December 3, 2017 – 1 Advent B
Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
“Don’t worry. Be happy.” In 1988 Bobby McFerrin released that Grammy Award winning song based on a saying that an Indian mystic had made famous many years earlier. On the surface it sounds like good Christian advice too. “Let go and let God,” we say. It goes with a bumper sticker I saw recently that said, “Pray more, worry less.” Seemingly good advice. But it doesn’t particularly fit well with the theme for the First Sunday of Advent: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come; keep awake; you do not know when the master of the house will come; keep awake.”
Today I would like to make a case for the place of worry in the Christian journey. Of course you should learn to worry less. But only if you’ve done enough worrying in the first place. Resting is good but not unless you’ve been awake for a while. Letting go and letting God is what we strive for but you can’t let go of something you haven’t first held onto and grappled with. Praying more is always a good thing but you can’t really pray well until you’ve first done some worrying. You can’t really let God do something until you’ve tried to do it yourself. The Christian faith isn’t about ignorant bliss. The Christian faith is about peace and acceptance which comes as a result of awareness. And let’s face it: if you are alert, if you are aware, if you are paying any attention at all, the first thing you are going to experience is worry. There’s a lot going on out there, and in here, that is troublesome. Being alert, being aware, being awake isn’t blissful ignorance.
Maybe the first thing that Advent tries to confront is denial. Remember the first thing Jesus talked about in his ministry? Repentance. After Jesus is baptized, the first thing he says publicly is, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Repentance is honestly facing a situation, being aware of what is involved, taking stock, being alert. Repentance is looking at life and seeing where we are headed. Repentance is coming to see that we need some help. Repentance is acknowledging that we can’t get where we want to go without some outside help. Repentance is hearing an invitation and responding. Repentance involves being alert, being aware, paying attention. The Christian faith ends with the healing of the great wound in our souls. It begins with paying attention to the wound. It begins with no longer denying the wound that is there.
Our liturgy enacts this so well for us every time we receive Holy Communion. What we all love about our liturgy in the Episcopal Church is that it’s not fear based. We don’t beat you about the head with how horrid you are. We send you out with a message of forgiveness each and every time. But first we put you on your knees and ask you to be aware of where your life is and where it is headed. We give you some help. But first we remind you that you need some help. We end up with the message that all manner of things shall be well. But first we ask you to admit that all manner of things are not yet well. Be awake. Be alert. Be aware.
The next great theme the beginning of Advent offers us is that of starting over. This is our new year starting up. This is the chance to begin anew. Advent reminds us that God is justly displeased with the ways of the world. But it doesn’t stop there. Advent teaches us that today everything starts over. It doesn’t pretend that last year never existed or deny that sin and human cruelty abound. It just reminds us that today God is willing to start over with us. That’s a remarkable message: today God is willing to start over with you. And, if you have honestly admitted how desperately you need a new start, being offered a new start is the most amazing freedom you can imagine. It’s like finally admitting a deep, dark secret and having someone look you in the eye and say, “Okay, that doesn’t change things; let’s put that behind us and move on.” That is a gift we really cannot imagine until we’ve admitted what we have been carrying. And carrying something little in life can be heavier than carrying something big.
Periodically we all face times in our relationships where we ask for forgiveness and receive it. The apology is an important part of that process. But my experience is that the apology is really more for me than for the other person. That person will either decide to forgive me or not. Sometimes an apology can help the other person know that I have sufficiently dealt with my misdeed but still whether they forgive me or not is up to them. I can’t control that. Apologies always help me though. They help me confront my own denial. They help me forgive myself and be able to move on. I’ve been forgiven in my life before I have apologized. But I’ve never been able to forgive myself without an apology.
So maybe what I’m trying to say isn’t about worrying precisely. But it helps me get at the meaning of the beginning of Advent, the beginning of the message of forgiveness offered to us through the cross and resurrection. The point is that there is work to be done and that work involves our awareness, our being alert, our paying attention, confessing our sins, apologizing, acknowledging that we need some help, honestly taking stock, becoming willing to start over again ourselves.
Maybe what we fear with awareness is that we’ll be stuck with knowing how horrible things are when we admit how horrible they are. So we get stuck denying things altogether. God has arranged it so that denial only wins for so long. Eventually something will happen to end my denial. Eventually the world will gently crumble or crash down around me and force me to see how things are. Eventually the householder comes home and will catch me sleeping, break my denial, force me to deal with reality. I can make the process easier and quicker by being awake and alert. But even if he comes and catches me sleeping, the message will be the same. God is willing to start over with me today. Any work that has to be done eventually is better done right now. All God asks is for us to honestly face who we are. Will you keep putting that off? Or will you start today? Keep awake. The kingdom of God is at hand.