God comes, faithfully, surprisingly, assuredly. Advent! God enters as we wait and hope, prepare and anticipate. Advent! God breaks the silence, enters our darkness, penetrates our hardness—in a child, through a word, with good news. Advent! Lives are transformed. Hope is renewed. Future is restored! Advent! Amen.
Happy New Year! Advent means “the coming,” and it is the beginning of the new church year. This is the time of the year when we are called to make room in our hearts for Christ to live, and we start the Christian year this way to stress that Christ must come first in our lives. At this, the beginning of the Christian year, we observe a time waiting, reflecting and in self-examination. It comes when the days are the shortest of the year here in the northern hemisphere, a time of darkness that seems to cry out for light. In Normandy, farmers still employ children to run with lighted torches through the fields and orchards setting fire to bundles of straw. This has been done for over a millennia to light the darkness, but also, symbolically, to drive out the vermin so that the Christ Child might have a clean bed of straw in the Bethlehem stable. In Italy Advent is marked by the entry into Rome of the itinerant musicians who play bagpipes before the shrines to Mary to remember the shepherds who play their pipes before the Christ Child and his family in the stable. The sound of the pipes were all light and life to drive the darkness of the season, and let the Holy Child who is to come, dance.
The writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, author of the classics Treasure Island, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, grew up in Scotland at the turn of the 20th century. He lived on a hillside outside a small town, and each night in the winter he would sit in his family’s kitchen and look down on the town and watch the lamp lighter ignite each of the town’s street lamps. He remembered saying to him mother, “Look mother, there is a man down there who punches holes in the darkness.”
In today’s collect we heard that our job too, is to punch holes in the darkness, to “caste away the works of darkness and put on the armor of Christ’s light.” In Mark’s gospel Jesus challenges us to keep awake, to be about Christ’s business of ushering in the Kingdom of God, for we do not know when our own personal end will come, any more than we know when Christ’s second coming will take place. And there is work to be done. It is a time in our present lives when the world is beset by the darkness of division, war, sectarian hatred, terror, flood, hurricane and famine, it has never been more clear how very much needs to be done to bring about a world that the Prince of Peace has redeemed, and left in our charge.
The light that we wait for in Advent is the coming into the world of the Christ Child. Oh how disappointing that must have been for those, 2000 years ago, who awaited a powerful messiah who could militarily and politically lead them out of the morass of Roman occupation, and save for a few of the affluent and well placed, poverty stricken realities of first century Palestine. They wanted a general, and they got a tiny, helpless baby. In the Isaiah reading we see the Messiah the Children of Israel awaited. “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake in your presence.” Oh how they longed to be rescued by a Messiah who could make everything better. And don’t we long for just some a coming into the world to rescue us. Let someone else care for those without homes on the Gulf Coast. Let someone else rescue me from having to deal with the ugly fact that there are over 15,000 homeless people living on the streets in our nation’s capital any given cold and damp night. Let someone else write to the lonely American solider in Iraq. Let someone else send money to relieve the suffering of those now freezing to death in Kashmir after the earthquake. Let someone else do the hard, costly work that Christ left for us with his commandment to “do unto the least of these that which would do for me.” How badly we want to be rescued.
What or whom are you waiting for this Advent? How are you waiting this Advent? We live in a culture where we say that “time is money.” We buy time, save time, we find quiet time to be “dead time,” or a waste of time. Ours is not a culture where waiting is valued. We live in a culture of distraction, immediacy and rapid change. Just try waiting for a nanosecond at any Washington area stop light and you will see how patient we are about waiting. My four year old grandson, if he is riding with me when someone honks because his old grandpa has not burned rubber at the stop light says “where do you think this is, New York? This is Washington. Relax!” Wonder where he heard that?
As the massive American commercial Christmas machine is heating up in the shop windows, in the malls, on television and in the catalogues, both online and in the mailbox, screaming at us to “buy, buy buy,” these somber Advent lessons are even more jarring. We see television images of literal stampedes by shoppers who trample one another trying to get to the bargains…buy, buy, buy…But we shouldn’t be all that surprised. Christianity has always been profoundly counter cultural. And at the very time our culture is beating the drum for us to spring into action and be ready for Christmas, the Church calls us to keep a quiet, reflective Advent—a time of actually slowing down and listening to what God is saying to us, looking for the cross that we would need to pick up and carry in our job of serving the broken and need filled world.
Our preconceived notions of the nature of God often determines what sort of God it is that comes to us, in particular, in Advent. Is the God for whom we wait a finger shaking, angry, judging God? Is it a God who causes death and destruction to rain down upon those who have angered him, a God who chooses to loose hurricanes upon helpless people or allows wars and famine and disease to decimate whole societies? In fact, many of the leading television evangelists say upon any disaster striking that God is punishing the people suffering from the disaster. This sort of God could have a theme song…You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout I’m telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town. He knows when you’ve been sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.” Is that the kind of God for whom we are waiting?
The English mystic, Evelyn Underhill, wrote of Advent “I come in little things, says God.” Much of the spiritual writing over the centuries, and our life experience reminds us that God comes not in the kind of cataclysmic scene that Mark’s gospel paints for us, but by way of very ordinary things. St. Francis looks into the eyes of a leper and sees Christ. We turn our back on the panhandler on the street, and we turn away from the Christ. We must be greatly attentive, as the lessons remind us, “keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come,” and I might add, we do not know in what form the master will come.
Can we, this Advent, be truly awake and aware and open to whatever forms in which The Holy One chooses to come to us? I remember a particularly taxing and busy time in my life. I was simply not paying attention to anything save for the daily tasks which were before me. I was in the middle of rehabilitating the 100 year old duplex that my family and I had purchased. I was working full time, renovating nearly full time, and being watchful, prayerful and reflective were about at the bottom of my list of priorities. But one morning I arose to make the first pot of coffee and as I shuffled into the kitchen, there, hanging from the brand new track lighting we had hung the day before, upside down, tiny wings gathered about it so that it could stay warm, was bat. You must know about me that I grew up in a series of rickety old houses that were often plagued by the presence of bats. So I retrieved my landing net, netted the little guy, and released it outside.
The next morning, when I entered the kitchen at the crack of dawn, there he was, hanging peacefully, upside down, his wings wrapped about him, snoozing in the early morning sun. Again, I got the net and captured the little interloper and released him outside.
But on the third morning, when I found him asleep on the track lighting, I knew that my “catch and release” program wasn’t working. After netting the bat and placing it in a park some distance away, I began to search for the hole through which it was entering. I looked and looked. I could find nothing…until I found the only possible source of entry…the tiniest rip in the window screen. Surely this was too tiny to allow that bat in. I asked a wildlife biologist friend of mine whether this bat could, indeed, have come through such a small hole. “Surely,” he replied. “Bats are virtually all cartilage and can squeeze through even the tiniest of holes.”
After reflecting on this bat, and how a small rip in the window screen was necessary for it to get in, I realized that God is like that bat! Throughout scripture, and at numerous critical times in my life, and the lives of others whose stories I know well, God finds a way, often an unusual, almost always an unexpected way, to get into our lives, into our hearts. God always finds a way to get through the “screens” we create to keep out God, and other troublesome creatures that would have us do things not our way, but their way. If God gets into our busy, hectic, and pressure filled, rushing toward Christmas lives, our whole schedule will be thrown off. Let’s face it, we don’t have time for waiting, not for God or for anybody! We might not get all the shopping, care giving, cooking washing, projects and big contracts, work at school, social events squeezed into our schedules. We don’t have time for God in our busy holiday lives.
But the God revealed in scripture works much more like that bat than the remote, judgmental Santa Claus god of retribution and judgment about whom I sang a minute ago. God pursues us. God loves us and will stop at nothing to reach us. We have only one thing to do in response to God’s ardent pursuit. We must be willing to listen carefully, because God often speaks in a still small voice, in signs in the skies and the needs of those around us crying out for a helping hand, a smile, a kind word. God only needs the tiniest rip in the screen of our lives to punch holes in the darkness of the world. No one expected a baby to be the one who came to bring the light. But he did. No one expected that the son of God would be hung on the cross—but he was. No one expected that, miracle of miracles, he would rise from the dead—but he did.
So, dear ones, be patient. Advent offers us a quiet and serene place to dwell for a time. To await the coming the Christ Child is to rest in the very heart of God. Listen carefully with the ears of your heart, for this bat of a God of ours wants to come into our hearts in the guise of a tiny, helpless child…but we must wait. Watch for the messages that come from God in the natural world, in eyes of friends and strangers. And before God steals into our lives, prepare God a room there, in your heart—a place to grow and root in—so that in each encounter with others we will discover another of God’s much beloved children. Draw upon the presence of that incubating Christ Child, whose coming into the world with great light and love we need so badly. And if you do, nothing will ever be the same again.