heads and see their redemption coming to them. They are to be led by someone who will bring righteousness and justice to the land and to the people. Note well it is not military power or wealth or expansion, but living rightly with each other and with God. This is truly what keeps us safe with God and aware, sensitized to, the ongoing work of God with us and for us and within us. After years of waiting, after a patient, and at times very impatient, trust in God, the people will know salvation.

Branches grow slowly into trees. God does not show up on demand or on our haughty command. Even that handful of people, Mary and Joseph and a few foreign wise men, who understood that with Jesus’ birth something new was breaking forth into the world, had to wait 30 years for God’s purpose to be revealed. Patience and trust and a willingness to wait with and for God. Even more so, to wait with and for God and continue to live into the way God calls us to be even when it seems to have no immediate effect or when doubt, darkness and pain loom large. It may not be efficient. At times we may feel absolutely alone in our faith in this even as we affirm that God is with us. It will invite us to live in what some would see as irrational time and in cyclical rhythm, but such too are the motions of God. God will come in the unexpected at yet also at the time we need. This is the deep promise of the coming Christ.

We cannot be alert to or aware of the birthing of Christ in our hearts if we are impatient, always focused on what comes next, on result and getting the next thing done. We cannot be alert if our worries and fears overwhelm us. We must be ripe in our hearts. We must have enough space, enough calm, enough quiet within to be able to feel the faintest of movements of God. We must be able to wait for the next movement that will come in its own time. We must cultivate a soil of soul that can let God grow within. We must be attentive to the weeds that need to be plucked or the fertilizer we need to add (perhaps prayer or worship or stopping and doing nothing from time to time) so that the Word Incarnate has fertile ground to grow from. We must hold fast to a trust in a God that will come for us through thick and through thin. We must be willing to come back to the same place time and again and find it familiar yet also new. We must be able to live in the holy pause, in holy expectancy, in holy patience.

Thomas Merton in his book “Zen and the Birds of Appetite” writes this: “Many of the Zen stories which are almost always incomprehensible in rational terms are simply the ringing of an alarm clock, and the reaction of the sleeper. Usually, the misguided sleeper makes a response which in effect turns off the alarm so that he can go back to sleep. Sometimes he jumps out of bed with a shout of astonishment that it is so late. Sometimes he just sleeps and does not hear the alarm at all…
“But we in the West, living in a tradition of stubborn ego-centered practicality and geared entirely for the use and manipulation of everything, always pass from one thing to another, from cause to effect, from the first to the next and to the last and then back to the first. Everything always point to something else, and hence we never stop anywhere because we cannot: as soon as we pause, the escalator reaches the end of the ride and we have to get off and find another.”

Advent allows us to learn how to come back to the Center, to the unmoveable reality of God, to the presence of God coming alive within us. Rather than going anywhere we come back to what has always been waiting. We discover patience and expectation again both as a personal virtue and a way of living a life of sustained witness to Christ in the world. Christ is coming into the world. God’s promise will come to pass. We can’t rush it, control it or make it work for our ends. We can patiently prepare for it and be able to receive it when it comes whether it looks like what we expect or not. Advent is that gift of time to learn to be awake, to learn how to listen for the alarm clocks.

Perhaps the holy task before each of us this week is to discover what it is that muffles the alarm clocks. Perhaps the holy task is to find our impatience and ask that it be turned into patience. Perhaps our task is to trust in the emptiness or darkness that a holy light will shine within in time. Perhaps the holy task is to learn the discipline of holy pause so that Christ has the place and the space to be born yet again within our hearts. Amen.