I recently stumbled upon a blog called Ralph Milton’s Rumors, which is billed as an ‘e-zine (on-line magazine) for people of faith with a sense of humor.’ He throws in jokes, great stories, and the ever popular church publication bloopers that appear in letters, bulletins, and newsletters. One that he related in this week’s edition was the newsletter that announced a new staff member at the congregation, with the promise of a “bull bio in the next edition of the newsletter.”
I appreciate a sense of humor, but I think the best stuff in his blog is when he is gets very, very serious. Like this week, for example, when he questions the mental capabilities of the folk who set up the lectionary readings for Advent. A good deal of the Advent readings are really downers. They are about judgment, and the second coming of Jesus. They are about watching and waiting, usually in the aforementioned context of judgment. They are about the despair of feeling like God is not listening. Here’s a part of Psalm 80 which is one of today’s lectionary readings,
Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves. Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
Ralph Milton just doesn’t get why we read such passages during advent, and he doesn’t mind saying so. That’s why he offered the alternative reading we did from Isaiah this morning. It’s not a part of the lectionary readings, but something that he thinks, and I agree with him, puts Advent into a better context.
The lectionary purists don’t like such things. And there are folk out there, some of them even in this town, some of them clergy colleagues, who continue to fight the ill-conceived battle, from my perspective, of upholding the liturgical distinctions between Advent and Christmas. It’s not only an ill-conceived battle, but a losing one.
Originally, Advent was to be seen more like Lent than Christmas. Advent was to be a time of self-examination, to contemplate the meaning of the second coming of Jesus with all it’s hope and fear. Advent was a time to confess our sins and live better lives so we won’t be found unworthy when Jesus returns.
That’s why Advent starts out in darkness and the darkness is resolved a bit each week until the blazing light of Christmas. It’s not so much that it’s a bad perspective, just inadequate. There is more to us.
Some of those clergy colleagues refuse to let their congregations sing Christmas carols during Advent. According to the old customs, Christmas carols, as the stories about the birth of Jesus, are for Christmas Eve until Epiphany, and the Epiphany hymns, (i.e. We Three Kings) aren’t to be sung until January 6th.
That doesn’t work. I understand some of what they are trying to get at, but who wants to wait until Christmas Eve to start singing or playing carols like ‘Joy to the World,’ ‘Angels We Have Heard on High,’ and ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem?’ I’m not immune to this myself. Every year I refuse to start playing Christmas Carols until the first Sunday of Advent. And when I get home today, that is exactly what I will do. Christmas does not start, for me, the first day after Thanksgiving. But that’s as far as I go.
There is good reason to try to get Christmas in a better perspective, particularly when it has become such a commercial orgy that has nothing to do with Jesus. And there is nothing wrong with taking time to ponder what all that stuff about the second coming is, because that was imporant to Jesus. But maybe Advent is not the time of year on the church calendar to focus on that. Maybe Advent and Christmas would be better spent thinking about what that first coming, the birth of Jesus is all about. We need to make sure we understand that a bit better, since his second coming it seems should reflect rather than contradict his first coming.
I don’t have to tell most of you here, that I have serious disagreements with what people do with this idea of the second coming of Jesus. Most of what passes as end times theology these days with all it’s promise of vengeance and a warrior Jesus has nothing to do with the Jesus who was born in that stable in Bethlehem. If we are looking for a God who is going to pay back God’s enemies, pay back our enemies, then we are looking in the wrong place.
Here’s something to remember about those stories about the second coming of Jesus that talk about the suffering that is coming because of wars and rumors or wars, because of the charlatans who deceive people into seeing the Messiah here or there, the suffering that is coming because of persecution, the deceptions that happen. These are not things God does. As one commentator wrote, “These are the sadly predictable human failings that cause human suffering without any divine intervention. The wrath is the suffering we inflict on ourselves and each other.”
Bethlehem points us to something new and good, something better to wait and watch and hope for at Advent, at Christmas, at Epiphany and all year around than these images of destruction and vengeance that fill the Christian TV stations and too many pulpits.
It’s also not a bad idea in itself, during Advent, to highlight the notion of waiting and hoping for the fulfillment of the things of God for this world. But do we have to put it in the context of judgment and violence that most talk of the second coming has become?
Ralph Milton got me on to something when he suggested his dog as an example of what the waiting and expectation of Advent should be about. His dog, like our dog, Irie, is good at waiting in hope. Mary and I are amazed that so often when we’ve been gone for a few minutes or several hours, there is Irie looking out the window when we get home. Just this week, Mary and I were trading off Sofia care in Columbus. There was Irie looking out the window when I pulled in our parking area. It had been four hours since Mary left, and I have no idea how long Irie was watching and waiting for my return, but there she was.
Here is what I think is going on in her mind while she is waiting. “When they get back, after I’ve gone outside, we’ll run around the house and play chase. Then I’ll have a nap and my afternoon snack. Then I’ll go outside again, come back in and run around the house for a couple of minutes and play chase. After that another nap, and then the late afternoon walk. Then it’s supper, I go outside, and more chase. And then it’s the cube with the cheese and other stuff in it that falls out when I push it around. A little more chase and then it’s into the family room to get some pets and curl up on the couch while they watch Rachel Maddow. Then I go out for the last time of the day and it’s bedtime.”
In other words, while Irie is standing at that window, she is waiting and watching for the world that is meant to be. And it is worth the wait even when it is four hours, or we are at church and there is no Rachel Maddow. It’s worth it even when it’s just me coming home, and she eventually has to go up to Mary’s office to make sure Mary’s not there. It’s worth the wait when her stomach is bothering her and she doesn’t feel like eating supper. It’s worth the wait when I come in the house and get on the phone or start working on something and am not going to play chase right then and there.
Irie knows what’s worth waiting for. Do you think she would stand at the window for hours at a time if she thought something awful was going to happen when we returned, or we were going to ignore her or inflict abuse on her, even if she might deserve it because she had peed on the floor or taken everything out of the trash can?
She may or may not know her own failings. I’m never quite sure. But she does know to stay at her post and keep watch. And she knows that when we get home she is going to be loved and cared for no matter what.
I think Ralph Milton got it right. The lectionary folk could have done a better job with the Advent themes and readings. But despite their best efforts, we have managed to sense, like Irie does, what hope is really about. It’s about a place called Bethlehem and all that will unfold in this world because of Jesus, and all that will unfold in our lives, even when we pee on the floor and turn over the trash cans, so to speak. That’s why we wait at Advent. We know things are going to be as they should be.