To Wait and to Hope
Passage: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Date: December 11, 2005
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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I don't know about you, but as a person of Christian faith, I feel a little schizophrenic this time of year, these Advent weeks. On the one hand, some of us have been to Christmas parties, to receptions, and participated in gift exchanges. Here and there, we have sung the "Joy To the Worlds" and the "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fires." Many of us have decorated our apartments accompanied by favorite Christmas music. How else can I festoon a tree-in silence? 103 fm is playing only Christmas tunes, all sorts of them, all of the time-or at least tunes connected somehow with the season, like "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth." Our creches include the baby Jesus, two weeks premature. Peets and Starbucks have their holiday blend coffees and teas. Our choir already presented its Christmas oratorio. And look around. Our halls have been decked, including beautiful new stars in the arches. It is like the celebration of Jesus' birthday has already commenced. The month-long tailgate party is underway, leading up to the great feast and giving and receiving of much stuff. Frankly, I rather enjoy it. It is fun to see who has put up lights since last night or the night before. As the days continue to get shorter and darker, I welcome increasing light, all kinds of it.
On the other hand, as a person of Christian faith, I also hear the church telling me to wait, to hold the celebration, that it is not time yet, that we are not ready yet. I read and am aware that Advent is also about preparing our hearts to receive from God whatever God wants to give us. Imagine that. In the midst of ever lengthening lists, we are to make spaces for spiritual introspection, time for prayer and connecting with God, for seeking God's light in this very dark season, and in our often darkened lives It is Advent, for heaven's sake, not Christmas. That is next, twelve days of reveling in the "good news of great joy which shall come to all people." In these weeks, though, we are to sing more of "Watchman, Tell Us of the Night" than "The First Noel."
From early on, the community of Christ believed that to get to Bethlehem, we need to go through the wilderness, and I am not speaking of Washington Square or Lloyd Center, even though author Ann Weems observes that some people wander through stores looking for Christmas. Our ancestors in faith experienced the dangers of moving too quickly to the joy of the incarnation. They realized in their own lives that to be able to kneel at Bethlehem, we need to pass John the Baptist. To assist themselves, they designed a purple season, calling Christ's people not to busyness, but to leisure in God.
What a cruel joke for the church to pull, in these days jammed with school concerts, visits to Santa, finals and papers to write, cards to send, baking to do, gifts to buy, people to visit, projects to complete, Angel Tree stuff to get, the house to decorate, engagements to get to, meals to plan, movies to see, stockings to stuff, places to go, traditions to repeat, candy to make, invitations to send, lighted boats to watch, hostess gifts to secure, presents to wrap, lists to make, and all the rest.
It is a wonderful crazy season for us, people of faith in the One born to us and to the world. The danger is that we refuse to be caught in the schizophrenia. Instead, we succumb, we give in to the huge forces around us and within us that want to forget the purple. We inadvertantly skip advent and opt for Christmas too soon. In W.H. Auden's "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio," Herod the King symbolizes this giving in. He is the practical, reasonable person trying to cope. Listen as he talks to God:
O God, put away justice and truth for we cannot understand them and do not want them. Eternity would bore us dreadfully. Leave the heavens and come down...Become our uncle. Look after Baby, amuse grandfather, escort Madam to the Opera, help Willy with his homework, and introduce Muriel to a handsome naval officer. Be interesting and weak like us, and we will love you as we love ourselves. (Journal for Preachers, Advent, 2005, p. 11)
We would not say it like that, but I heard someone speak about the meaning of the season last week. He noted that the deep meaning of Christmas is love. Eagerly, he looks forward to dancing with his love, to partying, to enjoying as if there were no tomorrow. "Carpe diem," he said. Seize the day. Christmas is about love, especially with those closest to him. If these weeks are only about love and sharing, especially with those we hold dearest, as wonderful as that is-with 350 gifts to the Angel Tree and thousands spent on Palestinian Crafts and Habitat Home parts and year end checks to charities-as wonderful as that is, and I encourage it in myself and in you-as wonderful as that is, if that is the meaning of Christmas, then we have not heard John or Isaiah. The schizophrenia has disappeared. We have domesticated the awesome, the holy, and are now merely going through religious motions to make ourselves feel better. We have overcome God's ultimate revolution among us. We have made God into a comfortable image of ourselves. If this be all there is, then why wait? If this be all there is, then hope is nonexistent. Later in Auden's play King Herod says:
I asked for a God who should be as like me as possible. What use to me is a God whose divinity consists in doing different things that I cannot do or saying clever things that I cannot understand? The God I want and intend to get must be someone I can recognize immediately without having to wait and see what he says or does. There must be nothing in the least extraordinary about him. Produce him at once, please. I'm sick of waiting. (Same)
John the prophet in today's reading stops us, and tells us to wait. This man knew his religious tradition. He knew Israel's history, their felt needs to be like their neighbors, even their longings for particular kinds of messiahs. So, in the fourth gospel, he points to mystery, "Among you stands one you do not know." He points to the holy, "I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." The lowest slaves might have done that for their masters. "One you do not know," "One not like you, not in your image or imagining," "One not domesticated for your comfort."
Isaiah tells us of this unknown one and his calling: He is
to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor...
to comfort all who mourn.
This Lord loves justice, hates robbery and wrongdoing.
How distant this is from Herod's desire in Auden's play. How unlike what the clergy from Jerusalem were looking for. What a contrast to "Christmas is about love." What a different world from tax cuts for the wealthy while thousands of low-income people in Oregon will loose food stamps and child care, if current legislation passes. The week after Thanksgiving, we celebrated the ton of food that was given by this congregation for people in food crisis in our community. It was a marvelous new record. Yet when I learned that the NE Emergency Food Bank might not be open every day that week, because its shelves were again bare, my joy turned to tears. I ached inside. How is it that in the wealthiest nation on earth, children, working parents, elderly citizens are prisoners to hunger? How long do we wait to learn how wrong it is for governments to ignore the poor? How long do we wait before we recognize our need for the One who is to come?
These purple waiting days, John and Isaiah remind us that our hope is grounded in the mystery of this unknown One, the One who has come and who dwells among us. The true light of these days is not found in our own forced optimism or in our leader's hollow truths, or even in those bright lights I enjoy. It is not discovered in our own efforts, however good and generous they may be. No, our active hope comes as a gift. It rests in the One who names us as his own, who invites into his company, and who greatly honors us with his love. These weeks, we celebrate, yes, and, we wait and hope, looking for the One living among us, praying that we might know him. We wait, that our hearts might prepare him room, and that we might receive him whenever he comes, however he comes. We wait with expectant hope. What a great season, Advent. Amen.