Podcast: Play in new window
There’s a video that’s been online for about five years now,
that I like to show to my students.
It starts in a big parking garage
with two street basketball teams,
one wearing white t-shirts and sweats, the other wearing black.
As they stand there in one line, each team with its own basketball,
the announcer’s voice begins,
“This is an Awareness Test.”
“How many passes does the team in white make?”
A voice yells, “GO!” and suddenly the teams start running around,
weaving in and out, passing the basketballs to each other.
So my students start counting, “One, two, three,”
trying to keep their eyes on the white team’s ball,
trying not to get distracted by the other ball.
“Eleven, twelve, thirteen…”
Suddenly, the video freezes.
The announcer says, “The answer is thirteen.”
“Yes,” my students pump their fists in the air, “got it!”
And then they’re surprised when the announcer suddenly continues:
“But—did you see the moonwalking bear?”
The announcer rewinds the video
and they watch the teams pass the ball again,
but this time they watch the entire scene, looking at the big picture.
Suddenly, from the right side of the screen
a person dressed in this outlandish bear costume
comes strolling through the middle of the action,
doing the wave arm dance
—and yes, moonwalking!
The bear makes its way across the scene,
finally disappearing off to the left.
Now, I’ve shown this to dozens of students
and the first thing they all ask
is to rewind the video to the very beginning and show it again.
They don’t think the bear was really there the first time.
So I rewind it, and there it is moonwalking across the parking garage.
They were so focused on the basketball passes,
that they missed the amazing sight of the moonwalking bear.
The video ends with this simple statement:
“It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for.”
Now, the video is intended to raise our awareness
of bicyclists on the street, so they don’t get hit by cars,
but it’s also a good illustration for us as we begin Advent.
The Advent season is like an awareness test,
and Jesus is the moonwalking bear.
“Be watchful!” he says.
“I say to all: ‘Watch!’”
In other words, “It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for.”
Once, long ago, a chosen people looked for their God to come to them,
as he had promised.
We hear their longing in today’s liturgy.
“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,” they groan.
“Return for the sake of your servants.”
They kept alert, they kept watch, looking for the Messiah.
But they formed their own idea of what he would look like:
A mighty king, born of important parents,
a warrior who would raise an army and free them from their oppressors.
And so, when a little baby was born in a food trough for animals
to humble newlyweds,
the world didn’t recognize him as the Messiah.
When he began spending his time with the poor,
the outcasts, the unclean,
the authorities rejected him.
They were looking for someone else.
“It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for.”
Here today, in the beginning of this Advent season,
the same longing for God that the Israelites felt
dwells in each of us.
There is inside each of us a fundamental restlessness,
an unquenchable thirst,
an unsatisfied desire.
We spend our days chasing after things
that we think will satisfy that desire:
power, success, possessions,
security, pleasure, perfection;
but in the end, nothing satisfies
and the desire remains.
It’s an eternal longing that can only be satisfied by an eternal love.
That eternal love is God.
That eternal love became incarnate, became flesh,
entered into human time and human existence.
Jesus came to us.
This is salvation: a God who came to us to give us fullness of life.
Advent is the time to slow down
and get in touch with our eternal longing,
and with the One who satisfies it.
This time of year we are so often in touch with our surface desires:
certain kinds of holiday food,
the gifts we want under the tree,
the way we want the house decorated.
But below those surface desires are the desires of the heart,
the longings for connection, relationship, forgiveness, love.
Advent is the time to cultivate those longings,
to spend time exploring the desires that lie deep within,
and to ask God to come into our hearts more intimately this Christmas.
Because God has promised to come again,
not only at the end of time, but right here, right now.
We don’t know when or where or how
Jesus will come at the end of time,
but even more importantly,
we don’t know when or where or how
Jesus will come into our lives
this very day, this very hour, this very moment.
But we can be sure of one thing: Jesus will come to us this Advent.
Is coming to us right now.
Jesus continually invites us to an ever-deepening intimacy,
an intimacy in which all our truest longings are satisfied.
Our salvation is not a moment in time
but the ongoing action of a loving God.
Even now, Jesus is near to us, breaking into our lives.
But “Be watchful!” he says.
Because “It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for.”
What do we expect Christ to look like?
When do we expect to encounter Christ?
Whatever our expectations are,
we really do not know when the Lord of the house is coming,
and we really do not know what that encounter will look like.
If we’re focusing on counting the basketballs
as they get tossed from player to player,
we will miss the moonwalking bear.
But if we look with fresh eyes at the big picture,
we will see that our heart’s deepest longing
has been with us the whole time.
The work of Advent is to take a step back and get a wider view.
To look in a new way at the world around us
so that we can see what’s hidden in plain sight.
We don’t want to be like the customs officers
in the ancient tale of Nasrudin the smuggler:
Nasrudin used to take his donkey across the frontier every day,
with the baskets loaded with straw.
Since he admitted to being a smuggler,
when he trudged home every night,
the frontier guards searched him again and again.
They searched his person, sifted the straw, steeped it in water,
even burned it from time to time.
Meanwhile, it was clear
that Nasrudin was becoming more and more prosperous.
Finally he retired and went to live in another country.
There one of the customs officers met him, years later.
“You can tell me now, Nasrudin,” he said.
“Whatever was it that you were smuggling,
when we could never catch you out?”
Nasrudin replied, “Donkeys.”
Advent is the time to notice the donkey and the moonwalking bear.
It’s an invitation to be alert, to be watchful for Christ hidden in plain sight.
It’s a time to look more closely at our lives,
to become more aware of our innermost longings,
and of the One who satisfies those longings,
so that when Christmas comes
we can recognize our God and say,
“Yes, this child is the one for whom I long.
This is the one who takes away the darkness.
This is Jesus Christ, the savior of the world, and my savior.”