November 28, 2010
I wouldn’t make a very good Buddhist. That acceptance and detachment stuff just doesn’t work for me. There are, of course, people who have told me that I don’t make a very good Christian either, but that’s a different sermon.
We’ve lit the first candle in the Advent wreath and begun a new church year. We’ve started singing and hearing our first Christmas and Advent hymns and carols. It is, for most of us, the most wonderful time of the year. But we have to be careful. It is easy to make the Christmas story all about the past rather than the future. Yet, the new year is always about hope, always about not settling for things as they are, but imagining what they can be.
It’s no secret we sentimentalize and romanticize the Christmas story. As the preacher Kate Huey says it, “How many of us really understand what it would be like to give birth in a stable, next to large animals?”
When we think about the Christmas story, we don’t usually think about the grinding poverty or the grinding military occupation that Jesus and so many others were and are born into. Despite what the favorite Christmas carol for many of us says, all was not calm, all was not bright, and it was far from silent. Animals in barns are noisy, especially when you’ve got shepherds tramping about. There were Roman troops patrolling the streets outside the stable trying to keep the drunks under control, and the freedom fighters from slitting their throats. The little town of Bethlehem was not still.
And has it occurred to you that the reason Jesus was born in a barn was because nobody in the inn would give up their place to a woman in labor? This is not your Hallmark Christmas. That night was made holy because God filled the chaos and the noise, the fear and the darkness, the selfishness with a new possibility for this world.
The only thing we have that is close to a Christmas story in John’s gospel is at the very beginning where it is written that “the light came into the world and the darkness could not overcome it.” And I think that is the heart of the Christmas story. That’s why there are so many lights during Advent and Christmas. Things were dark for a lot of people when Jesus was born, as they are dark for many people now. But the light has come into the world. We call it hope.
That’s why Advent isn’t about detachment and acceptance. For me it’s more like one of my favorite singers, Bruce Cockburn, says it, “you have to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.” Advent and Christmas call us not to a sentimentalized past, or an apathetic present, but to a promised future that we help make happen, rather than something that just happens to us.
Last Sunday at ECO we talked about the spiritual disciplines and traditions that are important to us at Christmas. The special decorations. The family gatherings. The Christmas Eve Service and the free for all on Christmas morning. All that stuff is wonderful. But what darkness are we going to continue to kick at or start kicking at this Advent? What darkness is going to encounter the light of Jesus Christ we bring to it? Hope doesn’t come because we light a candle in the Advent wreath and feel all hopeful. Hope comes because we drag it into the darkness, like God did on that first Christmas.
They, of course, didn’t celebrate Advent and Christmas when Paul and others were writing those letters and stories that we now call the New Testament. But Paul sure understood what Advent and Christmas are all about. “The night is about over, dawn is about to break. Be up and awake to what God is doing! God is putting the finishing touches on the salvation work that was begun when we first believed. We can’t afford to waste a minute, must not squander these precious daylight hours.”
“The night is about over, the dawn is about to break.” Yesterday is over and the new day is about to come. Advent reminds us we are awaiting the new day, not just waiting. It’s time to wake up to what God is doing, and ready ourselves for the future that fills our present.
We don’t know how we get to the future. We just trust God to get us there. Another preacher, Mary Shore writes “we imagine today and tomorrow looking exactly like yesterday, and after days, months, and years of such scaled-back expectations, we are getting very sleepy.” Thankfully, she says, things come alonjg to wake us up like heart attacks and falling in love. Do you know what they both have in common? They stir us from our apathy. We know they are both going to shape our future, but we don’t know how.
We can’t manage heart attacks or love. But we can manage hope. We can bring hope. We can be hopeful people who put our hope in God. We can look at the story of Jesus born in the manger and imagine not simply what was, but what can be, what future we can help build, what light we can bring into this dark and hopeful world that Jesus was born into.
One of the traditional themes of Advent is the second coming of Jesus, living in that expectation that all things will be new. That pulls us way into the future. But that’s not the future we can manage as much as all those TV preachers try. David Bartlett puts it into context for us, and I think wakes us up a bit. “One day Jesus may appear in the clouds, suddenly, like a thief in the night. But before that – as Matthew reminds us – Jesus will appear just around the corner, suddenly, like a hungry person, or a neighbor ill-clothed, or someone sick or imprisoned.” That’s what we are waiting for, and that is where we bring hope.
“Wake up,” Paul tells us. “And get dressed in Jesus Christ.” Put on his ways. Every day is the day to be looking for Jesus, to see how the promise of Bethlehem is going to unfold. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Every morning when you wake up, decide to live the life God has given you to live right now. Refuse to live yesterday over and over again. Resist the temptation to save your best self for tomorrow. Live a caught-up life, not a put-off life, so that wherever you are….you are ready for God.”
You can’t bring hope into the darkness, light the hard way so many travel without being a little impatient, without making some noise and raising a ruckus. When Jesus was born there was a chorus of angels singing, and the shepherds couldn’t keep quiet. The story says the shepherds went running to find the baby and told everyone they saw what the angels had said to them. And after they left the manger it says that, as they returned to their flocks, “they let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen. It turned out exactly the way they’d been told!” They had seen hope in a manger.
There is a time, as the story also says, to, like Mary, ‘ponder all these things’ in our hearts. For hope does not come easy as she and Jesus learned. But Advent is not all pondering. It’s letting loose, it’s kicking at the darkness, it’s making hope happen, it’s settling for nothing less than what God settles for.
At that first Christmas, anyway, God was not a practicing Buddhist either. God did not stay detached, did not practice acceptance, but kicked some serious darkness butt. And so today, we lit that first candle, the candle of hope. And we are going to keep lighting the candles, not because all is calm and all is bright, but because hope is a holy thing.