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Hebrews 1:1-3a, from the Common English Bible
John 1:1-5, 14, 16
There is a certain prescribed order to Advent. Some of that has to do with history, of course, some of it has to do with spiritual discipline, some of it has to do with tradition, some of it is a concession to the both the popular culture of Christmas and the everlasting wonder of the Christmas story, and, last but not least, some of it is an expression of our natural human longing for love and union.
Here’s an oversimplified summary:
Sometime in the Middle Ages, when life was short and hard and dark, the four weeks of Advent became a time of preparation for the second coming of Christ. When everyone was dying of the plague, Christ’s return was pretty much the best thing Christians could imagine happening, and they devoted themselves to prayer, repentance, and fasting to get ready for it. Many of the traditional scripture readings for the season reflect this focus on Christ’s return —and have very little to do with a more recent focus of the season: the Nativity, or the first coming of Christ, as a poor child born in an occupied land to an oppressed people.
Much later the tradition of the Advent wreath was created as a symbol of the light Christ brings into the world, and along with it came candles representing various themes of the season, most commonly hope, peace, joy and love.
All of that is well and good, and I’d like to think that in previous years our Advent themes and services have honored Advent’s history and traditions. There is, after all, a lot of wisdom there, and regardless of which coming we’re preparing for or exactly how we’re doing it, there’s a lot to be said for preparing our hearts and minds, for making room in our lives and in our world for God’s love to come to us again. And we could always use a little encouragement to wake up to God’s presence among us right here and now.
And so we have waited and watched. We have tried to prepare the way. We have looked for the light in the darkness and we have hung our hopes on the Light of the World. We haven’t said a whole lot about the mystery and wonder of Jesus’ birth and life among us until pretty late in the season. And except for the Sunday on which we trim the tree, we’ve largely abided by the traditional prohibition against singing Christmas carols during Advent.
But life is short and sometimes hard and often dark, so when I began thinking about Advent this year, I wasn’t feeling so patient. I wasn’t feeling all theological and bound by tradition. I wasn’t living primarily in my head.
In these days of unrelenting cruelty, undisguised white racism, endless lies, ongoing gun violence, and a stream of news and news management that seems increasingly surreal, my feelings were more visceral and my general state of being was much more basic. I was feeling raw, tired, discouraged, and uncharacteristically worried about the state of the world. I was being exposed up-close to blatant injustice and real suffering on an almost daily basis, but my sustained resistance and bursts of action seemed to be making no difference.
I had collided head-on or—more accurately, perhaps—heart-on with what author, teacher, and activist bell hooks calls the “lovelessness of the world.” What I needed was not so much the restrained traditions of Advent or the schlocky superficiality of commercial Christmas, but the unpredictable, uncontainable, real-life love of God.
A Love so real that it took off all the glory and grandeur of God and put on all the grit and messiness of humanity. A Love so present that it broke into our world and moved into our sketchy neighborhood and was willing to hang out in all the wrong places with all the wrong people, just hoping for a glimpse of us, just dying to love us. A Love so new and relevant that it is forever showing up in unexpected people and forgotten places and doing amazing things.
What I need this Advent is not only the space to grieve the lovelessness of the world but also the Love of God made flesh in Jesus—Jesus the miracle baby, Jesus the rebel, Jesus the crucified, Jesus the Risen One, Christ in my neighbor and my enemy. What I need this Advent is the affirmation of my constant craving for the Love of God with us right here and now: Christ in the chaos of climate change, disinformation, division, and dehumanization. What I need this Advent is a focus on the Love of God that drives out fear, the Love of God that heals wounds, reconciles enemies, and transforms entire systems. I need the Love of God that is born of a woman and destined to turn the world around. I need the wonder of God’s Love With Us, the Light of God’s Love shining in the darkness, the hope of God’s Love showing up yet again, the peace of God’s Love in our hearts, and the joy that God’s Love brings.
Maybe it’s just me, but . . . I wondered if maybe you could use some Love, too. I thought we might all need God’s Love With Us.
This is not to detract at all from the traditional wisdom and wonder of Advent. It does, after all, take a fair amount of reflection and preparation, repentance and prayer, some watchfulness and rearrangement of things to make room for this kind of Love.
But maybe this year we can really focus our intentions this year. Perhaps we can get right to the heart of the matter. To help us toward that end, we will hear scripture readings that speak more directly to the wonder of Christ’s coming and to the needs of our hearts. And we will share with one another stories of God’s Love from our own lives and experiences.
Our need for God’s Love, and God’s desire to love us, is, after all, what brought Jesus to us.
As some of you know, on the Sunday after Christmas I often share a sermon-story by Barbara Brown Taylor called “God’s Daring Plan.” It is a beautiful, imaginary account of all the ways God tries to love us—from “humpback whales that sing and white-striped skunks that stink and birds with more colors on them than a box of Crayola crayons” to our dreams and one another and the ruby-throated hummingbird.
God is constantly saying, “‘I love you as much now as the day I made you,’ but all [we] can hear is a loon calling across the water.”
“Night after night God [throws] pebbles at [our] windows, inviting [us] to go for a walk, but [we] say [we’re] sorry [but we’re] busy.”
Finally, or so the story goes, God decides to become a human baby, because “babies [do] not go to war” and “everyone [seems] to love them.”
“How else could God gain the trust of her creatures? How else Could God persuade them that God knew their lives inside out, unless God lived a life like theirs? . . . God wanted her creatures to understand that God was willing to risk everything to get close to them, in hopes that they might love God again.”
Beloveds, God’s Love—the Love we need more than anything, the Love we were made for, the Love the world needs—is with us. It has come to us, it is here with us, and it is coming again and again and again, all the time.
As the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren writes in today’s New York Times, “to practice Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime.” Which is another way of saying that Advent invites us to acknowledge and live into our need for love, as well as our grief for all the world’s lovelessness.
So let us prepare the way for Love. Let us make room. Let us pay attention. Let us tell the stories. Let us dwell in delight, stand on tiptoe, live on watch, and make way for the Love that says,
“Don’t be afraid, beloved! I am with you.”