First Advent: November 29, 2020



Advent is, I always feel, an odd time. It’s a season often overlooked, wedged, as it is, in this country between Thanksgiving and Christmas, filled with the rush to find, wrap, and possibly mail gifts, and, in a normal year, studded with church, neighborhood, work, and school parties, and filled with televised Christmas specials and Christmas movies which are, with a few shining exceptions, terrible.

Advent is, as I was taught, the season of preparing for Christmas. As a child, I learned that meant buying presents, going to Christmas parties, singing songs, all to be ready to give and receive presents on Christmas morning. As I grew older, I learned it was about giving, and charity, but always with the focus on the coming of the baby Jesus and not the return of the risen Christ.

Every year, many, many pastors try to stand in their pulpits and urge their congregations to slow down, with, I suspect, roughly the same effectiveness they would find if they stood on the beach and tried to stop the tide or stood here in this valley and told the mountains to move. We implore our congregations to stop, to really listen to the texts that we read on these four Sundays, to take a breath and a break from the rush to buy, to consume, to eat, to drink, and to be, or at least, appear merry.

We nod to those who have lost loved ones in the past year or two, those facing this season with one fewer chair at the table, or even alone.

Perhaps we acknowledge the toll all of this forced revelry, latent family-conflict, and shortened days takes by pointing to the higher-than-usual rate of suicide, domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse that occur around this time every year.

But then, we rush back to the store for more gifts, more food, more drink, more, more, more.

We want to skip ahead to the baby Jesus, to angels visiting shepherds by night, to Mary and Joseph in the barn with the animals and Jesus in the manger, to the three kings or wise men.

This year, though…

This year is something different.

Parties are cancelled. Budgets have been cut. Some of us, and some of our relatives, will decide to forgo travel.

I am sure there are people, in our culture, it is inevitable that there are people saying that just means we need to do more. We cannot do as much, so those things we do need to be bigger. More lights, more cheer, more distractions from the gloom.

I hope we do not.

I do not just say that because every year I say I hope that we will slow down. I know that, this year, many of us are tired of slowing down.

This year, my hope is not that we will slow down, but that we will not strive to distract ourselves or others.

This first Sunday of Advent we lit the “hope” candle, and so I have been thinking a lot about hope this week. Not just my hopes for this Advent season, or the next year, but what hope really is.

Hope is the belief that things will get better, whatever the evidence might say at the moment. I have often thought of hope as the opposite of despair, but this week, prompted by these texts and the Rev. Coffin, I’ve realized that is wrong. Hope is not the opposite of despair. Hope is the broad spectrum between two poles: despair and contentment.

William Sloane Coffin, a legendary Presbyterian preacher, and nephew of one of the translators of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” said “hope criticizes what is, hopelessness rationalizes it. Hope resists, hopelessness adapts.”

We manage our hope by limiting it to small things: we hope we get what we want for Christmas, we hope we do well on a test, we hope there is not a line at the gas station, we hope our team wins.

We tell ourselves not to hope for bigger things, that we do not deserve bigger things—and I do not just mean bigger presents or higher scores. We tell ourselves that this is the best we can do. We tell ourselves to adapt, to distract.

This year has been filled with gloom, and I understand the desire, even the need for a break. I understand wanting to fill the house, or the yard, with lights to drive it away. I hope that we can all find the right amount of space to do that.

I just hope we do not too it too much.

Listen again to the words of Isaiah:

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
   so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
   and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
   so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”

Isaiah hopes that God will tear open the heavens and come down. Isaiah feels that God is remote: further down, Isaiah twice says that God is hidden, that God has withdrawn, that’s God has hidden God’s face. Isaiah sees a people who are blind to God, perhaps filled with distractions. I earnestly believe that God does not hide, rather we stop looking and, in time, forget how to look, and so when we ask God to be revealed, to let God’s face shine, we are not asking God to return, but for God to direct our attention.

Listen to the Psalmist, who writes:

“O Lord God of hosts,
   how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
   and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbours;
   our enemies laugh among themselves.”
The same psalmist includes a refrain:
” Restore us, O God of hosts;
   let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

The Psalmist, like Isaiah, feels God’s absence, feels that God is hiding, but hopes that God will return.

Paul, too, in his letter to the Corinthians, writes that they are waiting “for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” and our gospel text, from Mark, promises that “they will see ‘The Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”

Isaiah and the Psalmist speak of a hope, Paul and our Gospel writer speak of a promise: God will tear open the heavens and come down in glory.

But we cannot just wait. We cannot just say “we hope for that day” and then turn back to this day and move along.

Our Gospel lessons continues:

“‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’”

The Gospel tells us that God will bring about God’s kingdom, that Jesus will return, in God’s own time. Isaiah and the Psalmist ask God to make God’s presence impossible to ignore. Paul takes that as a given, but asks us to wait. Our Gospel makes it a promise, and reminds us that until that time, we must keep awake.

God’s presence will come, has been coming, is always coming into our world and our lives. And yes, we pray that it will become ever more clear with the coming of Christ.

But we are called to stay awake, like the slaves who have been left in charge, because right now, we are the ones operating this world. God has given us freedom, has given us stewardship over our planet and our lives. And so we cannot just go to sleep, cannot just check the alarm and then press the snooze button while we wait for God to come and fix everything. We must keep awake.

Hope demands that we pair our waiting with action. Hope demands that, even as we wait and pray for God’s presence to become impossible to ignore, we strive to demonstrate God’s presence. Hope demands we participate and seek to find God, to turn back to God even in the midst of distractions. Hope demands we face and confront our problems, not just in our own lives, but in our world so that, when God does return to bring us over the finishing line, we will have done our part and gotten as close as we can.

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