December 2, 2012
First Sunday of Advent
We’ve come to that sentimental season again. Last week I was home working around the house and I decided to program in a Christmas music station on Pandora – which is a customizable, online radio station. One of the first songs to come on was Frank Sinatra’s version of I’ll Be Home for Christmas”. I love all kinds of Christmas music, sacred and secular, and this one is a favorite.
“I’ll be home for Christmas. You can plan on me. Please have snow and mistletoe and presents on the tree. Christmas Eve will find me where the lovelight gleams. I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams.”
Sinatra sang it so poignantly that I was flooded with Christmas memories; memories from my childhood, memories of my house in Nashville and what it looked like decorated for the holidays, and my family’s traditions, and before I knew it, I was sniffling and wiping my eyes. I realized I was about to end up sitting on the kitchen floor weeping, so I changed the station and danced my way through the rest of my cleaning.
But it was an incredibly sentimental moment. And that’s what the holidays can do. They bring out our sentimental, nostalgic sides. Truth be told, that’s what we’ve done to them. We have sentimentalized this season in a variety of ways. We have more than sentimentalized it in pop culture. I can’t watch the Charlie Brown Christmas Special without getting choked up when Linus tells the story of Jesus’ birth, then the Peanuts gang finally shows love to the sad little tree Charlie Brown picked out and it becomes this magnificent Christmas tree. Or when the Grinch’s heart grows so big it busts out of that little measuring tool they have around it.
Those are just the TV specials. What about the movies? There’s the end of It’s a Wonderful Life when the whole town of Bedford Falls comes to the aid of George Bailey. They start to sing, and then George finds Clarence the angel’s copy of Tom Sawyer on top of the basket of money. Clarence has inscribed it, “No man is a failure who has friends.” The bell on the Christmas tree rings, and ZuZu says, “Look daddy, teacher says every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” George says, “That’s right. That’s right. Attaboy Clarence. Attaboy!”
Lord help me when the Hallmark card commercials begin in earnest. There’s one for Hanukah that kills me. A grandfather is sitting with his grandchildren at a family gathering, and all the grandchildren plead with him to tell a beloved story again. He tells them about crossing the ocean on a ship bound for America when he was a little boy. On that ship he meets his best friend, Jake. Their two families celebrate Hanukah together. Just as the grandfather is saying he always wonders about Jake this time of year, one of the grandkids produces a card from, you guessed it, Jake. Yeah, that one does me in every year.
It’s not just the popular culture induced emotions that get to me either. I wait all year for Christmas Eve and singing Silent Night by candlelight. But by the time we finally get to sing, I’m usually so choked up I can barely get through it.
Emotions. Sentimentality. Nostalgia. Memories. A baby being born. Peace. Goodwill. Angels singing. Signs in the sun and the moon and the stars. Distress among the nations. Confusion and fear and foreboding. The coming of the Son of Man in a cloud. The End Times.
That is how we begin this season of Advent. That is how we begin the first Sunday of our church year. We begin with the end. And the effect it has on me each year is jarring, to say the least. It certainly stands in stark contrast to the sentimentality I’ve described, doesn’t it?
We’re trying to listen for a baby’s cry and instead we get predictions of the end times. I want to hear those angel voices and stand in awe of that approaching holy night, but instead we are told to watch and we are told to wait, to stay awake, to be prepared, to expect the unexpected.
I’ve told you before that one of the preaching resources I turn to on a regular basis is the sermon brainwave podcast through WorkingPreacher.org. As the group of Biblical scholars discussed this passage in Luke, they questioned why we always start Advent with the end. Even they were a little confused as to why. One reason is that this passage also describes an Advent. This is the second advent of Christ and it is as important for us to hear it as it is to hear of his first arrival as a baby in Bethlehem.
It is also true and, I think necessary, that we hear words of scripture that are anything but sentimental. I am certainly not opposed to the sentimentality of the season. It is deeply ingrained in me, and I can’t imagine not having some of that this time of year. But let’s be honest, God becoming incarnate in human life, in the midst of us, is not sentimental. We have applied that sentiment to Jesus’ birth. We’ve made it a sweet story because anytime a baby is born we are overwhelmed with the sweetness and power of that moment. But I repeat, the incarnation of God into human existence, God becoming us in the midst of us, is not sentimental. It is radical. When God comes into our world, into our lives, we should expect to be shaken up. We should expect not only to see signs in the world around us but in the very cosmos themselves. God becoming incarnate means change. It means the end of what was. It means that from this point on everything is changed. We are changed. How we can experience God’s incarnational presence and not be changed? That is not sentimental. That is radical and wild and almost incomprehensible.
David Lose, one of the WorkingPreacher scholars writes about this passage from Luke as being in the realm of fantasy. To say that the end time predictions are fantasy is not to say that they aren’t true. It’s not to say that they are made up or make believe. To say that they are in the realm of fantasy is a way of stating that they are so far beyond our everyday experience, our understanding of reality that they aren’t probable. They aren’t possible. But if you think about it, everything about our faith, everything that we profess, everything that we confess, everything we believe is completely improbable. It sounds crazy. It is as Paul wrote, “foolishness”. It is fantastic.
I love good fantasy. I think about the best fantasy that I’ve read in my lifetime. I loved Madeleine L’Engel’s book, A Wrinkle in Time and the books that followed, C.S. Lewis’s The Narnia Chronicles and certainly J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series. All of those books are firmly in the fantasy genre of writing. But all of them deal with what I think to be fundamental truths. They express the power that love has to conquer the darkness, the dark forces that work against us. They show the power of our own choices to bring about good or destruction. These works of fantasy address the battle that wages every day between good and evil, light and dark, not just on a cosmic scale, but in each of us.
It is fantasy. It seems fantastic that the divine and mortal meet in the birth of a child born homeless to unwed parents. It is fantastical to claim that God is now in our midst. It is fantasy to see God in the death of man executed as a criminal by an oppressive, unjust government. It is beyond belief that this dead man is raised from the dead, that he conquers death, and even more fantastic that death is conquered for us as well. It is fantasy to claim that while we wait for that day when we see signs in nature and signs in the cosmos of the second Advent, we also claim that God is right here with us now. God is with us at this table, in the breaking of bread and in the sharing of the cup. It is fantasy. It is improbable. It is impossible. Yet we state our claim that with God nothing is impossible. That is what we are waiting for. Let’ all God’s children say, “Amen!”