Happy Thanksgiving! I hope that many of you have just enjoyed the gathering and comfort of family and Thanksgiving. And just as we are in that soft afterglow of family and friends, with Christmas scenery and music serenading our senses, we hope this good spirit can be sustained for the next 30 days. If only we could jump straight to Christmas. I mean, why not? All the stores have made the jump, the malls are decorated, and everything about our secular world tells us to race ahead to the finish line, get it all done, get ready for Christmas, buy your gifts – the finish line is there for the crossing.
And here you are on the first Sunday of Advent. But Advent does not meet us with warm, soft readings that give us comfort by telling us all will be well, all will be easy. All the readings are about a people that are on edge – or should be because their world is not OK. Jesus has just warned the Apostles, the days are coming and are already here when “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” And what about our world? Here is a short list: Ferguson, Missouri; ISIS in Syria and Iraq; immigration and deportations; a recovering economy that seems to be leaving lots of people behind; Boko Haram kidnapping school girls in Nigeria; drug cartels killing students in Mexico; and this is just a partial list. That is just the public list. Inside our lives and homes dwell events that are as burdening, as taxing, that just drain the life from us, that lead us to lament, “How much more?” If we ponder such things we might well ask “Where is God in all this?” And we are not the first to ask that question.
The Prophet Isaiah cries out, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you..” Isaiah cries out to God because he senses the divine absence. Isaiah wants the remedy and wants God to “go big.” Don’t just show up… make an entrance, rend the heavens, let us all unmistakably know that You are here – then we will not be alone in all this.
The Psalmist feels the same aloneness, wondering where God can be found: “Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.” The psalmist laments, “Just give us a hint, point us in the right direction. If we can just catch a glimpse, it all be right. It will all be good.”
The Advent readings declare in stark terms that God’s apparent absence in not OK. The readings declare that God’s reign as King is incomplete – in fact maybe things are even getting worse. Yet all the reading hold out hope of redemption, and so Jesus tells us all “Be watchful! Be alert!”
Despite our pleas to “come now,” the gospel replies, “Be watchful! Be alert!” to which St. Paul adds “as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And that is the core of Advent: wait, prepare, let go and don’t grab too quickly – let it be revealed.
The Christian writer Eugene Peterson calls Christian discipleship “a long obedience in the same direction” and sometimes that direction heads directly into the looming darkness, away from the warmth of hearth and home, and into an encounter armed only with Hope and prayer – even as we watch and wait. How are we to use this time betwixt and between? If the secular world speeds past darkness to the safe certainty of light, then Advent reminds us that necessary things — things worth waiting for — happen in the dark. Next spring’s seeds break open in dark winter soil. God’s Spirit hovers over dark water, preparing to create worlds. The child we yearn for grows in the deep darkness of the womb.
So we wait and watch, and join Isaiah who longs for a Very Big God to do Very Big Things. We need not wait passively. We should join Isaiah and pray big. Pray for an end to racism, terrorism, depression, anxiety, loneliness, hunger, and, what the heck – lets pray for world peace. God is big, and when I come to him in prayer, dreaming of a just and wholly redeemed world, I know I’m dreaming a tiny version of God’s own dream. A dream that God has already begun. “Be watchful! Be alert!” And be ready to see God again rendering the heaven and come down into your life. But be ready for the unpredictable. Be ready for God’s grace to pour into your life in ways you never saw coming. Be watchful, be alert or you might miss it. Last time God sent a baby.
Frederick Buechner writes about God rending the heavens at Bethlehem: “Once [we] have seen him in the stable, [we] can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.” No place – not Ferguson, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, or your life. “Be watchful! Be alert!”
This is Advent: prepare, pray big, turn our faces to God that we may be saved, and have Hope knowing that because of Christ, there is no place, no time, no event, no burden where holiness is not present.