Isaiah 64:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37
Today we begin a new church year with a new season: Advent. Advent is the time of preparation for Christmas, involving the four Sundays before the great festival. We light the candles on a wreath. We sing Advent songs of God’s coming and our getting ready. It is a special time. We remember that Advent is its own season, that it holds a special opportunity for quiet reflection, and that we should not let Christmas anticipation overwhelm it.
But today, I would like to play the role of an Advent Grinch. I’d like to say Bah Humbug to much of what passes for Advent. With respect to this season, we as a church need to approach Advent differently, before we all wither away and no one cares about God anymore as they rush to the malls. So let me begin.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say that Advent is a season of waiting. And if you open almost any book or devotional piece on Advent it says that Advent is about waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting. The obvious moral lesson of Advent is to learn to be patient. Patience is the virtue of the season.
Well, Bah Humbug. Advent is not about waiting. It is about something deeper. It is about longing, yearning, and desire. It’s wrong to focus on building up our patience. Advent is about what we deeply and sincerely long for. What we most deeply desire. What we are excited about. What we most want for ourselves, those around us, and the world. What we hope for. Our deepest wishes and longing. It is not a season about building up our patience. It’s a time of getting in touch with our passions, whatever those passions might be. What makes Advent work in this culture is that it gives us an opportunity to be a passionate people and to express that passion. Of course, sometimes when we long for something, we are forced to wait. Waiting is actually dependent on the existence of a longing. But to make this a season focused on waiting for something rather than human passion is, well, sort of sad.
So what are you passionate about? What matters most to you? What do you desire? At first this may be difficult. And it may be more difficult as you think about it and realize that some of your passions may not be that domesticated. We humans are complex and long for many things. The exploration of our passions may be a bit wild. But the readings of the season talk about rough places, mountains and valleys, people in animal skins, and the longings of suffering people. This is not easy work, this getting into our longings. It is hard, and sometimes painful, and causes us to face our real selves. That’s why we make Advent into a time of patience. It’s much easier to just tell people to be patient. The problem is that doesn’t work anymore, and it’s time to get back to the longing of the human heart.
In the presence of God, our longings are what they are. Some of our dreams and hopes we feel comfortable with. Others we do not feel good about. Some unite us with others in our faith so that we become passionate about caring for others and the world around us. Some explode in our faces. Think about the deep human longings that are present in the situation in Missouri. We long for civil peace. We long for an end to racism. We long for the safety and equal protection of our communities, civil servants, and citizens. Those longings drive us into prayers for justice and peace.
Justice, peace, and compassion are perhaps the deepest religious longings the human heart knows. They propel us, not because we ought, but because we deeply want to help someone in need, someone treated unfairly. God longs for us to long for compassion, freedom, and joy. And those longings find themselves living with the other longings we all feel.
But whatever our longings, dark or noble, wise or foolish, deep or in the here and now, these longings are what make us human, and when we long for health or healing, security or affection, meaning or purpose, renewal or reconciliation, joy or vindication, we become fully human and more deeply engaged in the presence of God. We find ourselves renewed as we engage in a passionate life. And we move beyond the wooden stereotypes which have come to mark the Christian faith and this season.
The world does not need to see us as people in the waiting room of a doctor or dentist, bored stiff, wanting it all to just be over. No, the world needs to see us as passionate people: intensely engaged in what matters, even as we realize the limits of our passions. For our Christian passion is to heal the world, even though that is beyond us. Still, that passion brings a smile to our hearts whenever we witness healing, wholeness and affection in a cold and hard world. Advent is not about waiting. It is about becoming passionate again.
Second, Advent has become that time when we lament the growing secularization of culture and say that the most important thing is to get Christ back into Christmas. Well, again, as the Advent Scrooge, I say Bah Humbug. Advent is not about getting Christ back into Christmas. Christmas is its own cultural phenomenon involving complex religious and family rituals and behaviors exploited by the consumerist society in which we find ourselves. But so what?
You know, for most of the Christian era, Christmas did not really matter. It was on the Christian calendar, but Epiphany was the big deal in the winter time. There are four stories of the life of Jesus. But two of the writers do not even include a Christmas story. The birth of Jesus isn’t in Mark or John. The great cloud of Christian witnesses would certainly think our Christmas customs strange, but they would not really waste much time talking about getting Christ back into Christmas. They might not be interested in Christmas at all.
No, what matters is not getting Christ into Christmas. What matters is getting Christ into your heart so that you can share the compassion of Christ with others. That can happen at Christmas. And sometimes a piece of the Christmas complex may trigger that compassion in someone. That happens now and then. That’s fine and good. But God is mightier than Christmas, and God can break into your heart any time God wants to, any time of the year, December 24, or August 13, November 22, September 11 or whenever.
At least once each week, and sometimes several times each week, God breaks into your world, Monday through Saturday, and invites you to step into the compassion of Christ. It can be at home, at school, at work, while shopping, or driving, or praying, or in the doctor’s office, or fixing dinner, or talking on the phone. God will subtly call you to become aware of someone or something. And sometimes God will hit you over the head, and you’ll life will change as you realize you’ve been getting it wrong. But what matters is getting God into your heart regardless of what goes on at Christmas. God’s compassion will come when it will come, and Christmas is a human construction sometimes used by God, sometimes not. So this year, enjoy all those Christmas things. Buy or build a present or two. Bake a cookie. Stand under the mistletoe if you want. Have a good time with neighbors and family. Just be aware that God may or may not be in those things . God only wants to open your heart so that you can be an instrument of peace. And God will be God and Advent is a recognition that God enters our hearts and world whenever and however God wants.
Finally, we talk about Advent as a time for preparation. We love to prepare in Advent, and to get ready. We like to say we have so much to do. And we fill our lives and schedules with all sorts of preparations for the season. And we like to quote Bible passages about preparing the way of the Lord. Get ready. We say that over and over and over again about Advent.
Well again, as the Advent Grinch, I say Bah Humbug. Advent isn’t about preparing. First of all, it is God who is active in Advent, not us. God is the one who comes. God is the one who opens our hearts. And the spirit of God blows when and where it wills. We really do not know the day or the hour. There is really no way to plan, act and prepare for this emerging God.
When God comes, and when God changes our lives, and when we are transformed, there actually is no way to be prepared for that. Even the best laid plans are blown away by the presence of God. We can never fully prepare for the coming of the Lord. And no matter how prepared we think we are, whether we get all our chores done or not; when God actually does come and change our hearts and minds, quickening the spirit of compassion within us, it can be so overwhelming, that any preparation we thought was important is simply senseless. God does not come because we are prepared. God does not even wait until we are prepared. God just comes. God opens the door to our hearts, and compassion is born. It happens at anytime, anywhere, and it is always a bit overwhelming. To say that Advent is a time of preparation is simply wrong. It is a time to realize that when God knocks on our door, no matter who much we have it together, the spirit will tear things down to open things up. And we are never prepared for that.
This is Advent. It’s not a season, but a moment to sense and seize the presence of God. It’s not about waiting, it’s about being passionate. It’s not about getting Christ into Christmas. It’s about getting Christ into our hearts and world. It’s not about preparation. We can never know, let alone prepare for the times God opens us to new possibilities. Advent is not a season, but a moment. And we never know when the moment comes.
Isaiah 64:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37