Two days before Christmas – and I’m out at the mall doing a little bit of last minute shopping!
And as you might expect, it’s crowded and chaotic and crazy busy – but I was in a great mood, full of Christmas Spirit, moving from store to store, humming Christmas songs as I go; I’m having a great time! Only as the afternoon wore on, I began to notice that not a lot of people shared that good mood – shoppers seemed to have very little patience, cashiers were decidedly weary of showing any holiday cheer, and the children? Let’s just say the naughty list was growing exponentially! It just seemed as though every face revealed either total exhaustion, or out and out hostility!
But the kicker came at one point when I’d sat down at the food court, and overheard a conversation between two women who’d been comparing notes on their holiday preparations – and one sighed to the other, “You know, I’ve had enough! For a month now, I’ve done nothing but get ready for Christmas. Between the parties at work and the kids’ concerts and all this shopping I haven’t even had a chance to breathe, much less enjoy Christmas! Right now I just wish it could all be over with!”
And I thought to myself, there you have it: the whole atmosphere of this day before the day before Christmas summed up in one frustrated, angry plea – just get it over with! Not exactly “Silver Bells,” is it? And it certainly doesn’t connect at all with what Christmas really all about –that afternoon I realized I’d just witnessed how very easily God’s greatest gift of love – the birth of the Christ child – can be summarily discarded amidst getting ready for Christmas!
Of course, in all honesty, it’s not all that uncommon a sentiment this time of year; I mean, who among us hasn’t gotten worn out, stressed out, and tapped out, all for the sake of “the perfect Christmas,” only to discover that along the way a lot of the fun and the “reason for the season” got lost in the shuffle? How many of us – and I have to say here that I count myself among this number – have ended the holiday season by gazing heavenward to make a solemn vow that “next year, it’s going to be different!?”
Well, folks, guess what? It’s next year – and unless I miss my guess, what a lot of us said last year we didn’t want to happen this year is already coming to pass! However, it’s not too late – in fact, it seems to me that right now, in this Advent season of waiting, watching and preparing, we have a wonderful opportunity not only to make this holiday season more meaningful, but also to give Christmas, true Christmas, its proper place in our lives and living. I would suggest to you this morning that for this to happen the first thing you and I need to do is adjust the way in which we approach Christmas in the first place – and that begins with living expectantly.
Make no mistake, friends, this is a major attitude adjustment! For you see, when the world talks about “living in expectation” of Christmas, it means getting caught up in the whirlwind that that starts spinning long before the so-called “Black Friday” and keeps building in intensity right up to December 25! In other words, all our attention, all our effort, all our money gets directed toward what happens on one day, Christmas Day. But then, come December 26, it’ll all be over for another year, the decorations taken down, the music silenced until next year – it’s done and over with. By this way of thinking, Christmas comes and goes with the change in the calendar!
However, for us who are people of God, living expectantly is something different – it reflects an Advent way of thinking, a recognition that there’s more going on here than merely a yearly festival of happiness and giving that culminates in one big day – rather it’s living with the profound understanding that God is working through each and every day of our lives with a specific goal in mind: light and life for all his people, with everlasting justice and peace, joy, love, and “righteousness in the land.” It’s to be alert as to what is going on around us, even now, as God’s word is fulfilled in our midst.
Because remember, while the Advent season is about our symbolic waiting for the coming of the Christ child in the manger of Bethlehem, it’s also about living expectantly unto the hope and promise that Christ comes again; that Christ comes to us always. Yes, it’s about “making room” for the baby Jesus in our lives during a busy season, but it’s also about letting the full-grown Jesus come and rule within our hearts for the living of every one of the seasons of our lives. It’s about anticipating his kingdom by our own words and actions until that kingdom comes in its fullness.
And it’s truly living unto the knowledge that just as the people in Jeremiah’s time were promised that “a righteous Branch [will] spring up for David [who] shall execute justice and righteousness in the land,” – a promise fulfilled in Christ – you and I are also given a promise; and we are being called to wait with hearts strengthened in holiness for that promise to be fulfilled, so that, as Paul told the Thessalonians, we “may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”
In other words, friends, we have to begin to see Christmas not as the end of where we’re going, but rather the beginning of where God has yet to take us in his love and by his grace. I’m reminded of an old “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip in which Calvin says to his tiger, Hobbes, “Live for the moment is my motto. You never know how long you got! After all,” he goes on to say, “you could step into the road tomorrow and WHAM, you get hit by a cement truck! Then you’d be sorry you put off your pleasures. That’s what I say – live for the moment! And then he asks Hobbes, “What’s your motto?” And to this, Hobbes replies, “My motto is – Look down the road!”
It’s true: so many of us, especially where Christmas is concerned, live for the moment – focusing our full attention on the best gifts, the perfect celebrations, the traditions that have to be followed. But what scripture tells us is that this should never be at the expense of failing to look down the road for what God is doing next; we need to prepare ourselves spiritually for the hope that God will be fulfilling within us and around us.
The question is, how do we do that when even as we speak “the Christmas whirlwind” grows ever larger to try and suck us in? Actually, I think our reading this morning from Thessalonians speaks to this very nicely. The Thessalonians were among the earliest groups of European Christians – in fact, biblical scholars believe that this Epistle was probably written no more than 15 years after the resurrection – and so here was a people living in profound expectation of the imminent return of Christ. Their whole life as the church centered on living in such a way that anticipated the kingdom’s coming at any given moment; however, the problem was that they’d become discouraged because that moment hadn’t come as quickly as they’d expected.
So what does Paul say in this Epistle? He tells them that “night and day” he prays “most fervently” for them. He tells them, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” In other words, stay the course; “strengthen your hearts in holiness” and keep doing as you have been, living expectantly for the Lord’s promise to be fulfilled.
Likewise, in a culture where it’s all too easy for the holiday to overtake and distract us from its true meaning, a prayerful stance through these days of Advent helps us keep a clear vision as we look down the road; working to see that everything we do in celebrating the season has a goal of increasing love for those around us will serve to strengthen our own hearts for the day of his coming. This is how we keep the inevitable Christmas whirlpool and its resulting chaos at bay – and in the end, not only do we pay homage to the divine child born in Bethlehem so long ago, we also live expectantly unto that wonderful, promised moment when Christ returns and the kingdom of heaven comes in its fullness.
It seems to me that our coming to the Lord’s Table on this first Sunday of Advent is a very good place for us to begin. After all, a very large part of what we do here is to act in true anticipation of his coming; breaking the bread and sharing the cup is something we do that is real, tangible and life-affirming until the time when we break that bread with him at “the heavenly banquet at the close of history.” Every time we share in this sacrament we’re not only acknowledging that the Lord is with us here and now; we’re also living unto the incredible promise that where our God is concerned, there is more to come for us and it is coming “soon and very soon.”
It brings to mind one of my favorite quotes from Frederick Buechner, from his book, Whistling in the Dark. He writes, “In the silence of a midwinter dusk there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen… the extraordinary thing that is about to happen is only matched by that extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.”
Beloved, as we feast at the table today, let us come with great expectations, holding our breath, listening closely to what is just about to happen by the Lord’s own purpose and intent. And may that same Lord lead throughout this Advent season and every single moment that follows
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry