A Surprising Advent!
Text: Mark 13:32-37
The Thanksgiving turkey has barely been removed from the table before we head to the church closet, dust off and decorate, and then add fresh candles to the Advent wreath. Some willing members like Philip, James, Adam, and Kate today light the first candle of hope, lead us in the litany, and off we go into the season of Advent, to wait and watch yet one more time.
A few years ago in late November, Jennell and I were in New York City to celebrate her birthday. Walking along 5th Avenue, it was clear that the American marketplace skips Advent because the season simply won’t sell. After all, how do you market faithful waiting in a society that does not wait for anything – or anyone? How do you sell watching for God when all eyes are watching for Santa and the most unbelievable sale?
Advent does not even get an occasional nod in public as Christmas carols start playing before the Halloween candy is on discount. And, even for the religiously observant, Advent is easy ignored for no sooner do we stack the Thanksgiving dishes than we pull out the Christmas decorations, set up the tree, and schedule the Christmas parties.
Maybe Advent is much ado about nothing anyway? In one of my favorite Updike novels, In the Beauty of the Lilies, Essie, the young protagonist, is finally allowed to walk to the Saturday matinee alone. She emerges from the dark confines of the Roxie Theater and Updike writes: “Outside the Roxie, the day had gone on being Saturday. Days were so long she couldn’t see how people could ever get old, the future was so far away” (p. 246).
Like young Essie, as a child, Advent was synonymous with the long month of December, when “the future was so far away” a future when time seemed stuck in a jar of molasses and Christmas would never come.
Strangely now in this later season of my life, Christmas comes far too soon and Advent does not last nearly long enough. No sooner do I read today’s plaintiff plea from Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence” (Isa. 64:1) than it seems it is Christmas Eve night and I am reading: “For unto you a child is born” (Luke 2:11).
Lest you misunderstand me, it is not that I like waiting any more now than I did as a child. In fact, those who know me at all are quick to point out how much I hate to wait. I want a longer Advent not because I enjoy waiting but because I need more time to figure out how to live a life of watchful waiting, a life in which everything does not depend on what might happen tomorrow, a life lived in which there is more than enough to embrace and cherish today, a life expecting God to be present right here, right now.
Maybe Advent is such an overlooked season because its music is in a minor key and its biblical readings are hardly heart-warming. In this season, we will hear nothing about a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, shepherds going AWOL on their sheep, wise ones duping Herod, and an idyllic mother pondering all things in her heart. Next Sunday, we will hear from that wild-eyed, locust-eating prophet John shouting at the top of his lungs about how we should and should not live. Like I need one more person shouting in my face about what I should or should not do!
And, today’s biblical text makes next Sunday’s look quaint. We did not read all of Mark, chapter 13, but when you do, it has the feel of one of the countless apocalyptic movies so popular today, with stars falling from the sky and labor pains that last for a month. Who wants to linger and listen to such a reading more than once a year, if that?
Chapter 13 ends with Jesus telling a parable, a pointed story, with a refrain of “Wake up,” “Stay awake.” Set in a Roman time of masters and slaves, the story tells of the master leaving on a journey with no indication when he will return. The recurring caution to those who are left in charge of the house is to “keep awake” because there is no telling when the master will surprise you with his return.
When my children were very young and I reached my December climax of frustration, I would pointedly sing to them, “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town.” Maybe God and my children will forgive me one day for such exploitive parenting, and hopefully, in time my children and you and I will better understand for whom and for what we watch and wait in the season of Advent.
We watch and wait and hope for Emmanuel, a God who is with us even when that God seems to be gone on a distant journey. Advent, then, is a season that prods us to get up from our couches, turn off screens of every type, and move outside in response to that God who somewhat impatiently is saying to you and to me, “Wake up and come along – NOW!”
I often struggle with the right words to wish people during the season of Advent. I know just what to say as we approach December 25. “I wish you a Merry Christmas” comes off my lips as easily as “God bless you” does after a sneeze. But what do you wish someone during the season of Advent? I suspect the answer to that question lies hidden in the parable that Jesus tells at the close of Mark 13, a parable that invites us to stand poised to be surprised by God. So, maybe, the right words for this season are: “I wish you a surprising Advent.”
Let me give an Advent wish to say to others a try for a minute and tell me what you think. I wish a surprising Advent for all who are on the journey with cancer and who fear that God has disappeared along with their hair. I wish a surprising Advent for those living with “long” Covid and who fear that God is nowhere to be found and that this global plague is never going to end. I wish a surprising Advent for those who despite having so much feel remarkably empty inside and cannot believe that God is just waiting to fill that empty place.
I wish a surprising Advent for young black males in America who find it hard to believe that God cares about them while God’s people, especially white religious people, are so painfully silent in the face of racial injustice. I wish a surprising Advent for vulnerable women struggling to make good health choices when people in power, often older white males, are trying to make those choices for them. I wish a surprising Advent for those in the line of fire in and outside Gaza and who doubt political leaders will ever give peace a serious chance.
I wish a surprising Advent for all who come to this table today and come with serious doubt that God will ever be found at this feast. I wish a surprising Advent even for those of us who hate surprises, knowing that God surprises those, like it or not, who stay awake, pay attention, and trust that God is at work even when are wondering how.
After all the turkey or tofu or whatever the leftovers of the Thanksgiving feast, it is easy to drift off and fall asleep. Fight the urge, my friends! Stay awake! Who knows, if you do, by God’s abundant grace, you may enjoy a truly surprising Advent. Even better, God may use you and me to be a part of a truly surprising Advent for those who are never surprised.
So, from my family to yours, here’s wishing you all a surprising Advent!