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We would like to think it’s an adolescent phase: the eye-rolling detachment, the feigned nonchalance, the shoulder shrug, the “whatever” response to anything and everything—all of it sending the unmistakeable message that joy is just not cool.
But the truth is that most adults are not much different, even though we seek to justify our skepticism, going so far as to call it “healthy.” Rather than rolling our eyes, we speak of needing to be realistic. We may have outgrown our “whatevers” but we work to keep our expectations low or, better yet, commit ourselves to having no expectations at all. In rare moments of vulnerability, we might admit to not wanting to get our hopes up.
The truth is that we don’t like being disappointed. What we like even less is being snookered, bamboozled, taken for a ride.
And so we proceed with caution: emotional defenses up, lid on our feelings, insisting on evidence. And then when, despite all that, someone or something does let us down, we feel anger and shame.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone; in fact, I cycled through all the feelings just last week. A few weeks ago, while searching the Internet for an airline ticket, I came across a deal that seemed too good to be true: a direct flight for hundreds of dollars less than all the one-stop flights to my destination. Could this be for real? I wondered.
So I read the fine print. I checked and double-checked. I consulted a friend who had lots of experience with the airline. Finally satisfied that the deal was on the up and up, I held my breath and bought my ticket. I was set. And then word came one morning last week that flight had been canceled. I was not happy. Almost worse than the cost and the potential disruption to my travel plans was the sense that I had been had.
What I needed—what all of us need in these days when one unsettling, unfathomable political development is followed by another—was a big dose of Advent.
You see, Advent is not only countercultural; it also runs counter to our carefully nurtured, mature psychologies. It invites us to let down our defenses, to consider our deepest longings and get our hopes up, to trust God’s preposterous promises, to prepare for Jesus to change our lives, to make room for joy, to fully expect love’s arrival.
During the darkest time of year, even as we enter what feels like a long, threatening tunnel, Advent challenges us to gamble everything we have on a light we can’t yet see, to trust that the same invincible Light who came and bled and died and rose again now lives in us and that no amount of evil or injustice will overcome it.
It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?
Almost as absurd as a desert that blooms and sings. Almost as absurd as an unmarried pregnant girl who, instead of being cowed by her circumstances, is fierce in her praise of a justice-working, world-upending God. Almost as sad as an imprisoned, truth-telling prophet suddenly overcome with doubt. Almost as ludicrous as the unwavering response of God’s Beloved, whose radical love will soon earn him a criminal’s death at the hands of the state.
So it is that with poetry, drama, and pathos, our scriptures this morning take us through a familiar arc: from hope in the promise to joyful expectation to bewildered disappointment. So it is that, with our hopes and expectations crushed by a stunning electoral upset and all our work for justice and Earth care now jeopardized, we are tempted to despair—or to seek refuge in so-called healthy skepticism. More aware than before of what we are up against, we are afraid to let ourselves rejoice—even in an unexpected victory like the one last week at Standing Rock. We don’t want to be snookered; we’re afraid of giving ourselves over to hope, only to be let down again.
But the arc of faith does not end with disappointment. The season of Advent does not lift us to the joy of Gaudete Sunday only to leave us in exile, wandering in our wildernesses, abandoned in our own dark prisons of fear and low expectations, too busy trying to hold on to the life we have to make room for something better, too angry about the way things are to let something new and holy be born in us.
I was going through my normal morning routine the other day, brushing my teeth and listening to the latest bad news on National Public Radio, when it hit me: I have got to find a way to live through and beyond this. I cannot, I will not, I refuse to be in a bad mood for the next four years! But neither can I simply turn off the radio, ignore the news, forget about my neighbors and this broken world God so loves, and put my head in the sand.
John the Baptist was, understandably, in a very bad mood. Meal after meal of locusts—and for what? All those cold nights in the desert—for what? All that preaching to all those religious people, all those repentances and baptisms, all that business about preparing the way—where had it gotten him? Rotting in Herod’s prison, awaiting his certain execution.
Was Jesus even The One, or had John been mistaken? Had he put all his eggs, all his hopes, all his life, in the wrong basket? Had he been snookered?
Jesus does not dismiss the question. Jesus does not judge the doubt behind it. Jesus does not demand blind faith or play the “because I said so” card. Look and see, Jesus says. Listen and hear. Echoing the promises of Isaiah, he points to their fulfillment: The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor receive news of justice and liberation.
At this, John’s followers went away, to deliver Jesus’ message to John. Matthew doesn’t tell us how John responded, but I like to picture him weeping tears of joy, maybe even dancing a little jig. I like to imagine him singing—maybe something from the psalms: Happy are those whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever, who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.
I like to imagine John so defiant in his joy, so grateful to his God, that he keeps right on singing, moving on to that song his mother taught him—Mary’s song: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for the Mighty One has done great things. The powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted up. The hungry are filled and the rich sent away empty. God has kept the promise.
You see Mary, though likely a teenager, had not played it cool. Mary, when visited by the angel Gabriel and his most unlikely message, had not said “whatever.” She had not yet—thanks be to God—developed a healthy skepticism. Favored one, the angel called her. God is with you, he said, adding, Do not be afraid.
And when Gabriel asked her if she would be the one, Mary said simply, “Yes.” Yes, I will. Here am I. I will make room. I will live in hope. I will sing of God’s mighty works. I will rejoice in God my Savior. I will thank God for turning things upside-down. Thank you for favoring me. Thank you for asking. Yes. Yes. I will be the one.
Advent calls us to remember that faithful joy is not based on present circumstances but on the long, relentless track record of our still-living, ever-loving, justice-working God. Advent calls us to take the long view, to put our trust in the God of the poor, to get our hopes up, and to open our hearts to joy.
Surely this is one of the reasons we love Christmas: Through our children’s anticipation and excitement we get to remember what pure, unbridled joy feels like. To believe, not in Santa exactly, or that airline agents sometimes really do fix everything, calling you Miss Vicki or Mr. John all the while. But that justice will be done, because our mighty-armed God lives in us. That peace will come, because we follow the Prince of Peace. That the desert will blossom and our scorched earth will again sing, because God is doing a new thing, even now, even here.
Advent and Christmas invite us to let go of the fear of disappointment and failure and, instead, to trust that God is good and to believe that we are favored. To count on it. To bet our lives on it.
Yes, hope can be hard in times like these. Joy can feel like a betrayal of all the world’s suffering.
But God calls us to defiant joy—to choose joy in the face of bad and ever-worsening news, to be a stubborn light in the deepening darkness. Not because we’re winning, not because things are going our way, but because we are the children of God and that is what we are made for: to trust, to follow, to shine, to love, to give thanks. To sing—because nothing and no one can stop us. To rejoice.
Advent reminds us that we—like Mary—are God’s favored ones. That, we—like Jesus—are God’s beloved. Advent asks us if we, too, will be the one—the one to bring hope and healing, the one to make peace and struggle for justice, the one who will shine a light in the darkness, the one who will not be afraid to trust, the one who will resist evil in all its forms, the one who will bring new life into a world of hurt.
Are you the one?