Jeremiah 33:14-16 Psalm 25: 1-9
I Thessalonians 3:9-13 Luke 21: 25-36
The usher was standing at the back of the church after passing the collection plate. A little old lady, sitting on the back row, gestured for the usher to come over to her. She whispered, “I have to make change.” The usher thinking that she was putting in a large bill and getting change, presented the plate to her. The woman promptly put in a ten-dollar bill and took out two fives. Change is hard for a lot of us.
The Christian calendar changes today, beginning a new year not on January 1, but on this the first Sunday of Advent – which is always four Sundays before Christmas. We are encouraged in this Advent time to stay awake, to awaken us out of our complacency of the long green season. This time of year, it gets dark so much earlier. Advent for the church is a season of shadows and the “works of darkness.” It is a time for us to look down deeply into our hearts and find the presence of God or the absence of God. In Advent, we live into the answers.
The Church is not a part of the consumer culture, but keeps her own inner rhythms. We won’t hear Christmas carols until Christmas Eve. But you can catch a spirit of Christmas on the multiple shows on the Hallmark channel. We are in a waiting and pondering mode, not concerned about how many shopping days till Christmas. We are concerned about being ready! We are to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” That light is found in the love and life of Jesus Christ. We are to remember the coming of our Lord includes much more than the Christmas story. Advent is God’s doing. It is so significant that the entire cosmos reverberates with the signs and circumstances of these events. That God comes to us is certain, however uncertain is the when and how. It is that certainty, not the uncertainties, that move us to repentance in our waiting.
On this the first Sunday of Advent, we find Christmas decorations and carols everywhere. We are looking forward to the Christmas Parade coming soon. Parents and grandparents have been buying for months to find those prefect gifts, especially with the supply chain slowdowns. And now, we come to church to experience Advent worship. If we expect more of what our culture provides, we are in for a rude awakening. In worship, we won’t find Santa, or a smiling young Mary, or a cooing baby, or seeking shepherds, or singing angels. Not yet. We may be disappointed and surprised by the Gospel text.
Jesus’ speech in the Temple in Jerusalem is full of frightening images, confusing metaphors and shocking admonitions. We don’t encounter the sweet baby Jesus people wait for Advent. This first Sunday, we see an adult stern Jesus picturing the whole world being shaken and turned upside down. We all may think, why can’t the church just get on with Christmas like everybody else.
Luke’s Gospel message brings very different reactions. Frightening, bold, and beautiful glimpses of God – this is what Jesus offers on this first Sunday of Advent. As troubling as the text may be for us, in it are treasures that help focus us on the true meaning and purpose of Advent. In it, Jesus challenges us, as he did the early hearers of the Word, to look up, pay attention, and be ready. Advent means “coming” or “arrival,” and this text from Luke reminds us that Advent involves preparing for three comings: God coming to earth in the infant Jesus whom we await at Christmas, Christ returning to earth at a time we don’t know and Jesus coming into our hearts anew, each Advent. Jesus wants us to be ready. And we prepare by keeping alert, constantly preparing ourselves, our hearts, and continuing to hope in our loving God, who comes to us in Jesus Christ.
The season of Advent demands a very different kind of preparation. A very different tone is set. The Gospel tells of coming persecutions and natural disasters is gloomy, but ultimately worry and fear will be replaced with great joy. When believers see these things happening, they will know that the Messiah’s return is coming. Then we can look forward to his reign of justice and peace. So, standing on our faith, our trust in God’s plan, we can find hope in the place of fear.
So, what is it that we must do to prepare? We can begin by focusing on the sacredness of waiting for the Christ Child. Advent is an invitation for us to pause and ponder the gift of Jesus in our lives. The wreath as a whole is meant to remind us of both the immortality of our souls and God’s promise of everlasting life to us through Jesus Christ. The candles are significant – the four candles represent the four Sundays of Advent generally thought to symbolize hope, love, joy and peace. Those ideals are hard to grasp as we elbow someone to get to that newest want on someone’s Christmas list. The greenery around the wreath symbolizes eternal life and the crown of thorns that Jesus wore.
Advent is a time to quiet our busy minds and to prayerfully and deliberately prepare for the coming of the Christ Child. Kind of like psalm 46:10 reminds us – be still and know that Jesus doesn’t shop. Don’t get too busy that you forget the daily readings in the Henri Nouwen’s booklet, “And the Word was God.” There you will find scripture to ponder on. Nouwen’s words will inspire us to live an authentic Advent.
Nora Gallagher informs us that “In Advent the holy breaks into the daily.” We can experience the holy in all aspects of our preparations. Know that the warmth of God’s love can be found in the fireplaces in our homes and the goodness in our hearts. We see the reminders of that love in the altar coverings of Marian Blue – the Virgin Mary’s willingness to say yes to God.
We tend to lead very busy lives, and sometimes we lose our focus. I believe we need to lay down some things, some stuff, some unforgiveness, some distractions to make more room for God. That is what these stones represent for us. It may be different for each of us and different each time we deal with the stones. For some, it may be “what-ifs” of a recent experience – what if I had done more, been there more, said more, loved more….what-if. For some it may be unforgiveness toward someone or toward ourselves. Unforgiveness blocks our hearts and doesn’t allow room for the Christ child. Some of us may be angry or disappointed with someone or with God. God is surely big enough to take it, and sometimes we are small enough to hang on to it. God wants only what is best for us. God knows more about our needs that we do.
So, think about what this stone represents for you this very moment, as you begin to make more room in your heart for the Christ Child. Ponder on it during the silence following the sermon. When you come up to the altar for communion, bring it with you and lay your burdens down. Or if you remain in your seats, the ushers will collect them. We will spread the stones on the table with the nativity. The nativity has lots of open space to add characters and animals as the weeks progress. It also reminds us to make room for Jesus. To get rid of some of those things that are burdening our hearts and minds, so there is more room for Jesus. Jesus comes into our hearts anew with each Christmas we experience. Laying down the stone lets us rise with a free and open heart for Jesus to enter. To rise with hope for all that God can and will do in our lives.
Advent’s purpose is to proclaim the coming of the Lord. The temptation is there to allow Advent to melt too easily into the birth stories. However, this first Sunday of the season calls upon biblical texts that are not at all associated with the nativity. We are to keep watch and to prepare a place for the Christ child in our hearts and in our lives. What does your stone represent? What is it that you must give up, put down, become aware of?
As Advent begins, my prayer is that this becomes a time to walk with God and for God to walk with us. As Advent begins, here we are in this holy place, all of our paths and life experiences converging and we are learning how to breathe in time with the breath of God. Oh, the possibilities…..wait, watch, stay awake; the Lord is coming. Amen.