Sermon preached by the Reverend Paul Carling
Sometimes I think we spend our whole life sleepwalking.
A friend of mine described a typical morning in college. He was meandering toward the cafeteria, when he noticed a young woman lying on the ground, a pool of blood spreading around her head. When he rushed through the cafeteria door to summon help, it looked so eerie – people carrying trays to tables, spreading peanut butter on English muffins, waiting for the caffeine to kick in, as if nothing was wrong. In the end, the woman who’d been lying on the pavement turned out to be OK – a simple nosebleed and a fainting spell left her looking half dead. But later, my friend wrote in his journal, “Life happens that way… unfolding as one reasonably predictable thing after another… until it doesn’t. One minute you’re fine, and then there’s the odd sensation of pain running across your chest and down your arm. At 10:00am you have a job, and at 10:20 someone’s walking with you to your desk to watch as you unpack your things. You’re driving, not paying any more or less attention to the road than you ever do, and suddenly something happens: another car, or a deer, or a slippery spot, and everything changes in an instant – it’s like we suddenly wake up.”
That’s what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel, when he describes, “the signs in the sun, the moon, the stars and on the earth, distress among nations…” Ancient history? Some future apocalypse? The truth is that all these things are happening right now. And the question is, “Do we even notice?” If we had those fig trees Jesus talks about in Norwalk, would we see their first leaves sprout? Are we watching for the coming of the kingdom – not is some distant “end time,” but in every moment of our lives?
Two Thanksgivings ago, we got a new puppy, Brendan, our first dog. Like good puppy parents, we immediately signed him up for obedience classes. At the first session, the teacher took one of those expensive little treats – you know, the ones they use to make dogs do things they’d never do at home – and he let Brendan sniff it. Then he passed it back and forth between Brendan’s eager eyes and his own, saying over and over, “Watch!” Once Brendan was fixated on the trainer, he got the treat. “That’s the basis of all other commands,” the trainer said, “If you can get your puppy to watch you with excited anticipation, to really focus on you, everything else falls into place.”
Today’s the first Sunday of Advent, and Advent is all about agreeing to wake ourselves up and to watch with excited anticipation, instead of waiting for some catastrophe to shake us out of our sleepwalking. The Latin words ad venire, mean ‘coming,’ and in Advent, we’re watching for three kinds of comings. First, the obvious one – the coming of the baby Jesus at Christmas. Second, the final coming of Christ – what Jesus is referring to when he says “Heaven and earth will pass away…” And third, and most important, the coming of God into our lives at every moment, in the here and now. That’s what Jesus means when he says, “The kingdom of God is very near.”
The trick of course, is that God can be continuously present in our lives, and it won’t make a whit of difference if we aren’t awake enough to notice. In other words, the only way that we experience God’s presence is if we consent to it. That’s why you come to church on Sunday, isn’t it? We consent to come here, and to behave differently than we do anywhere else. Why? So we can experience the presence of God.
So Advent’s not a time of passive waiting – for something, anything to happen, to break us out of the doldrums of our regularity – but a kind of active anticipation that’s full of hope. It’s watching, as one theologian writes, “in the conviction that we’ve already seen God’s footsteps.” Or as C. S. Lewis famously put it, it’s waiting to be “surprised by joy.” Maybe that’s why the Latin root of the word ‘Advent’ is the same as for the word ‘adventure.’
Let us pray. God, give us the strength and the courage to seek out moments of peace with you this Advent, that you might refresh our souls, even as you focus our attention on you, living within us, and all around us. Amen.