The scripture texts chosen for the early weeks of Advent are destined to disappoint those of us who are hoping for a little holiday magic. This is a festive season, with just a few short, precious, busy weeks between our turkey dinners and the singing of Silent Night. Haven’t we earned a little bright and beautiful? Couldn’t we hear some bells jingling or some carols caroling this morning, or, if you’re going to be really churchy about it, a few words of familiar and festive biblical promise?
Friends, I am sorry to tell you, but in case you haven’t already noticed, the scriptures are not particularly jolly. The psalm voices a deep longing for help, asking God to listen, to lead, to shine, to stir up Her might, to save us and restore us from some terrible fate. And our gospel lesson isn’t focused on helping us prepare for the arrival of Mary’s sweet little baby boy. Instead, we hear the words of an adult Jesus, speaking with his disciples about his own powerful second coming into a dark and desolate world. It’s enough to make you wish that you had stayed home unpacking the Christmas lights and drinking peppermint cocoa.
But this Advent season, this first season of our church year, is not meant to be straightforward or comfortable; and it’s certainly not designed to be cheery.
This is a special kind of time-out-of-time in which God’s past, present, and future overlap. We remember Jesus’ arrival, more than two thousand years ago, a real child born in humble circumstances in a conflicted land. We look forward to celebrating the anniversary of that birth, on December 25th, and proclaiming that Emmanuel, God-with-us, has come. And we anticipate the Second Coming, that day when Jesus will somehow be with us again, in a new way.
We’re in holy time now, a time that cycles and doubles back on itself, an eternal kind of time in which we are encouraged to consider eternal things. It is a time to look around with honesty, and admit how much we need God. It is a time to be watching and waiting for God to respond to that need. Like Lent, Advent is a season of spiritual preparation, designed to help us do the hard work of getting ready for God’s truly earth-shaking good news in what is, too often, a dark and desolate world.
I have felt the need for God’s arrival painfully in this past week, and in these past months. We need God, with our long, deep, national history of racism, and the bias and privilege and pain and injustice that continue today. We need God, with the sudden displacement of 450 homeless guests and 250 individuals receiving treatment for addiction, due to the failure of the Long Island Bridge. We need God, when creation is being destroyed around us and our leaders fail to act. We need God, in the face of violence and sickness and suffering. We need God to listen, to shine forth, to stir up her might, to come and restore us. We need God to come with power and glory, to address all these big problems, and the smaller hurts and heartbreaks that are so person and painful to each of us, and to those we love.
Where, and when, and how, will a God arrive who brings hope to these real and often desperate situations?
According to our tradition, this God came long ago; and he is on his way now; and she will be with us even more profoundly in the future. This is the powerful promise that so rudely interrupts our cheery holiday time: God came long ago, and he is on his way, and she will be with us, even more closely, even more deeply, even more fully, in the times to come.
So, our ancestors tell us, stay awake this season. Don’t get lost – whether it is in a sleepy sugary holiday; or in the consumerist crush and noise; or in despair over our broken world.
Stay awake. Watch your life, watch our lives together for signs of God, as if you were watching a beautiful branch, like those bare branches all around us that have been covered by snow this past week. Watch our lives as if you were watching a beautiful branch, and be a witness when it becomes tender; when the leaves begin to bud; when the flowers begin to open; when the fruit emerges, and ripens.
Stay awake. Otherwise we may miss the real miracle, the real brightness of this season: God-with-us, then, and now, and very soon, and someday, even more. Otherwise we may miss the real miracle: the chance to be a part of that budding, that blossoming.