Have you ever had one of those nights when you couldn’t sleep and you are sitting in front of your television, channel surfing, sort of mindlessly or at least unconsciously, in search of something to watch? In search of something to fill the void? I would imagine most of us have done something like that before. I remember one very late December night a few years ago when I was doing just that very thing. I stopped on one channel and began half-heartedly watching a talk show hosted by, of all things, a Nun.
Mother Angelica was her name. She was funny and kind of interesting in her own way, so I kept watching. She was talking about some of the bad things going on in the world—wars, disease, hunger, natural disasters—but every so often, she would pause and say “he is coming!” She looked like a delighted child, this eighty something year old Roman Catholic nun, her eyes twinkling in anticipation for….what? “He is coming!” she said. Now I KNOW she wasn’t talking about Santa Clause, but you would have thought that she had been the best little girl in the world with no pouting or crying all year and Santa was coming to town to giver her all the toys she wanted.
He is coming! She said it again. And then, it hit me; she was talking about Jesus. HE is coming. She was not just talking about 2000 years ago when a young Jewish girl received the staggering news that, even though she was a virgin, she would give birth to the Son of God. She wasn’t just talking about the time that a tiny, helpless baby was born, miraculously to this same young girl, in a little country town, while angels, terrifying and amazing, sang the joyous birth announcement to, of all things, Shepherds. She was not just talking about BACK THEN.
She was talking about NOW. He IS coming!
When I was a kid, I had always thought Advent was preparing for the Christmas holiday. Preparing for the time when we remember baby Jesus asleep on the hay. A time to celebrate when Jesus came on a cold winter’s night that was so deep. That silent and holy night so long ago. A time to open little numbered paper windows on Christmas scenes that had a little verse about the baby Jesus or, if I was really lucky, a tiny piece of chocolate!
But watching Mother Angelica that night, and hearing her great anticipation, I realized in a way that I had never truly gotten be for then that this Advent thing was NOT JUST about something that happened 2000 years ago. It is happening RIGHT NOW. He is COMING!
This kind of excitement is all over our worship service today. It’s in the hymns we sing. The Baptist’s cry announcing the Lord is night—we’ll sing that in just a bit. The King shall come when morning dawns and light triumphant breaks…. Not as of old a little child, to bear and fight and die, but crowned with glory like the sun that lights the morning sky. We hear it in the prayer of the day, too, and in the lighting of the advent wreath. We lit two candles today as we move ever closer to Christmas.
Did you hear it in the words of the prophet Malachi? The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple…..Indeed! He is coming!!
And then there is Luke. He tells us of the one who goes before the Lord to prepare his way. That one, John the Baptist, who says to Israel and to us: PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD! MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT!
He is coming!
The Lord whom you seek is coming.
Sometimes, I feel like saying he is coming, with a threatening tone, as in “you wait till your father gets home” or “just wait till your mother hears about this!” When we see the evils of the world, what sin has done to humanity and all creation, what we in our sin do to one another, we wish God would step in a do something about it. We find it nearly impossible to, as Jesus has instructed us, love our enemies. Sometimes, all we can do is pray for Christ’s return so that he could put all things to right.
Sometimes, I feel like saying He is coming, with an impatient tone, because it seems like we are always waiting on God to do something. We seem to always wait on God to show up in a burning bush or a bolt of lightning to make things happen; to tell us what we should do or to grant an earnest prayer. I don’t know about you, but it seems like I’ve spent a lot of time in my life waiting on God to give me an answer or to point me in the right direction. He is coming. He says he is coming.
Sometimes, I wonder if he really is coming. What is he waiting for? We look around and see people killing one another. Incredible, unfathomable….truly there is not a word I can find that fits the bizarre reality of this…over 300 mass shootings in our nation this year. At least one per day and in 47 different states. There are even debates over how to calculate mass shootings, as though one or two fewer make it any better.
People are hungry, not just in countries of the third world but right here in our city. We can see people suffering from illnesses of the body, mind and heart, even to the point of death.
In thinking about all of the painful, violent things we have seen happen around the world and in our own nation, an acquaintance of mine wrote, “I’m not fearful of [terrorist attacks]… What scares me is what we have become….I’m scared of the way we are all looking at each other….I can’t do something a s simple as check my email without reading headlines that make me want to cry until I’m empty.” When is he coming?
What I want, what I truly, deeply want is to have that rich, overflowing excitement and joy I saw bubbling out of Mother Angelica that cold December night. The kind of hope that looks at the inarguable, concrete reality of all that frustration with sin and struggle and death and doubt and still believes he is coming. And even more than that, with all the pieces of my broken heart, I want all of us to have it.
Can we dare to really believe it? To really believe he is coming?
In our Gospel lesson today, we hear John the Baptist, the messenger who comes before Jesus, telling the people of Israel and telling us, we are to prepare the way of the Lord. This can make us think of the preparations we make for anyone’s arrival. When we are really looking forward to someone coming to visit, for a new baby’s arrival, for the beginning of something great or the start of a new and exciting time of life, we are looking forward to something fun, meaningful, exciting, challenging perhaps. But more than anything, we are, in that anticipation, experiencing hope. That is the key ingredient in Mother Angelica’s kind of joyful anticipation. That’s the inception of Advent itself: Hope.
This week in the news there was an event that did not involve weapons or death or terror in any way. A little less than ten years ago, NASA launched a spacecraft called New Horizons and this week the images taken by it as it passed Pluto reached us. The photos were actually made in July but the data has taken a while to get back to earth. The best shot from the news report wasn’t of Pluto or of one of its moons. It was of the NASA scientists gathered together counting down to the moment when New Horizons reached this farthest little corner of our Solar System. The look of excitement and anticipation on their faces in the photo, a frozen moment of hope as they chanted together 5-4-3-2-1, their heads lifted upward to watch the monitors. People working together, not against one another, looking to the future, not seeking to take others down, striving not for terror or revenge, but for new horizons, ideas and future hope.
Everything in this world is not about destruction and hate. Darkness is not the only force at work in the land. While we wait for Christ, whose glory fills the skies (even more than our man made spacecraft can ever bring) we can remain hopeful, too. Despite all that appears dark in this world, despite all that is frustrating and confusing and threatens to drag us down, there is still light and hope. There is still love in all of our hearts; love for our neighbors and even, with prayerful help from the Holy Spirit, love for our enemies, too.
Scripture gives many details about the first time Jesus came to us and it gives us complicated clues and hints as to what will happen when he comes again, but we don’t really know what it will look like. What I do know, is that God always comes in ways we never expect. Like coming to that young Jewish girl. Like coming to shepherds and wisemen, prostitutes and virgins, tax collectors and fishermen. Like coming to live with people like you and me and coming to die just like we do. And, most amazing of all, like coming out of the grave to new life and coming again and again to us in bread and wine, in water and word, in the hands and feet, and hearts of this body of Christ.
As we long to hear the story of God coming to us at Christmas and prepare for the Celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the Incarnation of God in the Flesh, let us prepare today as well….for he is coming!