Advent 1A November 27
Is it REALLY Advent already? I’ve had the strangest feeling all week that we’d skipped a few days or that something wasn’t quite right. But no, it’s here. Advent is here! Happy New Year, Body of Christ! We’ve had our turkey day and black Friday and small business Saturday and soon enough cyber Monday. The wonderful, albeit often overblown and dripping in excess, journey to the Festival of the Incarnation is under way.
For many years, I shared an annual Thanksgiving tradition with my mother: watching her neighbors set up their outdoor Christmas decorations. The ever growing crew of the inflatable larger than life NASCAR driven by snowmen, giant candy canes, gazillion lights, and the bowing, under-inflated monster Santa would be set up on the lawn just as soon as leftovers were sealed in Tupperware. When we saw all of that, we knew Christmas was on its way!
Most retail stores don’t bother waiting until after Halloween to put out Christmas decorations any more. Scary costumes and Santa hats, CDs of haunted house music and happy carols, candy corn and candy canes siting side by side on the shelves. I remember that half inflated Santa in the yard of my mother’s neighbor’s house, slumped over as though he were tired already… and I sympathize!
But beneath all of that, below the head long rush to Christmas, there is something more. It is deeper even than the all-important gatherings of friends and family. Maybe you have noticed it, too. There is a sort of spiritual hunger we may experience around this time of year. The longer nights, growing bit by bit as they eat away at the edges of the light a little more every day. It is colder and we crave the warmth of home and love and belonging, all the while becoming more acutely aware of the chilly places in our lives and the lives of others.
It is in this place between the glamour of pre-Christmas pageantry and the gnawing spiritual hunger that we find the church. Deep blue on the altar, pulpit and font, apocalyptic scriptures and hymns that say…often beg…. over and over, come to us O God! Please come, O God, and make a place of hope and peace in a world growing in hyper intoxicating holiday cheer that we know cannot last and growing equally fast in looming anxiety we fear may linger a long time. It is here, squeezed between these two opposites, that we find the truly good news of Jesus Christ. Emmanuel, God with us, born to us as a tiny baby, coming to us again in the clouds to make all things new.
However, before we get that good news, before we see the baby in the manger, open the gifts on Christmas day, sing sing with the choirs of angels away in the manger on the silent and holy night, we must face some not so good news.
The world is not how God intends for it to be. Is anyone really surprised by this? We know it all too well. Sometimes, the broken parts of our lives and relationships with family and friends can become all the more visible during the holidays. Pain, suffering, illness, loss. The world, both the wide world we all share and our own intimate personal worlds, are not as they could be. It is no wonder that so many are obsessed with dire predictions of the end of the world.
In listening to our gospel text for today, we know that when we wonder and worry about these kinds of things, we are not alone. Jesus addresses this in response to the disciples and their wonderings as well. He speaks of a time when God will set everything to right. “But,” he says, “About that day and hour, no one knows…” Not the angels in heaven or even he himself knows the date or time of the second coming of the Messiah and the renewing of the whole earth. Only the Father in Heaven knows. And then, Jesus recalls the days of Noah in his words to the disciples and to us.
Now, I’ve always had a difficult time with the story of Noah. As a child, that story was terrifying! Maybe as an adult, too, because that story isn’t just about all the cute animals going into the ark in pairs. It is about the world being so corrupt and so broken that God felt the only thing to do was to scrap the overwhelming majority and start over! I can clearly remember hearing this story as a child and asking my mother, “what if he forgot me? What if God forgot me?” And my mother’s response was always, “sweetheart, God could never, ever forget you.” God will always remember.
So, it is not likely, when Jesus spoke about Noah to his disciples, that they thought about the animals filing in by twosies twosies and coming off by threesies threesies as the little children’s song goes. Most likely, they thought of the destruction of the flood, the might of God, and the covenant promise God made with all creation after the flood had subsided; the promise of God to never make war on the earth again. The promise of God to always remember us and remember the promises made to us that are visible in the reminder he placed for himself in the heavens; his bow of war: the rainbow.
Whenever anyone, particularly Jesus, brings up something related to a covenant or promise of God in scripture, it is usually done so to remind all those listening that even when things look bad, we can remember that our God keeps promises. Always. Our God does not and has not abandoned us, God loves us and is actively working for our good. When Jesus brings up this difficult time in the relationship between God and the earth, he is not doing so to frighten, but to reassure. To reassure them and us that God is actively involved in the world, actively involved in working out all that is wrong, actively working on making all things new.
We all know the story of Noah, right? After all the pairs of animals and Noah and his whole family are safely sealed up inside the Ark, it rains and floods for forty days and nights. And after these long days, the bible gives us this incredibly hopeful phrase: And God remembered Noah and all who were in the ark. God remembered. That doesn’t mean that prior to this, God had forgotten. Remember in scripture means to call to mind and act upon. Remember is a word of action. God remembers. God remembers us and acts on our behalf. So even though we do not know the “hour or the day”, we do know that God knows the things in this world that need to be healed, made whole, and set to right and is in the process of making all things new.
This is what we are reminded of at Advent. This season is all about waiting; waiting for the coming of God. We know when some of the waiting will end, but we do not know when the Messiah will come again.
We know when the baby Jesus is coming: December 25th, Christmas Day, the Festival of the Incarnation. We know when the Son of God is coming out of the tomb: Easter Sunday, the Festival of the Resurrection. Both of these are evidence of God’s active working in the world on our behalf. Both of these are actions of God’s remembering us is in the manger and on the cross.
The other part of Advent is the waiting for Jesus’ return and that is the part we do not have on the calendar. Sometimes, it seems that God’s people are always waiting. Maybe that’s part of why we can seem a bit out of sync with our surrounding culture this time of year. Maybe it’s why we have blue rather than red and green, why, for the moment, we sing songs about God on the way rather than Joy To The World. Maybe it’s why we have words like ‘watch’, ‘wait’, ‘coming’, and ‘in days to come’ rather than ‘get it now’, ‘limited time only’, ‘rush’, and ‘hurry’.
Truth is that when we jump ahead to the Christmas morning surprises, we do miss something important. Some of it is the ability to savor the anticipation. There is much that is valuable to be found in the preparations for big events in our lives; graduations, birthdays, weddings, the arrival of babies. And when we take time to enjoy and savor the preparation time leading up to these kinds of events, then the big moments are all the more meaningful for us. Advent gives us the precious gift of time to experience Christmas as something more than a fleeting happiness, more than a flurry of activity and more than only a baby born so long ago.
There isn’t really anything wrong with Christmas decorations in the stores in October or entire front lawns filled with inflatables or Black Friday sales. The truth is, though, that none of it is as important as what we are really waiting for. While the rest of the world rushes forward for the instant feel good of gifts, decorations, and other quick fixes, we can choose to wait through the anticipation of Advent for our Lord’s return. Sure, we have our own share of paper, boxes, ribbons and bags, sugar plums, holly and trees with stars, but we know there is something more here too. We are waiting on the fulfillment of God’s remembering; the coming again of Jesus.
Coming again as the baby in the manger and as the king in the clouds. Coming again to fulfill the promises God has made to us. Coming again to make all things new.