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Sermon (11/28): Getting Into The Advent Mood

December 1, 2010

This time, Advent, right now, is a season of joyful expectation. And for us, as Christians, we are, in a sense, always in the season Advent. For we are called by God to live perpetually in a marvelously hopeful “not yet,” a transcendently joyful “almost there.”

Every morning, we are to wake up, as Paul calls us to do, and we put on the armor of light and step out into the world and embrace the day, proclaiming that today is the day that Jesus will come again and establish his benevolent reign over all God’s creation. And the whole world will rejoice!

Every morning we are called to wake up and anticipate, as Isaiah puts it, that the Word of God “shall go forth” as “instruction” and God will “judge between nations” and “arbitrate for many peoples” and “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

On most days, of course, none of that will happen, but we are still called to wake up the next day looking forward to it happening on that day. And the next day and the next day and the day after that.

Perhaps today is the day! Perhaps today is the day, when, as our choir sung from the 122nd Psalm: “Now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem… a city that is at unity with itself; to which the tribes go up… to praise the Name of the Lord… peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers!”

So often, Advent is viewed as a time of dreary “waiting.” Some even see it as similar to Lent—that Advent is, in a sense, a penitential season when we must repent in dust and ashes before we’re allowed to finally rejoice on Christmas Day.

Sometimes, I think our Episcopal Church, in particular, struggles to recognize the joy that the anticipation of Advent is all about.

[Click below for the complete sermon from the beginning.]

Today, we begin the church’s season of Advent. We’ve got our “blue” on. We’ve got our wreath out. And so today, we are given four readings from the Bible that are meant to get us into the Advent mood.

From Isaiah: “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”

From Psalm 122: “Let us go to the house of the Lord. Now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem… Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers.”

From Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

And from the Gospel of Matthew: “As in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

As I said, I think these passages of scripture are meant to get us in the Advent mood—a mood of expectation, a mood of awareness of the imminence of the Kingdom of Heaven, that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand—that we can reach out and grab it. But I do not put much stock in the literal meaning of the words here. For me, the mood and the feelings those words express are what’s most important.

I simply cannot buy into any of the literal readings of these texts. I cannot read them as presaging some sort of historical second coming of Christ. I cannot read them as predicting a time when the spiritually sufficient will suddenly disappear—poof!—as in that terrible bestselling “Left Behind” series. Have you heard of those books? They’re like a pulpy spy novels combined with a super-natural thriller and a horror movie. I cannot go along with the idea of Jesus actually appearing in mid-air descending from the clouds to wreak judgment on our sinful world.

But of course, many, many people do believe that the Bible is, in fact, selling that kind of thing.

On the one hand, there are all the thoughtful scholars who argue that early Christians living at the time our New Testament texts were written really did believe that such an outlandish event was imminent, that such a bizzarre supernatural happening was coming soon. These scholars then argue that the early Christians must have been rather disappointed when no such thing happened. But the scholars never explain how Christianity managed to grow and spread despite such a bizarre thing never coming to pass.

Then, on the other hand, there are all those modern Christians, Americans mostly, who in the past 100 or so years have expected this kind of nutty event to come about in their lifetime—some, of course, imagined it would be in the year 2000—remember Y2K?—others saw portents of it when the Trade Center towers fell; others see the tensions in the modern state of Israel as connected to it.

But nope, sorry, it doesn’t make sense to me.

In my reading of these texts, I see our scripture trying to communicate a mood, a feeling—a feeling of unlimited expectation, an awareness of the transcendence of time, not a prediction of an actual, mark-down-the-date, time.

Let me try to read today’s scripture againk and this time, with feeling.

“The mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains! and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”

“It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep! For salvation is nearer to us now… the night is far gone, the day is near!”

“They were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away! So too will be the coming of the Son of Man!”

This time, Advent, right now, is a season of joyful expectation. And for us, as Christians, we are, in a sense, always in the season Advent. For we are called by God to live perpetually in a marvelously hopeful “not yet,” a transcendently joyful “almost there.”

Every morning, we are to wake up, as Paul calls us to do, and we put on the armor of light and step out into the world and embrace the day, proclaiming that today is the day that Jesus will come again and establish his benevolent reign over all God’s creation. And the whole world will rejoice!

Every morning we are called to wake up and anticipate, as Isaiah puts it, that the Word of God “shall go forth” as “instruction” and God will “judge between nations” and “arbitrate for many peoples” and “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

On most days, of course, none of that will happen, but we are still called to wake up the next day looking forward to it happening on that day. And the next day and the next day and the day after that.

Perhaps today is the day! Perhaps today is the day, when, as our choir sung from the 122nd Psalm: “Now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem… a city that is at unity with itself; to which the tribes go up… to praise the Name of the Lord… peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers!”

So often, Advent is viewed as a time of dreary “waiting.” Some even see it as similar to Lent—that Advent is, in a sense, a penitential season when we must repent in dust and ashes before we’re allowed to finally rejoice on Christmas Day.

Sometimes, I think our Episcopal Church, in particular, struggles to recognize the joy that the anticipation of Advent is all about.

There’s an Episcopalian priest I know who buys his Christmas tree the same time as most, shortly after Thanksgiving, and then keeps it in his garage wrapped in burlap, and doesn’t put it up until Christmas morning and then, bang! the lights come on, the tinsel is draped, the ornaments are hung, and so on. And he looks down his nose at me and those many others who enjoy our trees in our living rooms throughout the month of December.

And, of course, many pious Christians complain about how the secular world starts celebrating Christmas during Advent. “It’s not Christmas,” they say. “It’s Advent. So stop having so much fun. You must wait! Wait!”

Our own Episcopal Church’s publishing outfit puts out Advent calendars every year with devotions one can engage in each day from today through Christmas, and every year these churchie Episcopalian calendars wag a disapproving finger at those of us actually enjoying ourselves as we await the coming of Christ.

I remember one year, emblazoned atop the calendar it read, “Sshhh! It’s Advent!” When I saw that, I felt like a kid in school being scolded by a teacher. This year’s version of the calendar says, “Slow down. Quiet. It’s Advent.” Makes me think I’ve been caught running in the halls.

Slow down? Quiet? Does that fit with our Advent scripture for today?

“It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep,” says Paul. “The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord,” sings the psalmist.

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,” says Isaiah. “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”

So often, our church seems to say, “shhhh, slow down, quiet, assume a prayerful position and wait piously for God.”

But our scripture says, “Wake up! Put on the armor of light! Let’s go to the house of the Lord! Let’s go up to the mountain of the Lord! Come! Let’s walk in the light of the Lord!”

So no, I don’t think Advent is a gloomy, dark season of “waiting.” I don’t think Advent is about waiting at all. Advent is about expectation. Joyful, celebratory, expectation.

That’s why I think it is appropriate that we are baptizing today. Today, on this first day of this season of joyful expectation, we will baptize one month old Benjamin Lopez. What better way for us to get ready for the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven than to celebrate new life here among us? And to welcome this new little person into our community through the waters of baptism?

Because we all know the primary image of expectation that is at the heart of this Advent season, right?

Pregnancy, of course, pregnancy. I think Advent is meant to be a spiritual “What To Expect When You Are Expecting”–a time when we joyfully anticipate the coming of new life in every sense. Because if we get into that Advent mood, that Advent feeling that our scripture is going for today, I think all we have to do is to ponder what it’s like to expect the imminent arrival of a baby into our midst.

With a baby, comes hope. So much hope, so much wonderful possibility. When we see a newborn, we are filled with an imminent awareness of all the good in the world, filled with an immediate awareness of God’s presence. I got to visit Benjamin and his parents, David and Sarah, in the hospital a day or so after he was born. And I remember the feelings I had seeing him then, wondering to myself. Who will this little boy become? What will he discover and grow to love?

Those are Advent feelings. That’s an Advent mood.

So:

“Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
“Come! Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord”
“You know what time it is. It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep…
Let’s put on the armor of light.”

 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. C.A. Child permalink
    December 8, 2010 12:53 pm

    It has taken awhile for me to comment to this because I have been busy, busy, busy and want to do my comment justice. Advent is rightly a time of joyous anticipation–or, at least, that’s the ideal. But here in the U.S., it has become a stressful season of travel plans, gift purchases (with financial limitations), gift wrapping and shipping, party hopping and giving, and even workplace festivities and to-do’s which place extra pressure on employees. At the same time, in many parts of the country, it turns dark, cold, and flu-ridden. In addition, the end-of-the year approaches, and tax-payers stretch to donate to worthy causes for charitable as well as tax reasons, and many organizations and business wind-up their fiscal year in a flurry of activity. It is not a coincidence that suicide rates climb. It was with these stressors in mind that an Episcopal church first created the “Slow Down; It’s Advent” calendar. I find its message refreshing and timely. I don’t see it as “churchy” in the pejorative sense, but in the positive sense that there are worthy pleasures and values besides the best decorated tree, the most presents, Christmas cards sent just so, and all the other trappings that can make Christmas joyful–but also stressful. Being with family and friends in a relaxed setting, contemplating our blessings and just breathing in the moment can be a good thing. The special calendar, to me, helps us remember that.

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