Earlier this week I was bemoaning the tone of this morning’s readings, and someone responded, “Keep awake!” I would never have expected this particular person to come up with that quite so quickly, and offered to let him preach in my place. (He declined.)
But this notion of “keeping awake” is not quite so simple as we might think. As one of the commentaries I read pointed out, the last thing people need in the frenetic, pre-Christmas activity, is encouragement to be even more sleep-deprived. Sleep is not the enemy. It is, in fact, a gift from God, to help restore our bodies, minds and spirits.
“Keep awake” might better be translated “keep alert” or “stay watchful.” Pay attention so that you don’t miss the moments when the kingdom of God is breaking through the chaos.
That’s the important thing to keep in mind as you read these passages with imagery of heavens torn open, mountains quaking, fire so hot it boils the water in the lakes and rivers, suns being darkened and moons refusing to give light, stars falling and fig trees bursting forth…
Wait, what? Fig trees? What do figs trees have to do with the end of the world?
All of that other stuff, those destructive images, are part of the vocabulary of apocalyptic literature. Go back to the book of Daniel or any of the later prophets, go forward to the book of Revelation—that’s what you’ll find. It’s metaphorical language meant to convey a sense of things being turned upside down and inside out. It’s one way of understanding God’s activity in the world.
But Jesus turns away from that. He turns away from the idea that God can only change things for us through destructive means. He suggests that another way of seeing God at work in the world is to look for the things coming back to life, the things growing green and beginning to bear fruit again. God does work through the chaos (though none of these readings suggest God causes the chaos). But God also works in creative ways, as well.
Which brings me to my favorite line from all these readings today. It’s one you might have missed as you reeled from the uncomfortable imagery that preceded it.
It’s in the first reading, from Isaiah.
“Yet you, O LORD, are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
For all of you who tend toward the heresy of Marcionism, and suggest that the God of the Old Testament is angry and destructive, while the God of the New Testament is loving and creative, here’s one of the places to take note. There are plenty of places in the Old Testament that portray a loving God who wants only the best for us. The idea of God as “Father” was not created by Jesus, it just took on new meaning.
In this season of Advent, we are encouraged to keep alert to the ways in which God is giving new meaning to old ideas, old ways of doing things. It doesn’t say that the way things were done before was wrong. It just offers us a glimpse of the ways in which our creative God is finding new ways of being present with us. Advent is preparing us not just for the birth of the baby Jesus, which we celebrate on the Feast of the Incarnation—Christmas—but for all the ways in which God becomes incarnate in our midst every day. God is constantly shaping and reshaping us so that we will be able to hold the Holy Spirit for this place and time.
That’s why I love that image of the Potter and the clay.
Anybody who has done anything with clay, be it fine porcelain pottery or play-dough, knows how quickly the clay can lose malleability. Flexibility is a requirement of good clay, so that it can be shaped and reshaped until it is in the form the potter wants. So if you take nothing else from this sermon today, I hope you remember to try to remain flexible through the rest of Advent.
But the potter can’t just go out and dig up a clump of clay from the river bank and start working it into the shape of a pot or a pitcher. First it has to be cleared of impurities. Then it has to be kneaded, to work out the air bubbles and attain a more even moisture content. Only then can the potter begin to turn it into something specific.
And of course it doesn’t end there. Giving a formless lump shape is not the whole process. It has to be allowed to dry, and then be fired, which changes the mineral content in the clay so that it can retain its shape without being brittle. Only then can the potter adorn it with glaze—and if the potter does decide to add some decorative color, it has to be fired again.
Think about your own spiritual development. About the times when it feels like God is right there, hands-on, shaping and forming you. Those are the ones we like, right?
But the other times are necessary too. In that first reading, the people of Israel feel like God has stepped away from them, abandoned them to themselves. But how different would their perception be if they recognized it as their ‘drying’ time? A time when God has to step back and let things take shape.
And none of us enjoys the firing process. We would all like to avoid the heat of the spiritual kiln. But I bet if we look back at those times, we will see that they gave a strength and resilience that could not have been produced any other way.
This week I read a commentary that talked about Advent as a time for “passionate patience.” Not the frenetic activity of Christmas preparations—shopping and decorating and cooking and wrapping and singing and holly jolly ho ho HO I’m tired! Nor is it about completely retreating from the world and pretending none of it is happening.
Advent is a time of being aware and open to whatever God is doing in the moment; kneading us to work out the bubbles that would do us damage in the kiln, shaping us, and reshaping us, allowing us time to dry so that we can hold this new shape God has created for us.
Advent is a time of staying alert to the activity of God and participating in that activity in whatever way we can. Advent is for remembering that Christ is waiting to be made incarnate in us at any moment. At every moment.
Advent is short this year—three weeks from today is both Advent 4 and Christmas Eve. I imagine I am not the only one who feels a little stressed by how quickly my calendar between now and then is filling up. I am sure I’m not the only one who is thinking, “this whole idea of you reshaping me is lovely, God, but could we maybe wait until early February when I have more time?!”
I invite you to take some time every day to stop, and breathe, and let God remind you that your belovedness is not tied to the perfect Christmas dinner or the most beautiful decorations or the best presents ever. Your belovedness comes from being God’s child, just as you are. Be passionately patient. Allow God to continue to work your clay, kneading out the bubbles and shaping you into a vessel ever more fit for God’s grace. And keep awake, alert, so you recognize those moments when you need to tip over and let the love of Christ flow out onto a world that is in desperate need of it.