This past week I’ve been waking up early. Part of it might be a little bit of jet lag after returning from China. But I think it’s something else, too. I’ve been excited these past weeks about the appearance of Comet ISON. Did you hear about this comet? It was supposed to put on quite a display in December but it got too close to the sun.
Waking up early, I’ve gone outside to look for the comet and have been amazed by what clear skies we had in November! But even on those clear early mornings I never saw the comet. One reason, of course, is that we live in the city and the skies are so bright over the city that it’s hard to see stars, comets, and other objects.
Everyone here this morning, I hope, at some time or other has seen a dark sky and the incredible Milky Way galaxy that is our home. But if a person were to spend all their days under the artificial lights of the city they would never be amazed by the stars of the Milky Way. What a terrible loss that would be! And yet, for the first time in human history it is now possible to live a life and never connect with this immense universe that is our home.
There’s an amateur astronomer in Kent who was interviewed for a story in last Sunday’s paper. Dave Ingram is his name and sometimes he sits at night with his telescope in the Albertson’s parking lot, waving people to come over and look. One night years ago he was in the parking lot (reading from the article)…
…when a man of Indian heritage happened by. He looked at the telescope, looked at Ingram, and finally, sheepishly, responded to a gesture to c’mon over. Tentative, the old man peered into the scope…and saw a close-up of Saturn, rising in the night sky. For a long time, he did not move. Then, “he just took off—gone”… Half an hour later, an old VW bus pulled into the [Albertson’s parking] lot. The old man burst out of the driver’s door and swooshed the slider open. Out popped three generations of his family, soon lining up at the telescope. This is where [Dave Ingram, the astronomer], a 62 year-old retired Boeing researcher, [gets choked up and ] has to stop talking and take many deep breaths…[He] says, “One of the kids[in that van] told me the old man came bursting through the door at home, shut off the TV and ordered them all to come back to the store with him…That guy just didn’t look 85 anymore,” he continues, choking back tears.
Someone recently said that for most people our personal universe is only 3-1/2 feet high—the distance from our heads to the ceiling. When we spend much of our lives indoors, our world is in danger of becoming just that small. We lose perspective of our place in the universe. We allow what is less important to consume our souls. We forget what is most important.
On this first Sunday in Advent we are called to be awake. St. Paul writes to the church at Rome, You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. And Jesus said to his disciples, Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. As an example he used the story of Noah, when people were eating and drinking and just going about their business, and they “knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away.” Now is the moment!
We are tempted to sleepwalk through life. This happened to our nation in 2001, on 9/11. Like the people in the Noah story who were swept away by the flood, we were a people who didn’t know what hit us. We immediately turned to war as the solution to our anger and fear. The consequences of those choices continue into the present and will burden generations to come. People who were spiritually awake when the Twin
Towers fell might instead have found different counsel. Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers, are the words of the Psalm- writer to us this day. And in today’s first reading the prophet Isaiah proclaims that they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Many people—even Christians—dismiss these words as something idealistic or impractical for the “real” world. Many would say, “Oh, that’s a vision of the world to come.” But the question is: where do we place our trust? Where do we fix our hope? On artificial lights–or on the true light?
To be Advent people is to keep awake. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, says the apostle Paul. But we choose not just any armor of light because there is true light and there is artificial light, just as there are city lights and light from distant stars. Artificial lights can be useful, they serve a purpose—obviously!
Our Christian hope, however, is not in artificial lights such as wealth or military security. If those are the lights we cling to, we can expect to be spiritually asleep and swept away by the floods of adversity that inevitably come our way. Clinging for hope to the true light can sustain us regardless of what adversity comes our way, as Martin Luther proclaims in A Mighty Fortress: Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day…
To be Advent people is to be awake. That means we look for hope not in the distant future but we believe–and see–that the kingdom that Luther speaks of and that Jesus announces is here and now. We look for signs of God’s infinite love and power and presence around us here and now! The culture around us sleeps as in the days of Noah, setting out
Christmas displays since Halloween. Instead, Christians welcome this Advent season of waiting, watching, striving to keep awake. So when Christmas finally does come, it’s not one day of excess but a hope-filled season of twelve days, giving way to still another season, Epiphany, the season of light.
Which brings me back to that Albertson’s parking lot in Kent. Remember the 85 year-old man who looked through the telescope and couldn’t tear himself away—until he rushed home to bring back his family so they could look? Here is a man who saw clearly through the false lights to a true light that left him…awestruck. What difference might it make if in the coming weeks each of us were to experience that sense of awe and wonder that children experience on a regular basis, that awe we all can experience when we see through the artificial lights to the true light? Might we glimpse something beyond our 3-1/2 foot personal universe? And, might we also rush out to bring friends and family to come and see?
Simple, child-like wonder may be enough to shift our grown-up souls from despair to hope, from fear to courage, from anger to joy, from quarreling to peace, from resentment to gratitude. I wonder if the simple act of stepping outside some morning and experiencing the stars–or the clouds, or the rain, or the snow, or the cold–might be enough. Or, if not, to drive down and find the crazy man with the telescope in the Albertson’s parking lot! Make it your mission this Advent season to experience wonder, awe.
Comet ISON didn’t survive its encounter with the sun, but for me it still represents the star of Bethlehem. And the star of Bethlehem for me during this season of Advent is a reminder of the true light, our true hope. It is the star we sing of in our Hymn of the Day, We Three Kings: Oh, star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright; westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light!…