Luke 3:16; Baruch 5:19
I don’t mean to alarm anyone, but Christmas Eve is two weeks from today. The decorations are everywhere, and most of us, I suppose, have been out doing all we can to support the American economy in this season.
Hearing Christmas songs like “Silent Night” and “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” piping in the stores often sends me to recalling the fierce anticipation I felt as a boy in these days before Christmas. And I especially remember discussing at length that most important of all issues for children: “What do you want for Christmas?” Sometimes we would get so far as to undertake the child’s version of heartfelt prayer: writing a letter to Santa Claus with a list of suggestions just in case he was a little short on ideas.
I can’t remember exactly what it was I wrote Santa back then, but I think it is fair to say that I went into every Christmas with a pretty exact set of hopes and expectations—a particular game of some kind such as electric football (I know this really dates me), or a bicycle, or a chemistry set. But whatever it was, I know I had focused on just exactly what might come out of this whole Christmas enterprise.
Today is the Second Sunday in Advent, a season that calls us to linger in the dark of this wintry time of year, and to take time to prepare to receive Christ’s birth this year. In the thick of these busy days, Advent says take things slowly, or at least a little slower, so that you can do the adult version of children’s list making—looking at ourselves and our world and asking what it is we most long for and need in this season of yearning and hope.
The readings for Advent are about people who are leaning into the future to get ready for what God might do. Baruch in the Hebrew scriptures and John the Baptist in the Christian scriptures are each in their own way trying to spell out what they want for Christmas. But from them we hear not the lists of toys and games of an overheated child but the passionate longing for God to come and heal a broken world.
The prophet Baruch in our first lesson speaks to the people of Israel in a time of suffering and repression and calls them to search the horizon for signs of God’s coming. “Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height, and look toward the east… For God will bring [your children] back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne
And then in the Gospel lesson we hear that ornery John the Baptist. Here is a wild, dusty prophet straight from the desert announcing that God is now going to do something entirely new for the people of Israel after their centuries of oppression and misery. He sees the despair all around him—living in an occupied land, their own leaders drifting from God’s ways, the people themselves spiritually lost and yearning for something more. In response he proclaims with the words of that earlier prophet Isaiah the promise that God is going to do something entirely new:
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
I know you may be thinking that John the Baptist is plagiarizing from Handel’s Messiah. But these are great, haunting words about what it takes to prepare for God’s coming. John is announcing the best news imaginable. Not that the people of Israel will somehow be able to come to God, but that God is coming to them. Healing is possible, justice will be done, and God is going to begin this slow, painstaking work. And everyone’s job is to prepare the way, to clear the space, to build the highway that God will travel into their hearts and into their nation. And so take a hard look at your life and the world around you, John says. “Repent,” which means “turn around,” start moving in a wiser, better, more life-giving direction, and that’s where you will meet God coming to you.
And both Baruch and John are telling us that if we really ask for God to come, then things are going to get rearranged. The child is coming to us in a manger to remake you and me, our nation and our world.
And what about you? What do you want for Christmas? What’s on your list this year? Lingering, I would guess, in all of us is some sense of what we would like to receive—a certain present we would never buy for ourselves, or a few days off to relax and recover from the pace of things. But I would also guess that if we looked deeply into own lives, we might begin to spell out what we and our world are most longing for in this season.
For some, our main hope may just be for Christmas to go well as we gather with families and friends, or perhaps that we survive again being with our extended families with only minor disasters. For some of us it will be that we survive the loneliness of knowing that this Christmas won’t be as good as some in the past, or survive the sad reality of a family now split apart. For many of us, our hope in this season will be for something particular—a new start on a relationship, a more meaningful job, or a closer friendship with God.
Maybe some of us are wondering if the demands of work in our lives have led us away from what life is all about. A few years ago Alan Lightman, a professor at MIT, wrote a novel called The Diagnosis about the spiritual meltdown of young man in the high-tech world. The main character is on the fast track at a firm where status is measured by how many gigabytes of data each worker can process on behalf of clients. And any minute not spent talking on a cell phone, sending an e-mail, or checking voice-mail is a minute wasted. The money flowing into his business is enormous, but the pressure never lets up, until this young man collapses.
In an interview Lightman said that the story he’s telling is “a modern American tragedy…of how we’re living our lives at the turn of the century… The pursuit of wealth for its own sake—that is a major thread of our modern consciousness. Studies have been done on this. If you give people the option of cutting down on their workweek and having more time for their families and personal lives, or keeping their workweek and having a pay raise, very few people will give up salary for more leisure time.” We’re in danger of losing our souls, he says.
What would it mean for Christ to come into lives existing under that kind of pressure?
And of course there is no possible way to prepare for Advent without asking for God to bring healing to the devastated world of Iraq. I don’t know anyone these days who isn’t heartsick over what is happening there. It doesn’t matter which side of the debate anyone was on going into the war, everywhere you sense despair and grief for the people of a ruined nation, and also the grief and gut-wrenching worry over our troops who are caught in the chaos.
Sam Wells, the Dean of Duke Chapel, has offered a good analogy for where we are right now. “Imagine you’ve let yourself into someone else’s home and you find yourself in the kitchen. You reach up and open the cupboard door. Out fall a deluge of tightly stacked items, crashing down on your head and tumbling over the floor. As well as being in a lot of pain you may well feel pretty stupid. You may be saying to yourself, ‘I shouldn’t be in this house. I certainly shouldn’t have opened the door without checking what was inside.’ But feeling stupid and full of shame shouldn’t stop you doing the one thing you simply must do. And that is, get on your knees, clean up after yourself, and try to put everything back in the cupboard as best you can.”
Now I’ll add a slight twist… You may have felt compelling reasons to be in that person’s kitchen—you live next door, maybe, and you think you smell smoke. And you think there might be a fire extinguisher in the cupboard. You may have thought you were saving their house. In any case, it doesn’t work out that way, and things are a terrible mess, and you know you have work to do.
The whole country seems to be wrestling with what to do now in Iraq. I have to confess that I have not one fresh thought to add. I can only state the obvious. We made this mess, and we have to clean it up. But in this Advent season of longing and repentance, I believe our faith can offer three words of wisdom.
First, humility. We are learning a bitter lesson—that all of us are caught in a web of good and evil. None of our motives is entirely pure. And we, alone, on our own, don’t have the answer to every problem. We need to learn again what poet and farmer Wendell Berry calls “the way of ignorance,” of embracing uncertainty, questioning, humility in our decisions, humility in how we presume to treat others.
Second, repentance. Things can go terribly wrong, no matter how good our intentions. And the best response is to acknowledge it, to admit we’re sorry for what has happened, and to say, let’s look again, and gather up the pieces, and see what we can do with what is left.
And finally, hope. It will continue to be overwhelmingly complicated to deal with Iraq whatever happens, but we now have a responsibility to help a devastated nation in the work of building a new life. It is the task of the Church to call our country to the work of bringing healing and hope out of this war.
What’s on your list for Christmas? What is your heart’s deepest desire, what do you think is our world’s deepest longing? Advent reminds us that ultimately the hope of the world is in a power and a love deeper than our own, a God who came to us once in a manger and promises to come again and again. And Advent reminds us that the new lives we yearn for will take time, work, and patience.
And so I close with the words of that wise theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who knew how broken our world is, and how dependent we are on a God who will come to us.
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.
“Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”