So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. (Mark 13:29)
Late in July of 2016, I had traveled with a friend to the grasslands of the Serengeti in northern Tanzania, where I hoped to witness something of a spectacle: the great annual migration of wildebeest. This last full-scale migration of land animals on earth is the stuff that National Geographic films are made of: vast herds of wildebeest following the rains across hundreds of miles of the African bush in search of greener grass to feed on. With the wildebeest go the zebras and gazelles, among others. The migration begins after the wildebeest calving season has concluded, and the herd travels with tens of thousands of young calves, drawing the attention of the lions, hyenas, crocodiles, cheetahs, leopard and other predators. The National Geographic moments come most famously on the many occasions that the wildebeest cross the Mara River, putting the animals at risk of falling prey to dramatic crocodile attacks.
In Swahili the word Serengeti means something like, “the place where the land runs on for ever,” and to say that the broad, flat expanses of tall grass are beautiful is an understatement. The wildlife all across the ecosystem are plentiful, and by the end of the first day of safari in a Land Rover we had seen four out of the “big five.” Not all wildebeest join the migration, so we had seen a fair number of these, too. But the word was that the migrating herd was far to the north of us.
I asked our guide, Jonas, if we could travel north in search of the herd, and he was discouraging. “I hear the migration is not so good this year,” he said.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means there is not a large concentration of animals in any one place in the Serengeti,” he replied.
“But is there a chance we might see some of the migration?” I asked.
“Yes, there’s always a chance we could get lucky,” he said, but he was not enthusiastic about this possibility.
But I persisted, and convinced my friend and our guide that on the penultimate day of our time in the Serengeti we should drive as far north as we could in search of the great migration. So we did.
In a Land Rover with one broken shock absorber, we drove for hours and hours over rough dirt roads, through miles of African bush, past villages, and in sight of countless herds of cattle being tended by Masai boys. At last we came to the dry dusty bank of the Mara River, close to the Kenyan border. Jonas expertly took us along the riverbank in search of some part of the wildebeest herd that might be crossing the river.
More than 1.5 million wildebeest make the migration each year, and if you think about film or television clips you’ve seen of this incredible phenomenon, you’d think it would not be so hard to find a herd of 1.5 million wildebeest in flat, open land. But the wildebeest break up into smaller groups; they don’t travel as a monolithic herd, and we could hardly find any of them as we meandered in our Land Rover along the riverbank.
Our long drive was beginning to feel like something of a folly, when at last Jonas spotted a small group of about forty wildebeest on the far bank of the river, standing there looking bored. We drove to a good vantage point to watch what was an admittedly underwhelming retinue of the great migration. And as we watched, over the course of a good half hour or so, the wildebeest did nothing but stand there at the edge of the water and stare at it suspiciously.
Patiently we waited. In due course, on a little rise above our company of wildebeest, along comes another entourage of the homely animals, this one numbering closer to 100, and headed toward our little, water-averse band of wildebeest below. Great! - we thought - this larger group of wildebeest will come down to the water and their momentum will encourage the others forward and across the river, right below us! And as the larger company of wildebeest made their way to the place where they could turn and join their colleagues at the water’s edge, they halted, before proceeding, and adopted an air of devoted indifference to the thought of crossing the river.
Patiently we waited, sending all our mental energy across the river, and hoping to telepathically encourage the herd mentality to go, but to no avail. After another half hour of waiting for something to happen, at last something did happen: the small group of wildebeest at the water’s edge looked up at the recent arrivals, turned away from the river, marched lazily to join the others, and they all trotted wearily away from us in the opposite direction, without the vaguest sense that anyone was disappointed or unhappy that a river-crossing had not been ventured.
Year by year you and I, and countless other Christians arrive here at the same place at more or less the same time of year in late November, early December, on Advent Sunday. It’s common to say that today is the beginning of the church year, because it is, but there is something inadequate about that measure of what it is that today signifies - as though all that’s happening today is a flip of the calendar page. What a minuscule way of seeing things! In fact, we are beginning our great migration, and this migration is more than a passage over distance or time. We have not come to follow the rains, but we are in search of nourishment for our souls. And thank God we have children to come along with us!
The church bids us set out each year on this great migration that prepares us for the coming of a Savior, that delights in his birth, that follows him into the wilderness, that attends to his teaching, prepares for his death, witnesses his suffering, weeps at his crucifixion, discovers his empty tomb, rejoices at his rising, ponders his new life, receives the gift of his Spirit, and then marches through the green grass during the long rainy season in order to return to this same place at around the same time next year.
A nice enough metaphor for an Advent Sunday. But it remains only a metaphor if we position ourselves as mere observers of Advent and not participants in it. It remains to be seen whether you and I are actually participating in this great migration. That is, it remains to be seen whether we are watching from the far bank, or whether we are standing together at the water’s edge wondering if it is safe to proceed.
So many Christians today will be satisfied to watch from that far bank. But I am here to tell you that if you will allow it, you will discover that God is calling you to come to water’s edge where you may listen for God to tell you to go, maybe even to cross the river. It is true that all kinds of danger lurks ahead of us. Whether it’s the stars falling from heaven, or the threat of a nuclear war, or the challenge of navigating another year in this sprawling American herd, or your own spiritual hunger, or a sickness that may yet kill you before next spring, or the conversation you have been putting off for ever because you are afraid that it will change everything, or the phone call that you dread. Or, it could be that if you begin this migration you will find that, having heeded God’s call at the outset, you are drawn to be more and more attentive to his voice in your life. And you may begin to hear the urging of the Spirit to live your life in a pattern of holiness that means you are more and more attentive to what God wants, before you consider what you want. And you will be amazed at how this perspective changes things.
So, year by year we arrive here, and you have a choice either to watch the migration go by, or to cross the river and get on with it. No one is compelled anymore merely by hunger or instinct to go on this migration. The great annual Christian migration is about an intentionality of the heart, a commitment of the self, and a willingness to go more often than to stay put.
As a metaphor, my description of my underwhelming experience of the great migration in the Serengeti can be misleading if it suggests that the wildebeest at the water’s edge somehow failed because they didn’t cross the river over toward me. In fact, those wildebeest did exactly what they were supposed to do: they got on with the migration. The fact that they didn’t cross the river in sight of our Land Rover is of no consequence to them or anyone else but me and my friend. It was me and my friend and our guide who were left wanting, because we could not join in the migration, we could not follow, we could not go. We had a schedule to keep, places to return to, we were not free to go off with the wildebeest in search of greener grass or a safer place to cross the river. We could not see, and will never know what happened next. Because, although I had travelled half way around the world to catch a glimpse of the great migration, I actually didn’t have more than an hour or so to watch and wait.
Maybe you feel the same way about church. Maybe you feel the same way about your spiritual life, or your relationship with God, or your attentiveness to your prayers. Maybe you are interested, but you haven’t got time, if these damn wildebeest are just going to stand around and not do very much!
But here you are at the outset of a new church year, on the first steps of a new migration. Every year at the same time God makes the same promises: that his kingdom is coming, that the reign of his Son will bring the justice, and the mercy, and the healing we so desperately long for. But, of course, the signs that he warns of do not come to pass. The sun is not darkened, and the stars do not fall from heaven, and the Son of Man has not come with great power and glory, and his angels have not gathered his elect from the four winds. The kingdom has not come, the reign of God is not established, and what of the justice, the mercy, and the healing? It would seem that God’s seasons last longer than ours; his time is not synched with our time. Is this a disappointment to us? Are we ready for the end of time? Do we desire the reaping of the angels? Do we suppose we are prepared for judgment?
In the Gospel passage we heard this morning, Jesus describes the signs of the coming of the kingdom, and tells his disciples to be attentive to those signs, even as they are attentive to the signs of the seasons. “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” More than once, our Lord suggests that although the time is not yet fulfilled, we should know that God is near, and his purposes are close at and hand. I suppose it’s not much different in the Serengeti: the lion does not need to strike in order for the herd to move, being near is close enough.
If the portents Jesus told of do not appear, nevertheless, we are not without many other signs of the season that a new migration is beginning: the Advent wreath with its candles, the violet vestments, and the grey December sky, and the great hymns reminding us that lo, he comes, so long expected. But as long as we remain casual observers of the great migration, we will never know what happens next.
I have a photo from my few days in the Serengeti of my friend and me standing at the gate of the Serengeti National Park. You would think there’d be a long fence line stretching out in either direction to enclose this vast land, but there is not. And that there would be iron gates that swing shut to lock the lions inside and keep the poachers out, but there are not. There is a just a sort of pitched roof erected over the dirt road to mark the entrance of this amazing land. There is almost nothing to prevent you from entering in.
It makes me think how glad I am of all these signs and signals in our own midst: the wreath, and the candles, and the violet, and the hymns, and the grey December sky, and so many others. And it reminds me that the herd begins its migration simply because it must if the wildebeest are to stay healthy and strong for another year, and so they go when the signs appear.
And I remember the ancient symbol of the lion, as a sign of God’s presence in the midst of a dangerous world. And I believe that these Advent signs assure us that the Lion of Judah will appear one way or another. And this Lion will come not to ravage us, but to our aid and defense; he will save us. No gates can prevent him from coming to us, and no fence impedes his progress. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates!
And I pray the Lion will come to us, and roar! And I think we can linger no longer at the river’s edge: it is time to go!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
3 December 2017
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia