It Turns Out Advent Is Not All That Gentle or Tender

Sunday, December 7, 2014.

We expect today to be a pretty normal day, don’t we?

We expect to get up, think longingly of going to back to bed while drinking our coffee, hunt down some Kleenex to deal with the cold getting passed around, go to church, greet our friends, go home this afternoon, watch some Colts football, and call it a day.

A normal Sunday. Unremarkable, but satisfying.

Our world is stable beneath our feet.

A lot of Americans had similar expectations to ours on a Sunday, December 7 seventy-three years ago. They expected to wake up, go to church, spend time with their families, and call it a day.

Instead, their world exploded.

That was Sunday, December 7, 1941.

President Roosevelt called it the date that will live in infamy. It was the day Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan.

In one instant, America, and in fact the world, were changed forever.

Before that day, people thought they knew the script.

There was a certain way things were done.

There was a known balance of power.

People knew what to expect.

But suddenly over 2,400 Americans were dead and over 1,700 were wounded, and the entire nation felt vulnerable to attack.

Who was next?

We might remember our own feelings in the days following the 9/11 attacks.

In a little over half an hour, this bombing raid by the Japanese fundamentally altered the American landscape.

In the literal sense, a powerful military base in the beautiful Hawaiian islands and the mighty American fleet housed there was destroyed, along with 2,400 lives.

But in the larger sense, the American sense of safety and superiority was destroyed, and the nation was suddenly at war.

It’s terrifying to imagine our own landscapes so fundamentally changed, especially in such a negative way as happened with Pearl Harbor.

But God will at times use similar tactics to wake us up from our complacency.

We often think of Advent as a gentle, tender time of patience, waiting, and preparing, and it absolutely is.

But there is a vein of utter upheaval running through the scriptures of the season, embodied most vividly in the person of John the Baptist.

John is not gentle and tender.

He is a 360 degree tornado siren blasting us with simultaneously good and terrifying news.

Awake! Repent! The Holy One of Israel is coming!

And the very landscape of the earth itself will be exploded out of its comfortable setting to make ready for his arrival.

“Every valley shall be lifted up,” Isaiah says, “and every mountain and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

These landscapes do not get a choice about whether they will be changed.

The coming of the Messiah is so world-altering that nothing can stop the upheaval.

Are we ready for that in our lives?

Part of the slow and patient preparation of Advent is letting the knowledge sink in that the coming of Jesus will fundamentally change our internal landscapes.

Our hills and mountains of pride will be leveled by his majesty, and our valleys of self-doubt and shame will be lifted up by his love.

Our uneven and crooked habits of discipleship will be made level and steady, and our rough edges of crankiness and stinginess and pessimism will be smoothed away.

But that may not be a Hallmark-card-worthy event accompanied by gently sparkling Christmas tree lights, hot chocolate by the fire, and softly ringing sleigh bells.

The kind of upheaval Isaiah and John the Baptist are talking about is sudden, violent, and uncontrollable by us.

But notice a shift that happens in the scriptures.

We are promised this explosion of our landscape, this fundamental rearrangement that puts everything back to front brought on by the coming of the Messiah.

We don’t have control of that.

The only preparation we can make is to commit ourselves to hang on for the ride and welcome the coming change of ourselves and our lives, scary though that may be.

But then the scripture gives us something to hang on to: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” Isaiah says.

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” John the Baptist echoes, “make his paths straight.”

We have a chance to be part of the changing of the earth that the Messiah brings, in fact we have been invited to be a key part of it!

We can sit back and watch with dismay as our minds and our hearts and our lives are rearranged, or we can take active part in it, welcoming the coming of Jesus and preparing the way to our inmost depths for him to take as he arrives.

And that is change that we can work on one small step at a time, one good act of service at a time, one prayer at a time.

I saw in South Africa the legacy of someone who did exactly that, who moved a mountain one stone at a time.

When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, he and his fellow prisoners were forced to break rocks in a quarry, all day, every day. Boulders into rocks, rocks into stones, stones into pebbles, pebbles into dust.

It was utterly meaningless work.

The rocks were not being put to any use for building. It was simply to grind the prisoners down to dust along with the rocks they were breaking.

But Mandela and his fellow prisoners did not accept this wasting of their days and their labor.

They formed an informal, underground university in the rock quarry.

Each man had different skills, knowledge and expertise from his time before prison, and one at a time, as they broke rocks, they each taught the group from their knowledge.

Although they were breaking rocks outwardly, inwardly in their community they were learning literature and art and history and plumbing and farming and revolutionary political theory.

They moved themselves to a higher level of consciousness one rock at a time, and they cemented their community and kept their minds and spirits alive and active at the same time, despite all the efforts of the apartheid government to break them down to nothing.

When Nelson Mandela went back to visit Robben Island after he had been elected president, he went to the rock quarry.

He stood there gazing over the place that he and his comrades had transformed from hopelessness to hope, from dehumanizing drudgery to a celebration of the great achievements of humanity shared one educational lecture at a time between prisoners.

The large group of party members and press with him held their breath, wondering what he would say or do.

Would he rail and scream at the injustice that had been perpetrated against him?

He had every right to as he went back to the place designed to break him.

Would he give a speech? Pose for a photo?

Mandela went to the quarry wall, picked up a stone, brought it back to the center of the open ground, and set it down.

This was an act of memory and honor to the suffering they had undergone and the redemption they had brought it by their sharing of themselves with each other.

One by one the other people gathered there each also took stones until a small cairn was built on the ground, a little hill of stones, small in the midst of the huge quarry, but giant in terms of the triumph of the human spirit it represents.

That cairn is still there. I saw it myself.

The bottom line is that the earth will change.

The landscapes we know, both internal and external, will not and cannot remain the same when the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, comes among us.

The question is whether it comes as a sudden and terrible shock, the way the bombing at Pearl Harbor did to Americans on this day seventy-three years ago, or whether we prepare and acknowledge and welcome the upheaval, doing our own part to move mountains one stone at a time like Nelson Mandela.

When the dust settles and the newly exalted valleys and newly brought low mountains have become the straight path the Messiah takes to enter our lives and our hearts, Isaiah reveals the promise of what that new earth will be like: “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”

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