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Hosea 11:1-4, 8
Romans 8:19, 22-25
I would like to be able to flesh out the story with the kind of writerly details that would bring it all back, the atmospherics that would make the moment come alive: How I was wearing my favorite footsie pajamas, for example, that I was holding hands with my cousin Eydie (who would later be murdered by her second ex-husband), or how my grandma kept asking everyone if they wanted more pie (which is so totally what she would have been doing).
But the truth is I don’t remember any of that. All I know is that I was probably four going on five, that we were at the Texas Hill Country home of my dad’s parents, and it was coming on bedtime on Christmas Eve. All I remember is that all the grandkids, just four of us then, and our parents and grandparents were crammed into the living room.
All I know for sure is how I felt when it happened, how I felt after it happened, how I still feel when I remember it.
We were probably playing, giggling and carrying on, when one of the adults said, “Listen!” And then: “Shhhhhhh!” And then, again, “Listen!”
And then I heard it, clear as day. Bells. Not like church bells, mind you, but jingly-jangly bells. Like sleigh bells. The kind reindeer would wear. The kind of bells Santa Claus’s reindeer wore.
WHAT?!?!?!?! Santa had arrived! Santa was right there, right then! Oh my goodness!
I wish I could tell you what happened next—whether our parents used this fabulous ruse to hurry us off to bed, or whether the presents came in right through the front door (since there was no chimney for Santa to come down)—but I just don’t remember.
All I remember is how I felt: the breath-taking wonder of the moment.
Santa was there! Santa had come to our house! Santa had come to me! Santa had come for me!
Despite all the details I don’t remember, I’ll never forget that feeling. The utter time-stopping, jaw-dropping, heart-bursting wonder of it all.
I think of that long-ago Christmas Eve whenever I go to Amherst’s oh-so-politically correct lighting of the Merry Maple and watch the faces of the children as the UMass Marching Band arrives playing Christmas carols and Santa is delivered not on a sleigh but on a big red fire engine. Never mind that the children don’t know most of the songs; still they are overcome with the joyous wonder of the moment. It’s cold and loud and the street is filled with happy people, and it’s Christmas. It is wonder-full.
I see the same look at our Christmas Eve pageant service, when small children, especially, arrive all but drunk on wonder. They come into the sanctuary as if drugged, looking dazed, beside themselves with excitement, waiting for it to happen.
Maybe that’s why we tend to think that Christmas is mostly for children—because, unlike us, they haven’t begun to lose their capacity for wide-eyed wonder. Because children haven’t yet learned that time is something there’s never enough of; for them, at least when it comes to Christmas, time is all about anticipation and building excitement. Because children, in their heartwarming, center-of-the-universe innocence, still think it’s all about them. That the great scandal that is Christmas is all for them.
And it is. It is for all of us.
It’s a shame, really, how we tend to lose at least some of our capacity for wonder as we grow older. How the constant press of responsibilities and the apparent shortage of time can all but blind us to the wonder that infuses our daily rounds, how the Holy is forever breaking into the relatively mundane realities of our lives and the persistent cruelty and suffering of our world.
We can even forget the wonder of the truly amazing story we call Christmas: how our lovesick Creator “pursues us with relentless affection” 1—to the point of coming all the way to us, to the point of becoming one of us.
But just because we don’t often see or feel the wonder, just because we forget to look and listen for it, doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.
And that’s what Advent is for: It’s about interrupting our normal routines with the awareness that there is something more than what we can see, something beyond the way things are or have always been. It’s about waking us up to the signs of God’s activity within us and all around us. It is about preparing ourselves, making room, for God to be born again in us, more fully than ever before. Advent is about acknowledging the fundamental spiritual longing that drives God and all God’s children and all of creation; it’s about bringing that longing out of the shadows and into the light. Advent is about turning toward the great hope that our deepest longings for love, connection, wholeness and peace will be fulfilled—not by Santa, not in an exhausting rush of activity or a big pile of presents, but in the immeasurable gift of God’s presence with us, God’s presence in us.
Advent is about waking up to the wondrous love story that has shaped our world from the beginning. It is about opening our hearts to a Love that would shape and re-shape us. It is about entering that mystery with hope—in spite of everything that is happening in the world, in spite of all that tempts us to shut down and close up, in spite of our own disappointments and struggles and pain.
Advent invites us to recognize our longings and to realize that they are holy—that is, they are from God and of God and for God’s healing, unifying, justice-seeking, peace-making, life-giving, death-defeating Love Made Flesh, Love made fully human that we might become fully divine.
We are shaped by our longings, says the writer and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor. To paraphrase another priest and poet 2, our longings are what get us out of bed in the morning, they determine how we spend our time, who we know, what breaks our heart, and “what amazes us with joy and gratitude.” We tend to think of our longings as individual and unique, but all humanity, all of creation, and the Great Mystery we call God are united by a common longing for love, union and wholeness.
“Any true love … wants to be more than it is, it cries out to make us more than it is,” says the poet Christian Wiman. “And what it is crying out for, finally, is its essence and origin: God. Love, which awakens our souls and to which we cling …” 3
And if Barbara Brown Taylor is right about us being shaped by our longings, it was perhaps inevitable that God would eventually take on human form. From the very beginning of our scriptures and our faith traditions, we see a God in love with her creation, a God who seemingly cannot do without us, no matter how far away we wander, no matter how big a mess we make of our lives and this precious world. Rejected, forgotten, and cursed, our God cries, “How can I give you up? I taught you to walk. I bent down to you and fed you. I lifted you up and held you in my arms. I healed you.”
But if all of history is a love story, it is a tortured one. When the going gets rough, God’s people cry out to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”, but when things are going well we’re happy to go our own way. Still, the longing never leaves.
You can see it even in creation: the unquenchable longing for life, the fundamental orientation toward restoration and re-creation.
If we are shaped by our longings, if even God is shaped by longing, then God’s longing for our wholeness and the world’s redemption continues to shape God. God’s love did not end on a starry night in Bethlehem or at an empty tomb in Jerusalem. It goes on. It continues even now. It is shaping this moment and every moment.
Advent invites us to enter into that mystery, to open ourselves to the promise, and to wake up to the wonder. Advent invites us to consider who and what we are waiting for, and how that is shaping our lives. 4
Ah, yes, we think. But there’s all the business of Christmas to tend to. Oh, yes, there is that.
I spent much of the past couple weeks planning and preparing for the season of Advent here at First Church, trying to develop our theme of “Awake to Wonder.” But when I went to buy Advent candles for my home wreath, two different employees at my go-to store, which was bursting with Christmas decorations, said, “When does that start? Oh! Is that happening already?” It turns out they had forgotten to order Advent candles. But being a good small, locally-owned business, they said they would get some.
And so it was that yesterday morning I was awakened by a phone call telling me my Advent candles had come in.
How’s that for being awake to wonder?
Listen! Do you hear the bells? Look! Do you see the light shimmering in the darkness? Wait for it. Open to it. Watch for the signs. Prepare your heart.
God With Us is coming. Love Made Flesh is coming.
Again and always.
1 This phrase comes from C.S. Lewis, who attributed its origin to George MacDonald. The full sentence is “It is about a God who pursues us with relentless affection because that is what the nature of God is.”
2 The Jesuit Pedro Arrupe.
3 Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss, p. 24.
4 Barbara Brown Taylor.