Sunday, 2 December 2012

Advent 1: Paying attention

Jeremiah 33.14-16, 1 Thess 3.9-13, Luke 21.25-36

“Be alert at all times!” says Jesus in the Gospel reading.
Oh Jesus! Do we have to…?
I don’t know about you, but at this time of year all my instincts are telling me to go into hibernation, to curl up like the bears and the bats and the hedgehogs and sleep till the spring, to pull the duvet over my head and stay in bed – especially when the church heating isn’t working!
I don’t suppose I’m alone in feeling that.
Why do our Advent readings have to demand that we wake up, open our eyes, lift our heads?
Can’t we just be left to slumber?

That isn’t as unreasonable a question as it might sound. Many people these days get far too little rest. I seem to have spoken to a lot of tired people recently, people struggling to make ends meet, on the go all the time, constantly under pressure to do more with less in the midst of very real difficulties – financial, personal or family. There’s often no simple way to ease up when times are hard, but it is important to stop, to say “enough” when we can. The Bible doesn’t advocate burning out. Quite the reverse: rest is sacred. We are told to keep a Sabbath, a regular time for doing nothing. The point of that rest, though, isn’t to help us run away from life, pulling the duvet over our heads, so to speak, but to help us deal with life better, live it more deeply and fully. “In returning and rest you shall be saved” says the prophet Isaiah.  If the Advent call to wake up feels like just another demand sent to hound us, another burden to bear, more stuff we ought to do, then perhaps there’s something wrong with the way we are understanding it.

The truth of the matter is that the call to be alert isn’t about embarking on yet another round of frenetic activity – “look busy, the boss is coming!” It is a call to live consciously, rather than simply being swept along by whatever forces are strongest around us, sleepwalking through life. It is what Buddhists would call mindfulness, but it is just as much a part of Christian faith, and the Jewish faith it grew from.

It is all about paying attention, paying attention to God, paying attention to ourselves, paying attention to others, paying attention to what is – to reality – seeing what is in front of us, and the promise of the Bible is that if we can do that properly it will bring us the true rest we really need.

The dramatic language of today’s Gospel reading can seem rather alien to us, and far from restful - shaking heavens, roaring seas, distress among nations. All this apocalyptic imagery would have been familiar to a first century Christian, but to us it just sounds odd. Did Jesus really believe that that this was what was going to happen? The answer is probably yes. He was a man of his time, just as we are of ours. His followers certainly believed that the end of the world as they knew it was just around the corner.

Two thousand years of history have shown that they were mistaken, but the underlying message Jesus gives them is still worth hearing, because actually his intention wasn’t to tell them how  to predict when and how the world might end, but to help them live in a world which must have constantly felt as if it might be tumbling down around their ears. Many of those who first heard these words were persecuted for their faith, but even if they weren’t life was precarious anyway – disease, war, famine – they were constant companions in the fragile world of the first century, sweeping people away without a moment’s notice, just as they still do in many countries today. The end of the age, in some cosmic, universal sense, might not be around the corner, but the end of the world for each of us personally – whether that is physical death or some other sort of loss or disaster – can still come on us completely unawares.

How do we cope with that? We could try anxiously to build defences against every possible threat, to take out insurance against everything that could go wrong, but that is a strategy which can only go so far. There are some things against which there is no safeguard, for which there is no insurance. No amount of money, power or influence will cure an incurable disease or prevent a relationship from failing. In our current economic climate many people who assumed their jobs were safe for life have found that isn’t so, through no fault of their own and have found all their security wiped away.

The answer can’t be in trying to make sure nothing bad ever happens to us. No one can do that. It is how we respond to what happens to us that makes the difference. And that has a great deal to do with this business of paying attention, being alert, as the Gospel puts it here. It’s not just about seeing the problems either, it is about seeing the ways in which God is present in the midst of our trouble. “When these things take place” says Jesus, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Look at the fig tree, whose unfurling leaves tell you summer is on the way. In the same way God’s kingdom is growing among you – pay attention to its small beginnings and nurture them.

What might “paying attention” look like in practice? It might be about paying attention to the word of God, reading the Bible, spending time in prayer and reflection. When trouble strikes, say the loss of a job, often the worst bit isn’t the practical impact, hard though that can be, but the way it makes us question ourselves. People talk about feeling like they have been thrown on the scrap heap, treated like rubbish. Paying attention to God, helps us to take in another message, that we are eternally loved, that we are of infinite value to him – the more deeply rooted that awareness is the more it can challenge that lie of worthlessness.

Paying attention might mean waking up to ourselves, to the things we need to change, the things that, as Jesus puts it, cause our hearts to be weighed down. It is also, though, about knowing what we care about, knowing what we value, knowing what really matters to us, so that we can concentrate on that when our resources feel scarce.

Paying attention should also turn us outwards as well, though. In our second reading Paul gives thanks for the Thessalonians. He is aware of their love for him, and it plainly gives him strength and courage. The love of the Christian community was of immense importance to Paul. Remember, this was the man who had once hated and persecuted Christians, until, on the road to Damascus, he’d had a dazzling vision of Jesus. But it wasn’t just the vision which changed him, it was the fact that when he got to Damascus, blind and confused, one of the very people he had been persecuting, a Christian called Ananias, had come to him – the enemy – prayed for his healing, taken him in and welcomed him into this very community he had been working to destroy. No wonder he wrote in one of his other letters so glowingly about love which “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” He knew it for himself, and he wanted others to know it too, to pay attention to it, to draw on the strength that a community of loving people can provide. I know that is the case here - I see day to day the quiet, often unsung care that goes on between you all, and is extended to those around you, as you pay attention to each other. It is easy to take all that care for granted – but the love which notices people and helps them in the small things of life is something which many today are desperately hungry for.

No one has a magic wand to wave away the sorrows of the world – the heavens do shake, there is distress among nations – it is part of life. But within all that trouble there are also the seeds of love and hope and joy, growing stubbornly amidst the wreckage of the world. Our job this Advent, and all year round is to pay attention to those seeds wherever we find them so that they will grow into the kingdom God wants us all to share.

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