Distress and Determination
Text: Luke 21:28: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
In the wisdom of Holy Mother church we are given the gift of a time of getting ready before our great festivals. Advent comes before Christmas as Lent comes before Easter, and in both cases there’s more to it than simply delayed gratification. There is a purpose.
In Advent that purpose has a lot to do with helping us to have a little firmer grasp on the actual meaning of the festival ahead. To say it in the language of the Hallmark specials, Advent has the purpose of teaching us the true meaning of Christmas. But the way that Advent does this doesn’t look anything like a Hallmark special. So it’s worth giving a little consideration to the messages set before us this morning.
If you were doing your navigating by the stars of popular culture, you would quickly come to the conclusion that Thanksgiving is the first day of the Christmas season. You’d think that because after all the Christmas carols start playing in the stores on Thanksgiving, and what’s more most of stores are open, because of course the whole point of Christmas season is consumption.
You’d know that the Sundays in Advent are the moments when we all leave the comfort of our homes early in the day and come to where we gather together in order to participate in the great observance of the ritualized violence known as the National Football League. With each passing Sunday our anticipation grows a little greater, as we move toward the pinnacle of our season of anticipation-—which is, of course, not the Nativity of our Lord, but the Super Bowl.
As I say, those are the conclusions you’d draw from the culture around us. Our message, our themes, the meaning of this season as we understand it—all of that has been well and truly sidelined by the culture of consumerism within which we live. Once upon a time, perhaps a hundred years or so ago or more, we lived in a culture that was something we might recognize as a Christian culture, a culture with a cycle of life informed by the ideas and hopes taught by the church and its traditions. But for many years now, that culture—our culture—has been very much in the minority.
The true meaning of Christmas that Advent is supposed to teach us is that there isn’t a fundamental, unbridgeable, gap between God’s world and our world. We say that sort of easily, but the truth is that we derive a great deal of comfort from a deep, unquestioned belief that there is a separation between those two realms—that God up there, and us down here, and no danger of God getting too close to our lives.
Unless, of course, we are in trouble, or we’re living through a time of worry or reversal, and then we pray fervently that God will somehow break through that separation and change the reality around us.
The true meaning of Christmas that Advent is supposed to teach us is that God’s plan, God’s purpose, and God’s accomplishment is that the walls that separating God’s life from our lives has already been broken down completely.
These precious short weeks of Advent are meant to teach us that at Christmas God did not come to us simply once in a single moment a long, long time ago in a place far away.
In the incarnation God chooses to change the rules permanently, to collapse the chasm that separates heaven and earth and to make this life of ours, this world, the place where the divine drama will be played out. This realm becomes sanctified. This earth becomes filled with the possibility of the holy.
That is the message of this season of preparation that begins today. The gospel lesson we heard acknowledges that as Christian people we have to find and keep our faith in the midst of a world that makes faith hard sometimes. We live in distressing times, surely no less distressing than the times into which Joseph and Mary began their lives as a family.
Our natural tendency when the prevailing winds of the world seem to be blowing against us is to hunker down, or search for other solutions, or just plain give up. But the Advent call is clear: Stand up. Raise your head. Face into the wind. This is our moment. Something is expected of us, and not something small; something no less than greatness.
In Advent we are prepared for the incarnation of God into our world by learning how to meet distress with determination. We are prepared to be truly ready to hear the message the angels will proclaim on the midnight clear: Do not be afraid. We are prepared to be Christians, because Christians are people determined to be the agents by which God continues to be present in a world filled with trouble, no matter what. So let’s get ready. Amen.