I preached this sermon to the lovely folks at The First Presbyterian Church of Forest Hills, Queens, on the first Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2015.
Advent never fails to sneak up on me. I know I’m not the only one, because my church colleagues have been posting on Facebook and Twitter all week long, versions of “It’s Advent, again! Ahhhh!!”
There’s no excuse, really, for the unpreparedness. The first Sunday of Advent is always four weeks before Christmas, often on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
I don’t think it’s the failure of our calendars, or the speed of time, or the million distractions that cause us to be so surprised when Advent pops up again, as it’s supposed to, predictable, reliable, fixed. I think Advent begets a certain kind of mini spiritual crisis, when we find ourselves on the brink again, and no better off than the last time.
It is our liturgical New Year, when we set our resolutions and review our accomplishments or failures from the year before.
Did we succeed in distancing ourselves from the commercialization of the holiday like we promised ourselves that we would do last year?
Did we inaugurate a family tradition of reading the Scripture passages in the little windows of the Advent calendar and reflect on their meaning?
Did we drink less and pray more?
Did we spend less and give more?
Did we do the baby Jesus proud?
Did we heed the apocalyptic warnings of the Gospels?
The calendar of the church sits at an odd angle to all the other calendars in our lives. The yearly calendar, the school calendar, the program calendar, the fiscal calendar. The church calendar is plopped down in an awkward spot, when we are already predisposed to busy-ness, what with the encroachment of winter, the end of the school semester, year-end budget negotiations.
Christmas, broadly conceived, doesn’t even seem to belong to the church calendar anymore, coopted, as it has been, by a cultural Christianity that is watered down to near oblivion.
Advent is a tough sell. Especially when it begins with apocalyptic notions of the end of the world… signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken…
Luke thought the Son of Man would come in great power and glory before his grandchildren were grown up. His was not an abstract warning or prophecy, it was a ‘let’s pack our bags and pull the kids out of school and close our accounts’ kind of urgency.
And the signs were there- the distress among the nations, the roaring seas, the fear and foreboding, but not the kingdom coming near. Not the return of Jesus to tie up history in a bow and wipe the slate clean of the mess humanity made of God’s good Creation.
The Bible is a series of stories on the brink. Moses looking at the Promised Land he would never touch. Jeremiah awaiting the return of the Davidic dynasty to set the record straight. The Psalmist, waiting all the day long for God’s guidance and deliverance. Paul, Silas and Timothy, praying to be reunited with the church in Thessalonica.
Advent is when we join our ancestors at the brink, looking over the edge and awaiting the promised guidance and deliverance of God. And Lord, do we need guidance and deliverance.
Is anybody here not on the edge of something?
You are on the brink this very day, at the end of this interim and awaiting the start of your new pastor. That’s an edge you’ve balanced on before, quite a bit, in fact. You have, I imagine, become accustomed to in-between times. You may have longed for pastoral permanence at the same time that you gained surer footing in your lay-led ministries, keeping the church not just afloat, but vital. This has been an Advent season for you.
And I pray that your Advent season concludes with celebration and new life. With the promises of sustained leadership. With the collapsing of tired muscles into a strength that can hold you up as you recover. With the hope for stretching even further beyond the bounds of this sanctuary and out into the community and world.
Your pastor isn’t Jesus.
He will not solve every problem and shoulder every burden. But he will be there to wipe away your tears, to stand vigil at the bedside, to preach a good Word, to provoke a new conversation, to break the bread and bless the cup, to feed you and be fed by you.
This Advent season, you will stand on the brink together, gazing into the future of this church, expectant, and maybe a little fearful. You will stand on the brink together, gazing into the future of the world, expectant, and maybe a lot fearful.
If you are lucky, or, not so much lucky as persistent and patient and stubborn and clear-eyed and discerning, you will see the star at its rising and you will know that despite the churning waters and billows of smoke and the bodies of innocents strewn on the streets like felled bowling pins, the kingdom of God is indeed drawing near.
The veil between earth and heaven will lift just a little on Christmas, and we will see God slip past the curtain and curl up in a manger, prepared to join the fray, for the sake of love.
Advent, properly celebrated, isn’t just about this single, miraculous, love-drenched moment. Advent is about standing at the brink and proclaiming with as much confidence as we can muster, that all of life — past, present, and future — is lived in the presence of God, not just that one, improbable moment when the cry of an infant sounded like the cry of victory.
Advent is about trusting in the promise of that victory even while awaiting for the promise to be kept by God.
When we are on the brink – from illness or failure or disappointment or heartbreak or calamity or oppression or depression or burnout or whatever – when we are on the brink we receive a keenness of vision– that we are insufficient, that this world and reality is temporary, and that we stand in desperate need of the miraculous, of salvation, for that which is merely possible cannot save.
And that is what the gospel offers – an impossible possibility, a reality that transcends the everyday real, a Truth deeper than all else we have been told is true, a story that stretches beyond and encompasses all our stories so as to give them meaning, integrity, and purpose. (source)
And if we are lucky, or, not so much lucky as persistent and patient and stubborn and clear-eyed and discerning, we will catch a glimpse of the star at its rising.
Not two miles from here, this past Tuesday morning, Jose Moran set up the Nativity scene at the Holy Child Jesus Church in Richmond Hill, where he is a custodian. He put up the manger, and went to lunch. And when he came back at about 1 p.m., he heard the cry of a baby.
The baby was in the manger, swaddled in blue towels. He was so young his umbilical cord still sprouted from his belly.
Jose Moran ran to Fr. Christopher Ryan Heanue, who has been ordained for only five months, and said to him: “There’s a live baby in your manger.” (source)
Sometimes, we catch a glimpse of the star at its rising.
So why Advent?
To help us see beyond our present.
To give us a lens through which to see God at work when it seems only evil gets the spotlight.
To assure us that God has secured a future for us that breaks into our present, and really, truly changes our here and now. (source)
Advent finds us at the brink, or invites us to the brink, to peer behind the curtain and see the Child of God coming in power and glory.
If you find it difficult to summon up in your mind cosmic visions and righteous branches and fig trees in full bloom, I leave you with this image of Advent, as the place where the sidewalk ends, with thanks to the theologian, Shel Silverstein:
There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.
Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.
Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.
May we find our way there this Advent season…