A Season of Advent
December 4, 2011
While preparing for today, it occurred to me that the Advent season is a sliver of time during which we symbolically re-create what countless generations of Hebrews did many centuries ago – they waited for the Messiah to come. During Advent we prepare ourselves for Christ’s birth – for his first coming. Of course there are differences between our experience and that of the Hebrews – for one, we move methodically through the 4 Sundays of Advent, knowing exactly when Christmas will come and when the waiting will end. Believing in Christ’s first coming is fundamental to the Christian Church – we begin our Church year every year preparing to receive baby Jesus – it’s an annual ritual we reenact. As we move through the year, towards Easter, we are exhorted to live out in the here and now the promise gift of reconciliation through Christ that is ours.
Accepting God’s invitation to reconciliation gives way to a season of Advent inside our own hearts – as we work out radical transformation that the indwelling of Christ promises to bring. But what is harder for us, and probably better resembles the experience of those countless generations of Hebrews, is the way that we wait, some with more and some with less fervor, for Christ’s second coming (which will occur sometime in the future).
The Scripture readings during Advent include Old Testament passages related to the promise of Messiah (his first coming), and Gospel passages about John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation and healing on earth and finally Epistle passages concerning Jesus' second coming as judge of all people.
So what exactly is Advent again? It’s a season during which we consciously prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ. There are two actors who meet in relationship in Advent – we who prepare ourselves, and Christ, who comes. Traditionally, the Advent season begins with a period of penitence and fasting (1st Sunday) that is grows into the hope of transformation and healing (2nd Sunday), blossoms as the joy of reconciliation (3rd Sunday), to bear the fruit of a loving relationship of God with us (4th Sunday).
Historically, the four weeks when we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth are inextricably linked to the knowledge of why Christ came as to live among us – to put some “skin on God” borrowing words of Ray McGovern from last week. The use of purple during Advent helps to create a visual connection between Advent and Lent, between Jesus’ birth and his death. So, as we rejoice in Christ’s birth we are also mindful that Jesus’ life led to his crucifixion – culminating in his resurrection which gives the promise of new life for all of us.
This week we light the candle of Hope, reconfirming our conviction that God will fulfill what God has promised, that God has not abandoned us to the darkness of this world -- we only need to receive God in our lives. (Remember, there are two actors in the relationship God who promises and we who receive those promises). This week’s reading from Isaiah, a beautiful prophecy about God liberating the Jews from captivity in Babylon, reveals the compassionate, loving nature of God who promised to deliver his people through a Messiah:
1 Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the LORD[a];
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.[b]
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
The very birth of Christ gives us hope – it confirms to us God’s desire for reconciliation. It shows how God longs to touch the chaos and failures of our lives and create a vibrant wholeness. God promises to makes the rough places smooth and the crooked places straight (v. 4), not just the larger world, but also in us. Our part in the relationship is to prepare ourselves for the transformative power of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We can only set out on this path of reconciliation, of hope, of joy and love by choosing to make room for the Lord in our hearts. It is the valleys of sin in our own hearts that are to be filled with God’s mercy and healing, and the mountains and hills of pride in our own hearts that are to become low. In short, the fulfillment of this promise for restoration is completely dependent upon our reaching out and claiming this promise of wholeness and healing. God is searching for us and wants to hold us close, if we would only let ourselves be found.
And let’s be clear -- Christmas – Christ’s coming -- has no meaning if we do not make room for the Lord in our hearts and lives. On the other hand, if we do just this, we can count on God’s work of loving transformation wash over us and flow out of us as a life giving force that can transform the entire world. This is what Mark has to say about preparing to receive Jesus the Christ:
who will prepare your way”
3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
John was sent by God to call forth those who would embrace the new life revealed in Jesus. The promise is the same today for us: if we agree to commit ourselves to God, God promises to create new life in us. But it’s always up to us to decide to invite God in – to allow God's Word to work in us, to abandon ourselves to God and rest upon God’s promises. Faith requires the courage to embrace God and respond to God’s call without knowing how it will end – at least in the short run, perhaps even in our lifetimes – while having the certainty that all will be well in the long run. Christ has died, Christ is risen and, when the time is fully come, Christ will come again. And how do we stand on this promise with conviction?
2 Peter 3:8-15
8 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.[a]
11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.[b] That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.
14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. 15 Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him.
To give ourselves to God is to commit to a relationship of love with God. It is to put no barriers up between us and God, to allow God’s love to permeate our beings, our thoughts, our speech, our actions, our intentions.
Given the sad state of affairs of the world today, it takes a large measure of faith and hope to believe that God has no limits to the good things He wants to give us. It takes just as large a measure of honesty and discernment to admit that it is we who put limits on the relationship that we have with God. God is searching for us and we are the ones who have wandered off. Let’s use this Advent season as a time to renew our commitment to God, to claim God’s promises for wholeness, to make room in our hearts for the Holy Spirit and to ready ourselves for the transformation that such an intimate relationship with God will surely bring, both in us and through us. I’ll close with the prayer we heard from Ray last week:
Come, Holy Spirit
Fill the hearts of your faithful
And inkindle in them
the fire of your divine love.
Send forth your Spirit
and we shall be created;
and you shall renew
the face of the earth.
O God, you instruct the hearts of the faithful
by the power of your Holy Spirit;
Grant us, in that same Spirit
to be truly wise
and ever to rejoice