Sometimes when I’m trying to wrap my arms around a gospel text, it helps to write my own non-scholarly paraphrase. Here’s what I came up with this week:
The sun, the moon, and the stars will point the way. But the sound of the oceans roaring will confuse people—they will miss the actual signs. They will worry so much, they will faint. Then they will see the Promised One coming in a cloud. When this happens, stand up, look up, because renewal is just around the corner. Take trees, for example. New leaves signify that summer will arrive sooner than you think. Similarly, all this scary and pseudo-scary stuff indicates that the kingdom is coming. ... Watch out not to be unnecessarily held back by sloppy living or by anxiety—holding on too tightly—because those things will trap you and you’ll miss the transformation. It will happen anyway, and it will happen to everyone. Be alert. Pay attention.
I thought Advent was supposed to be about joyful preparation for the baby Jesus. Yet this morning we have all this end-of-the-world stuff. What about the joyful anticipation of the birth of our Savior?
Today’s readings remind us why Advent has often been treated as a penitential season. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians asks the question: “Will you be blameless when the time comes? Are you ready?” This question invites self-reflection and, maybe, repentance of sorts. Penitence is not very fashionable in our era, but in my opinion it is never a bad thing.
The gospel asks a companion question: what do you see in the world around you? Will you recognize the in-breaking Kingdom?
Not since 2001, in the psalms appointed for morning prayer on the weekdays following September 11, have I been so aware of the events of the world reflected in scripture. We live in confusing and frightening times. Some of you may have seen the photo on the front page of Friday’s Wall Street Journal. The photo showed a Friday-after-Thanksgiving photo of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But in this picture, the parade was in the background; the foreground focus was a phalanx of police officers in combat gear, holding assault rifles. There was no story attached. The caption read: “New York Police Department members watch as Santa Clause passes during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.” But they weren’t actually watching the parade; they had their backs to the parade, and were watching the crowd and the skies. I found it a haunting image. What signs were they looking for? Evidence of corruption and moral decay hidden behind the corporate-sponsored parade floats? Portents of a Black Friday brawl? Young men with knives? Foreign invaders? Suicide bombers?
We live in confusing and frightening times, but we are not alone. Today’s gospel was written for first-century Christians who lived in equally frightening and confusing times, and it was written for us, and every generation in between. At our Thanksgiving meal, the conversation covered the refugee crisis, the presidential campaign, global climate change, police shootings, and institutionalized racism. Perhaps conversations at dinner tables where you sat covered similar topics. Any one of these could be read as a sign that heaven and earth are passing away, the end of the world as we know it.
Today we are not just a nation but a whole world on alert, looking for signs. We need only scan the headlines to think: is that a sign? Or is that a sign? Or this? Advent is always about paying attention. The gospel asks us to look for signs that the Kingdom of God is near. Be alert at all times.
But I wonder whether we are paying attention to the right signs. What if we hear the question the Gospel asks—what do you see in the world around you?—not as a fear question but as a hope question? What if our attention to bad news causes the kind of fear and foreboding that the gospel claims is a distraction?
What do we hope for? And where do we find hope? How will we recognize the kingdom? A theme that weaves through our Advent gospels throughout the next four Sundays is lightness, in the sense of light that casts out darkness, but also light that keeps us on our toes, light that keeps us from being weighed down, either by our own attachments or by the heaviness of the world. In our collect we prayed to put on the armor of light.
The day after Thanksgiving, I began asking my family and friends where they see signs of hope. Many of them cited stories of hospitality and welcome, stories of people around the world being neighbors. This may be a sign that the Kingdom of God is near. I asked a friend who spends a lot of time organizing around issues related to climate change, where she saw hope. She said every time she prays the Lord’s Prayer she feels hope. And then she talked about the goodness, the potential for change that comes shared consciousness, even if the consciousness is of a frightening reality.
I had an opportunity over the weekend to ask a half-dozen 18-year-olds where they see hope in the world around them. One young woman said she’d noticed that in all the stories of the tragedies happening around the world, there were always stories of people being good and doing good. The bad things happening seem to bring out goodness in people, she said, and that was a sign of hope. A young man told me about how the Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris opened its doors to shelter hundreds of people during the terrorist attacks and kept them safe. This gave him hope. Another guy said he just had a sense that things were going to be okay. A young woman talked about small, random kindnesses that were signs to her of good things to come. Someone talked about finding hope and inspiration from stories about people setting huge, challenging goals and achieving them. These are signs of light, and signs of hope. Green buds on dormant trees.
Czechoslovakian leader Vaclav Havel said: “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Does violence and hatred in all its form make sense to us as people who anticipate the Kingdom of God, people who have promised to proclaim Good News by word and example? Not necessarily. And yet, in all of this signs of redemption and renewal are to be found. Our task is not only to seek those signs, but to be those signs, for our neighbors and our enemies.
The Kingdom of God is coming near to us. All we need is to look for it. And maybe tell someone. What do you see? Whom will you tell?