I can't believe it's Advent already. How did we let this happen? I am beginning to feel as if time is simply slipping through my fingers. Of course, I know, and you know, that it doesn't. A minute is a minute is a minute. But that's not how it seems.
I remember some years ago hearing Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of St. John the Evangelist at clergy retreat. He told the story about an Abbot in a monastery who was known for his absolute devotion to God. He would go and spend hours and hours in silent meditation and prayer, and had the respect of the older and younger brothers.
Well, the Abbot had contracted some sort of illness that advanced very quickly, and within a month's time, he lay dying in his cell. The Prior of the monastery sat by his bed, and in time, behind him sat the sub-Prior. In a little while, the novice master sat behind him, and then the elder monks, and down through the seniority all the way to the youngest novices.
The Abbot was dying. The question arose and came up through the line, "What is the Abbot's parting wisdom?" The Prior asked him, "Father Abbot, what would you tell us?" After a few minutes of silence, the Abbot whispered to the Prior, "Life is like a cup of tea." (Pause.) Nothing else was said.
So the Prior turned to the sub-Prior and said, "The Abbot says, `Life is like a cup of tea.'" The sub-Prior turned to the novice master, and he to the elder monks, and the wisdom was passed, verbatim, down through the ranks to the youngest monk. The youngest monk thought about it for a few minutes, and said, "Why is life like a cup of tea?" And, then that question was passed through the ranks, back up to the Prior, who turned asked the question, "Father Abbot. Why is life like a cup of tea?"
Again, silence. The whole monastery was positively on edge. Finally, the Abbot responded, "Perhaps... perhaps life.. is not like a cup of tea."
When I first heard this story, I thought probably the same thing you did—that what was supposed to be serious was indeed a joke. Or that what was supposed to be meaningful turned out to be meaningless.
I suspect that many of you are all too familiar with expecting one and getting the other. How many times have you sat down to a book or a church service, or a television program, expecting something profound, and feeling unfulfilled? Of course. We've all been there.
I'm going to tell another story, but this one, while it may or may not have actually happened, is genuinely meaningful. It sounds very similar. A man went to visit a Buddhist holy man, high in the mountains. He was allowed to visit the holy man, and ask his question, "What is truly real?" And after a respectful silence—but not too long—the holy man responded, "What is truly real is what takes your awareness."
Christians don't usually talk in these terms, except among people who really pray, and who desire to follow God. The pulpit is always tempted to talk about doing better, or being better. I recently heard that Christians don't really come to hear a sermon—they come to learn how to pray. I like that a lot. I think it's very true—at least, it's true for me. I come to church to know God better. And awareness of God is something that every Christian wants.
Do you realize that awareness is the most precious commodity the developed world? Businesses want our awareness of their products. The competition is for as many eyes and ears as possible. If you are aware of something that you like, you may think of buying it. If you are aware of something, someone, someplace that might fulfill a need, you may pursue it. Without awareness, you can't make decisions.
Of course there are levels of awareness. When I work on a sermon, I can't listen to music, or do other things. I have to be aware of my thoughts and listen for the Holy Spirit. I like to have that kind of attention when I'm talking to someone. It's easier in person than on the phone.
Have you ever been to one of these restaurants where there is too much going on? It's too loud. There are televisions on in the corners of the room. There are servers running everywhere.
You try to focus on the person across the table, but the table is large, so you can't hear them very well, and there's a television in the corner of your eye that is constantly seducing your attention with it's light and movement and sound...
I'm starting to sound like my dad. Or perhaps I'm finally beginning to understand why I like things to be settled. (Pause.) Wanting peace and quiet is not wishing for some kind of absence of life—but a better awareness of it.
Think for a moment... Be aware of! The things you spend your awareness on. Are they meaningful? Consider how many things really aren't! Consider how many things are only relevant to today, or this week, or this month.
Now I have to be careful here, because just because something is temporary doesn't mean it's meaningless. Little things can be very big. I was talking with a friend of mine who is a lawyer in Richmond, and he told the story of the judge who refused to hear certain cases on Mondays during the autumn, because he might give a harsher sentence if his college football team lost the day before.
But why do we focus our awareness so often on truly meaningless things? Why is it that I, for instance, will read a book, knowing that by the last page I will likely have forgotten most of it already? Why do I listen to the news about a celebrity, knowing that it has no actual relevance to my life?
I could make a longer list here, but you know what I'm saying. If take the intellectual change out of my pocket on a really good day there's a silver dollar, but most days it's just pennies and nickels.
Why do we consistently fix our minds on meaningless things? Well... I think I might know. Because when we fix our minds on things that are truly meaningful, it scares the living daylights out of us.
That's why the lesson from Mark is so jarring. We feel this whenever we read something from the apocalyptic tradition in the Bible. Apocalypse comes from the Greek--calypso, meaning Afro-Caribbean music about bananas and the daylight coming. Anyone? Day-o?
No... apocalypse comes from apokalyptein which means "to lift the veil," or to uncover. I like to think of it as the curtains getting pulled back so that you can see what's on the stage. It's this notion that there is a deeper reality, or a more profound meaning and function of existence that we are either oblivious to, or have forgotten. The role of the prophet is to remind the people of this.
The pastor or priest stands within the people. The prophet is one of the people, but stands slightly outside, often calling the people to awareness. Awareness of the lives we lead, awareness of the sin that infects our lives, and even our noblest actions. Awareness that God cares and sees and loves. Awareness that God is aware.
At first, Jesus was called a prophet, precisely for this reason—he was calling people to repentance, just like John the Baptizer—whom we will encounter in the next two weeks. Of course, Jesus was much more than a prophet, but that's how he first got the awareness of the people around him.
In the thirteenth chapter of Mark's gospel he describes the end of all things. A revelation, an apocalypse—the sun being darkened, the powers in the heavens shaken, and this depiction of the Son coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And the theme he repeats again and again is "keep alert, keep awake." He says it several times, "Beware, keep alert, keep awake, keep awake."
Now, speaking frankly being "alert" or "aware," or "awake" is not one of our weaknesses. In the morning I drink my coffee and I watch the news. I begin my day trying to become as alert and aware as I can, and I'm sure you do, too.
The point of the apocalyptic genre—whether from Jesus or John, or any of the prophets—is to be aware that there is more around us than just the latest news. That there is a deeper story than who said what to whom, and which team won the latest whatever. And that deeper story is the story of God's ongoing relationship with humanity.
If you read or listen to these words as an outsider—they seem foreign and scary. Maybe they even sound a little scary as a Christian! I know what that feels like.
I remember when I was in seminary, I was watching television one evening and I flipped around and discovered a rebroadcast of a Billy Graham Crusade. I sat there listening to Billy Graham, recorded in the 1970s. He was wearing a polyester suit, wide lapels. Big fat necktie. I was absolutely riveted.
He came to the end of his sermon, and he was talking about something missing from my life. –something that I knew just wasn't quite what it should be, and that what was missing was God.
Now… I've been baptized, confirmed, and have the stamp of the Commission on Ministry and the Bishop of Virginia on my forehead. I'm in seminary, for Pete's sake! And I still sat there wondering if I had turned my back on God!
Maybe you sometimes feel that way, too? Do you? No matter how long you've been coming to church.. prayers said…read the Bible, served the poor, served on the vestry, helped out here and there all your life… And you come across the apocalyptic language and you begin to wonder… "Have I missed it?"
I think that's the point. I think that's why we read something from the apocalyptic genre in the Bible every year on the First Sunday of Advent. It's like the lectionary has built in a little alarm clock that goes off like 6:30 in the morning. Wake up. Keep awake. Be alert. There is more to your life than just the news of the day.
So be attentive—as we head into Advent to the ways of the Spirit, because that story—the story of God's desire for you, and me, and all of us—is about to unfold all over again. We are about to launch into another year of remembering the sacred, profound, passionate story of God.
Have you heard it before? Of course, you have. Some of you know it like the back of your hand. But though the story doesn't change, we do. We are not the same people we were last year. We are different. So let this story baptize you again, and wash over you, and come into you.
Like a little child, welcome it into your hearts and let it blossom and flower.
"Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim…Stir up your strength and come to help us..." Behold, the King is coming.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.