The Watchful Soul
Readings: Isaiah 64:1-5, 8, Mark 13:24-36, Apocalypse Revealed #158 (see below)
See also on Youtube at youtu.be/yqbpywRGtHg
Our lectionary readings for today are ones that have several different themes that could be fruitfully explored. For today though, the one that stood out to me was unsurprisingly, watchfulness, or vigilance. Hmmm, I wonder why that might be? Well, we have all been brought into a new level of vigilance these days with the pandemic. We make sure not to forget our mask when we go out, we make sure to watch our hands regularly or use hand sanitizer, especially when in public places. We remain vigilant about keeping our physical distance, about guidelines for gathering, about case counts and positivity rates, about news of a vaccine.
And, as evidenced by the number of memes circulating about the awfulness of 2020, most people are not enjoying this new level of watchfulness. For those lucky enough to have not yet experienced a covid-related illness, we are still communally experiencing this new level of vigilance as a kind of low-grade trauma, compounded by the sense that we don’t exactly know when it will end.
And now advent introduces the theme of watchfulness, as well. Yeesh. That feels like a lot. But resistance often times be a sign that there is something interesting to be excavated, so let us explore.
First, we need to place the text within its narrative context. Earlier in the chapter, the Jesus had predicted the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and the disciples ask him when it might happen, and how they will know that is going to happen. As he often does, Jesus gives answer that speaks to spiritual realities, rather than earthly ones. He describes a time of both distress and promise, using several different metaphors, and ends with a directive that his disciples must pay attention, be watchful. This is a directive in keeping with the way the disciples are portrayed in the gospel of Mark: constantly misunderstanding what Jesus is doing. In the very next chapter, they will fall asleep while Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane, and Simon is rebuked: “Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour?” Mark’s disciples need to hear this admonition, for they are in danger of being too complacent in the face of what is to come.
But, the bible does not always preach watchfulness. For example, in the gospel of Luke we are told:
22 … “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?…27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field…how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!
Or, from our reading today, from Isaiah…We are the clay, you are the potter…(v.8)
These verses speak of a God who already has everything in hand, the implication being that peace of mind comes from trusting this reality. Likewise, as we heard in our reading a few weeks ago, Swedenborg writes of Divine Providence saying “it constantly has in view what is eternal and is constantly leading to salvation,” though both joyful and miserable times(1). So which is it then? Are we to be watchful, awake, on guard, checking to see if we will miss something, looking out as if we might be suddenly surprised? Or should we be trusting and faithful and not worry?
Well, clearly it depends on what we are already doing, and what our natural tendencies might be. For those who tend towards just going with the flow, or who find themselves always being unreasonably optimistic, or who have fallen into numb, apathetic or uninspired states, as we all do at times, then it *is* important to be told to stay awake. Complacency can blind us to what God is trying to do, for us and for the world. And there are many times when prioritizing our own comfort causes us to be unawake to the suffering of others.
But what if we are already being vigilant and watchful? In this case, the stark urgency of the Mark parable might be less than helpful, might cause the vice grip on our hearts to tighten even further, might tempt us to take on more vigilance than is actually called for, might tempt us into the belief that we could actually thwart God’s purposes by not being watchful enough. We might come to believe that it all depends on us, that the power to make everything okay belongs with us. This is a difficult psychological burden to bear, as well as being untrue.
And so of course, I think we are being invited into a more nuanced take on watchfulness, and we can see this in one of the metaphors that Jesus used: the fig tree. He said:
“As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near…you know that it [or he] is near, right at the door.” (v. 28-29)
What does Jesus tell us to look for? Tenderness, softness, new life. Sometimes, when we are not paying attention, God’s presence will seem like a surprise, and especially if we are being called to repentance, then that surprise will not seem pleasant. But what the fig metaphor tells us is that ultimately, it is only surprising *because* of our inattention, not because God is inherently unpredictable. God is always present where there is the potential for new life, and where it is actively being born. God is always present to new possibility, to vulnerability, to tenderness, to growth. This is the sign that God is near. And this can be good news to the naturally watchful as well, those for whom watchfulness has quietly become powered by anxiety, and burden, and taking on too much. This watchfulness can be reframed as an offering; it does not need to be a bulwark against unpredictability. It can become the seeking of the new bud, the new leaf, the new promise, and all that is contained within such newness. Viewed through the lens of new creation, curiosity and diligence need not always need to be partnered by anxiety, for new life finds grows not only in cultivated spaces but in places we could never expect.
We see this reflected in our reading for today, in which Swedenborg indicates that the representation of being watchful is the living of a life according to the truths of faith, that it is diligently taking what we know to be true, and acting in accordance, in large ways and in small. This kind of watchfulness is not so much about making sure that bad things don’t happen, like the servant on watch at the door. It is rather, instead of just going through the motions of life, actively paying attention to how we can shape our lives into something that glorifies God, that actualizes truth, and embodies love. We *can* miss opportunities to do this if we are not alert and careful. And those missed opportunities can have consequences. It is not like there is no risk to living our lives. But God will always circle back around. Divine Providence 323 tells us that God cannot do otherwise:
…Everyone is created to live forever in a blessed state. This means that everyone is created to go to heaven. Divine love cannot do otherwise than intend this and divine wisdom cannot do otherwise than provide for this.
However we come into the practice of prayerful and faithful watchfulness this Advent season, whether it is by being shaken awake from our complacency, or though the cleansing breath that settles our anxiety, may our eyes ever be open to what is budding and getting ready to unfurl and bloom, even in difficult times. For we are indeed clay in the hands of our master potter, but a strange and magical clay that can share in the artisan’s vision. God leans over the potters wheel and whispers to us the words of our formation. And if we are awake enough to hear, we can offer in response our submission, our joyful acquiescence, to the shape of what we are becoming. The watchful soul; an ally to the act of creation. Amen.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #8560
Isaiah 64:1-5, 8
1 Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! 2 As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! 3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. 4 Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. 5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved?…8 Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.
24 “But in those days, following that distress, “ ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; 25 the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ 26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. 35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.
Apocalypse Revealed #158.
"'Be watchful.'" This symbolically means that they should have truths and live in accordance with them.
To be watchful has precisely this symbolic meaning in the Word, for a person who learns truths and lives according to them is like someone who awakens from sleep and becomes alert. By contrast, a person who lacks truths, but who is engaged simply in worship, is like someone who is asleep and dreaming.
Natural life, regarded in itself or apart from spiritual life, is really no more than a state of sleep, whereas natural life that contains spiritual life is a state of alertness. This alertness, moreover, is obtained only through truths - truths which appear in their own light and in their own clarity when a person lives in accordance with them.
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