Advent is a season in the church’s year – the season of preparing for Christmas, the feast of the Incarnation. But Advent is more than a season. Advent is also a practice. A practice is something you do because you want to become what the practice will make you. Someone who’s good at soccer, or piano, or hula hooping, or mindfulness. If you want to get better at something, you practice regularly.
The Church practices Advent for four Sundays every year. And we invite people to practice it at home, too, for about a month, lighting the candles, saying the prayers. We dwell with the songs and prayers and readings that are full of hope and warning, intertwined. That point towards ending, loss, and renewal.
A practice is something you do because you want to become what the practice will make you. What does the practice of Advent make us? I think Advent is supposed to make us people who are not shattered by the idea that everything will change. People who expect God to be at work even in terrifying times. Jesus says, When you see terrible things happening, things that make it feel like the world is about to end, stand up straight. Lift up your head. Keep your eyes peeled for redemption – God’s purposes erupting into human reality.
Because even among the flames – even among the ashes – there is purpose. There is grace.
Jeremiah, the source of one of our readings today, lived in the last days of Jerusalem, before it was torn down and burned by the invading armies of Babylon, about six hundred years before Jesus’ birth. God called Jeremiah as a prophet, to speak God’s words to the leaders and people of Jerusalem and Judea. Jeremiah told them, You have turned from the ways of holiness and justice, to which God called your ancestors. You are neither worshiping God, nor treating each other right. Instead, there is injustice, cruelty, and corruption. The wealthy have taken their own neighbors as slaves, because of their poverty; and when the Law of God commanded them to set them free, they released them – then turned around and brought them again into subjection as slaves. (Jeremiah 34)
Jeremiah says, In the past, when you followed God’s ways, you were strong. Now, with corrupt leaders and suffering people, you are weak. Your doom is at the threshold.
Jeremiah’s prophetic warnings were true – and unwelcome. The powerful and comfortable did not want to hear it. Jeremiah was beaten and imprisoned. He was thrown into an underground cistern, a water storage chamber, to starve to death – but someone rescued him. At one point, God told Jeremiah: Look, maybe if you write all My prophesies on a scroll, and take that to the King, and he sees it all in black and white, he will pay attention and repent. So Jeremiah’s helper Baruch wrote it all down on a scroll, and took it to the officials of the King’s court. They read the scroll and said, This is terrible! We must take this to the King! And they took it to the king, and read it to him. And as they read it, every time they finished reading part of the scroll, the king cut it off with his knife, and burned it.
But Jeremiah was right. Jerusalem was destroyed. Many people died. Others were taken into exile, to live as outsiders in Babylon. They learned, there, that even though the Temple they thought was God’s house was in ruins, even though they were far from their homeland, God was still with them.
Eventually they were sent home; Jerusalem was rebuilt; the great Temple was grander than ever. And six hundred years after Jeremiah’s time, Jesus looks out on Jerusalem – Jerusalem, the city that murders the prophets whom God sends with warnings! – Jesus looks at Jerusalem and says, The armies are coming. Again. The great Temple will be reduced to rubble. Again. People will die. People will be enslaved. The most vulnerable – women, children, the poor, the elderly – will bear the worst of it, as they always do.
Jesus sees with God’s eyes, but you didn’t have to be God to see trouble coming for Jerusalem in those days. Corrupt leaders and deepening inequality meant that unrest, rebellion and violence were in the wind. But the warnings were once again unwelcome, and unheard. Forty years after Jesus died and rose from the dead, a revolt against Roman rule led to a brutal war. Jerusalem was destroyed – again.
We’re not much better now at listening to the warnings of the prophets of our age – be they saints or scientists, activists or administrators.
Back in August, my family traveled to Chico, California, as part of my sabbatical. We spent a couple of days there with our friend James and his community. Chico is in northern California. While we were there, the sky was dull and smoky frothe Redding fire, seventy miles away. We Midwesterners are used to tornado watches, but Chico was under fire watch – a “red flag” warning. It was fascinating and terrifying to read the rules for avoiding fire in those dry and windy conditions – for example: don’t pull your car over on the edge of the road, because dry grasses could touch the hot parts on the underside of your car and ignite.
The risk of fire in northern California is well known. There have been forest fires as long as there have been forests, but climate change due to human activity has increased the intensity and damage of fires, as seasonal rainfall becomes increasingly irregular. Scientists and activists have been sounding that alarm for years. This summer and fall, the forests near Chico were extremely dry. The big electrical utility in the region knew its poorly maintained power lines could add to fire risk. The town of Paradise, in the hills above Chico, has few roads out of town, following narrow ridges down the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains – a situation town leaders recognized as risky.
There were plenty of warnings at every level – nation, state, city. But it’s hard to change course in a situation so big and so complex. People are bad at risk assessment – we often overreact to small risks, and underreact to big ones. And it’s usually true that the people with the most power are also the people most insulated from risk, and most reluctant to invest in change.
Elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “When you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
On the morning of November 8, the worst happened. The Camp Fire was probably started by a power line fault. Extreme dry weather fueled a fire so fast and intense that the tops of trees didn’t even have time to burn. Over 10,000 households lost their homes, in the towns of Paradise, Magalia, and Concow, not far from Chico. Many died. They’re still counting. We’ve watched, and donated, and prayed, as refugees from the fire camped out in the parking lot of the Chico Walmart, where the Hassett family stopped in August to buy an extra water bottle.
The prophets of Scripture – including Jesus – speak about the Big Ending, the time when Christ will return and God will replace everything tattered and broken in this world with the living, joyful wholeness intended from the beginning of Time.
But they speak, too, of the smaller endings of human life and human history – the ones that only *feel* like the end of the world. Jerusalem torn down, Paradise burned to the ground… the earth keeps turning on its axis, but many lives are ended, and many others changed forever. The counsel offered by Jesus and the prophets works for those situations too. Jesus says: Pay attention, don’t get distracted or numb. Be ready. Don’t get too invested, too comfortable, in the way things are. And try not be shaken; God is with you. Jeremiah says: Turn back towards justice. Do what you know is right. It’s never too late. It always matters. Our friend Tobit – remember Tobit? – living in cruel and chaotic times, says: Keep praying; give to those in need; take care of those entrusted to you. And don’t lose your capacity for compassion; keep caring, so you’ll keep helping.
The poet and playwright Berthold Brecht, a 20th-century prophet, wrote: “In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”
We sing one of my favorite Advent hymns this morning: “Can it be that from our endings, new beginnings you create? Life from death, and from our rendings, Realms of wholeness generate? Take our fears then, Lord, and turn them into hopes for life anew; Fading light and dying season sing their Glorias to you.”
A practice is something you do because you want to become what the practice will make you. What does the practice of Advent make us? This season of dwelling with songs and prayers and readings full of hope and warning, that point towards ending, loss, and renewal?
Advent makes us people who are not shattered by the idea that everything will change. People who expect God to be at work even in terrifying times. Because even among the flames – even among the ashes – there is purpose. There is grace.
There are opportunities to be like Jeff Evans.
Jeff lives in the tiny mountain town of Concow, California, outside Paradise. His property backs up on a reservoir. He can catch a 6-pound bass in his own backyard. Amazing. About a year ago he moved his elderly parents to live with him. His 91-year-old father Chuck chops wood and cleans the gutters. Chuck says Jeff told him he could move there and retire and not do anything – “That was a crock!”
Early on the morning of November 8, Jeff and Chuck stepped outside and saw flames in the distance, smoke filling the sky. They quickly learned that the one road out of their neighborhood was already blocked. They were trapped. They didn’t have a boat to take refuge on the reservoir. So they spent hours frantically defending the house: cutting firebreaks, putting out spot fires.
It worked. Their house was saved – leaving Jeff and his parents alone, for days and weeks. Those who had fled weren’t allowed to come back to the ashes of their homes. And so Jeff became the caretaker of Concow. Specifically, of Concow’s animals.
Many people didn’t have time to take pets and livestock, or had to flee in vehicles without room for animal family members. In the days following the fire, Jeff collected eight dogs, in addition to his own three. They crowd his kitchen, tails wagging, or curled up together sleeping. They’ve all managed to get along – Jeff thinks they get it. He posts their pictures on Facebook and the owners contact him, weeping with joy to know their pet is safe. He’s been putting food out for cats in the neighborhood, too. And then there are the pigs, the ducks, the chickens, and the goats. One day a group of donkeys wandered into Jeff’s yard. He gave them some peppermint candies and they decided he was their friend and stuck around.
Jeff borrows food and fuel from undamaged houses to keep his menagerie fed, keeping careful track so he can repay later if the people ever return. Firefighters and recovery workers bring him supplies, too, from abandoned homes. Among the ashes, beyond the end of the world, Jeff takes care of the creatures, keeping them safe until their owners can reclaim them when the chaos is past.
Utility workers have warned Jeff that it will be weeks until electricity is restored to his property – maybe not before Christmas. Jeff’s not worried about it. He says the dark isn’t so bad, up here in the mountains. You can see the stars.
More about Jeff Evans: