Sunday, December 2, 2012

First Sunday of Advent: The End of the World as We Know It

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.

Thirty one years ago last summer, at exactly half the age I am now, I visited the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan had just been elected president and Biblical fundamentalism was rising as a political force. It was in such a climate of fear and loathing that I took myself to the land of the enemy.

I was not religious then, except in an existential, artistic and literary way. And what country had better art and literature than Russia, the land of Pushkin and Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Akhmatova, Russia whose language I loved and whose people I longed to meet. 

Like the beginning of Advent, my three weeks in Russia were a hinge time. It was there that I left behind the hopes and passions of my youth, my desire to become an artist, a keeper of the rarified world of culture, because there I saw that rarified culture supported oppressive elites. It was there that I first heard the natural world cry out against industrial patriarchy. It was there I encountered the protest of freedom against others’ attempts to manage us, whether through political ideology or religious certainty. Visiting Russia began my quest to try and see the world as it really is. And of course, it was also in Russia that I had my first glimmers of God, not as the father figure of my childhood, but as the beating heart of the universe.

We spent most of our time in St. Petersburg, then Leningrad, as guests of the University. At one of our roundtables, a professor explained how the Soviet economy worked, an interlocking grid of five year business plans. As I sat there listening with an open mind, I began to feel very uncomfortable, for there was no room in anything this man was saying, for the unexpected: the surprise discovery, story, innovation, joy. So I raised my hand, and after an eloquent preamble about the brilliance of philosophy and its architecture of thought, I asked, “What do you do when something totally unlooked-for happens?”

The professor laughed. “We don’t have to worry about that," he said, "because that’s in the plan, too.”

And so we come to Advent. Advent is not unlike my professor’s five year plan. On the surface, it is a time when we are called to open ourselves to waiting and to mystery, but it is no mystery what we are waiting for. We are waiting for Jesus to come and save us. As one of my priest friends wrote so well on his weekly blog: Advent invites us to get back in touch with our primal hunger for God. It asks us to feel and know that we are all waiting for something from God that has yet to be fulfilled, that we have yet to experience in its fullness.

Notice the trajectory of this reflection: primal hunger, waiting for something, fulfillment.  Hopefully, that desire is for God, but if you’ve ever been caught in a fit of desire, you will know primal hungers are often unclear, and if you hang around children at this time of year, you know that those primal hungers are more often for presents than they are for God.

And if Advent is about primal hunger and fulfillment, why do we begin the season with readings about the end of the world? Is it because a new world cannot be born until an old world dies? Is it to gently remind us that we’re always going on about the end of the world, but it hasn’t ended yet and probably isn’t going to, so get a life? Is it to highlight a tradition of Biblical prophecy that called Israel to wait for the arrival of a savior? Is it because the moment we say that a story has a beginning, it must also have an end? Or does it come to teach us something about ends themselves?

There’s a very wise teaching in the Jewish Talmud. “We do not see things the way they are; we see things the way we are.” 

In his brilliant book The Great Partnership, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about what happens when cultures fall prey to the grip of Messianic hope: “Abrahamic monotheism lives in the cognitive dissonance between the world that is and the world that ought to be. Normally, this gap is bridged by daily acts of altruism, the ‘redemption of small steps.’ This is…the long, slow journey across the wilderness…a day at a time. But sometimes the gap seems so large that it leads believers to hope for and expect a sudden denouement, a miraculous transformation of history, the ‘world turned upside down.’1

This is the hope that comes up at this time of year, isn’t it? All my pain will be swept away by the magic of Christmas morning and my dreams will at last come true. 

Which brings me back to the world of five year plans. What shocked me in Russia was not their crude attempts at social manipulation and control; it was how much better at it we were. Russia made me aware of my own world, our culture of advertising that arouses primal hungers we didn’t even know we had; our sense that education is less about entering the mystery of learning than it is about turning out standardized test taker workers who will service the economy, a corporate culture that seeks to maximize certainty with computers and surveys, with niche marketing and statistical inventories. When humans live so deeply in a culture of control, it becomes very hard to see God, because it is in the very nature of  God to surprise. Indeed, one of the most reliable indicators that an empire is in decline is when it thinks it has discovered all the answers.

Jesus plays on all these hopes and fears in today’s Gospel. Our reading this morning is part of a larger teaching that pits statistical probability and apocalyptic drama against the daily step by step journey through an imperfect world. The first part that we did not read, describes the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, which in fact did happen in 70 AD, but it did not take a genius to see that Rome and Judea were on a collision course. But then (and here’s where we begin today), Jesus moves from probabilistic  depictions of war to cosmic hyperbole: "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

What, exactly, does all that mean? We know that Jews were not supposed to take stock in divination or astrology, but instead to understand times and seasons as given by God. So what might be these signs in the sun, moon and stars? Signs that we have lost it? What is distress caused by the roaring of the sea and its waves? Isn’t the sea supposed to roar? Are we so caught up in our own obsessive distress that we aren’t even a part of nature anymore and so a normal ocean becomes a source of confusion and fear? Have we become like King Saul at the end of his life rushing off to the witch of Endor because the fear and contradictions in his life had driven him mad? Is utter craziness a prequel to sober insight? 

For Jesus goes on: 

Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

It would seem to make more sense, if Jesus were really teaching us about endings, that he would say, ‘when the fig tree has lost its leaves, then you know that winter is near.’ Instead, he uses an image of growth and renewal, as if to say it is this, and not destruction that should concern us, pay attention, not to the vanities of history, but to the seasons in their measured course, a redemption of ‘small steps.’

A close reading of the text reveals another important detail. Jesus does not say that this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place, but simply until all things have taken place. We won’t get to where we are going until we get there. And, we are all members of this generation, for again as Sacks writes, “sustained reflection on the Earth’s ecology  has made us aware that life in all its almost unimaginable diversity is interlinked.”2 We all come from the same genetic and spiritual source, endlessly recycled.

Jesus was not born to lead us into a perfect world; we don’t need God to show us perfection. All empires are about order and perfection. Five year plans and corporate branding, these are perfection. No surprises. That is perfection. Death is perfection. God does not call us to be perfect; God calls upon us to live. God calls us to live in this  world, a world that is always in process, always open to transformations, to let go of our own need to be in control and to join with God in a daily, step by step journey, one small deed at a time.

Hence the Collect. The works of darkness are not evil, they are ignorance. The works of darkness are what we do when we try to move around in the night and bump into walls and trip over the dog. The armor of light is the flashlight that helps us and others see in the dark. If we shine it back at ourselves, it will blind us. 

Advent reminds us that we are always beginning. That we still don’t know, even as we move toward an event that we do know. Light and dark together. That the babe to be born in Bethlehem will not be as all the carols so confidently proclaim, “the newborn king,” but one who, like the fig tree, will live in the midst of animals and humans, and show us how to have the courage, in the face of overwhelming temptations to the contrary, not so much to save the world and each other, which involves control, but to love it, which means letting go. AMEN.

1 Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership, p. 257
2 Ibid. p. 272