Other years we have said or even shouted, Happy New Year on the First Sunday of Advent. One year we gave out noise makers. I’m not sure we’re feeling that this year. I’m not. It’s always been out of step. The Church’s new year coming almost five weeks before the calendar New Year. But this year, this pandemic year, and the growing cases, and the necessary restrictions; and to see Dr. Bonnie Henry looking as tired and weighed down as she does, and the truth exposed by the pandemic of all the disparities and violence against Black lives and Indigenous lives, other people of colour, queer folks, those struggling with addictions, homelessness, poverty, those differently able and other minorities in our communities and world, the climate emergency and dire prospects for the future, and all the personal grief and challenges, including for us a dear friend and family keeping vigil in life and death, Happy New Year and noise makers, don’t fit.
Maybe quietly acknowledging it’s a new Church Year, marked by lighting the first Advent candle on the wreath, and a flickering fragile light and life, and Jesus calling us to keep alert and stay awake because the end is near, like seeing cosmic signs in the sun and the moon and the stars, or a fig tree’s new tender leaves a sign that summer is near, or those left in charge keeping awake in preparation for the owner’s return, that kind of expectation and even warning about the end and new beginning, that’s more the new year we need just now. The end is the beginning. Keep alert. Isn’t this the essence of our Christian theology? The end is the beginning. Stay awake!
On this first Sunday of Advent and the new Church Year, Jesus shares words of expectation and warning as he nears his arrest and end at the hands of the Roman authorities. But we trust, this end for Jesus is the beginning of God raising Jesus the Christ from the dead, and the new resurrected life that unfolds for all humanity and all creation. Jesus’ end is the new resurrection beginning. Keep alert and stay awake, because “about that day or hour no one knows…” So, stay awake.
Historically, most suggest these words of Jesus are shared by the gospel writer in a time of war, turmoil and great suffering, in a conflict between rebel Jews fighting against Roman oppression and Roman forces determined to put down the revolt; and an impending collapse of all that is foundational, in a temple system and ruling authority under siege. This historical context has parallels in our own pandemic racked world, in political turmoil and those thrashing to hold on to power, in nations reeling from disasters. And Jesus offers visions of the end, and warning and encouragement to stay alert and awake, for the end is near, and the new beginning.
The signs of the end that Jesus speaks of are both terrifying and hold the promise of everything being torn open, that God’s ways would break in, bringing God’s justice and judgement, God’s healing and peace. It is the same Spirit in the words from Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down...” Only in a context of suffering and struggle, like for the people of Israel in exile, like Jesus’ disciples confused and reeling from Jesus’ visions of the known world’s and his end, like Jesus’ followers in Mark’s community looking for signs of life and promise in the midst of turmoil and violence, only then, could this call for Jesus/God to break everything open, be good news; an end and beginning. Therefore, stay awake.
That is the existential reality for many in our world and time, even if not for most of us. For millions of refugees, for the hungry and homeless in our own neighbourhoods, for the addicted and dying in record numbers, for minorities and people pushed to the margins, for an earth depleted and suffering, all crying out. And will we cry out with and for them, for the heavens to be torn open and for God’s radically different ways of compassion, justice, reconciliation, equity, forgiveness, mercy, peace, break into their and our lives and world as God desires? That cosmic shift, potential disaster for those invested in this world as it is – like us?, but last hope for others who suffer in and by this world, envisioned by Jesus in good prophetic and apocalyptic tradition, God’s gathering all people “from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven,” is not this what Jesus wants all of us to be aware of, alert and awake to – that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but (Jesus’) words will not pass away.” God’s final end and purpose breaking into our world even now as a new beginning. Don’t we want to be aware, alert, awake to this God’s advent, God’s arriving, at any moment, and all the terrifying promise that holds? Being alert, awakened and mindful to “these things,” God’s end and purpose breaking into this world and our and other’s lives, especially those who are suffering, is Jesus’ new beginning for all. Stay alert. Stay awake.
There is an expression that some of you will know, and others not. It’s source and ultimately proper use is in the Black community, despite its more popular use and appropriation by others. Stay woke. It’s first use may be in the early 20th century in Black jazz music but saw a particular use by Black people following the killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. “Stay woke,” is a warning among black people to stay aware or vigilant of potential harm and violence in a certain place and time. And in wider use, to be aware or awakened to the truth and realities of white supremacy and oppression against Black and other lives of minorities, to know the dangers and to name them so that exposed, it can be different, it will end, there will be a new beginning.
Stay woke is not my phrase as a white person to appropriate. I speak of it to honour the connection of Jesus’ words to stay awake, for those who are oppressed as both warning and promise. And how I am learning an understanding of staying awake challenges me to understand and stand with and lift up the voices of Black and Indigenous and other people of colour and other minorities in the struggle for an end to systemic injustice and racism, violence and death, and in that end, to participate together in a new beginning. Therefore, I need to keep awake as Jesus tells me.
This waking up to the realities of suffering for others and for this planet and its creatures is difficult and painful That I might rather sleep through it, hoping when I wake up it will all be over, is true and a real temptation. But it is exactly what Jesus warns against, and graciously challenges us not to fall into - to sleep, like Jesus’ followers struggling to stay awake in the garden of Gethsemane. But instead to wake us up to journey with Jesus into an end that Jesus promises will be a new beginning.
And I am grateful for signs of that beginning in voices this week. A parent writing about their child recognizing that their church can be a place of welcome and inclusion for friends of all sexual orientations and gender identities without judgement, and instead celebrating them, this is a sign of God’s end and new beginning for a next generation.
Walking with a friend and talking about how difficult it is for a couple of straight white males to be challenged in the ways of privilege we have and can fight to hold on to, but the gift of being genuinely awakened and challenged and changing in our awareness and willingness to join with others in what we are beginning to see, and hope to expand and to lift up others, and change how we live in this world together. To keep awake and keep witnessing and growing and changing with others as Jesus invites us to do. To stay awake.
And in the words of Elin Kelsey who I mentioned a few weeks ago, in her book, Hope Matters, who writes: “we must look at the planetary crisis as realistically as humanly possible, and then open ourselves to be surprised. We must act with our best intentions and efforts, in response to the most accurate knowledge, all the while accepting that we cannot know what exactly will unfold, now or in the future. When we accept that we truly don’t know what will happen, we also accept that possibility exists. Hope exists in the possibility of transformation.” The end is the beginning. Therefore, Jesus gracious calls us to “Stay awake.” Let it be so. In all our relations. Amen.