The First Sunday of Advent – November 29, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
So let’s be honest. It’s the end of Thanksgiving weekend, and we’re all still full of turkey leftovers. The holiday season has officially begun. There’s the smell of Christmas in the air, and trees for sale outside on the sidewalks, and carols playing in the stores. And there’s been just so much bad news of late, so much grief around the world and in our lives, that it feels like a little respite, a little holiday cheer, is in order. I think we all need it.
So isn’t it really kind of a bummer to come to church and hear Jesus ranting on about the end times? Doesn’t some part of you wish that just this once, we could all settle in and watch ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’ and drink hot cocoa? Couldn’t we just set aside everything that’s not right about the world and have some fun instead?
But instead, we came to church. And in church we celebrate Advent before we get to Christmas, and Advent isn’t just the 24 days of countdown till Santa comes. It’s the advent of, the coming of, Christ that we focus on, the final judgment, the end times. Instead of aiming our anticipation toward presents under the tree, it’s the great sorting of the sheep and the goats that we have to look forward to. Happy holidays, everyone!
In case you forgot, we do things differently in church than in the rest of the world. Lest you be inclined to gloss over the distinction, here in this holiday season there is proof: we church people are weird. But it’s weird with a purpose. Because the season of Advent, even this season of Advent in these terrible times, is actually about hope.
You see, Advent is one of those times we’re reminded just how different we in the church are from the rest of the world. Every year we go through this ritual of scolding, resolutely keeping the poinsettias and trees out of the church for weeks on end, singing the somber-toned Advent hymns instead of the Christmas carols playing everywhere else, slowly and painfully lighting one single candle more each week instead of a blaze of twinkly lights. And then on the other end, we keep singing the carols all the way into January, long after everyone else has kicked the tree to the curb. This is a season of waiting, and waiting is good for you – not giving into instant gratification, but enjoying the anticipation, savoring what is to come instead of consuming it and moving on. It’s not just being weird – we think it’s better that way.
We’ll make Advent wreaths today after the service, a way for you to do a similar kind of waiting ritual at home – but I suspect many of you have already started on the tree and the lights and the decorations at home…am I right? It’s okay if you have. All of this falls more into the category of tradition and family rhythms than anything else. God still loves you if you have your Christmas tree up already, even if your cranky rector disapproves.
But whatever we do or don’t do in our decorating, the Advent scriptures definitely have us marching to a different drummer. Jesus and John the Baptist and all the prophets we hear in church give us an earful, and it has little in it by way of warm feelings and tidings of comfort. In some ways, it doesn’t sound very much like hope at all. Listen to Jesus in today’s gospel, going on about the end times, with foreboding and distress and the shaking of the powers of heaven. Look for the signs of the coming of God’s kingdom, he says. Be alert for them. And ‘be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.’ If you’re ready and prepared for God’s kingdom, you’ll rejoice when it comes, standing up and claiming God’s redemption. But if you’re not, those days will come on you like a trap – it won’t be good news for you at all.
Hello! Are you listening? Or was that message drowned out by all the other things on your mind – what gift you’re going to get for Aunt Sue, or how you’re going to fit in all the extra errands and tasks of this season? Or equally likely, was it drowned out by all that fainting and foreboding and fig trees that came earlier in the passage? Or by the fainting and fear that are a part of our own lives these days, in news from the Times this morning, or in our families or friend’s families this week?
It is so hard to hear the message of hope.
Jesus tells his disciples, ‘Be alert.’ But Jesus, we want to answer, we can’t be alert. We have so much else to do, and now we have to add to it buying presents, writing Christmas cards, finding clothes to wear to the party…the worries and dissipations of this life are too much for us.
‘Be on guard that your hearts are not weighed down,’ Jesus says. But sometimes in the midst of people making merry, all we feel is empty. Our hearts are weighed down, and we can’t lighten them up again.
‘Stand up and raise your heads.’ But there is terror at work in our world, and we are afraid, too afraid to stand up and raise our heads. So couldn’t we just listen to some Christmas carols instead?
Oh, but this message is hard to hear. And yet we need it, desperately. This world is not all there is, Jesus is saying. Don’t lose yourself in the culture you’re in the midst of; don’t stress yourself out over things that don’t really matter – material things, fleeting pleasures, status and reputation, none of that counts in the long run. Don’t be afraid of what is, or what is to come – war and terror and despair cannot be allowed to claim us. There is more than all this that we see – and we need to be alert and awake in order to see it. We must risk being weird. Because we can’t truly live otherwise. We must hope.
Christian belief is radically different from the rest of the world. And this time of year is a great test case, a practice session for how to really live that difference. We practice by stepping aside from the buying spree we’re in the midst of, the consumerist frenzy that grips us at Christmastime. We practice by waiting to celebrate instead of numbing ourselves with the sound of jingle bells. We practice by daring to hope and sing even if our hearts are breaking and afraid. We practice by coming together and holding each other up so we can stand.
There’s a movement called the Advent Conspiracy that started about ten years ago, begun by a few pastors who were fed up with the way Christmas was being celebrated. They and their congregations committed to do four things, summed up in eight words: worship fully, spend less, give more, love all. To make focus on God a priority during this time, over all the other claims on our time and attention. To spend less money on gifts, to give more of ourselves and our time instead, and to share God’s love with all by reaching out to those in need. Pretty simple, really, but completely countercultural to what’s happening around us. It’s all pretty weird.
But today it’s only the very beginning of this season of Advent. There is time in this season to spend preparing our hearts, being still, waiting for God’s presence. There is time to make different choices about how much money we will spend and where we will spend it. There is time to stop and refocus on what really does matter, to set boundaries and intentions for this season that will make it look different. The church season of Advent isn’t just meant to be a big downer. This is a joyful, holy, wonderful time of year. We’re looking for the signs of God’s presence among us. We’re waiting with anticipation for the gift of what is to come. We’re preparing ourselves, getting ready to celebrate.
So I invite you into Advent. We don’t just do it to be weird. We do it because it is better – better to let God be our center, to care for others, to live at a human pace. May we be alert to the signs of God at work. And may we remind each other that there is reason to hope. May your season be joyful and bright.