Sermon for the first Sunday in Advent
As a kid, I absolutely and utterly adored Christmas. Sure, the gifts were certainly a big part of that, but it wasn’t just that. I loved how the whole house looked and felt and even smelled, with the real tree, the lights, the little manger scene the baking—you should taste my mum’s shortbread and crescent moon cookies. I loved driving to church on Christmas Eve, seeing all of the stores closed with their lights out, which somehow signaled to me almost more than anything else that this was a very different and very special night. And the feel of the church at night, with candles and carols and the nativity story from the Gospel according to Luke, read in the elegant King James Version: “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Then it was home to hang up our Christmas stockings, leave out cookies and milk for Santa, take one last longing look at the presents under the tree, and then try desperately to go to sleep… only to wake at about 6am, this glow of excitement bubbling in my stomach, and having to wait until 7:30 when we were allowed to wake up my mum and dad and finally go downstairs. That was the longest hour and a half of the entire year.
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And there was the big family dinner at the home of my grandparents, complete with the most enormous turkey you can imagine, my grandfather wearing the silly paper crown from his Christmas cracker. At the end of the evening, my grandmother would give each of the children one final little gift to open in the car on the way home… for a kid, there was not day that could rival Christmas.
C.S. Lewis is on to something in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when he describes life in Narnia under the rule of the white witch as being “always winter, and never Christmas.” Evil as banal; relentlessly cold and grey, without a glimmer of light or hope. And the first sign that the power of the witch is fading? The arrival of Father Christmas.
And yet in our day Christmas—the great Feast of the Incarnation—can get obscured behind all manner of unrealistic expectations, and so we run from social event to social event, wait in endless lines in the stores, spend more money than we should, eat and drink more than we should, and fret more than we should about whether or not we’ve managed to meet all of the obligations of the season.
Which is why the season of Advent is so very, very important. When as a university student I first made my way into the Anglican tradition—in this very parish church, in fact—I was delighted to discover Advent. On that first Sunday in Advent, we sang “O come, O come Emmanuel,” and there was the wreath with its four candles, signaling the gradual move from darkness into light, and I thought to myself, “ah, a kind of count-down to Christmas… I’m going to love this.” But then when we got to the readings, the Gospel wasn’t about getting ready for Christmas—you know, you might expect the story of the angel’s visit to Mary as a good one for the beginning of the season—but rather a teaching from late in the ministry of Jesus, dealing with what sounded like the end of the world. The darkened sun, the falling stars, the coming of the Son of Man, all culminating in Jesus’ challenge, “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
It was only as I spent more time in this tradition that I began to understand that Advent is only secondarily about getting ready for Christmas, and primarily about adopting a posture of readiness, openness and wakefulness in anticipation of Christ’s return. As N.T. Wright summarizes it, “[Advent] speaks of the time when the thin but opaque curtain that hangs in the midst of reality, the bright veil between heaven and earth, will be ripped aside… setting the cosmos burning and bubbling, calling forth the deepest shame (‘we are all unclean’) and the most intimate hope (‘yet, Lord, you are our Father’).” Advent is the season that proclaims that God is not yet finished with us and with our world, and while that might seem at some level a frightening thought, in the end we must hear the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (Isaiah 64:8)
So yes, we lit the first candle on the wreath tonight, and we sang three verses of “O come, O come Emmanuel,” with four more to come at the end of the liturgy. But the wreath is really not a count-down to Christmas so much as it is a symbol of our hope that in the fullness of time the Light of Christ will indeed break in and cast aside all that kills and distorts and destroys. And the text of the great Advent carol isn’t pointing to Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, but is a instead a prayer that Emmanuel—literally ‘God with us’—will come again and transform us his through his mercy-soaked judgment.
From that starting point, as the season progresses we basically back our way into Christmas. If the season begins with a gospel reading set late in the life of Jesus, for the next two weeks we will read of the very beginnings of his adult ministry, and encounter the wild character of John the Baptist. Finally on the fourth Sunday of Advent we will read the story of the angel Gabriel coming to young Mary; finally on that fourth Sunday we’ll begin to feel as if the nativity story is in sight.
But because we’ve made this move slowly, and because it is set against the backdrop of the promise that all of time and all of history will be brought to their completion in Christ, the nativity story itself will read differently. It is not a cozy and picturesque stable scene, but instead a powerful story of the risk God takes in being birthed a helpless and vulnerable infant. It is a story tangled up in the politics of empire, in which is revealed in a poignant way how it is that “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor 1:25)
But that is to get us ahead of ourselves. Before we can tell that story in all of its nuanced power and glory, we must first walk through Advent; the season that speaks to the light in the darkness. And as N.T. Wright observes, “Hope in the night, not glitzy commercialism, is what we want and need.”