November 29, 2020
Do any of you feel like you’re just ready to turn the page on this year?
My sense is that many people have about had it up to here with 2020.
If that describes you at all – I have some good news and I have some bad news.
The good news is – according to the Church’s liturgical calendar, the new year actually starts today. The season of Advent, not Christmas, but Advent, marks the start of a new year.
Today we lit the first candle of the Advent wreath – the candle of Hope – and with it we usher in a new year in our spiritual lives. Who is not ready for a fresh start?
Well, that’s the good news.
The bad news is that Advent is all about waiting.
That’s bad because it feels like waiting is all that we’ve done for far too long.
We’re waiting for a vaccine. We’re waiting to be with our families again. We’re waiting to shake hands with our friends, to hug our mothers and fathers, our sons and our daughters and our grands.
We’re waiting for dinner parties with friends; sleepovers for our kids; birthday parties that do not involve Zoom.
We’re waiting to see the actual contours of the faces we encounter rather than trying to identify folks by the creases around their eyes. We’re waiting to breathe together – deep breaths together; we’re waiting to sing and make music together…with no thought for the consequences.
That’s not all that we’re waiting for either…We’re waiting for peace and stability and it feels like it’s been too long since we’ve had any of that…and it doesn’t feel like we will see any of that peace or stability in the foreseeable future.
We are ALWAYS waiting.
BUT we are waiting for maybe the only one who is actually worth waiting for. We wait for the only one who can make things right – right in a way that we seem wholly incapable of achieving on our own. We are waiting for God to show up.
As we step in to this season of waiting, we know that we are among a large cloud of witnesses who waited before us. Listen to these words from the prophet Isaiah who gathers up the expectation of God’s people in every time and place. A reading from chapter 64:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
This is the word of the Lord
THANKS BE TO GOD.
I had to laugh this past week – Kim McNeill, our youth minister, posted this picture on Facebook. The caption read “Got my new Advent candles today. One is entirely missing a wick. Thanks, 2020.”
Of course this year of all years would be the one that robs you of the ability to light the candle of Hope. I bent over laughing when I read it – but I suspect it was the laughter that comes when something touches a nerve.
It all seemed to me such a symbol of what it means to be people of faith. On the one hand, we must anchor ourselves in a promise that is beyond our grasp or perception. At the same time – like it or not – we have both feet planted in the messiness of this moment.
The trick is not letting the present snap our tether to that promise. No small feat.
Just last weekend I walked into the living room and noticed Meg was reading the news.
I asked her “What’s going on in the world…any Jesus sightings?”
She looked at me sideways, obviously confused.
I suspect she wondered if – overnight – her husband had become one of those people who goes looking for the contours of Jesus’ face in the burn patterns on his pancake. So I had to continue “…you know, any signs that Jesus is back to fix the mess we’ve made of everything.” She nodded in recognition, knowing that what I meant was what Isaiah said so much more eloquently before – “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
Then she regretfully informed me “Jesus is not back yet – I’m afraid it’s more of the same.”
More of the same! Looks like we’re going to have to dig deep this year to find the wick in that candle of Hope.
Of course – the waiting of Advent is never quite as passive as that.
We don’t just wait for God to show up.
If that’s all we do then we’ll never find the wick.
In fact, I wonder if the way we keep our tether on God’s promise is to act as if IT IS our present moment….as if we are already living in that hoped for future. Sometimes acting as if it is so can make all the difference.
Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story about a woman who was not convinced that she wanted to keep living. She was older and lived alone, and she became deathly afraid to go to sleep at night for fear that she would not wake up in the morning. So she lay in her bed waiting for the sun to come up before she dared to shut her eyes.
What a dreadful kind of waiting that must be?
Then someone suggested to her that as long as she was awake, she might as well start listening for the first bird that sang each morning. So she did – she listened close in those wakeful hours, straining to hear the first bird of the morning. Before long, the sound of that bird became the bell that woke her heart to life again. She learned what kind of bird it was. She discovered what such birds like to eat and put feeders full of seed in her yard. Other birds came, and she learned their names as well. She began to collect birdhouses, which she hung from the rafters of her porch until she became the mayor of an entire bird village. She still does not sleep well, but she is no longer afraid of her life.
That sounds like a much better kind of waiting – an active, compassionate, engaged waiting.
We build our lives around this hope – go through the motions if we must – and in so doing we build our confidence that God will make good on what God has promised….if not today, then some day.
Last I spoke with Kim, she was still burning away at that candle to see if there was a wick buried somewhere deep down inside. So far – no luck whatsoever. But she keeps digging…and so shall we because hope does not disappoint. May it be so. Amen.