Text: Luke 21:25-28
I am so ready for a new year to arrive. I have given serious thought to skipping Advent and even boycotting Christmas. Why not I fast forwarding to Ash Wednesday? After all, it is not too late to blow out the one Advent candle as we walk forward for the imposition of ashes and hear the stark words: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Rather than listening to the piercing shouts of John the Baptist that is standard fare for Advent, maybe we should listen to the cock crow and remember Peter crumbled in his own betrayal. Instead of listening to Mary sing her Magnificat on the last Sunday of Advent, maybe we should listen instead to the cries of “Crucify Him, Crucify Him” from a mad mob in a so-called Holy Week when it seemed that injustice took center stage and fear bowed for a curtain call.
I am tired of waiting for God to show up with the annual Advent deliveries of hope, peace, joy, and love. How can we sing “Silent Night” when so many are grieving the dark nights of this pandemic even as a new variant is on the loose? How can we sing “Joy to the World” when people are terrified to leave their homes in Haiti and Ethiopia and when our nation is at each other’s throats about everything from wearing masks to getting a vaccine?
Just as I had decided to stash the Advent wreath back in the closet, much to my surprise, Advent came looking for me. It found me not in a moment when I was gazing around at the goodness of the world or when I was reflecting on the sweet baby Jesus. Advent found me with a song sung in a minor key, a grating song that as hard as I try, I cannot get out of my head.
The season of Advent begins not when the church can fit it into its liturgical schedule. Advent begins beyond time when Jesus sings a wild tune about a future beyond our imagining. Jesus sings, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”
Advent does not wait on us to get in the right mood for the season, it comes looking for us. Sometimes it finds us hunkered down in fear about the next violent attack on our nation’s Capital or the next time a gun will go off in a TSA line or in an elementary school or in a church. Advent finds us when we are consumed in anger about how we have been treated and all we are waiting for is to see who will disappoint us next or who will try to calm us down by cooing “peace, peace” when we know for a fact that there is no peace. Advent finds us, in Jesus’ words, when “people . . . faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming.”
A favorite game that Christians have played throughout church history is the “Jesus is coming again soon” game. The game works this way. You look around at your life. You watch the 24-hour news cycle of impending catastrophe and then you recite the words of Jesus three times: “people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming into the world.” Then, you announce with great certainty the exact date and time when Jesus will return, and amazingly, the prediction is always one that points to the time you are living in right now. So far, no one has won this game and I suspect no one ever will.
The problem with the “Jesus is coming back soon” game is that it takes the poetry of Luke and turns it into boring prose, not unlike the little slip of wisdom tucked inside a fortune cookie, along with winning lotto numbers. In Luke 21, Jesus speaks a foreign language whether we render it in Greek or Aramaic or English. It is the ragged, rough edged language of the apocalyptic and it is Advent’s preferred language. As Tom Long says so well, “It is a form of intense poetry . . . that the Gospel writers trotted out when what they were trying to say what simply could not be said in everyday speech.”
Advent opens not in the little town of Bethlehem or on a hill faraway. It opens at an all too familiar intersection, the intersection of fear and terror, of pain and disappointment. It is an intersection about which I know far more this Advent than I have ever known before. It is an intersection, though, about which the world’s refugees and abused women, the world’s abandoned children and tortured prisoners, the world’s mentally distraught and physically failing know so, so much more.
Advent opens by daring us to light one candle and to believe that even this inkling of light can penetrate the deep darkness that covers us. The lone Advent candle does not banish the darkness or diminish its grip on us. It does not make the darkness magically go away. It does, though, dare us to trust that the Light of the World is bringing in a future that bears little resemblance to the present.
Advent “. . . announces that the ultimate end of all things is not some tinhorn human dictatorship but Jesus Christ, the savior,” Tom Long goes on to write. “History does not end in whimper but in redemption. Standing there in glory at the conclusion of all things is not the evil of Hitler, or the greed of Wall Street, or the pride of our own egos, but the [Child] of God. Those who try to bend history toward horror and holocaust do not get to tell the end of the story. The end of the story is the mercy of God. So don’t tremble in fear; rather ‘stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near’.” (Tom Long, “Sometimes There’s God so Quickly,” Presbyterian Outlook, vol. 197, no. 24, p. 12).
Somehow, by God’s astounding grace, whenever you and I sit at the Lord’s table, we sit waiting and longing “until he comes again.” In every season, it is the Advent table because at the table the Spirit refuses to let us settle for what was or what is, but to work for what surely God intends to be. At the Advent table there is always enough for all who hunger, but especially for all who can barely survive the present and whose life has taught them not to dare dream of anything better in the future.
Soon and very soon is the song that you and I sing at the lighting of the first candle and also at every time we sit at the anti-cancer, anti-terrorism, anti-addiction, anti-poverty, anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-whatever divides us Advent table. Soon and very soon is the song that will not stop playing in this haunting season until you and I never grow weary in giving thanks, never lose heart that God’s heart will ever forget or forsake us, never tire of announcing to anyone who will listen, and even to those who will not that God’s future is breaking into the present and no darkness will ever halt its arrival.
Every time that we light the first Advent candle, hope takes a deep, long breath and helps us to do the same or as Emily Dickinson imagined:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all –
In all honesty long before today, I have been dreading another Advent. For me, hope had lost its feathers and I was ready to skip Advent 2021, skip any season that expects me to hope for God’s redemptive future. Then, absolutely bewildered, I heard Advent knocking at my door not with a timid “don’t want to bother you” knock, but with a loud, cannot miss that knock sound, the sound of an old friend who has come to pay a call and remind me that despite my fears, my pain, my weariness of the promise of the old hymn, “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.”
Light one candle. Those are the only instructions given us for today.
Could it possibly be Advent again?!
You bet it is and just in the nick of time.