I’d like to think that Advent begins with the voices of the prophet Isaiah and of John the Baptist declaring,
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God!”
For good or for ill, however, many people hear a totally different voice. Oh, the message is the same as Isaiah’s:
“What shall I cry?
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.” [Isaiah 40:6-7]
The voice that speaks and the words it uses are different, though. You may find them familiar yourself:
That is, of course, from the beginning of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Charlie Brown isn’t the only one to have a generalized sense of fear and dread. Long before Charles Schulz, Jesus had said,
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” [Luke 21:25-26]
As much as I would like to tell you a simple, “Fear not!”, I have to note that these are Jesus’ words. He’s the one who said to watch out for times and seasons when things may seem to be going drastically awry because they really are going wrong. W.H. Auden wrote a poem about how a sense of dread overcame him one day, sitting in a bar in New York. It starts:
“I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.”
The title is “September 1, 1939”. That was the day that Hitler invaded Poland.
You might want to ask yourself what keeps you awake at night when you think of the state of the world. Is it AIDS or ebola? Climate change? Terrorists getting hold of powerful weapons? Perhaps it’s something more personal, like a health issue or job security or a troubled relationship. Maybe you’re not worried so much for yourself, but someone you love is in trouble and you cannot figure out what’s going on or how to help them. If you linger too long all the things that can and do go wrong in the world, it can become paralyzing and you can become like a deer in the headlights. (By the way, the chance of hitting a deer is one of the things that gets me.) This past week I heard Terry Gross comment that “Rumination is introspection’s evil twin.”
Jesus said that it’s wise to be aware of these things, not to erase uncomfortable realities from your mind by getting drunk or killing your brain cells any other way. If the world is a dangerous place, you want to keep your wits about you. At the same time, he says not to worry about things in the way that would tie you up with fear.
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” [Luke 21:34-35]
Instead, what you want to keep in mind is that beyond each time of trouble, whether it is personal trials and hardships or whether it is trouble on a world or even cosmic scale, God has something better in mind that lies on the other side of it. If you keep your eyes open, there are always going to be signs of that as well – small, perhaps, but real signs that the God who made all things makes all things new. Jesus said,
“Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” [Luke 21:29-31]
Somebody walking into my house one Saturday in the middle of December might find the entry hall with the doormat pushed up against the wall or knocked to the middle of the floor. They might find a toolbox sitting there, open, with a few items scattered all over the place. This is not normal. They might take a couple more steps and see that the dining room chairs have been shoved aside and look into the living room and see another chair and an end table out of place, sitting right in the middle of the room where they do not belong. They might say, “Something is wrong here. What is broken? What’s the matter?” And then, taking a step or two more, cautiously and carefully, they will see the far corner of the living room and realize that it’s all so chaotic because I’m putting up my Christmas tree.
A small piece of advice: it’s probably best to stay out of my way and quiet until the lights are all on the tree. But after that, feel free to help out with the ornaments.