Advent in July

by Rev. J.C. Austin

If there’s a universal experience of life during the pandemic, it must be the loss of any real grasp of how to count time. Honestly, if I didn’t have Sunday worship as a reliable touchstone, I really don’t know how I would keep any of it straight, and even then I keep worrying that one of these weeks it’s going to be Sunday and I’m going to think it’s Saturday and our tech guys, Aaron and Kyle, are going to have to flip each other for who has to try to come up with a sermon on the fly.

But I don’t just mean the inability to tell the day of the week. Despite the fact that I know it’s mid-July and it’s warm outside, I’m still struggling to truly realize that it’s summer, because so much of what I associate with summer is so different or not possible (or at least not wise) this year: traveling, going to the beach, attending concerts, and so on.

So: the seasons blend together until they are indistinguishable; the weeks blend together so you can’t tell what day it is, and the days seem to have their own laws of time. I suspect most working parents would tell you that it’s not just the Lord for whom a day is like a thousand years, as Peter puts it. When you are working a demanding full-time job from a home office while simultaneously serving as a full-time parent, you need about a thousand years to get everything done that’s on the agenda for a single day. And then you have do it again, and again, and again. And the only prospects of this shifting, a return to in-person school in the fall are at least as overwhelming as this reality has been, as we’ve seen in the tense debates over that question in the last few weeks.

Many people have said that the experience of living through this pandemic reminds them of the film Groundhog Day, the classic comedy from the early 1990s starring Bill Murray. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s streaming on Netflix right now.) The basic premise is that Murray’s character is a self-centered weather reporter from Pittsburgh who reluctantly goes to Punxsutawney to cover the Groundhog Day celebrations there the next day, thinking that it is beneath him to do so.

He wakes up that morning in a local inn, gives a half-hearted report on the groundhog’s prediction, and then finds himself unable to leave because of a blizzard that, ironically, he predicted would miss the state entirely. The next morning, the alarm goes off, but as the morning progresses, he realizes that it is still Groundhog Day, and he has to go through the whole celebration and the rest of the day again. Somehow, he has gotten caught in a sort of time loop where he is forced to relive the same day, Groundhog Day, over and over again in Punxsutawney.

Once he realizes that there seems to be nothing he can do to escape, and that no matter what he does, he wakes up the next morning in the inn again on Groundhog Day, he initially takes advantage of the situation. He eats a massive amount of spectacularly unhealthy food; he gets drunk; he commits crimes; and he starts using his knowledge of what’s going to happen that day to manipulate the locals and try to seduce his beautiful co-worker.

Eventually, he grows depressed and self-destructive, but no matter what he does, he still wakes up the next morning back in the inn, starting the same day to the same music playing on his alarm clock again. For him, a day truly is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like a day. All this, of course, is part of why so many people have likened the experience of life during the pandemic to the movie.

For many of us, the quarantine has involved most of those things: not the crime spree, hopefully, but certainly the repetitiveness of the days, the self-medication of overindulging in food and/or drink, the growing melancholy of realizing that we are going to be in this loop for a lot longer than we ever expected, and there doesn’t seem to be much that we as individuals can do to break out of it.

The recipients of Peter’s letter could have related to all this. The well-known opening line, “…with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day,” has been sadly weaponized by many a bad preacher to try and convince people to accept their own oppression, suffering, and abuse. But when you read it in context, you realize that Peter actually intended the opposite.

He fully recognizes that his audience is living in a nightmarish Groundhog Day of persecution for their faith themselves, enduring all kinds of suffering and abuse. And he doesn’t say any nonsense about God never giving them more than they can handle, or that this is actually good for them because it strengthens their faith, or any of the other heresies that people offer up in God’s name to try and get people to accept their suffering.

He never tells them to just sit there and take it, or to simply be patient because God will come in God’s own mysterious time and make things better, or that “you’ll get pie in the sky when you die,” in the words of the early 20th century folk song that satirized such theologically bankrupt preachers. Instead, he says that God isn’t being slow about fulfilling his promise to fully redeem the world through Christ’s final establishment of his kingdom. Rather, God is giving the world as much time as possible to respond with repentance to God’s will for a just and peaceful world instead of flouting it through perpetuating violence, inequity, and oppression.

That’s why this passage is most frequently read in worship today during the season of Advent. Advent, as you probably know, is the Christian season that comes before Christmas. And often, that’s primarily how we observe it, if we observe it at all: as waiting for the celebration of Christmas to come. We do daily Advent calendars at home as a sort of liturgical countdown until Christmas. We light candles in worship on the four Sundays before Christmas to mark the passage of Advent.

But we also resist the idea that Advent has its own very important substance; it is not just a preamble or overture that comes before the real holiday. Advent, theologically, actually has little to do with anticipating the celebration of Christmas; Advent, as a season, is a time in which we remember and claim God’s promise that the gospel is not, was never about getting “pie in the sky when you die;” it is not about escaping this world by being pulled out of it. God has no intention of letting this world go or letting Christians escape it; that is literally the exact opposite of the gospel.

As John puts it in his gospel: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The season of Advent is when we remember and yes, celebrate, the conviction that in and through Jesus Christ, God will fully redeem this world and everything in it. That is the final promise of the gospel; that is the true purpose of celebrating Advent, which we do through purposeful waiting, active waiting, a waiting that both anticipates and lives into the Advent promise by acting in ways that help build up Christ’s kingdom.

That is what Peter means when he makes the extraordinary statement that we do not simply wait for the coming of the day of the Lord, but we can actually be part of hastening it through our own lives of faithfulness, of holiness, of purposeful and faithful action to live out God’s commands of love and justice and mercy and peace, because to do so is to incarnate God’s kingdom in our own lives and congregations and communities. That is how the passing of time goes from being cyclical to linear, from a repetitive cycle of tasks to a journey that cultivates Christ’s goodness and righteousness and transformation and peace along the way.

In fact, that is how Bill Murray’s character finally breaks the time loop in Groundhog Day. After self-centeredness and despair both fail to liberate him, after he never finds the right sequence to trick his beautiful co-worker, Rita, into falling for him, he risks telling Rita exactly what’s going on, and his ability to predict every single occurrence of the day before it happens (since he’s seen it so many times) convinces her of the truth.

And in being honest and vulnerable with her, he finally makes an authentic connection with her. Inspired, he decides to start using his experience of the loop differently: he pursues personal growth instead of self-indulgence, he gives a soliloquy at the Groundhog Day celebration worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, and most significantly, he uses his foreknowledge to serve and help and even save others selflessly.

Ultimately, he even realizes that he has come to truly love Rita, not simply desire her, and admits that he’s happy even if he never gets out of the loop simply because of that love. And that, of course, is what finally breaks the loop: hastens the day of redemption and liberation. Because to grow, to serve, to learn, and above all to love, is to truly live: not simply marking time or losing track of it, but making the most of it with intentional and purposeful generosity, grace, and courage.

Late Friday night one of the best-lived “Advent lives” along these lines in recent U.S. history, I would argue, ended in this world: the life of John Lewis, the “conscience of the Congress,” civil rights leader, and Christian minister. The media and the Internet have been rightfully awash with tributes to Lewis, many of which have cited his call to “…not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful…Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year; it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” It is a wonderful teaching, more timely than ever, a kind of reminder that we celebrate Advent, “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of the Lord,” not just this July or every December, but by living faithful, courageous, and purposeful lives.

But my favorite wisdom from Lewis, which I think may be even more applicable to us and this lesson from Peter right now, is from a gripping story of his childhood in the prologue to his memoir, Walking With the Wind:

[A]bout fifteen of us children were outside my aunt Seneva’s house, playing in her dirt yard. The sky began clouding over, the wind started picking up, lightning flashed far off in the distance, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about playing anymore; I was terrified…

Aunt Seneva was the only adult around, and as the sky blackened and the wind grew stronger, she herded us all inside.

The wind was howling now, and the house was starting to shake. We were scared. Even Aunt Seneva was scared. And then it got worse. Now the house was beginning to sway. The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend. And then, a corner of the room started lifting up. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. None of us could. This storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky. With us inside it.

That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands. Line up and hold hands, she said, and we did as we were told. Then she had us walk as a group toward the corner of the room that was rising. From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, the wind screaming outside, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof. Then we walked back in the other direction, as another end of the house began to lift.

And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.

More than half a century has passed since that day, and it has struck me more than once over those many years that our society is not unlike the children in that house, rocked again and again by the winds of one storm or another, the walls around us seeming at times as if they might fly apart.

It seemed that way in the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement, when America itself felt as if it might burst at the seams—so much tension, so many storms. But the people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came together and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest.

And then another corner would lift, and we would go there.

And eventually, inevitably, the storm would settle, and the house would still stand.

But we knew another storm would come, and we would have to do it all over again.

And we did.

And we still do, all of us. You and I.

Children holding hands, walking with the wind . . .

Walking with the wind as disciples of Jesus Christ is not comfortable or easy; it is not for the fainthearted or for those who are looking for a way to avoid good trouble. But it is how we can live a faithful, courageous, and purposeful life, an Advent life in a world that sometimes, especially this July, can seem like an unending cycle of uncertainty and anxiety and chaos.

And when we are in the midst of the wind, our only real choices are to sit down and let it take us, or to stand up and walk with it, going wherever the house is weakest. So let us hold each other’s hands, and walk together with the wind, “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of the Lord,” until the last storm blows itself out, and the cool and clear wind of God’s Spirit is all that remains.

 

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