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04 December 2011

Advent: Be Here Now!

One day, while walking through the wilderness, a traveler came face to face with a vicious tiger. The man did an about face and ran for his life with the tiger in hot pursuit. The man ran and ran until he came to the edge of a cliff and could not run any further. When the tiger was almost upon him, the man climbed over the side of the cliff, desperately holding onto a vine that he had spotted.

Halfway down the cliff, the man looked down and saw there at the bottom another tiger, baring its fangs and waiting for his arrival. He was now caught between the tiger above and the tiger below. To make matters worse, two mice appeared, one a white one and the other black. They climbed onto the vine above him and started gnawing on it. He realized that if the mice kept gnawing they would soon chew away the vine and reach a point when it would no longer be able to support his weight. It would break and he would fall. He tried to shoo the mice away, but they kept coming back.

Just at that moment, out of the corner of his eye, the man glimpsed something roundish and red, and to his amazement he saw that it was a strawberry growing on the face of the cliff, not far away from him. It looked wonderfully red, plump and ripe. Holding onto the vine with one hand and reaching out with the other, he plucked it.  In the midst of his precarious predicament the traveler chose not to be immobilized, but seized the moment and savored it. With a tiger above, and a tiger below, with the mice continuing to gnaw on the vine, the man tasted the strawberry. He found that it was absolutely delicious.

Undoubtedly some of you are thinking, "This guy is crazy to concern himself with a strawberry, however delicious, because there’s so much danger around him". Well, the traveler traversing the wilderness stands for you and me; it’s a person making his or her way through life; it is where he or she has been up until the moment he or she comes face to face with the tiger.

The cliff top symbolizes where the past is about to become the present. Now if the person in the story was to stop halfway down the cliff and begin climbing back up the vine again toward the top of the cliff, they then would be trying to revisit the past.  We all know in our guts that this is a bad idea. The tiger waiting at the top shows just how dangerous returning to the past can be. If people constantly beat themselves up for not being able to do certain things as well as they might or should have, or if they wade and wallow about in regret and shame over mistakes and errors of judgment, then they will be caught by the tiger above and it will wound, bite, tear or maim them with its sharp claws and teeth.

As the top of the cliff is a metaphor for what has already been and passed, the bottom of the cliff represents time in the other direction, what is yet to come. It stands for the unwritten chapters and the untrodden road of tomorrow. If the person climbs down the vine towards the bottom of the cliff, then they are trying to glimpse what’s ahead, anticipating and speculating about the future. The waiting tiger in this instance represents the danger of being overly troubled about that which is not yet here.  Each of us have had the experience of worrying ourselves sick over an upcoming speech, date, exam, job interview or some other important thing. Our minds rehearse any number of things that can and could go wrong. We lose sleep or can’t sleep at all, because we're on edge and nervous about the day following.

The vine that our traveler hangs onto signifies physical life. This is all of us holding onto the vine with both hands, clinging to the physical world. Our will to survive drives us to hold on for very life itself, we won’t let go of the vine without a struggle.  Our traveler’s descent down the vine is forced upon him by the fact that he was chased to the edge of the cliff, leaving him nowhere to go. He has no choice. Likewise, upon arrival in this world we have no choice but to live out our lives from one moment to moment. 

The two mice in the story are day and night, the passage of time.  The mice gnawing on the vine, making it weaker and weaker represents how each cycle of day and night brings us a little closer to death. We all have heard the phrase, “Sleep is the brother of death”. When the vine finally gives way, the man will fall toward certain his certain doom, if not from the fall then from the waiting tiger. When our earthly days and nights have expired, the life we cling to will give way and it will be time for the final curtain of death to be lowered. Our choices will come down to confronting the tiger and confronting the tiger.

In order to keep the vine from breaking we too can try to shoo the mice away, we can attempt to hold them at bay, when we try to reverse the aging process and ward off terminal diseases. Vast energy is devoted to producing various products to keep us young and healthy or maintain the illusion of youth, but like a racing locomotive time speeds ever onward and slows down for no one, just as the mice keep coming back to the vine after having been shooed away and begin gnawing on it again. No matter what measures we think we might take, we cannot long delay the day we are to shed our mortal existence.

The strawberry, of course, in all is red ripe delicous glory stands for beauty, love, bliss, the vibrance and vitality of the present moment. It never fades away, it is always present for those who have the eyes to see, to be in it, to experience it. Each instance of a moment has too much within it to take in at once, it is too beautiful, to blissful, too loving -- it overwhelms.  To pluck the strawberry is to seize the moment. To eat the strawberry is completely taste the flavor of existence, it is to become aware of the miracle of life and to notice the incredible beauty that is always present.

Winter is a time of reflection.  As the verities we knew more and more seem shaken and untrue (cf. the text of WOV 628), it behooves us to stop the rat race and get a hold of ourselves.  While the world around us keeps on running, the People of God are counter-cultural and keep Advent. Keeping Advent is to embrace the wilderness. In the emotional desert of Advent we are invited to prepare.  In the desert we are invited to be washed and cleaned from all the stuff and nonsense the world around us worries about.  The wild and unkempt prophet in the wilderness calls us to embrace simplicity, for God lives in the desert. In the wilderness God prepares his people for the miracle. 

Advent is only in part about getting to a destination – Christmas.  For it is also just about the journey itself. Sometimes we forget that the process is as important as the outcome.  What happens on our way to the end is just as important as the end itself.  We can do as the world does -- spend all of the Advent Season wishing it was already Christmas, or wishing it was already past – or we can be wise and stop.

When I say, "Welcome the wilderness", I suggest that we spend Advent relishing every day of this precious season of reflection and preparation.  Being in the wilderness has the great advantage that we get out of our habits and ruts; you know what it’s like when after a long sleep you go outside: your eyes see more, and your ears hear more, and all your senses are more keenly tuned to the world out there. Welcome the Wilderness: Be Here Now. Be present. Be aware.

When I was writing this year's Advent II sermon, the universe saw it fit to give me a very personal taste of the wilderness.  I was using a new computer program that promised to continuously save my work, only to find after two hours that every word I had written had somehow disappeared.  I was in my own wilderness then; my stomach was in knots and I wanted to give up.  I was angry and aggravated. 

But I did what I am telling you to do: I embraced the wilderness.  I said to myself, “Okay, I have worked for two hours, but I have no sermon”.  I made an effort to be present in the moment; when I listened to my guts rather than my head, I became aware that more than anything, I needed to eat.  So I left the sermon alone and ate and drank.   When I was better, I started the sermon over. 

The universe made its point: While being in the wilderness is deeply aggravating, it’s also a chance to get a hold of yourself.  In fact, I even laughed at myself a little, thinking of how stubbornly I had ignored my body’s needs because I had been worried that I’d lose too much time if I stopped working.

The wilderness of Advent is a chance to got a hold of ourselves.  As we struggle to be here now, and present and aware, we realize the prophets from of old tell us that we don’t have to wait to find God at a certain destination. God is in the wilderness. God is in the journey. God is in the wandering. God is in the desert.

I am leaving on this note, for my body says I need to eat ... and I know what can happen if I stop being in the here and now.  In the meantime, stop participating in the rat race; enjoy the wilderness and look for the occasional delicious strawberry!

Mark 1:1-8

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