“Advent Insomnia”

November 27, 2016

Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Matthew 24:36-44

“Advent Insomnia”


What keeps you up at night? Do you worry about people you love? Are you scared that there won’t be enough money? Are you living with chronic pain or a diagnosis that has no cure? Are you distraught about the violence that protestors in South Dakota are suffering? Are you afraid for war torn countries and innocent civilians? Are you upset about innocent people suffering because of their skin color or their beliefs or their sexual identity? Are you lying awake wondering if Jesus is coming and you won’t be ready? I’m guessing most of us aren’t worrying about the last one, but the gospel seems to think we should be.


Today we begin the season of Advent. It is a strange time of year. We are getting ready for Jesus’ birth and yet we know how the story ends. We have heard it before. As followers of Jesus, we remember the past, live in the present and anticipate what God will do in the future. We follow a God who has done amazing things, is calling us to engage in the present, and is bringing healing in the days to come. Our readings are invitations to step into this season of preparation, longing, and hope. The gospel lesson tells of people who seem to be rather complacent in their lives. They are sleepwalking through the days and the text calls us to pay attention because we don’t know when Jesus is coming. We may know where the story goes, but we can still open our hearts and be surprised by God today.


I’m not sure what to do with the stories of people being snatched up from their ordinary lives. The famous book series Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins described an airplane with empty seats. People had been taken up and all that was left was their hearing aids and dentures. I was pretty turned off by that. I guess I have to acknowledge my own discomfort with a text like the one from Matthew today. What do we do with it? With all the people who are living under threat today, the invitation is for all of us to be alert. We are needed to create an environment that is safe for all. It is horrifying to witness the treatment of those at the Dakota Access Pipeline. It is devastating to learn about bombs and refugees who are desperate for a safe place to call home. This week in Albuquerque arson in Nob Hill, Old Navy, Barnes and Noble, and explosives in three Starbucks shocked us. This is no time for us to go about life as usual. We are hearing stories of threats and violence to people who are Muslim, Immigrant, African American, Jew, Queer, and we must be vigilant in our care for all people. We must keep awake and stand up for the most vulnerable.


There is plenty to fear and many reasons to lie awake wondering what comes next. I don’t think we need someone to tell us that it’s really ok. I think we need to be clear that we don’t face the future alone. There is suffering all around us and we must act to alleviate it whatever way we can. When I find myself sitting around wondering why so many are hurting and why there is so much to be done and wondering what we can do, but knowing we must do something, I remember Barbara Kingsolver’s message to her children. I think it is one we need to hear today. She said,  


“There’s something I have said so often to my children that now they chant it back to me: “You can do hard things.” I sent my kids to a Montessori preschool, and thank heavens I did, because most of what I learned about parenting came from those wonderful Montessori teachers.  They straightened me out about self-esteem. There’s this myth that self-esteem comes from making everything easy for your children and making sure they never fail.  If they never encounter hardship or conflict, the logic goes, they’ll never feel bad about themselves. Well, that’s ridiculous.  That’s not even a human life.”


“Kids learn self-esteem from mastering difficult tasks.  It’s as simple as that. The Montessori teachers told me to put my two-year-old on a stool and give her the bread, give her the peanut butter, give her the knife — a blunt knife — and let her make that sandwich and get peanut butter all over the place, because when she’s done, she’ll feel like a million bucks.  I thought that was brilliant.  Raising children became mostly a matter of enabling them and standing back and watching.  When a task was difficult, that’s when I would tell them, “You can do hard things.”  Both of them have told me they still say to themselves, “I can do hard things.”  It helps them feel good about who they are, not just after they’ve finished, but while they’re engaged in the process.”  (https://montessoriobserver.com/2014/03/01/kingsolver-on-montessori-you-can-do-hard-things/)


One of the messages we need to hear right now is “we can do hard things”. Matthew calls us to be awake and Isaiah offers a picture of peace. In Advent, we stand between what God has done and what God has yet to do. Isaiah offers a powerful picture of people coming together and turning weapons into gardening tools. They will plant seeds of peace. God knows we need to plant seeds of peace today. We act with the assurance that God is with us. Psalm 122 is a powerful prayer for peace for the world and peace within. We didn’t read it this morning, but I encourage you to read it and pray it. In these quiet, dark days of Advent we are called to pay attention, to light a candle, and create peace within ourselves, in our communities, and in our world. When this seems impossible, we have the assurance that we can do hard things and we do not do them alone. God is with us.


There is so much work to do. In this holy season, we can create spaces of peace within ourselves. We can pray for our leaders and for our world. We can pray for peace in every place. We can do this hard thing. We can turn our insomnia into prayers for peace and wholeness…for God’s shalom. We can practice learning to see in the dark. Suzanne Vega wrote a song for a child called Night Vision. In it, she says we should let our eyes adjust to the dark so we can see what is there. Rather than sheltering the child and keeping her in the light, she promises to teach the child night vision. There are visions that can only be seen in the dark. It may be that insomnia is an opportunity to allow our eyes to adjust to the darkness. My friend Jan Richardson says that “our work is to name the darkness for what it is and to find what it asks of us: justice to bring hope to a night of terror, warmth for the shadows, companionship in our uncertainty, or waiting for the darkness to teach us what we need to know.” (Night Visions, p. 3)


If we can turn to the darkness as a teacher, we can even begin to look at a gospel lesson like this one as good news.


The idea that Jesus will come and steal us or leave us behind is rather disconcerting, but bless Nadia Bolz-Weber who gave me another perspective on this story. She talked about this season of overconsumption and the news that God might come and steal from us as good news. She suggested that instead of making Christmas lists of what we want God to bring us, we should make Advent lists of things we want God to take from us: self-loathing, compulsive eating, or love of money. Don’t we want God to do something unexpected in our midst? So “may this thieving God envelope us in the surprising story of God’s suffering love which takes from us that which we can really really do without and replace it all with God’s own self.” (https://sojo.net/articles/thieving-christ-and-advent)


As much as I love to sleep, I am finding something in this invitation to Advent insomnia. In those sleepless nights or those evenings that are dark before dinner, may we quietly open ourselves to be transformed in hope and peace.  May we let our eyes adjust to the dark and search the shadows for a vision of hope. May we learn to trust that God is at work in the world and together we can do the hard things needed to bring healing to our hurting world. May God steal from us that which we don’t need or no longer serves us and replace it with a peace that passes all understanding.