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Be A/lert!

Advent 1, Common Lectionary Year A

Romans 13: 11-14, Matthew 24: 42

©2013 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

Audio file

I need to begin our Advent Season with thanks to the Advent Worship Imagineers: a group of 5 who responded to a general invitation not to plan, to be playfully creative in imagining how we as a community will experience God’s Advent in this Season of Waiting.

I got what I asked for!  As in playfully creative! In what I thought was a lighthearted throwaway anecdote, the whole idea for this Cedar Park Advent was born! The anecdote was this:    Long ago in a land far away  a congregation was subjected to a serious humdinger of a sermon on the parts of the Matthew text  we didn’t  read today, the bit about being left behind when the Christ comes, like a thief in the night, to inaugurate some terrifying day of judgment. “Therefore,” the preacher declared, loud voiced, one hand slammed to the pulpit, the other raised, Charlton Heston like in the air, “Be Alert!”  One child, (not me, nor mine) nudged their parent and stage whispered, “What’s a  lert?”   Now, I, thankfully didn’t hear another word of that sermon,   as my admittedly twisted mind toyed with this hilariously salutary question!   What is  a – lert?

As I shared this story with the Imagineers, I said, “I’ve always wanted to explore that question in some church in Advent.”

“Why don’t you?” they said.  Now, for a while, we put that aside, we did explore the scriptures,  the hymn possibilities, the pageant (which is great by the way, come on Dec 15); we imagined mid-week Advent as a time to ‘unplug’ for an hour and reconnect with the soul of the season,  we recruited Pat Mayberry to write a couple of songs for us, but while we were busy with these other imaginative ideas, one of our number was quietly drawing, the wordsmiths were playing with acronymns and here we are, with one very alert Lert,  made by Karen Ward, and definition of Advent as Living in Expectation and Readiness for Transformation. All from a funny story.

Now, we all know, humour is often the smiley mask covering deep truths about ourselves or our world, and for those of us in a faith tradition, humour can be a gateway into some serious spiritual terrain.  This funny anecdote reveals the most pressing spiritual question of the day: What’s alert? What does “alert” mean? For us? This first day of Advent?

Let’s go back to the Romans text, and hope first, that Paul was not telling us to cancel our party after worship today when he says  “ Don’t  revel in drunkenness, licentiousness or debauchery, quarreling and jealousy.”  We need to recognize that Paul wrote this advice to a tiny Christian community buried n the Vegas of the Roman Empire. It was good advice, similar to that most of us have given our teenagers. “Have a good time, but not a bad good time.” But Paul isn’t a Mediterranean Miss Manners, this is profound spiritual advice that comes with a big “instead” Instead of losing control,  getting lost in the cultural melée, becoming indistinguishable and voiceless in the crowd that has stopped caring or sharing, bent as it is on self-satisfaction. Instead, Paul says, be alert, stand out, like a beacon of light.  He uses the metaphor of putting on distinctive clothing – the armour of light – that marks people out as a follower of Christ.  (……. oh there’s another sermon right there!).

Paul  basically defines  `being awake`, or being  “alert” as being ready to live the Gospel, being alert to opportunities to serve, to heal, to mend, to speak up for the voiceless, to work for justice.  Being alert is being ready to be counted as one of God’s workers in a world that has forgotten God, given up on goodness. Being alert is being ready to shed light in dark places.

Which looks like this: being alert to the neighbour recently widowed, dreading her first Christmas alone;   being alert to the people of the Philippines, or other places no longer making headline news, but still in need of real help. You can imagine your own ways of being alert and ready to respond in ways that make this Season, any season a little more humane, blessed. Matthew’s take is a little different, but he situates the call to be alert into circumstances we all know well: crisis, unforeseen tragedy, bad news, job loss, the diagnosis, the phone call about the car crash, the embezzled retirement savings, the Sandy Hook, or Ecole Polytechnique.  Now Matthew’s Jesus is not exhorting us to respond, or to prepare for the unpredictably impossibly awful with a paranoid hyper-vigilance when he says “be alert”. Nor is he advocating a hunkered-down aversion to all risk, nor an emotional immunity to all life’s unjust shocks.  Instead, Matthew’s Jesus is saying: “Be alert to living life as if every minute counts, because it does. We only have this moment; our choice is always, “What will we do with the moment, how will we live it? Being alert in this sense means “be alive!”  “Be open to the wonder of this moment!”  Choose life, even when in choosing life, we choose to live a moment of deep grief, rather than avoiding it.  Being alert, in this sense means Take time to have the conversations that matter, take time to love and be loved, to nurture friendships. Take time to cry when things are sad, or to rage when injustice threatens.  Be alert! Be open!

What a way to begin this Season: Be a Lert!  Be alert! Live December differently from the cultural consumer crush that surrounds you, by being alert to places where you can shed light  – like a little gold star – in darkened places. Live December as if it is the last and the first you’ve ever had. Relish its joys, live into its sadnesses, respond to its needs, just be a/lert!

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