A reflection on Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37 for Advent 1B
Recently my husband, son, and I watched (again) the first two movies of the Hunger Game’s series, in preparation for the release of the third movie. When I read the books a few years ago, I couldn’t put them down and consumed each of the three books, one after the other. I loved and hated them simultaneously. The storyline was so disturbing that it infiltrated my dreams in which I tried to rewrite the story so it was less upsetting. The setting is a post-apocalyptic era sometime in the future, in a country named Panem, which is divided into twelve districts that are ruled by an iron-clad government and where oppression and violence and poverty prevail. Ultimately it is a story of hope, justice and love.
Apocalyptic texts in the Bible do not forecast the future. Instead they address a present time, a time when life feels hopeless. The apocalyptic tone of our readings this morning are paradoxical, describing a hopeless state while pointing out a long history of God’s presence in the world. Only as we learn to understand how God has been with us in the past can we come to understand how God is with us through all of life’s challenges.
I have faced many challenges in my life – challenges to my health when I thought I might die; financial challenges that nearly devastated me when investments or jobs did not turn out as I imagined. I have faced deep and profound challenges which have caused me to doubt my faith, dig deeper into my faith, and sometimes wish that God was a magician who would change all the circumstances of my life and in one swift poof, make everything better. I know what its like to be completely broken and helpless and filled with a despair beyond words. And I know what its like to feel God’s presence in that bleak, lost state, and rest in the assurance that somehow life will get better, though I know not how, because God is with me and God yearns for my life, and your life, to be healthy, peaceful, and hopeful.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a famous Christian theologian who lived in Germany during the reign of Hitler. He was imprisoned for being part of a group of people who tried to overthrow Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s reflections on faith that rises in response to injustice, prison, and even the hiddenness of God, are among some of the most famous writings in Christian literature. He writes that though we yearn for a God who, (like some superhero, will fly into) our lives and with mighty power overturn the challenges and turn our despair into joy, this is not how God has chosen to be with us. Instead, God does not determine the circumstances of our lives – but God is with us. God rejoices with us when we are happy and suffers with us when tragedy strikes, God loves us along the way. God’s love manifests itself in us through the compassion of other people. God’s love manifests in those fleeting moments when trust prevails and peace can fill our hearts. God’s love is present when we give up the dogged fight to control every aspect of those uncontrollable circumstances. This peace, this release of control is the serenity prayer – God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. The serenity prayer is a prayer of release and hope. “Hope is what is left when your worst fears have been realized and you are no longer optimistic about the future. Hope is what comes with a broken heart willing to be mended.” Hope is the feeling that comes to us, as a sign that God is with us.
Tragedy, grief, challenges, despair, fear can silence and paralyze us. But so too, they can open us to know God in ways in which God is otherwise hidden. In our deepest moments of vulnerability we become so raw that God’s presence can be seen and felt in the least expected ways. Like Katniss in the first Hunger Games book, refusing to allow the government to win, refusing to choose between her life or Peeta’s she makes an unexpected choice, an act of compassion. This compassionate act of love and justice sets in motion a turn of events that changes everything.
Today begins the season of Advent. Advent marks the beginning of the liturgical cycle in the church year. The tone, the colors, the feeling of worship is distinct in Advent – more reflective, more subdued, a contrast to an otherwise hectic world.
During the four Sundays of Advent we are preparing for Christmas, for the birth of Christ. On this first Sunday of Advent we are called to stay awake. Staying awake means we are to stay aware of and attentive to the world around us. We are also to be aware of what is happening inside of us – how God is acting in and through our lives. God is calling us to action, to love and compassion, to hope and trust, even when everything seems lost. This call is not about magical thinking – which has a child-like quality to it. God’s call to action is about maturing faith, faith that grows deeper through the challenges of life, providing us the substance to sustain us through the most difficult times, affording us the ability to find peace despite all obstacles to the contrary. God’s call to us is a reminder that when all seems bleak and lost, when one door has closed and the other has not opened, when we live with fear and anxiety, when the future is more uncertain than usual, God’s call reminds us to stop, to look, to be attentive, to breathe, to be still, to just be, so that we can feel God’s presence. We may be assured of God’s presence from stories in scripture or our own life experience, and through prayer enabled to feel God as a fleeting sensation of peace. Elusive though the moments of peace may be, Advent invites us to intentionally seek moments of silence, wherein we may catch a glimpse of hope and love, and the potential for the new life to come; the promise of Emanuel and the comfort of knowing that God is with us, and somehow, all will be well.