Awake, Awake for Night is Flying is the hymn of Advent. Advent is a time of spiritual awakening. And spiritual awakening means facing challenges. The readings today, assigned for a thanksgiving weekend, lift up three awakenings or renewals for advent in nature, human society, and our own hearts.
The book of Joel is one of the earliest stories of hope for recovery in the Hebrew Scriptures and also in human history. Because of its antiquity, there are things in the book of Joel that are difficult for us to understand or affirm. It reflects the values, themes, and attitudes of the Bronze Age.
In Joel, weather extremes have lead to a plague of grasshoppers. The swarming of these insects was one of the most feared disasters of the ancient world. Massive swarms would move through large areas, eating everything in their path. Crops would be completely destroyed, as all vegetation was consumed by the ravenous insects. Starvation for both animals and humans would soon follow.
The book of Joel is written as the insects have left their destruction and the community is facing the devastation. There will be an emergency planting, but the season will be short and the crop will be meager.
In the Bronze Age, the gods bring both disaster and recovery. The divine will is influenced by human behavior. If we are good, then the grasshoppers stay away. If we are bad, the grasshoppers come. Our own understanding of the interplay of God’s will and natural disaster and favorable weather is more complex. We do not see a tornado as a sign that people have displeased an angry god. And yet we sometimes sense that our human fallibility has made things worse, and may place us in the path of destruction. And we also sense like Joel that God brings recovery, even though we know that God rains on both the just and unjust. For us, the relationship between good fortune and bad and our moral action is more complex. But it still involves the interplay of divine and human action.
There is something to Joel’s vision that is important for us these days. In Joel’s ancient vision, human life is not distinct from creation but part of it. The soil rejoices with the coming rain. The animals give praise to God. And along with the soil and all creatures, humans join in nature’s chorus and also look forward to the renewal of the earth after the swarms of insects.
In our time, we are coming to appreciate the ecological awareness embedded in these stanzas of Joel. No matter how sophisticated we think we are, we are still creatures deeply dependent on our soil, our earth. And as we begin our Advent, a time of spiritual renewal, it is good to awaken this sense that God renews us and all creation. The first awakening of this Advent is to care for the earth, the soil, the land, and all creatures, including us. Let heaven and nature sing.
God is not only engaged in the renewal of creation. God is involved in the conduct of human affairs and those who are responsible for it. In the second reading for this season of renewal, we are awakened to the public sphere. In Timothy, Christians are urged to publically pray in worship for those in leadership positions.
This passage is one of several reasons why people think I and II Timothy are written later than most of the other material in the New Testament. The earliest writings of the New Testament seem to almost ignore the empire and government or to consider them irrelevant. The focus is on the coming end the universe (so the empire really doesn’t matter) and then slightly later in the New Testament the focus shifts to building up congregations or matters of internal debate. Then comes a time of persecution and the New Testament begins to demonize the state, using apocalyptic images to portray the persecutors as being of the dark side, especially in the writings of John.
However, that time of persecution subsides, and at the close of the New Testament, the church is becoming established as a force for good in the Roman Empire. And so the attitude toward the state shifts again. In I Timothy we have the beginnings of what might be called Christian citizenship. By the close of the New Testament, we are to pray for those in power. Why? Well, for two reasons. First, we all want civil order and hope for the common good. And with good order, the first century church will continue to do well and grow.
And there is a second reason. There is one God, and Jesus opens a door for all to approach that one God. This is the reason given in verses five and six which in Greek have a meter or cadence and were probably sung or recited in worship. Timothy comes at the close of the pagan era. People are giving up their various local and regional gods. The thought that there is one god is growing. And if there is one god, then that god is for all people, not just for some or for us.
Out of a sense of emerging common humanity, we are called to be a bigger church, a more inclusive church than we were, and we pray for the good of all people. The one God and Jesus are for all.
With a broad vision of God and a desire for the common good for all, we pray for those who lead in society and government: their well being, their wisdom, and their integrity. We pray for our nation, our state, and our world. And prayer for our society, our economy, and our government is the second awakening challenge of spiritual renewal. These days we pray for our leaders and we ask God to use our leaders to care especially for those in need, those suffering from violence and oppression, those in prison, those in danger, soldiers and sailors, and those who are struggling to find a meaning to life. Yet in the dark streets shineth the everlasting light.
And if Advent awakening begins with creation’s longing, and continues with the affairs of state and its darker streets, it finds its deepest challenge in the human heart, in the third reading this morning, from Matthew. Here is call to quiet our souls, to move beyond our fears and anxieties, our wondering about our present and our future, and to enjoy the life we have been given, to grasp as ours that rare thing called joy. Do not worry. Consider the lilies of the field. The birds of the air. If there is to be spiritual renewal for you this advent, it must involve letting go of those things that are consuming the heart: all of the worries and wonderings, all of the anxieties and stress. For those things rob us of the joy which is ours. And those things bring us into a dark pessimism rather than the light of hope. The third spiritual challenge is to quiet our own troubled hearts. Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask you to stay….
Nature. Human Society. Our own hearts. These are the awakening challenges of spiritual renewal. We share Advent’s renewing joy with the soil and the animals. We share it in the darkest corners of our commonweal. And we give it as a gift to ourselves as we move from our fears into hope and growing light. Awake, awake for night is flying. O hear the call, come one, come all, and follow to the banquet hall….