Rev. Rainey Dankel | 11.28.21
WAKING UP TO HOPE
“My Lord, what a morning. My Lord, what a morning. Oh, my Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall.” We were on a choir tour in Germany, my husband and I as part of the choir from the university where he taught. We had a broad repertoire of music, sacred and secular for the variety of places in which we were to sing. But for our German host, himself an amateur singer of many years, the favorites were African American spirituals and Appalachian folk songs. Perhaps because they were quintessentially American.
“My Lord, what a morning.” It’s a text drawn from today’s Gospel, a vision of the fearful changes in earth and sky that signal the end of this world. Many African-American spirituals contain strong themes of being ready for the world to come. Understandably, these faithful people looked to God’s promise of final judgment, when the evil powers of this world are finally overcome by God’s righteousness. The songs are filled with hope for deliverance for those oppressed by unjust systems.
The language in today’s Gospel is apocalyptic, a genre of writing that occurs in both Testaments, most notably in the Revelation to John (“apocalypse” is the Greek word best translated as “revelation” or “uncovering.” Apocalyptic literature usually appears at times of distress, historical crises or other times in which there is dissatisfaction with the present world and a desire to see salvation in a new world. The imagery is often violent or at least supernatural and mysterious. The present world is so dreadful that God will have to do something quite drastic to set things right.
Today we start our Advent journey, the beginning of the church year, the annual cycle in which we prepare for the coming of Jesus. The first Sunday of Advent contains the dual message of longing for the coming of the baby of Christmas, even as we also look beyond, to the day when all will be set right, what is traditionally called the Second Coming of Christ. For me, often this first Sunday seems to require an unrealistic leap into scenes of violent disruption, in human affairs and in the natural world. Sometimes I have to sort of force myself to get into that mode of thinking, wondering what it has to do with preparing for the birth of a baby.
But this year, it doesn’t seem remote. We are surrounded by scenes of violence in our own city and around the world, where innocent people are cut down in the midst of everyday activities. We continue to struggle against a deadly virus that causes suffering and death, isolates us from family and friends, and brings economic disruption. We see refugees freezing and drowning as they seek a new home. We experience increasingly extreme weather events, fires and floods, melting glaciers and stranded polar bears, crippling droughts, air and water too polluted to sustain life. The scenes are penetrating our consciousness with increasing frequency. It’s beginning to look a lot like… not Christmas…but Apocalypse.
Yes, there are causes for fear. Normal desires for revenge against those who perpetrate violence. Denial about historical causes, especially those in which we find ourselves as perpetrators. Annoying calls for changes in our lifestyle, to de-emphasize consumption that drives our economy, to decrease our appetite for unsustainable uses of energy, to be willing to sacrifice present comfort for future life. Questions about our political and economic systems, too often rooted in unacknowledged racism, greed, and self-interest. It’s easier to remain focused on our own individual concerns, especially if we have the means to create personal security and to demand that our government protect us from the undesirable consequences of our way of life.
And into this bleak picture, we hear the words of Jesus, spoken to oppressed peoples longing for a better day: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus uses imagery drawn from the Hebrew prophets, looking for the Day of the Lord, the time when God’s righteous rule will be finally established. A day to be desired and to be feared. Calling himself the Son of Man, Jesus identifies with that tradition.
In our first reading, the prophet Jeremiah speaks these words from God: “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” Jeremiah is speaking to the people during dark days. The kingdom of Israel has been destroyed by the Assyrians, and now the tiny kingdom of Judah is threatened by the rise of Babylonian powers. Jeremiah tells the king and the people that God will not spare them from destruction. Jeremiah is considered a traitor for not promising military victory. But he is speaking the truth as he hears it: In the midst of destruction, God will not desert the people; God’s promises are sure.
Both of these readings emphasize the theme of being ready, of watching for the coming of God. They point to the great manifestation of light, the day when God’s work will come to completion. So there are words of warning and of hope. For us, in our times of uncertainties and darkness, these can be comforting words as well as words of warning. God is trying to get our attention. We know that all is not right, but often we are too deep in denial or despair to hear the dual message. Advent is about paying attention. About learning to read the signs. About slowing down enough so that the hectic preparations for Christmas don’t overwhelm us. About pacing ourselves, so that we can take in each passing day and its meanings and memories.
As we make our way through Advent, we are in a season of introspection, of prayer and discernment, and of preparation for the coming of the Prince of Peace. We are called to see the ways in which our own hearts can be changed through God’s grace, to move away from the consumerism, individualism, and privilege of our own circumstances. To consider the ways in which we are participating in the exploitation of the earth and of other people. Let us use the urgency of the message of a Second Coming to look at our part in the problems we face today, to discover our part in helping to create the better world for which we all yearn.
I have an acquaintance who barely averted a serious automobile accident. She was driving alone on a mountainous road when she apparently dozed off. Her car swerved off the road, close to the edge of the narrow shoulder that quickly plunged down the side of the mountain. As her car was careening, she heard her mother’s voice calling to her to wake up. She jolted awake, turned the steering wheel, and pulled her car back onto the highway. When she brought the car to a shaky stop, she knew that her mother’s voice had saved her. Her mother had been dead for some years, but she said she heard her as clearly as if she had been in the car beside her.
Our awaking doesn’t have to be in such dramatic circumstances. Perhaps it is in the quiet of an evening by a fireplace. Or sitting with a sick friend. Or in the healing prayers we will offer each Sunday during Advent. Or in the new Wednesday service when we gather around the altar and look for signs of God’s coming light. God’s voice is speaking. We slow down and learn to listen.
Today we lit the first candle on our Advent Wreath: the candle of hope. On these the shortest days of the year, we are reminded of God’s sure promises. As we live into those promises we find a renewal of hope, of God’s steady presence despite the dark of distressing circumstances. In the words of the spiritual, “Looking to my God’s right hand, when the stars begin to fall, when the stars begin to fall.” Perhaps my German friend loved these spirituals because they spoke to him of hope, of coming redemption. This man who had lived through the horrors of the Holocaust in Germany knew of hopelessness. Perhaps he, like we, look to our African-American ancestors in the faith to put our trust in the God who is bringing light in our darkness.
Jesus is calling to us, “Wake up. Don’t miss out on what is going on around you. Don’t let the worries of the world distract you. I am making all things new.” Advent is a time of hope, for the coming of God’s love being made flesh and living alongside us. And it is a time of yearning for the in-breaking of Christ’s rule of love, for the entire world that God has made. May we hold to that hope as we heed the call of Jesus in today’s Gospel, to be alert, to pray for strength, and to stand ready to play our part in the world that God longs to heal.