Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent I

Mark 13

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[c]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

You wake in the night and the debate begins.

You could ignore the bedside clock and somehow will yourself back to sleep, but I think we all know that’s not going to happen. Or, you could look at the clock and learn where you are in the hypothetical eight-hour sleep allotment that everyone seems to think we need.

The first option sounds far-fetched, and the second option will only draw you further away from the blissful sleep you crave since it’s suddenly all about math: ‘It’s 3 am, four hours so far, alarm set for seven, every minute I’m awake now will defeat my goal and tomorrow will be ruined...’

If this sounds familiar, I need to introduce you to Thomas Wehr. Years ago, he conducted a sleep experiment on a group who were willing to spend 14 hours a day in complete darkness for a month. At first, the subjects mostly slept, owing—it was assumed—to a large sleep debt.

By the end of the month, however, a pattern emerged among the the test subjects. Most settled into something called ‘segmented sleep.’ Sleep four hours, awake for one or two, and back to sleep for four hours. Everyone ended the study happy and well-rested.

Another researcher, an historian, decided to build on this finding by looking for references in the past to segmented sleep. He found 500 of them, and confirmed that until the 19th century segmented sleep was more-or-less assumed. References abound to first and second sleep, with countless activities recorded for that wakeful hour in between. People read, they prayed, they took a stroll, or just lay there pondering their dreams.*

So for a million years we practiced a pattern of sleep that included a time of wakefulness, then someone said ‘you’re doing it wrong’ and we’ve been anxious about sleep ever since. So embrace it, I say: use the time and don’t worry about your sleep debt. Don’t start mowing the lawn or looking for a 24-hour Walmart, but use the time to ponder and reflect.

The ultimate confirmation is finding first and second sleep in the passage Mary Lou read this morning, with Jesus’ warning about watchfulness:

“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘watch!’”

The night is neatly divided into segments that allow for watchfulness, a rhythm that would have made prefect sense to the first audience who received this message. But watch for what? Jesus uses a household metaphor, something familiar and understandable to convey something that was decidedly less familiar and understandable, found at the beginning of our reading:

“But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
“At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.

‘Yes, yes, we say, but what does it mean?’ Is this how the world ends? How did we go from heaven and earth shall pass away to a story about a returning householder and the need to be watchful? How did the extraordinary become so ordinary so fast? I think it has to do with the way we receive news.

There is a common question that excludes those of us born after November 22, 1963—but I know it can be equally applied to other notable events in the recent past. And while most are not on the scale of the assassination of a President, they nevertheless fit the common question ‘where were you when?’

On January 28, 1985, someone burst into our class to say that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded. The class was called The Science of Flight, one of those entry-level science courses that Arts students were compelled to take. The professor, both a flight instructor and a physics specialist, set aside his lecture that day to spend 90 minutes explaining how the disaster was inevitable and how other disasters would follow.

So ‘where were you when’ is about the ordinary becoming extraordinary. We remember in great detail an ordinary moment that is interrupted by something extraordinary, something world-altering, something that halts a moment and fixes it in our memory. And this, of course, is not limited to what we hear on the news, or read on Twitter or however it is that people get important information these days. It is also personal, this method of marking time and events.

Receiving personal news, both good and bad, has the same effect. Even the OLG tries to exploit this phenomenon with pictures of fancy cars or boats superimposed on the moment that the newly-rich person received the news that they had won the lottery. Of course there was no Lotto Judea (that we’re aware of) but the point stands: you know neither the hour nor the day when something extraordinary will break in on the ordinary moments of our lives.

So we’ve answered the ‘how,’ with regard to watchfulness, but what about the what? Why are we looking at ‘the end of the world as we know it’ at the beginning of Advent, when all we really want to think about is angel costumes and kids in bathrobes pretending to be wise men? How does the sky falling help us prepare for the birth of Jesus?

Part of the answer is to consider this question of Jesus’ birth. I’m pretty sure that Jesus would be deeply uncomfortable with the celebration of his birth. He was, after all, a religious reformer and not a founder. He didn’t set out to start anything—he set out to bring us back to God.

Jesus predicted or promised—depending on your perspective—that there would be a final consummation that would bring us back to God. There would be an appropriate amount of ‘world-ending’ drama, and in the end we would be somehow reconciled to God. The hour or the day was unknown, but the goal of a powerful return would stand.

What Jesus did not know, or did not seem to know, was the extend to which the extraordinary would be lodged in the ordinary. He was describing the way in which something incredible would happen to interrupt our everyday without realizing that it already happened at the moment of his birth.

And when we go and look for the ways that we can be ‘brought back to God’ or reconciled to God we tend to go to the cross, and ponder the mystery of that other moment the earth trembled and the sky went dark. But the message of Advent seems to be ‘look over here too.’ The moment God chose to be with us in Jesus was the first moment of reconciliation, the first moment of a return to God, when God chose to be with us in a completely new way.

And for us, the moment returns each year. We never really celebrate Jesus’ birthday, we celebrate his birth—a moment when the ordinary stopped and everyone took note of where they were when.

In many ways, the call for watchfulness is a call to keep on finding the extraordinary in our ordinary moments. In the full light of day or in that wakeful hour in the night, we look for reminders that God is present to us—in dreams, in the kind words of another, in birth or death or any other moment God calls holy.

May we remain watchful: finding God and allowing God to find us, in Jesus’ name, amen.



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