Advent Overdrive

It takes very little to get very overwhelmed in the lead up to Advent season. Last week, I explored the theme of preparation in my sermon, based on Luke 1:68-79 and Luke 3:1-6.

Preoccupied
Preached by The Rev. Sarah Segal McCaslin
December 9, 2012
The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York

You know you might be overextended this season if any of these apply to you…

1) If you promised to make three dozen gluten-free, nut-free, vegan cupcakes for your children’s non-sectarian winter holiday party at school with only 36 hours notice.

2) In order to save time, you have just given your apartment key to the UPS guy.

3) If you have fallen asleep in line at Trader Joes.

4) If you keep trying to cozy up to your co-worker with the stomach flu, hoping for a few days of bed rest.

5) If approach these days and nights with a mix of dread, anxiety, and weariness.

If any of these are true for you, you might in fact be overextended.

Many of us begin after Thanksgiving with the best and most sincere intentions, that this will be the year when we don’t do so much, when we reflect more on the meaning of Christmas, when we choose to give to others who are in need, not simply in want, when we devote ourselves to creating more quality time with loved ones, when we won’t drink so much, eat so much, stay out so late, sleep in so long, miss church so often. We will fill out our pledge cards for the church’s stewardship campaign and put them in the offering plates (AHEM!). We will call an ailing aunt or uncle and promise to visit this year. We will collect gently-used winter coats to donate, and we will respond to at least one of the year-end pleas for financial support from the pile in our mailboxes.

But almost inevitably, the slip-sliding begins and our plans to do less become as burdensome as the plans we are trying to avoid. The worst of it is not the extra money spent, or the weight gained, or the calls not made. The worst of it is the sense of guilt that we have failed again at the task of Christmas. We have failed to sit expectantly within Advent’s season of waiting; we have grown preoccupied with the concerns of the world and missed the cracking open of heaven that is happening right in front of us. We are tense, keyed-up, worried, bilious, and tired.

I read a blog post earlier this week from a colleague who, in past years, had become so completely exasperated by the amount of things that she tried to achieve before Christmas, that she realized that she had inadvertently added to her to-do list- give birth to the Savior of the world ALL BY MYSELF! That’s what we’re doing, spinning our wheels and trying to be Mary and Joseph and Jesus and Santa all at the same time.

Can we all agree to stop the crazy bus right here, right now, and get off?!?!  Please!?! Can we stop trying to live up to some unwritten code of expectations that is neither biblical, nor healthy, nor even possible? Can we begin a practice of what my daughter and I call Peaceful Piggy Yoga Breathing? When you notice your blood pressure rising or your worry-muscle twitching, stop what you are doing and take three long breaths, in and out. It won’t matter if you don’t make it to your neighbor’s party; it won’t matter if the presents don’t get wrapped; it won’t matter if your house is cluttered when the guests arrive. It won’t, and it doesn’t.

Instead, let’s be preoccupied with the promise of heaven breaking open, shattering the darkness that has wrapped itself around us in these days of winter. Let’s be preoccupied with the task of getting ready for God’s arrival.

And lest we think that the job of preparation will be easy, here comes John the Baptist in today’s readings to remind us otherwise. As someone else has put it, even without the description of John in his camel’s hair and leather, you can smell John before you see him. He is an acquired taste, like Roquefort. Whatever John is, he’s not easy to put on a cracker.[1]

He muscles his way, loud and smelly, into our Advent reverie and demands that we get up, and get to work. Charged with the prophetic task of preparing the world for the messiah’s arrival, he echoes the prophet Isaiah’s message that to prepare for God means nothing less than filling every valley, leveling every hill and mountain, straightening every crooked path, and making the rough ways smooth.

But unlike the prophet Isaiah, who foretells a God-made and God-led path for the people from their figurative and literal exile, in Luke’s rendering, we are the laborers, building a path back to God from whatever wayward destination we have arrived at. John’s message isn’t as much about consolation as it is about exhortation (or, as I keep reading it when I’m tired- extortion).

John is multi-vocational voice in the wilderness- a prophet AND a civil engineer. What he is asking us to do is clear the debris and clutter in our hearts and in the world that are obstacles to the path of peace that Jesus will inaugurate.

One of my absolute favorite children’s books, and also a favorite of Claire and Hank, is ‘Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site.’[2] It is the story of a gang of anthropomorphized heavy machinery, coming to the end of another busy day. Let me read a little of it to you:

Down in the big construction site, the tough trucks work with all their might, to build a building, make a road, to get the job done- load by load!

The sun has set, the work is done; It’s time for trucks to end their fun. So one by one they’ll go to bed, to yawn and rest their sleepy heads, then wake up to another day, of rough and tough construction play!

Pushing with his mighty blade, Bulldozer works to smooth the grade. He clears the way to level ground, and fills the air with thunderous sound.

No one’s as tough and strong as he, but now he’s sleepy as can be.

He puffs some smoke out of his stack, turns off his engine, stops his track.

He curls into his soft dirt bed, and dreams of busy days ahead. Shh… goodnight, Bulldozer, goodnight.

Scooping gravel, dirt, and sand, Excavator shapes the land.

He digs and lifts throughout the day, but now it’s time to end his play.

A few more holes to dig and soon, he’ll roll to bed beneath the moon.

He twirls upon his bumpy track, pulls up his boom, stretches his back.

He sets his scoop down on the ground, and snuggles up without a sound. Shh… goodnight, Excavator, goodnight.

This is what John the Civil Engineer demands from us. Not joyless toil, but the purposeful work and play of preparing for God’s arrival. We will clear away the piles of rocks and fill the gaping potholes that disguise the beautiful world as something crass and damaged. We will excavate and bulldoze the landscapes of our life, creating access to a pathway that leads to one who promises us peace and abundance.

We won’t run ourselves into the ground. We will rest when we are weary and the work becomes difficult, because that is our job, too- it’s called the Sabbath. Our rest might include a little bit of well-deserved laziness, and it will definitely include breathing, and probably eating (but it won’t include counting calories). Then we’ll get back to work and play when we are rested.

When we get distracted, we will not throw up our hands and concede the ground; we will start again on a new day. We will endeavor to recognize our limits as human beings. We will consider the possibility that we aren’t the savior of the world, and so we shouldn’t be acting like it. We might acknowledge that some unexpected situation of heartache and burden is a crooked mess and might require the help of others to level that mountain and straighten out that path.[3]

About a week after Hurricane Sandy slammed against the eastern seaboard, I drove a car full of donations from First Presbyterian to the headquarters of Occupy Sandy- located within a small Episcopal parish in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. The sanctuary had been converted into a warehouse of supplies and a nerve center for volunteers. It was the paradigmatic beehive of activity. A young woman in skinny jeans and dark-rimmed eyeglasses worked alongside an older man with a ZZ top beard and a large rain boot worn as a headpiece. Dozens of other volunteers loaded trucks, sipped hot coffee, sorted through mountains of garbage bags filled with the accumulations of affluence.

A month later, I pulled up again, with another delivery from the donations that have continued to pour through our doors unsolicited. But this time, I was met with less than a dozen volunteers. The warehouse had been decimated; the worn old pews empty of supplies. I talked with one of the pastors and one of the volunteer coordinators about the decline in goods and labor. “Volunteer fatigue,” they said. “FEMA has left us alone out there in the Rockaways, patting us on the back and telling us to keep doing what we’re doing,” they continued. “But we don’t have the money; we don’t have the machinery; we don’t have labor force that we did a few weeks ago.” Speechless to respond, I thanked them for their perseverance, encouraged them to take my card with our church’s contact information, and then rolled away in my empty Volvo, back to my warm and safe little apartment.

Volunteer fatigue is to be expected after any disaster. There is even a chart I can show you that maps our collective emotional response to any disaster- the honeymoon period after something awful has happened, when everyone pitches in to help, feeling the euphoria of a common cause and task. But the euphoria is always followed by disillusionment, when the enormity of recovery’s work becomes crystal clear, and when the idea of spending entire days calf-deep in toxic muck does not seem quite so heroic or sexy.

And then there are the Presbyterians! Presbyterian Disaster Assistance[4], the relief agency of our denomination, focuses almost all of its energies and resources on long-term recovery efforts, like setting up volunteer housing for out-of-state groups, working with local government and ecumenical partners to rebuild damaged infrastructure. They never made it on the national news; they were behind the scenes, preparing- not in a manic frenzy of activity, but with deliberate care and the objective to stay as long as it takes. Down in the big construction site, the volunteers work with all their might, to clean debris and clear a road, and get the job done load by load.

John has set before us task of gargantuan proportion- to level mountains and fill valleys, to do the work that only God and the icebergs have done before. It makes sense to be strategic. Like the bulldozer and the excavator in the children’s story, who understand that a good night’s sleep both rejuvenates the body and preserves the joy of the work; like our partners in relief and recovery, who activate personnel and resources once comprehensive assessments have been made, we might conclude that our Advent preparation needs some tweaking.

We have choices to make. Advent is a season in which we are invited to contemplate future possibilities and how we might live faithfully in this time-between… between Christ’s first and second comings, between the already and the not yet of God’s new creation. But we cannot accomplish the task of Advent in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. We should be Advent people all year round, assessing the needs of the world and our hearts, and building the path of peace load-by-load. We will suffer prophetic fatigue if we think we can do it in four weeks, or four months, or even four years. This is a long-range construction project that will take a lifetime.

We can choose how to occupy our time, and we can choose how to occupy our minds.

You have already made one choice this morning, to come into this place and enter into a spirit of prayer and a conversation with God. You have made another choice, entering a community of faith who bear the marks of the prophet John’s blueprint for humanity. And you have made the choice to enter into the mystery of God’s incarnation, welcoming the Christ child as Emmanuel, God-with-us.

If this all seems overwhelming, remember the humble beginnings of Luke’s story. Two unexpected babies- one born to a childless couple in old age; another born to a young, unwed mother. Two unprivileged babies- born under the thumb of the Roman Empire. Two unlikely prophets- one wandering the wilderness, on the edge of civilization; the other traversing the hill towns of farmers and fishermen. Two earth-shattering messages- one that the Messiah’s arrival is imminent; the other that God’s love will prevail over all, including death.

If this all seems overwhelming, and the idea of prophetic labor sounds a lot like a chain-gang to you, remember that the children already preached my sermon this morning, and did a much better job, and seemed to be having a grand old time together. “Prepare the Way of the Lord, and all people shall see the salvation of our God.”

The expectation of God’s arrival “with us” is not an abstract platitude, but a real, tangible livable understanding that “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace…”

And if all this seems a lot like trying to birth the Savior of the world all by ourselves, remember that God-with-us, Emmanuel, was and is and ever shall be. We are not alone.


[1] Emily Gillespie, Living the Word: Christian Century, 11.27.12- http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-11/sunday-december-9-2012

[3] Gillespie.

[4] For more information, visit www.pcusa.org/pda

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About RevMcC

I am a pastor, licensed social worker, consultant and workshop leader. I live in Brooklyn, NY, (the greatest place ever) with my husband and two children (the greatest people ever). I am an unqualified extrovert and lover of God. I try to live my life with gratitude, wonder, curiosity and attention.
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