One of the things that used to drive me crazy as a kid was that my parents would make promises to me and then not keep them. Of course, as a kid, I didn’t really see or understand the challenges they faced. I can recall one occasion when I was about thirteen when we had a terrible rainstorm and there was significant damage to the roof of our mountain cabin up in Wrightwood and to the surrounding property. So my parents submitted a claim on their homeowners insurance policy and, since my father would be doing most of the repair work himself, they promised me that some of the money would come my way so I could have an electric guitar, something I wished for dearly in those early days of the Beatles.
Sadly enough, they received a letter from the insurance company a few weeks after submitting the claim proclaiming the rain storm an act of God, and therefore not covered by the policy, so they wouldn’t be receiving any money after all. So I was not to receive the electric guitar I wanted and, although I have to admit that the weeks of planning its purchase were a lot of fun, I was terribly disappointed, and angry. In my youthful self-centered way of thinking, I saw it as their failure to fulfill a promise.
There were plenty of times they made promises to me that they never kept. They often promised to stop drinking. That never happened. They promised a lot of things. Sometimes they came through. Sometimes they didn’t. I don’t mind now. Now, I understand. It isn’t easy to keep promises. That’s why I seldom make them.
I always tell my students that I will always keep the promises I make and I expect them to do the same. I also tell them that it is not very often that I make a promise for the only promises I make are the ones I know I am able to keep. Children are funny about promises. They universally hate it when the adults in their lives fail to keep the promises they make, but children constantly break the promises they make. I promise to keep my room clean forever if you just buy me that bike. I promise if you just buy me that (insert expensive item here), I’ll never ask for anything ever again. Yeah, right.
And let’s not even consider all the promises we make to the people we say we love. Some guys will promise anything just to get into some girl’s pants. Of course, a lot of the guys who make those promises never intend on keeping them. We make promises all the time we never intend on keeping so that we will look good or so that people will like us or so people will stop being mad at us…or so we can get elected to office. And we all get royally pissed when those promises are not kept. And yet, however cynical we become, we always think that maybe this time, things will be different.
This is the first Sunday of Advent. And Advent is all about promises. According to the tradition of the Judeo-Christian culture, God made us a promise. S/He promised that, as shitty as things might get here, that someday S/He would send someone to make everything better. So we should hold on to hope and not let ourselves get too agitated, because someone is coming. Someone is coming to the rescue.
Long ago, before the children of Israel were taken into captivity by the Babylonians and the Assyrians, the prophet Isaiah wrote:
You, LORD, are our father, our redeemer you are named forever.
Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?
Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old.
No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him.
Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways! Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.
There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt.
Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.
In other words, you shouldn’t be too pissed at us, Lord. After all, you’re the one that made us. You should have done a better job.
The story of the bible is that we have always wanted to know the divine. We have always wanted to understand our being. But, having your basic monkey brain, we have never been able to do that. Like children, we recognize the awesome beauty of creation, the power of love. And we want to be able to love like that. Who is there that has witnessed death close hand and not wanted to be able to restore that light of life? Our own helplessness makes us desire the divine spirit within us. No matter what we try to do, what prayers we try to say, what rituals we perform, we fail to bring God into our minds.
Advent celebrates the promise of God fulfilled in the life of Jesus the Christ. That is the heart and soul of the Christmas season. We separated ourselves from God. And we kept ourselves separated from God. And we didn’t know how to bridge the gap between ourselves and God, until this poor son of a carpenter came and showed us how.
Having spent the better part of our lives living in this culture, surrounded by the Christian religion in all its forms, it is hard for us to remember how truly revolutionary the message of Jesus was. It still is. Jesus pointed out to us our greatest mistake: thinking that we were ever separated from the divine to begin with. Jesus taught us that we never had to look farther than the person next to us in order to find God. He taught that the God spirit was present in each one of us, and in the very world around us. He taught us to trust not only in our senses but in our hearts and souls as well. He taught that God was not some angry deity of stone, or some overlord in the sky, but a loving father/mother/creator that loves us and wants us to be joyful. Jesus taught that God demanded no rituals, no sacrifices, nothing more than love and the desire to know the divine. You want it; you got it. But I don’t feel different. Well, trust me, it’s there. That is what faith is all about. Believing.
So this year, with the beginning of Advent, we will be going through The Gospel According to Mark. This is the oldest of the four gospels accepted into the canon of holy books used by most Christian churches. Scholars are fairly certain it was written well before 70 CE. It is the shortest of all the gospels. Tradition holds that it was written by a disciple of Peter, perhaps even his son, and that it contains the eyewitness account of the life of Jesus as dictated by Simon Peter, a disciple of Jesus. This, of course, is only tradition, and may not be true at all. There is no doubt, however, that it is a very early document written within a few decades of the life of Jesus.
And so Mark tells us in the thirteenth chapter:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.
Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.
What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”
The Hindus divide life into three stages, the last of which is to become the ascetic for the purpose of finding the divine spirit and achieving nirvana. Jesus teaches us not to wait until tomorrow to find our spiritual center and purpose. You might well die tonight. If one feels called to figure out the purpose for living, the meaning of life (other than 42), then one ought not to put off that quest for another day. Perhaps you, like many others, seem to hear that little voice calling you, telling you there must be some reason behind all this, some sense to be made from the universe.
Jesus taught that we are that power. Jesus taught that you yourself are the meaning of life. You are the hands of God on earth. He taught what most of us already know deep in our beings, that love is the force that holds the universe together. That God is present in love, the love we keep and the love we share. He taught that whatever we do to each other, we do to God. And we praise God in our love for one another. And since we already know this in our deepest core, we recognize it as truth. This is why this is the fundamental truth contained in all religions. This is what Jesus taught. And this is why those of us who call ourselves Christians celebrate his coming.
Whether or not Jesus was the anointed one promised by God, whether or not he was divine (or any more divine than the rest of us) is open to argument. Perhaps he was, as some believe, just a man like the rest of us. But even if he were, he came to teach a strikingly powerful message of truth and love.
Advent is all about promises. And according to the teachings of Christ, God has made us several promises. It is for us to trust in those promises. That is what faith is. Faith is trusting in the promises of God. Most of us have become cynical about believing in promises. We’ve had our hearts broken too many times. But it seems to me that if the promises of God are false, then the sooner we find that out, the better.
Maybe that’s why some people steer clear of religions. If I think that maybe the promises are true and maybe they’re not, then I won’t have my heart broken again. In politics, I seldom have my heart broken because I never believe that the people elected are going to keep those promises anyway. If I trust in God and find the promises broken, then I truly am hopeless, because now I would know for sure that it’s all a sham. I would know that I am truly alone. And so most people go along, hoping the promises are true, but not really trusting in them, just in case they’re not. And this is sad because those folks never experience the joy that comes from knowing that everything is covered. Trusting in the promises means freedom from fear and anxiety.
If someone came along and made you believe, truly believe, that there was nothing to be afraid of, nothing worth worrying about, if you could let go of all your anxieties and fears, if you could just understand that nothing can ever harm you or the people you love, even for just a little while, can you imagine the incredible joy and release you would feel? That is what Jesus did for the people of his time. That is what his message continues to do for those who believe in what he taught. So can you think of a better reason to celebrate? Happy Advent everybody!