Preached on Advent I. You can read the lections here.
“Then God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.”
God speaks and creation responds.
And by some strange coincidence, the sense of hearing is the first sense that develops in us. Sound is the first thing we learn to attend to as we are being formed. It’s the first thing that piques our curiosity.
God speaks and we are called to awaken, to wonder, to behold God.
Chanticleer, the rooster in this lovely painting by James Mangum, calls us awake from our sleep to behold the light, just as every rooster has ever done from the beginning. The sound of the rooster is the sound of the sun rising, a new day, dawn after a long night.
This painting takes its name from a character in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Chanticleer is a prideful rooster, convinced of his own virtue, that the sun rises for him. One night, he dreams that a fox will be his downfall and, in his typically self-centered way, goes to his hens for reassurance.
Used to his obnoxious outbursts, they dismiss his dream, soothing him with words of comfort. When he wakes the next day and begins his swagger around the barnyard, a fox is awaiting him. Knowing that phrases of flattery will appeal to the rooster’s vanity, the fox convinces Chanticleer to really perform – to sing the new day into being by throwing his head back, and closing his eyes. Which, Chanticleer does with great delight and self-satisfaction.
And, as you might expect, the fox snatches him, mid-crow, in his mouth. However, as the fox is trotting out of the barnyard with the foolish Chanticleer in his jaw, his own arrogance gets the better of him. Forgetting that his mouth is otherwise occupied, he opens his mouth to taunt the other animals with words of ridicule and derision. And our rooster escapes to a tree branch, out of the fox’s reach.
The story of Chanticleer is poetic, if not ironic, because here we have a rooster who is asleep. The one who is supposed to be waking us all up to behold God’s gift of a new day is the one who is so prideful, so convinced of his own virtue, that he can barely stay alive himself.
How are we so convinced of our own virtue, that we have become deaf to the impact we have on others?
How are we so focused on how someone else is missing the mark, entranced by the voices of our own stories, that we are missing God’s creation of a new day in our own lives?
How are we, instead, called to hear God’s incarnate Word among us? For us?
What is being birthed in us? What are we birthing in ourselves?
The words of Matthew’s Gospel today sound foreboding:
“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming… you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Matthew wrote well after Jesus’ death and after Roman forces had destroyed the Temple. By this time, Paul had done his evangelism and there were pockets of Christ followers all over Asia Minor. But Matthew wasn’t writing to these recently converted Gentiles.
Matthew was writing to a group of Jews who had come to believe Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah they had been waiting for. And that his death had marked the beginning of the end of the world.
They anticipated freedom from this world through their own death or, more precisely, their own entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. They believed that the coming of the Son of Man would be marked by the sun, moon, and stars going dark, and announced by the trumpeting sounds of angels.
This is why Matthew’s words sound so foreboding. Because Matthew and the community of Jews he wrote for, believed the end of the world was approaching.
And… what we know is that the world did not end with the destruction of the Temple. Nor did the world end with the death of Jesus.
Creation did not cease to exist.
The sun rose the next day and has risen every day since.
But just because Matthew’s intended meaning did not come to pass, it doesn’t mean that the Gospel means nothing to us. On the contrary, it means a great deal more to us because creation never ceases to exist.
It means that God’s promise is infinitely more than we have imagined.
It means that God’s hope, for us, is that we hear the call and awaken to this truth – that creation itself is holy and blessed because God is with us, incarnate among us.
Jesus was one of many messiah figures that lived in Palestine in the first century. He developed a following like all the others because he preached about freedom and challenged the Jewish and Roman authorities. But he was different and people were wholly unprepared for the kind of messiah he was.
They wanted him to be a warrior. But, instead, he spoke of love.
They wanted him to raise an army and conquer the oppressor.
But, instead, he healed people with his words.
So, for most Christians, this passage from Matthew’s Gospel has come to mean something other than the literal ending of creation. We have come to understand that the Son of Man Matthew talks about is someone who taught us that the path to salvation is not through worldly means of winning an argument or conquering a foe… but through a spiritual practice of awakening to a new birth inside our own hearts.
We have come to realize that our freedom, the freedom that our Messiah has given us, is one that has nothing to do with political boundaries or beloved buildings or ways of life that we hold dear. Freedom comes to us as we realize the truth of the Incarnation – that creation itself is holy and blessed.
This is why we carry the stories about Mary the God-bearer.
This is how we know God becomes human, and is incarnate among us.
This is why we believe that Christ is the Alpha and the Omega; both before, and always.
The coming of the Son of Man is a promise, not a foreboding threat, a promise that God has blessed the whole creation and we are called to the spiritual practice of expectation, the practice of curiosity – of listening – for new teachings that will help us to become even more deeply present to God’s love.
We are all called to carry Christ and become midwives to new birth in our heart, because we are always becoming, never complete.
When we hear the sound of Chanticleer, our awakening is a call to be more present, more curious to what God is doing, more alive as a part of the blessed creation.
To listen for God’s voice. To be quiet enough, silent enough in this age of cacophony, to attune ourselves to a different frequency. We are called to wake up and look East toward the light that comes unbidden every day – as a gift from God.
God’s promise is a simple one: God speaks and creation responds.
From the beginning of time, the sound of God’s hope and promise for all of creation, forever, is the sound of God’s Spirit moving over the deep and calling all things into being – sun, moon, and stars, earth, winds, and waters; all living things.
Chanticleer and Matthew both tell us that we are always in that moment where we are given a choice to be awake – not to expect others to be awake, but to awaken ourselves, that we may hear the whispers of God’s Spirit and choose them over the stories of pain and fear; that we may listen for the voice of love and respond.