Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36
Christmas is in the air. Carols are playing on the downtown mall. Tree lots are busy moving their merchandise. Decorations have been hung on street lights and crèches are being placed on mantles. For young children, it may feel like an eternity until December 25, but make no mistake, Christmas is in the air.
So why is the church so slow to get in the Christmas mood? Luke has arrived on this first Sunday of December, but he is not carrying the Christmas goose. He does not set our sights on a living nativity that we can recreate outside Cove Hall tonight. Luke has not arrived singing, “Christmas is in the air,” but by crying out, “Advent is in the air.”
For those of us who did not grow up celebrating Advent, this season can be more a puzzlement than a delight. The stories we read during this season are, by and large, not our childhood favorites. They have no star in the east guiding devout magi, no soliloquy of angels stirring shepherds to go and see the babe, no harried Innkeeper with little time and even less room, no touching moment when Mary caresses her newborn and ponders these things in her heart.
No, the stories of Advent are dug from the harsh soil of human struggle and the littered landscape of dashed dreams. They are told from the vista of where sin and evil still reign supreme and hope has gone on vacation. We may prefer the Christmas stories with all their joy and gladness, but in Advent we are back on familiar turf, walking the land of waiting, waiting and wondering whatever happened to God.
To confuse matters more, Advent leave us in a tizzy over time. Wish as we might, time is no steady, predictable settler in Advent. In this time-tumbling season, we look for a baby to be born, while we know that the baby has already been born, and still is being born in us – this Emmanuel who came and is coming and is among us right now. Not only is Advent not well behaved, neat and orderly; it is a season that relishes in contorting time. Ask Luke. Ask Jeremiah.
Jeremiah spoke to hostages being seduced to start a new life in balmy Babylon. He tells a tough audience that despite every sign to the contrary “days are coming,” days when God’s promises will be fulfilled and that will not happen in downtown Babylon. Jeremiah tells his kin that God’s future is coming, so do not settle to make the best of a bad situation, but trust in the creative, redemptive, and sure promises of God.
Tempted to think either that Rome was supreme or that Rome was about to meet its divine match, Luke writes in the bizarre pen of the apocalyptic. “Whenever we enter the apocalyptic . . . territory[ies] of the Bible,” writes Tom Long, “we suddenly become disoriented tourists who don’t know the language, who stumble over the customs, who are made queasy by the diet, and who can’t find our way back to the hotel” (Tom Long, “Imagine There’s No Heaven: The Loss of Eschatology in American Preaching, Journal for Preachers, p. 22).
To Christians living amid an oppressive empire, tempted to give in to the lures and expectations of the empire or Christians tempted to disregard the empire, believing they could call down the immediate fury of God, Luke uses his apocalyptic pen to tell them two things. First, “the future is not in Rome’s hands,” and second, “the future is not in yours.” Luke says, “Be alert” -- look for signs of the in-breaking of the reign of God and live as if every moment were the moment that God would be finished with time, but not with you.
The church does not welcome in Advent with the vision of Mary great with child but with visions of a world spinning out of control, not so unlike the world I see outside right now, a vision of God’s end time, pregnant with possibility. While our largely secular and pluralistic society wraps itself in Christmas paper and looks back to Bethlehem, Advent looks way beyond today, beyond Christmas, and far beyond tomorrow. No wonder people, in and out of the church, have no time for Advent.
Then there is Heidi Neumark, the unrepentant fan of Advent. Writing about her ministry in the roughest part of the Bronx, Heidi says: “Probably the reason I love Advent so much is that it is a reflection of how I feel most of the time. I might not feel sorry during Lent, when the liturgical calendar begs repentance. I might not feel victorious, even though it is Easter morning. I might not feel full of the Spirit, even though it is Pentecost and the liturgy spins out fiery gusts of ecstasy. But during Advent, I am always in sync with the season. Advent unfailingly embraces and comprehends my reality. And what is that? I think of the Spanish word, anhelo, or longing. Advent is when the church can no longer contain its unfulfilled desire and the cry of anhelo bursts forth: Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!” (Heidi Neumark, Breathing Space, p. 211).
As the first, lone candle of Advent burns, Jeremiah and Luke and Heidi lead us into the well-traveled terrain of longing, of anhelo. Every December, I long, on almost a daily basis, for a remote control to put time on pause, while I try to catch my breath. Like Heidi, I too welcome this season because I know how many of us spend far too many sleepless nights in deep longing.
I have my own global list of longing that includes longing for the day when a “Vacancy” sign will hang over the entrance to every shelter for the unhoused and over every tent city of children who have migrated here only to be separated from their parents. I long for the day when rancid political rhetoric will not fill the airwaves and pollute our public discourse, a day when our nation is no longer torn asunder by racism and sexism and homophobia.
I long for the day when leaders will actually listen to scientists explain the terror of climate change and then have the courage to take action. I long for the day when children can walk into school and women and men can walk into mosques and synagogues and churches and not fear being shot. I long for the day when women doing the same job will receive the same pay as men.
Personally, I long for day when I will no longer watch one I love spinning out of control due to opioids or alcohol, the day when a treasured friend and colleague will not have to choose between her job and her health, the day when I am as inclusive and welcoming of everyone as I say that I am.
As a pastor, I long for people to know not a pre-packaged Jesus who, like Santa, pays us a visit each December, but a risen Jesus who stands ready to enter into every aching joint of every wounded soul. I long for people to know not the Jesus of religious bigots, a Jesus who is glad to leave certain folks behind, or the Jesus of the intellectual elite, who speaks and behaves only in reasonable ways. I long for people to know the Jesus who comes to us on his own terms, in his own time, in his own way, and brings with him more mercy and justice than we will ever grasp.
Our longings, our anhelo, lead us inevitably to this table. Long before this is an Easter table or an Advent table, it is a table of anhelo. Just look at it. This meal does not point to magi and a star, but to a world gone mad, where the innocents are crucified. It is a table not cloaked in romance and sweet memories but set with food paid for at a price way too dear. It is not just a table of anhelo, it is the table of anhelo for all of us with deep longings, people who join in worship to sing to God, even in the dark.
Listen with your heart and you might just hear God’s anhelo, God’s longing to come to each one of us, to dwell deep within us, and to send us deep into God’s longing world.
Yes, Advent is in the air and with it is the cry of Anhelo.
“Come, Lord Jesus!”