Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new church year. It is a season of waiting and preparation for the coming of Christ, and it always seems out of step with everything going on around us in the days before Christmas.
Holiday decorations have already been up for weeks in some places. And we barely had our Thanksgiving dishes off the table before it was time, we were told, to head out for the biggest shopping day of the year…with that ominous name, “Black Friday.” There is a frenzy of buying presents, sending Christmas cards, and travel to these weeks, but still, you can’t help but sense the anticipation.
Unlike the culture around us, though, the church is in no great hurry to get to Christmas. As we launch a new church year today, we begin a new round of telling a story that reaches back to the beginning of time and forward to the world’s end. And at the center of that story is a child lying in a manger.
And strangely enough, we begin the church year by talking about the end, the way the whole story of the universe comes to a conclusion. Our lessons and prayers today are filled with strange images of what the end-time might be like, with disturbances in the sun and moon and stars, and the Son of Man coming in a cloud with great glory. And we’ll sing at the end one of the great hymns, “Lo, he comes with clouds descending,” that uses vivid mythological language to say something crucial…that our lives are enfolded within the purposes of an infinite, unimaginable God, who, when all is said and done, will bring it to an overwhelming end. Everything we are doing today declares that we are caught up in a story of cosmic proportions.
But that raises a good question: What story are you living? All of our lives are shaped by one story or another, one way of explaining who we are and what our lives are about. Is the story of your life one of hope, or endurance, or fear? Is it a story that enables you to embrace the world creatively, or is it a story that drains and diminishes you?
Last week I had the chance to spend much of a day riding around some of the lowest income neighborhoods in this city, especially in Southeast Washington, with a guide showing me see some of the communities I had so far known only by name. I saw many signs of new development and communities coming back from hard times. I saw old parks being reclaimed, and rundown apartment buildings being renovated. But I saw and heard much that was troubling, too—how many people are being pushed out of their homes by rising prices, how much danger there is on the streets, how DC has the highest infant mortality rate in the country, how appalling is the condition of our public school buildings.
What struck me most clearly was the contrast between two stories at work in the city. You could see a story of despair and hopelessness pervading whole communities. After so many years, even generations, of dashed dreams and broken families, many just give up. And so neighborhoods fall apart, drug dealers take over, schools are overwhelmed and many youngsters find only chaos at home.
But I saw another story too. Walking into Farebee-Hope Elementary School, in the heart of a bedraggled neighborhood, I was warmly greeted by firm, strong receptionists and support staff, one of whom said to me what she says to all the students, “Welcome to Hope.” ‘When you come in here you’re coming into hope,’ she tells the students. ‘Here we believe in you. Here we know you can make it.’ And I walked through classrooms of bright-eyed 5 and 6 year old students in their burgundy shirt uniforms, watching them being firmly and lovingly taught by their teachers. This was a place living by a different story, I thought. Theirs is a story of hope, and it shapes the way they talk, the way they treat each other, the way they deal with their students.
It matters what story we live by, whether we’re living in the poorest neighborhoods in DC or here in Cleveland Park, or in Arlington, or Silver Spring. The ancient Greeks lived by a story about honor, stoicism, and victory in battle. In much of the 20th century America people lived a story of progress which said that through human ambition and ingenuity the world was getting better and more prosperous every day. Today the story of the consumer with endless needs and desires seems to dominate Western society. Meanwhile totalitarian regimes make service to the state the governing story of their people.
Recently we have been watching a major battle of stories taking place in books and magazines, between an aggressive group of atheist scientists who have decided to level a head-on attack against people of faith. And so Richard Hawkins, the evolutionary biologist author of The God Delusion, argues that the only true story is materialism…that we human beings are simply the sum of physical, chemical, and biological forces that have produced everything from our brain to our emotions to notion of God. And he lays all the evils of the world at the doorstep of the church, mosque and synagogue, leaving aside the fact that the greatest slaughters in history took place under the atheist totalitarian states of the 20th century.
Time Magazine recently had a cover story called “God vs. Science,” which included a debate between Dawkins and the distinguished scientist, Francis Collins, a Christian, who has led the Human Genome Project for over a decade. And Collins, in his fine book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, makes a clear and convincing response to the narrow reductionism that would shrink all the great human spiritual questions to science alone. Collins says when Dawkins speaks about science itself he agrees with him, but, he says, “There are answers that science isn’t able to provide about the natural world…the questions about why instead of…how. I’m interested in the whys. I find many of those answers in the spiritual realm.”
To make a large generalization, we cold say that there are two great stories at work in our society. In the first story the universe has no reason whatever for being, and will unravel at the end, and it’s up to human beings to find what meaning they can.
The second story begins with a loving Creator whose one desire is to spread the gift of existence and aliveness. And so the Creator calls a universe into being, cares about everything in it, and never stops working to lead and guide it into the communities of love for which it was made.
Now I want you to imagine the consequences of living inside each of these stories. In the first story, of a universe barren of any larger purpose, I know I’m on my own and that I will one day die. And so I have to cram in all the experiences and pleasures I can, and make of my life whatever I can. That means I have to fear or flee every pain or frustration, since they are wasting precious time. And I’ll have to push and work nonstop to succeed, because my only worth is what I manage to make for myself. That means I will become tense and exhausted, and find myself either a proud, self-made success, or an embarrassed failure. since it’s all up to me. I will become increasingly superficial as I take what pleasures I can with a life where nothing is sacred or holy. Now if I’m the only one living this way, my own life may seem empty at its core, but if I live in a society and world where everyone is living this way, the world will become more divided, more competitive, more cheapened and polluted, more frantic, more anxious and empty.
Now let’s imagine life inside the other story, of a world made and sustained by a God of justice and mercy. In this story, too, I know that I will one day die, but I know I’m not alone. I will seek to focus my life on what ultimately matters, which is God’s love for me and the whole world. And that means I will spend my time patiently developing and using the gifts I have been given, making what contribution I can to the world’s good, and not rushing and pushing to prove myself at every moment. I will make time for healthy relationships, and because I see every human being as sacred, I will seek to serve the needs of the world around me. I will feel a confidence and freedom from worry in the face of all the problems in front of me, and death will be just one more stage on a journey into an unimaginable life with God. And if I live in a world where everyone is learning to live this way, I can hope that divisions and conflicts might diminish as we all find paths of mutual respect and forbearance. (Thanks to Brian McLaren in A New Kind of Christian for suggesting this “thought experiment.” )
Two stories…leading to two possible futures. Of course the world has produced many humane people who are unbelievers, and narrow-minded, destructive people who are believers. Still at their depths those stories lead in different directions.
Today we begin to tell again the deepest, most important story we know. This first Sunday announces that the God who will take on flesh in Bethlehem, who comes to share our lives and lead us home, is the same God who created the world and will keep coming into our lives. Today we glimpse the bookends to our story, as we prepare for the main event, Christ’s coming in Bethlehem.
And so Advent calls us to wait and watch for what God is going to do, and above all to hope. Hope is the watchword of this season.
I have seen God’s hand deeply at work in one of the most inspiring stories of hope I’ve encountered in years. It is in a wonderful book by Ron Suskind called A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League. Suskind tells the story of a youngster living in Southeast Washington, his father in prison at Lorton for drug dealing for most of his growing up. And his mother, sometimes on welfare, sometimes holding down low-paying jobs, is the pillar of his life.
Cedric Jennings is his name, and he and his mother move from apartment to apartment when the money runs out, but through it all he develops a fierce determination to break out of this world and go to an Ivy League school. So he works constantly, taking all the abuse from his classmates of being called a “nerd” and a “geek.” Even his father calls him “a straight A Momma’s boy.” He gets harassed and beat up between classes.
Cedric sets his sights on an MIT summer program for minority students, which they say is a stepping stone to admission there, but when he arrives he finds himself so far behind the middle class minority students in the program that he can never catch up, and he never does. But then, after much struggle he later he gets admitted to Brown University, but still the struggle to find his place continues. If you ever are wondering about the value of affirmative action, this is a book to read. (I have recently learned a little of the outcome, that Cedric went on to earn a Masters at Harvard and later a Masters of Social Work at the University of Michigan.)
Where did Cedric get his fiery determination to make something of his life? From his mother, for sure, and from her fiery Pentecostal faith that has taught Cedric to trust in God. From a teacher, Mr. Taylor, who is always quoting scripture to him, and who tells him he needs to have “hope in the unseen.” “You’re a special person, Cedric,” a friend of Cedric’s says to him. “It’s not like you’re so much smarter than everyone else, necessarily. It’s just that you know in your heart that you’re gonna make it…and that’s the key.” Cedric was living by a different story.
That is the Advent story. Of a God at work in our lives. Of a God who promises that somehow, if we want to, we’re going to make it too. Advent says God is at work…in Southeast Washington and in Georgetown, in Israel and in Palestine, in Lebanon and in Iraq, seeking to bring hope and healing in our world.
And God is at work in us. Our job this Advent is to watch and look and listen for Christ in this busy, demanding season. Christ was born in the strangest of out of the way places. And my guess is that we will glimpse him…maybe ringing a Salvation Army bell, or asking for a handout, or looking back at us from across the dinner table with friends or family. So watch, look, and prepare!
Welcome to Advent. Welcome to the story of our lives.