Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, December 13th, 2020
Long before I was his pastor, I was a huge fan of John Grisham. John is best-known for his legal thrillers from A Time to Kill to his marvelous new novel, A Time for Mercy. A few years back, though, John switched genres and wrote a comic, touching, seasonal piece called, Skipping Christmas. It is a story of how hard it is to “skip Christmas” in America today, even if you try, or in the case of this story, especially if you try.
Despite the hours of reading pleasure that Mr. Grisham has given me, the book I am still waiting for him to publish is Skipping Advent. That may sound more than a little bit odd with the Third Candle of Advent already burning and coming from someone who gets paid to circumnavigate the church calendar.
While waiting for John to publish a new book called, Skipping Advent, the season arrived. It slid into worship on the Sunday after Thanksgiving as we lit the first candle and then last Sunday, we lit the second candle. Today, Rick and Linda lit the third candle and joined various Cove families who have read their Advent lines and sung their Advent songs this season.
This fall, I wrote a devotion for every day in Advent, so you would think, of all people, I would not want to skip this season. But, I do. I am not ready for Advent’s persistent hopefulness, its stubborn confidence that despite all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary that God’s justice and mercy will prevail over the rampant evil in the world, in the church, in each of us.
The year that Skipping Christmas hit the bookstores, I was pastor of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Old Town, Alexandria, just a couple of miles from the Pentagon. In early September of that year, on an absolutely gorgeous autumn day, planes skipped their merry way into the Twin Towers in New York City and soon thereafter, into the Pentagon and in an instant, life suddenly changed from splendid Technicolor to dreary black and white as we collapsed into a terrified and fearful nation.
Almost twenty years later, we are lighting each Advent candle in an empty sanctuary. People are not worshiping inside this sanctuary because they do not want to be here, but because it is a public health hazard to do, with nearly 300,000 Americans dead from a virus that defies us to ignore it or downplay it. The sanctuary is beautifully decorated for the season but we will not be singing here this season, not because we no longer care to sing carols, but because it is a public health hazard to sing, especially inside. Once again, terror and fear have returned.
Instead of writing my Advent devotions and instead of asking John to write one more novel, maybe I should have taken a stab at writing, Skipping Advent. My book would have described how hard it is, maybe how ridiculous it is, to try to pay attention to certain biblical texts in terrifying and fearful times.
Few biblical texts seem more absurd to read in Advent 2020 than the words from Isaiah eleven. In the same year when you and I watched George Floyd die with a knee on his throat unable to breathe, what are we to do when Isaiah announces that God is bringing about the time when “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” Thank you, Isaiah, but we know better than to listen to such romantic hype, especially in Advent 2020. We know that lambs do not lie down with leopards; never have, never will. We know that poisonous snakes are not playful pets; never have been, never will be.
So, on December 13, 2020, I say: “Let’s skip Advent, or at least, let’s skip what’s left of Advent.” Let’s stop our pre-Christmas pretending. Let’s go ahead and light that last candle, sing Silent Night, hand out the presents and get on with our quarantined lives. In a time when people are at each other’s throats, debating everything from whether there is really a climate crisis to whether the whole Covid-19 nightmare is really just a Chinese hoax, “Who needs Advent?” Who needs to listen to Isaiah sounding like the town fool or running around, looking like the Emperor who forgot his clothes?
Elsewhere Isaiah declares, “Every mountain shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.” “And, just when will this be?” asks the former Bronx pastor, Heidi Neumark. “The prophet’s words were recorded around 2,500 years ago and I haven’t noticed much movement in the right direction. The gap between the rich and the poor . . . remains as wide as ever” (Dec. 5, 2001 edition of The Christian Century).
Whenever I read these words from Heidi, the realist in me says even louder, “Let’s skip Advent.” For unlike Christmas, it is easy to skip Advent in America today. To celebrate Advent means that you and I must long for something of more consequence than getting more of what we already have. To celebrate Advent means that we must, in some sense, despair for what is missing in our world, missing in our church, missing in our lives.
All the more reason to skip Advent, because you and I are already knee deep in despair as we watch the body count mount from this viral siege and watch portable morgues brought into towns that have run out of space for the dead and watch while some political leaders still insist that masks are for losers. You and I despair of watching friends lose jobs and local businesses close down. We despair at the sight of mile-long lines at food banks and the thought of countless citizens who will lose their housing at the end of this month, knowing that even if there were room in the inn, they could not afford a room.
We despair of time missed in person with friends over the holiday. We despair of not decorating our sanctuary together, and singing carols together at the close of Advent, and not coming here to worship on Christmas Eve night. In times like these, celebrating Advent is more than a liturgical nuisance, it seems well-nigh impossible. We already have more than a plate full of despair, and so, I say, at least this year, let’s skip Advent!
Advent, though, will not be easily skipped. Isaiah knew nothing about Advent, but his prophecies tell us everything we need to know about the season. Advent is all about longing, not for the latest iPhone or for a simple way out of a family dispute or for a job that will not leave us bored and uninspired. Advent asks us to long not for something that can be wrapped or exchanged or tucked neatly under the tree. And, Advent invites us not just to long for, but to work for the day “when they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”
Advent asks us the hard question: “Are you ready?” Are you ready for more than Santa to fill your stockings? Are you ready for God’s justice to overcome all injustice, even overcome our white privilege? Are you ready not for one more thing to stuff into your dresser or cram into your closet? Are you ready to stop being frugal realists who insist that “there is simply not enough food, enough shelter, enough peace, enough justice, enough energy, enough vaccine, enough hope to go around”? Are you ready to trust in God’s abundant assurance that says, “O, yes, there is.”
I first met Heidi Neumark at a conference in Louisville more than twenty years ago. I left thinking, “Why would such a gifted writer and pastor choose to do ministry in what was an inner-city war zone. Well, you can only imagine how ashamed I felt when I read these last words from her Advent devotion: “O Wisdom, Come! O, Adonai, Come! O Root of Jesse, Come! O Come, O Come, Emmanuel! These ancient prayers are cries for . . . the closure of every distance until God is all in all.
“These moans are why I feel so blessed to work in this place. Of course, God is everywhere, but Jesus was clear about [God’s] his unique presence among the poor, the hungry and thirsty, the naked and sick, the stranger and the prisoner. I feel close to life in this place, blessedly alive. It is life in the face of death here, where the distances of class, race and gender are most acute. Here is where the valleys cry to rise up and meet the hills – and here love comes to level out uneven ground and make rough places plain.
“When will the work be finished? The wait is nearly unbearable. `Soon and very soon!` we sing each Sunday. `No more crying, no more dying, no more hunger, no more fighting!` We sing at the top of our lungs. We clap. Outside a siren’s high-pitched wail goes racing toward the next crisis. Soon can’t come soon enough.”
That is a bumper sticker worthy of Advent 2020: “Soon can’t come soon enough.” I am grateful to Isaiah and I am also grateful to Heidi who opened a new door into Advent for me. It is an Advent that I would have otherwise gladly skipped this year, at least, in my innermost self. She pointed the way back to Isaiah’s God who will not be finished with us until all the earth – every person, every creature, every plant, every blessed thing – glows with the glory of the Lord, until the day when they no longer hurt or destroy on all God’s holy mountain, no matter who the “they” are, until the day when “the earth is filled with the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea,” until the day when there will be no more night; no more need of light because the Lord God will be our light and the darkness that covers us in a thick, seemingly impenetrable, fog will be no more.
Skip Advent in 2020?
Not a chance. Not a blessed chance.