Despite being in the Church since birth and going to Seminary mid-life, I really did not understand the season of Advent until I read Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge. My Advent experience was one of waking my children up to open another door on our little Calendar as we waited for Christmas. Advent just seemed like a more spiritual way of waiting for Christ’s birth. Every day we opened one more little flap, and the kids got more excited, but I got more anxious, knowing that was one less day to buy presents or get ready. So much for being more spiritual.
I had heard sermons about getting my heart ready for the Christ child, but I didn’t really know what that meant. Did the Christ child need to be welcomed every year, like a new tenant in need of a clean room? Did getting ready for Christ mean giving more to the bell ringers or giving more money away? Or being a better, nicer person? I thought it had something to do with cleaning up so Christ would have a clean, moral heart to sleep in once again. And then in January, I got my room back until next December.
What I have learned is that Advent is about God’s preparation, not ours. In the book, No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Bell says that God wouldn’t be God if he didn’t choose the manner and timing of his own coming. This is the core of the hope of Advent; that God has chosen the manner and timing of his own coming. According to Fleming, we celebrate three Advents of God’s intervention into the world: The incarnation of Christ in his birth, the presence of Christ in Word and sacrament, and The Second Coming of Christ in glory to be our judge on the last day. She writes, “The Advent emphasis [is] on the agency of God, as contrasted with the ‘works’ of human beings. An exclusive emphasis on Advent as a season of preparation risks putting human endeavor in the spotlight.” You can also hear that there is a past, present and future aspect to her discussion of Advent. The world was waiting for the Messiah who was born, and as we say in our liturgy each week, we are living in the mystery of Advent faith; Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. But when will He come again and what do we do in the meantime? Karl Barth says, “What other time or season can, or will the church ever have but that of Advent!”
Waiting in Advent is however very different from waiting in the check-out line or in traffic. Waiting in Advent is facing into the darkness of the world, knowing, as it tells us in Isaiah 9, that “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” Christ, the light of the world, was born into the darkness. Advent hope in the light of Christ in that darkness.
Advent has an element of expectancy that waiting at the Starbucks doesn’t. It is the promise of divine intervention into a dark world. I have experienced this light of hope many times on pastoral care visits; waiting with the family for the tests to come back or for a loved one who is in pain to die. It can also be the time when you are waiting to grow up, waiting for your house to sell, waiting for your wedding, waiting for your spouse to come home, waiting for the day when chemo ends, waiting for love, waiting for a new life to begin.
The most distressing everyday waiting, however, is lying in your bed when you can’t sleep, most often between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Our need for hope keeps us up at night. Maybe because we are all drinking too many Gingerbread lattés, but most probably because we are worried that, despite all our best efforts, all will not be as the Christmas carols promise. The stockings may not be hung with care, the Norman Rockwell dinner may be burned, the Christmas card may be sent closer to New Year’s, relatives will annoy us, our bank account will shrink, someone might be sick, and we must get to sleep to deal with it all. We believe that if we only manage well, our life will be merry and bright. The difference between Advent’s hopeful expectancy and holiday expectations is that true hope comes from outside of ourselves, but expectations live in our heart’s hall of judgement. Expectancy becomes expectations of ourselves, and others, when we judge our holiday performance as imperfect. The heaviest expectation we put on ourselves is that we need to be perfect in order to be loved. (And you know what they say about expectations—they are pre-meditated resentments.) Where does our real hope come from? The hope that is expectant?
The Romans 15 text today is, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” God, in his great mercy, has given us scripture and sacrament to be our light of hope in the darkness. Martin Luther said of this text, “Here [Paul] attributes to Holy Scripture the function of comforting. Who may dare to seek or ask for comfort anywhere else?… The Holy Spirit himself and God, the Creator of all things, is the Author of this book.” Luther declares that, “the bible is the cradle where Christ is laid, letting us look upon Him and get to know Him.”
Think of what life would be like without the presence of Christ in scripture to dispel fear and darkness? A woman I spoke with this week thinks of scripture as her ‘life preserver’ in the choppy seas of fear. Scripture is so ubiquitous that we have come to think of it as a basic right. You can find a bible in most nightstands in the nation’s hotels thanks to the Gideons. But scripture is not just words on a page—it has the power to transform and enliven. As God told Isaiah, “The words that come out of my mouth [will] not come back empty-handed. They’ll do the work I sent them to do, they’ll complete the assignment I gave them.”(Isa. 55:9-11) The first chapter of the gospel of John gets right to the heart of it; “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.He was in the beginning with God.All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into beingin him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
How many times have you felt you were in a dark time and scripture brought light and hope into your spirit? Maybe that day is today. Psalm 121, “I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” Lamentations 3, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Romans 5:5, “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” And again, in Romans 15 of today’s scripture, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Expectant Advent hope is ours in the lifeline of the presence of Christ in the Word.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in an Advent sermon from 1933, compares the darkness of Advent and our waiting to a mining disaster. “The moment even the most courageous miner has dreaded his whole life long is here. It is no use running into the walls; the silence all around him remains. The way out for him is blocked. He knows people up there are working feverishly to reach the miners who are buried alive. Someone will be rescued, but here, in the last shaft? An agonizing period of waiting and dying is all that remains. But suddenly, a noise that sounds like tapping and breaking rock can be heard. Unexpectedly, voices cry out, “Where are you, help is on the way!” Then the disheartened miner…shouts, “Here I am, come on through and help me! I’ll hold on until you come! Just some soon!”…This is how it is with the coming of Christ.”
Hope is so much more than a calendar or a Christmas carol, but the very power of God to intervene in our world. Advent is the unexpected coming of Christ to save you from death—in the incarnate baby, in scripture and coming from the future. Hear the tapping and breaking rock that can be heard through the millennia as help has come, is here and will come again.