Signs of the Times
Perhaps you remember the old, joke bumper sticker: “Jesus is coming—look busy!” It was a snarky retort to another, very serious bumper sticker about Christ’s imminent return. On this first Sunday of Advent, I would like both to commend, and amend, the jokey message: “Jesus is coming: get busy!” Don’t look busy—Jesus isn’t some distracted boss who could walk towards your cubicle at any minute so you’d better learn how to fake looking productive. Get busy—the Messiah will soon be born in our midst! The point isn’t to fool ourselves and him into thinking we are spiritually ready to receive him. The point is to be very ready to receive him! Get busy indeed!
The season of Advent is about preparation, impatience, and waiting well. I think that the commercial season of Advent has served to distract Christians mightily from this. The commercial season is about the shopping, the decorating, the festivities—all of the “holiday preparation.” We don’t have to spend a second in spiritual preparation to experience Advent as a time when we are very, very busy. But it’s not the right kind of busyness. There’s nothing wrong with it—the music, the friends, the beauty and warmth of the season are all a true gift. But none of that is the same as the spiritual discipline of preparing ourselves for the birth of the Messiah. And that means getting busy!
“Busy with what?” you well may ask. Is it prayer, is it service to the vulnerable, is it work for social change—for societies that more closely reflect the reign of God that we so deeply yearn for? Yes, it is all of those things and more—the point being that it prepares our hearts and the world we live in for the arrival of the Messiah.
Preparing for his arrival is like living as if the end of everything is now. It means using every second very, very purposefully, being so intentional. I remember back to my student days (and I share this memory because some of you are there now!)—in the hours before a big exam, I was focused, I was undistractable, I had a single-minded commitment to the event that I knew was imminent. No favorite TV show, no invitation from a friend to watch a movie, nothing could take me off of my project of doing my best to prepare myself for that imminent event. There was a lot at stake, and my sense of self-interest was glued to it.
Here’s another analogy: it has been my great privilege over several decades of ministry to be taken into the confidence of many people who know that they are dying. (In fact, we are always dying—we are moving towards our death—but that is beside the point.) I’m speaking particularly of people with a disease or injury that means they have been informed of their likely (abbreviated) longevity. Many people who know that they don’t have long to live spend their moments with such heightened awareness, gratitude, and sensitivity. They become alive on levels that far outstrip those of us who don’t have any knowledge of our actual lifespan. Some of you may remember that, a little more than a year ago, I lost a beloved cousin to brain cancer. She was in her 50’s. She would say to me, “This is actually the best thing that has ever happened to me.” She didn’t mean the terminal part of her diagnosis, which scared and angered her as much as it does anyone who gets such news. She meant that the diagnosis gave her (ultimately) 54 weeks, from its pronouncement until her death, in which to really live—to talk in ways that mattered with the people she loved, to be the kind of friend she had always wanted to be to the hundreds who were her friends, to investigate her faith and articulate it newly and strongly for herself, to investigate the things she had always valued and to keep what was truly worthy and to change what wasn’t. With an indisputable and shattering sense of how little time she had left to live, she began to make every moment count. She went from living, to living very fully.
This is how we are called to live in Advent, especially, and always. Without panic or anger or sadness, we are to live as if the end is now (indeed—we really have no idea when it will come). We are to live like every moment counts, like every moment and every conversation is our great chance to communicate our love, our care, our gratitude, our regrets. We are not to waste a day—not to boredom, distraction, disinterest, lethargy, a busy schedule. It’s another precious, invaluable day in which to share, with all, our love and care, a day to use for deepening our connection to God and our determination to be agents of God’s love. What could be a higher calling?
This is a project of living in hope. We have nothing to go on but promises, but they are God’s promises, and that fact sustains our hope. There are always around us, signs of the times—indicators that our hopes are to be fulfilled. The trees sprout leaves and we know that our hopes for summer are being met. Great challenges come to our lives or our society and we see that God is still at work in and through us. In our reading from Mark’s gospel, Jesus warns us that the signs will be confusing, and indeed they are. In the year 70 of the Common Era, the great Jerusalem temple was destroyed, all seemed to go dark, and yet God and Christ were sending out angels to serve people in every corner of the world. In the year 2014 of the Common Era, a young man is shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri and, as of this morning, we are praying to God to reveal what sign of the time this is—a pivotal moment for justice, for citizens to call for fairness and equality and an equal valuation of every human life? Or, a sign of deeper descent into ungodly times of murder, immunity, and a hierarchy of human value. I think that if Christ walked among us today, he would tell us that living out of our Advent hope means that the choice is ours. The choice has always been ours—to use the signs of the times in human history as pivots toward the reign of God, or away from it—to use the things that happen to us as the impetus for really living (as with my cousin and her cancer) or to throw in the towel and say, “Jesus is coming—look busy.” The tragedy of Ferguson is yet another wake-up call to the importance of every day as one to live fully in hope of Christ’s imminent return.
Jesus warns us that things will be confusing: talk about confusing! In Advent, we wait for the birth of the Messiah and we know what we want: someone who will clean up all the messes, the injustices of earth, who will be on “our” side, who will reprimand the people we’ve never liked, who will, in essence, make everything go our way from now on. And that’s not what we’re going to get—we’ve already read through the books’ conclusion. We’re going to get a baby, a really, really, vulnerable baby, whose family will be on the run to save his life. He’s not about to smack down the individuals and the social structures we don’t like. He is more vulnerable to them than we are. Oh!
In the end, our biblical teachings for today are about several things—first, about living as if time is very short, and therefore being fully alive; the time for that is always right now. Second, they are about how confusing and different the ways of God may be from what we expect. If we hold on to what we are sure will be the future God has planned for us, we may miss it entirely when it comes. And so, third, we are called to adaptability and flexibility—if we struggle to fit God’s inheritance to us into our plans for ourselves, we will find that we lose that inheritance altogether. The Messiah isn’t a king on a horse but a baby in a trough—very easy to overlook.
These days of Advent are a confusing contradiction in and of themselves—they are desperately busy, not with shopping, but with loving, serving, seeing, hearing, sharing, giving, praying, thanking. We are to live life as if we know it is soon to end, making every moment count, checking the signs of the times for any opportunity to express our hope and joy. These are the true signs of faith, signs of the times, when life is so full and so real, and often so challenging. Still, we live as if there might not be one more second in which to share from the heart. Jesus is coming—let’s get busy!