Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
John 1:6-8, 23, 27
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. We have been burned before, we think, and we’d really rather not go through that again. Because when someone or something does let us down, we feel anger and shame; instead of sitting with our disappointment or mourning what didn’t come to pass, we chide ourselves for living into the possibility that things could be different.
And all that was true in the Before Times—before the coronavirus pandemic, before lockdown and isolation, distancing and masks, before lives lived in front of computer screens, before so much suffering and death, before so little change after weeks and months of daily Black Lives Matter protests, before 17 states and more than 100 members of Congress joined the president in asking the Supreme Court to overturn a free and fair election.
And now here we are, beginning month 10 of a surreal and scary existence none of us could have imagined. Here we are, a messy jumble of emotions: gratitude that we’re still here; amazement and, yes, a little pride at how adaptable we can be; anger that things are getting worse and a little fear about what that could mean; resigned to “better than nothing” virtual experiences of everything from work to worship, meetings and meet-ups, choir practice and coffee hour.
What we all need, I think, is a big dose of Advent.
You see, Advent runs counter to our carefully nurtured, mature psychologies. It invites us to let down our defenses, to consider our deepest longings and to 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 in a year like no other, 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 and injustice, cynicism and division, disease and death, will overcome it.
It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?
And it’s wonderful, isn’t it—that Advent challenges us to hope, that it speaks tenderly to our weary and battered hearts, summons us to rejoice, and invites us to love and be loved. How Advent reminds us that God is forever doing a new and amazing thing, so we’d best pay attention and prepare the way.
Making straight the way of the Lord is sometimes as simple—and as difficult—as just showing up. Preparing the way for joy is sometimes as rewarding—and scary—as taking a risk: a risk that our hopes will be disappointed, a risk that all our efforts will be for naught, a risk that we’ll look foolish, a risk that we’ll end up feeling worse instead of better.
Advent reminds us, if we let it, that we just never know what new manifestation of love is around the corner. The love of God made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth reminds us, if we let it, that God will not give up on her dream of healing and wholeness for humanity and all of creation.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon the prophet and on Jesus. The Spirit of the Lord is upon you and me and all God’s people to bring good news of justice to the oppressed, healing to the brokenhearted, freedom to those held hostage by racism and injustice, liberation to those imprisoned by poverty, comfort to the mourning, restoration of the ravaged earth and ruined cities. Advent reminds us that our mission is also our blessing, that when we open our hearts to God’s transformation and God’s calling, we will discover joy.
The arc of faith does not end in 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’re afraid of losing to make room for something better, too angry about the way things are to let something new and holy be born in us, too resigned to all that we cannot do in these times to experience the joy of all that we still can do.
I’ll be honest with you: There were more than a few times over the past nine months when I felt discouraged by all the things we couldn’t do, all the songs we couldn’t sing, all the people we couldn’t see and places we couldn’t go.
But here is what I have been learning: that when weare less able to rely on our tried-and-true ways of doing things, we discover new ways of being and doing, and new people step up and new relationships are formed. That when we can do less, God can do more. That we are not the light; we are here to testify to and make way for the light.
And so it was that two weeks after our last Sunday in the sanctuary, we were live-streaming worship from the Chapel on YouTube, thanks to the expertise, generosity, and unflappability of Holly Howery, as well as your love, adaptability, and faithfulness.
And so it was that within three months of being shut out of our building and unable to gather together, the Spirit moved within us and among us, and we gave away $37,000 to support our struggling neighbors.
And so it was that after our sexton quit and our director of youth and family programs retired, the Property Team and the Youth and Family Team stepped up—big-time—such that our mostly empty building continues to be cared for and our children, youth, and families continue to be loved, nurtured, and supported.
God has done great things for us!
And still, Advent and Christmas felt like a big lift. Would “better than nothing” be good enough to make way for the light to break into our darkness? Given all our beloved Advent traditions and our high expectations, would anyone even show up for carol-singing from home or a Family Advent Party on Zoom?
We didn’t know.
All we could do was hope and trust, reach out in love, and prepare the way. All we could do was show up in faith and hope and love.
And so it was that two Friday evenings ago, on the day when our tradition says that youth and families will come into the warm church all bundled up after enjoying the lighting of the Merry Maple on the Common, and that then we will enjoy pizza and salad and cookies for supper before we green the sanctuary for Advent, a respectable number of us logged onto Zoom, having eaten our own suppers in our own homes.
And so it was that in that distant and computerized gathering, the good news was brought, community was created, and joy was shared. We saw people on the computer screen we hadn’t seen in months. We saw children who’ve grown a lot. And, save one little one who slept through the whole thing, the children weren’t holding back, their defenses weren’t up; they were all in.
I mean, when is the last time you have been so thrilled with simple arithmetic that you couldn’t contain your joy? I mean, is there anything more exciting than discovering that two plus two equals four?
Apparently not for little Jude Ortiz. For some time during our discussion of the meaning of Advent, Jude could be seen working intently over a piece of paper. I thought he might be coloring—but, no, he was doing math. He was so overjoyed that he held up his paper to the computer screen so we all could see.
Do you know that two and two makes four? Mind blown! And, as if that wasn’t the bee’s knees, did you know that three and one also makes four?
Jude was literally jumping up and down with joy.
And I’ve gotta tell you: Delight is contagious. It had been a while since I had felt so much pure joy.
Beloveds, God took on human flesh that all creation might know such joy. Jesus comes to us again, for just such a time as this, so that we who are sowing in sadness and tears will reap new life with peals of laughter and shouts of joy.
You see, Advent joy is not about making the best of a bad situation. Advent joy is not about grinning and bearing it, pretending that we’re not sad when we are. Advent joy is not something we can make happen.
Advent joy is a what happens because of what God has done and what God is doing—even now, here in the deepening darkness, now in these “better than nothing” times—and because of what God will yet doin us, through us, and for us, and for all people and all creation.
Beloveds, God has done great things for us. Let us trust that God is, even now, doing great things that we cannot even imagine, restoring us and our world to something even better than before.
Let us rejoice.