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Denominations that use the Common Lectionary as a source for their Sunday readings find the choices for the first Sunday of Advent present us with messages from Chapter 33 of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah 33:14-16; Chapter 3 of the letter to the community at Thessalonica and portions from Chapter 21 of the Gospel according to Luke. The proclamations offer a complexity that entwines good news with the dire consequences that come when we do not follow God’s will and way.
I hear a dual call, “Be aware and beware!” I am pulled in two directions.
The truth is I have always found these readings to be puzzling ones. They puzzle me because I tend to categorize the dire warnings, the pronouncement of tragedy to be Lenten messages. That’s the time for pondering life’s realities in light of an inevitable crucifixion, isn’t it? But now? Now, as we prepare for birth, as we await the coming of a savior, redeemer, companion and consoler? Now I look for good news, not omens of peril.
I guess I need to look more intently and intensely at the signs of the times. I need to ponder what I am looking for and looking at. I need to examine what I see. I need to find divinity in all that comes within my view. I also need to expand my view and deepen it so that my sight will become insight. I need to see with spiritual eyes.
Ken Burns’ documentary on the Dust Bowl, following hard on the heels of Hurricane Sandy, were prime examples of signs that speak to us about our involvement with the universe. Both phenomena astonished us with the power of nature. Each was at the end of a disastrous spectrum: drought and flood, too little water and too much. Both made us gasp with horror at the swiftness with which our life as we know it can change, if not end.
People died during both events. They likely did not die of fright in anticipation of what was coming. They died in the midst of the occurrences or as a result of them. They died while the powers of heaven shook our earth. Their death brought new life. Death is the vehicle that drives transformation.
These readings cause me to stop and consider death and life. They impel my musing, pondering, and contemplating. They evoke questions more than answers. I ask myself, what comprises death? What is the essence of life? What does it mean to be awake, aware, vigilant? What is the difference between expectation and expectancy? Most of all, what has all of this got to do with the season of Advent as preparation for Christmas?
The psalm chosen for this day offers sound advice. I’ll not approach a positive response to my questions unless I lift my soul to God. That’s my starting point, my constant measuring stick, and my goal...not in sequence, but simultaneously. If my life is a process in which and by which I lift my soul, raise my spirit to God, I will better see the signs about me as ones that enhance my vigilance and shake the divine power within me into action.
If my prayer to God is heartfelt, I’ll ask that God’s ways be made know to me. I’ll want God’s truth to guide and teach me. Only then will I be able to guide and teach others about the paths of kindness and constance, about God’s friendship and covenant relationship with us and ours with God. Only then will I be able to read the signs of the times as calls and commands for deepening awareness. Only then will those signs be viewed as opportunities to live a meaningful life.
When I begin to understand the readings in that light, I see more clearly they are not disastrous or destructive for this time of year. They are not charges of catastrophe but calls to commitment. Their challenge is not meant to cast us into immobility nor to coerce us into obedience. The challenge is to enter more deeply into life, to become ever more aware that we have only this day, this time, to be birthed anew.
Whatever our status quo might be, it is going to be shaken to the core. Each time we allow ourselves to become drowsy, we will be awakened by God. It will not matter what is causing our drowsiness. It could be carousing with consumerism or becoming drunk with power, pleasure, prestige or position. It could be the sluggishness that comes when we are overcome with the anxieties of daily life. It could be the listlessness embedded in a “same ole, same ole” existence. The cause does not matter. The effect is equally dramatic, equally devastating.
Advent is awareness time. Advent is the season to beware of all that assaults our life with God. It is the time to gift ourselves with immanence more than eminence, to be alert to divinity in all humanity. Advent is the prime time to stop, look, and listen to God signs all around us, deep within us.
It’s a challenge, to be sure. It is made even more challenging by a societal push to consume, to buy, to stockpile. More is the cry...not bah, humbug! Bigger, better, newer, fancier—we are drowning in those words and we are simultaneously in a drought because of them.
Is it all bad news, then? I think not. The good news is that we are given the time during this season to look for the signs, to read them, heed them, and know that we need them.
The good news is given to us by the prophet, Jeremiah. “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and Judah. In those days, in that time, I will raise up a just shoot; he shall do what is right and just in the land. In those days, Judah shall be safe and Jerusalem shall dwell secure; this is what they shall call her: ‘The Lord our justice.’”
The good news is we are the recipients of God’s promise. Look for the signs.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Novant Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.