How’s that for jarring? Merry Christmas! As we settle in to anticipate the birth of our Lord and linger in hope and peace, joy and love, we are slapped in the face with this dire and frightening passage. Welcome to Advent. This is the week of HOPE!
“Advent” means coming, it is anticipation and waiting, eager longing and looking forward. So today we begin to intentionally look forward to Christmas.
I’m just getting my head in the Christmas game. Last year, I was all prepared in advance, Advent protected by presents bought and wrapped before Thanksgiving, but not really this year. We’ll get our tree today and take out the decorations, and I’ll probably start my baking this week. And I am dearly craving snow and holiday cheer and Christmas music. And I want Christmas to either be peaceful and joyful, or at least frenzied and fun – a sense of busy cheer, and giving, and good will towards all people. No too much to ask, I don’t think.
But not this, please. Let’s not start Advent with this doom and gloom - these words of a grown up Jesus heading toward his own death about a future that comes in such force as to shake the very foundations of our earth, rock our seas and cause us to faint in fear and foreboding. There is no room in my personal Christmas plans for apocalyptic meltdown, thank you.
But here it is, our passage for the first week of Advent. Not even stuck in the middle of Advent somewhere, but right at the beginning. Hey! It’s screaming at us, the first thing that you think about as you head toward Christmas is this! And this is the stuff to feed our conversation about HOPE?
One undeniable thing about Advent, if we allow ourselves to give it its full due, is that it demands honesty. Christmas easily fosters denial – celebrations provide the perfect cover for depression, frustration, fear or anxiety. They distract us so well from the ugliness of war or poverty or loss.
But it’s hard to hide in Advent, a season that begins in darkness and exists in waiting, devoted to recognizing our need for a Savior – it’s hard to hide in that. Instead, it makes us come to Christmas with open eyes, and noticing hearts. Advent demands that we pause and recognize our need for a Savior, and then take all of that with us to Christmas. That we anticipate Christmas and wait for it faithfully. But, if we gather here and say Christmas solves everything, that we wait for Christmas because Jesus has come and everything is going to be all right now, we are liars. Or we’re not paying attention.
This week, this community lost two friends. Dave- out of the blue, unexpected, too soon. Wrong. And Agnes- cheated out of years of her life, already gone from us but here nonetheless, for years, slipping further away, and now, she too is gone for good. And nothing about this feels right. Losing people always feels wrong. But especially in these ways, I feel my soul ache to shout, it shouldn’t be like this.
There is so much that is wrong. It is wrong that people’s lives are cut short, by sudden death or prolonged illness. It is wrong that relationships break down, or misunderstandings stand, and we can’t mend what has torn apart or find ways to truly connect. It is wrong that along with their fire drills and tornado drills my kids have to practice “code reds,” cowering in a corner with their teacher away from their locked doors and closed shades in case an armed intruder enters the elementary school. These things are not as they should be. And I could easily buckle with despair, or fear and foreboding.
I could easily look at our crazy “winter” weather, and a hurricane flooding New Jersey and New York City and knocking out power for days on end along the East Coast, and the escalating violence in Syria and Palestine, and the rising financial blood pressure here at home, and I could get scared, and worried, and succumb to the noise and the clamor, and cower in defeat.
Frederick Buechner tells the story of Christmas in his childhood, where the whole family would gather at his grandparents home and the living room would be piled with presents and filled with sparkle and laughter and tons of relatives, and the magic of the event was almost too much to bear. He tells how Christmas was better than he even longed for in the days leading up to it, and that room, and the evening itself, was filled with light. But on looking back, he also sees the darkness under the surface, and lurking in the corners – that when he was ten years old, his father committed suicide, and his grandfather died within the year from a broken heart, really, and then a few years later his youngest uncle killing himself as well.
And Buechner writes, “What I think about now is how even before those dark things happened, they had all been somehow in that magical room – along with the tree and the presents and the uncles and aunts and cousins- waiting to happen. I think of how not all the love there was in that room was enough to keep them from happening. There was not Christmas enough to save the day. There was not Christ enough. There has never been Christ enough- not just for my family way back then, but for all of us right now and always. And yet, at some unknowable point in the future, there will be Christ enough. That is what Jesus is saying in this apocalyptic passage that is our text. That is our wild and beautiful hope.”
We start our waiting for Christmas by waiting for Christ’s return. He is coming, as sure as the seasons change and the trees blossom, Christ is coming back. One day, there will be Christ enough. And all brokenness will be made whole, all suffering will be redeemed, and all wrongs will be made right. We live in that wild and beautiful hope.
Hope is not wishing, it is not dreaming, it is not disconnected happy thoughts or pie in the sky craving. It’s deeper, wider, and infinitely more powerful than that. Hope is always about wrongs being made right. And we cannot truly hope, we cannot embody hope and let it swell within us, and be people of hope, unless we look the wrong in the face and call it that.
Hope can look at these things, and hold them up in grief, and say boldly, things are not as they should be! because hope knows there is more. Hope knows it could be different, it should be different, it will be different.
Heaven and earth will pass away, but the word of the Lord remains. One day, despite all you see and hear and feel, love will prevail. Peace will reign. Justice will rule. The weak will be made strong, and what has been lost will be restored. That is God’s promise. That is our hope. Stand up, people, and raise your heads, your redemption draws near.
So in no way is Advent a passive, sentimental, silly, shallow waiting. It is a confident, active, aware and audacious waiting. We wait because he who came and who comes, even now IS COMING – we proclaim that, we affirm that. We light these candles in the darkness and say that no matter how dark the darkness gets, it cannot put out the light. And one day the light will put out all darkness, and for that we wait.
Hope, then is an act of defiance. And Advent waiting is an act of protest. It names the things we wait for, like hope and peace and joy and love, it names these things and says they are coming, and declares that even now we see glimpses and feel smidges and share tastes and assert them to be real with our words and our actions and our very lives. And while we’re feeling brave we also name the things we wait in, our fears, our war, our struggles and sadnesses, and so say that these things too belong to God, and that we belong to God even as we wait so often within what shouldn’t be.
Hush now, and close your eyes. Pause in the silence and darkness of Advent. Can you hear the human heartbeat in the womb of Mary? Can you feel the kicking of the tiny feet against the flesh of her belly? Can you sense the groaning of creation, the building anticipation of the earth and its creatures for the arrival of their Creator? Quiet yourselves and hold still, Advent whispers, the promise of Christmas is coming.
God so loved the world that he slipped into it, coming first in fragile humanity, in hiddenness and mystery, to live and walk among us. The light has entered the darkness. Christmas tells us this.
But this first day of Advent reminds us that Christmas is a promise as much as anything, it is the Creator’s commitment in flesh and blood to come again one day. And next time the light will burst into creation in power and brilliance beyond our wildest imaginings, shaking the very foundations of everything. The Creator is coming, people. To reclaim the world, to redeem the world, to restore the world. To make things as they should be. One day there will be Christ enough for everything.
So we begin our wait for Christmas, gathered here in Advent and we name Hope, and then we share it. In our prayers and our reaching out and our honesty and our struggle we sit in hope, we both say aloud this ought not be! and together hold the promise of what should be, and will be. And remarkably, when we share our own hopelessness, Hope is real, and Christ who has come is with us even now. And so we also leave here as people of hope – people who know what is coming, and are not afraid to live like it’s true.
So may we long for the coming of Christmas, and may we cling to its promise, and may we wait with our heads raised in sure hope and steadfast anticipation for our Coming Savior.
Come, Lord Jesus.