Advent is a busy time in the life of anyone, let alone a pastor. A hospital was the last place I ever planned to be during the weeks leading up to Christmas, with the exception of visiting other people. But one year, my body decided otherwise. And so, in mid-December, I lay under the surgeon's knife for the second time in a year.
A hospital is not a haven of quiet and rest. It is anything but a peaceful place. I had a roommate who smoked in the bathroom and turned the lights and TV on in the middle of the night with no regard to my feeble attempts to sleep. Across the hall, an elderly woman with no idea where she was howled with pain and cried for help at least once every three minutes, day and night, day and night, day and night.
I was a tall, skinny, spindly-legged girl, gawky and uncoordinated. I recall my kindergarten teacher being alarmed when initially I could skip only on one side of my body. But all through my elementary years jump rope proved particularly challenging. Remember the schoolyard motion -- elbows bent at the waist, palms down, a slight rocking motion, hands pushing the air in time with the rope? I could do that for hours. Days. I never knew how to jump in.
I feel like that with a text like this. I'm not quite sure how to jump in here.
Scholars come along and try to give us a push: It's just apocalyptic literature, they say. So we jump in -- only to discover that apocalyptic is the double-dutch of biblical genres, and we collapse in a tangled mess of dispensational exegesis.
The fact that it's Advent, too, the beginning of the church's liturgical calendar, the Christian New Year, complicates matters as well. Because this text is more about an ending than a beginning, and it hardly evokes a sense of celebration. Yes, we're assured Jesus is coming again ... but not before we're bombarded with images of persecution and pestilence, cosmic disturbance and destruction. Don't let the prescribed lectionary boundaries try to soften the blow -- force yourself to go all the way back, at least to verse 12 and start reading there. Linger over these verses and you begin to get the sense that apparently followers of Jesus are not exempt from suffering. So much for a happy New Year.
Getting to Bethlehem this year has been rough. Immediately after last year's trek came the massive Indian Ocean tsunami. Since then we have endured the most active hurricane season ever on record, including the still mind-numbing devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. October brought the earthquake in Pakistan that killed a staggering 75,000 people. Meanwhile, fresh accounts of political corruption continue to fill newspapers, heating bills are up, and national morale is down.
How do we get to Bethlehem this year? A minimum wage worker must work almost a full day to fill his car's gas tank. Airlines are struggling in bankruptcy. Amtrak is plagued by equipment breakdowns. How do we get to Bethlehem? How do we get past the 150,000 service men and women who are in Iraq, separated from family and festivities, and for some, separated from new babies they have fathered but never seen? Amid suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices, their safety is anything but assured; their length of stay is up in the air.
The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. has a crÃ¨che collection gathered from all over the world. Various hands sculpted these figures from every conceivable material: stone, wool, glass, and even cow dung. The tropical regions portray Jesus under palm trees with very little cloth swaddling him, while cold climates show the holy family wrapped tightly, huddled and surrounded by snow. They remind us that we interpret this beautiful story in our own contexts; we pick up what the gospel writers leave out as we imagine the earthy smell of the hay, the rough texture of the feeding trough and the gentle sounds of the animals. These miniature mangers capture that crucial period after a baby is born, when the bonds of relationships strengthen as an infant is introduced to a family with care and attention. It is a time for welcoming, healing and wholeness.
In our culture, family leave policies enable this opportunity, yet within our church, that time off is often seen as an unnecessary benefit. Although sick leave after major surgery is expected, congregations can be unclear about the fair expectations of parents when a child enters their family. When I look at the adoring Mary and Joseph, a startling love bubbles up as I recall the birth of my own child. I also remember the confusion in our churches and Presbytery.
Without sounding as melodramatic as Daniel did about his inner life, I recently had a dream. It went like this: We came home, opened the front door of the house, and discovered to our surprise that it was as empty as a gourd.
I do not mean just somewhat empty. When you are preparing to move and you are packing everything up you can say that it is empty when it is still half full of stuff. But this time I mean spic and span--astonishingly clean. If Hemingway had been there he would have said that it was the original clean well lighted place. It was apocalyptically bare.
Dreams are big these days. There is open season on them by both novelists and psychotherapists. Nevertheless, I am not so sure that the experts would do much with this one. It could be beyond the grasp of even that newly evolved profession, life coach/mentor. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung could have met at Seattle's Best over it, flipped for paying the bill, and left shaking their heads.
With all due respect to Holy Scripture, this is some great Advent sermon fodder. There is Isaiah 64's cry to come down; Psalm 81's plea to come to save us, and the thrice reiterated restore us," and, I Corinthians 1's invitation to patiently wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
But when it comes to interpreting Mark 13's imperatives to stay alert and keep awake from a Reformed theological perspective, we who live after the publication of some 62 million copies of The Left Behind series (not to mention some two-thousand Advents, more or less), have our work cut out for us. The mild-mannered Christianity Today once referred to LaHaye and Jenkins' series as a multi-"volume post-rapture, dispensational soap opera." But this stuff--page-turning intrigue and hair-raising climaxes notwithstanding--is not harmless entertainment. It's theology.
Despite late November spring-like temperatures, the fiery red, golden passion of October's glory has fallen fast. From the mighty oak, maple and ash, the crippled stem and crinkled leaf have tumbled down to the hard, hard ground, where they are crushed like fodder under the hoof of the deer and the boot of the hunter.
The season is upon us when all our hopes are trained on the inexhaustibility of a particular event in time and space, the coming of Jesus Christ. It is a season in which we remember that the gospel is received in the mode of anticipating and awaiting a promise.