Today’s readings: AM Psalm 20, 21:1-7(8-14); PM Psalm 110:1-5(6-7), 116, 117; Amos 5:18-27; Jude 17-25; Matt. 22:15-22
A Reflection from the Rt. Rev. Edwin F. Gulick Jr., Assistant Bishop
Sermon for Advent 1 (Psalm 122; Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44)
You know what time it is and how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.
My newest granddaughter, Anna, is three weeks old. My daughter, her mother, is exhausted but absolutely attentive. Every fiber of my daughter’s being is relationally alert to the cry that pierces the night and awakens her from the sleep she craves almost as much as water or food. Like the Christians in Rome who are admonished to set aside what feels like an immediate need – partying, a few drinks after work, a hot date with no strings and no promises, or the ongoing fight with your sister who is so controlling – my daughter has set aside all claims except the one claim that is a matter of life or death of the one she loves. Her wakefulness, her advent-like wakefulness, is simply the symptom of the love that possesses her.
The night of Anna’s birth, my wife and I also spent hours in wakeful attentiveness. Barbara, my wife, was spending the night at our daughter’s home, taking care of our two-year-old granddaughter while her parents were having the baby. I was at our home in bed but texting my distant wife and not sleeping. The decision had been made for a Caesarian, and after three long hours and many texts, our son-in-law let us know that both baby and mother were doing well but our daughter was in ICU. My waiting, and my wakefulness, were illustrative of my love for both my wife and my daughter, and my wakefulness led to action. I was in the car driving toward the hospital at 5 a.m.!
During this past summer, on an August night, I was sleeping in the upstairs bedroom of our New Hampshire summer rectory. I heard the very subtle ping of my cell phone and was immediately awake to the text that had arrived. “He is 26 years old and he is dying. I am surrounded by a group of his friends and family, all who love him. I need to know that you are praying with me and for me.” I prayed for several hours, quite awake and alert. Alert because the situation called for it, and alert because I am very invested in the ministry of the chaplain who was dealing with such abject sadness. This chaplain is my friend and prayer partner. A ping on my cell phone from him at any hour, day or night, is never intrusion, only reunion. My wakefulness on that summer night is symptom of my abiding commitment to him, to his ministry and to our friendship in the Lord Jesus.
Our passage from Isaiah can be received as an urgent plea from the relational heart of God. In order to sense the urgency, we need to remember characteristics of Israel’s agricultural realities. The soil in Israel is very thin and subject to erosion. The difference between a sustainable life and starvation is directly related to the attentive tending to this fragile and essential resource – the precious soil. Then and now, war robs society of precious resources. Swords and spears need to become ploughs because the land needs tending. The distraction of war will produce a harvest not of grain for bread but a harvest of weeds and chocked fields, and eroded soil which will result in the desperate cries of starving babies. God’s heart, like a mother’s heart, cannot bear that thought. Wake up from your stupid preoccupation with greed, war and violence, and get to work on the soil, beat the weapons of war into implements of agriculture quickly or my children will starve and I can not remain silent while your distraction becomes your destruction!
Isaiah shows us what Advent is really about. It is about wakefulness meeting wakefulness. The God of Israel “neither slumbers of sleeps” (Psalm 121). God’s nature is to be awake and to watch, and from time to time God recruits us to share in God’s watchfulness. This glorious and all too short season is about mixing and matching our attentiveness to the attentive heart of God. It is about marrying our longings to the longing heart of God which resulted both in creation, and in that “leaping in longing” and aching love which resulted in the birth of Jesus into this world.
There is a tradition in the Eastern Church that Gabriel went forth for years looking for someone to cooperate with God’s wakeful desire to enter the creation. Gabriel kept calling people full of grace, and Mary somehow was first to believe that enough to cooperate. I like that tradition because it keeps us from misreading or over-reading the part of today’s Gospel that talks about one farmer being left and one mill worker being left. I think that some farmers are so alert in their wakefulness and attentive longing that they cooperated with God’s attentive concerns, and some mill workers are so awake that they to can cooperate with in-breaking love. It is not so much that we miss going to heaven, it is more like we miss the opportunity to go on the mission trip because we did not realize that God was driving the bus!
In a few moments at the communion rail we will taste and touch a love so alert, a love so wakeful, a love so oriented in eager alert desire of God to enter our world that it took Jesus to the cross. I hope we find today’s holy communion jolting like a strong cup of Starbucks Christmas blend! As we feast on the Lord Jesus presence and as we consume, may we also be consumed by that alert love that neither slumbers nor sleeps and begs us to join in a wakeful co operation where we lay down our distractions, and prune and plough and give and love in such a way that God’s love breaks in again. Amen