While the calendar still reads November, the candles in front of the sanctuary and the familiar strains of O Come, O Come Emmanuel have announced we are entering that mystical season of Advent. Once a year, as the days grow shorter and our psyches darken, sometimes even the church fails at the task of helping the folks understand the significance of the Christ event.
Part of the problem is the church has lost its exclusive rights to Christmas. One cannot turn around without being overwhelmed by the holidays. My favorite station on my satellite radio has already been replaced with the sounds of the season. Wednesday, I was listening to Miles Davis play selections from the album Kind of Blue when suddenly, without warning, I was subjected to Alvin and the Chipmunks singing Blue Christmas.
Yesterday, Deb took me Christmas shopping at Short Pump. I now fully understand that phrase from the Apostle’s Creed, “He descended into hell.” It was awful. People were flying from one store to another trying to get a bargain on some trinket they could have bought on-line. Children were screaming as parents dragged them to sit on the laps of old men who looked pretty suspect to me. Music blared through the speakers in a vain attempt to drown out customers fighting over the last Snow Glow Talking Elsa Doll……..OK the music was drowning me out but it was the last doll on the shelf and it was for my only granddaughter. That woman should have acted her age.
Of course, it is not totally fair to make commercialism the scapegoat. Maybe deep down we really don’t want to confess why the birth of Jesus was necessary. Listen to the ancient song that opened our service:
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appears.
The words, originally in Latin, come from a series of poems spoken during Advent in the twelfth century. Each verse is a plea for freedom from tyranny, captivity, sin, and everything ungodly. The music was added six centuries later when Thomas Helmore, a 19th century choirmaster, discovered a French tune used at funerals called “Libera me”. How perfect to link a tune desiring liberation from death with a poem mourning one’s exile.
Singing about exile seems almost inappropriate during this season of parties, lights, decorations, gifts, and finally the big Christmas dinner. But how often, at the end of the season, do you find yourself completely exhausted, wishing for peace and quiet. How often, the night after Christmas, have you wondered if maybe we lost Christ along the way?
Christmas as we know it has expanded beyond the faithful. It is a day almost everyone celebrates, regardless of their religious affiliations. Don’t mistake me for Scrooge. I am still a kid at heart on Christmas morning. I anxiously anticipate what might be wrapped in that gift brandishing my name. I love turkey, cranberry sauce, and I have never turned down a piece of homemade sweet potato pie. I will even let you in on a little secret. Once the Christmas Eve services are finished, I really don’t want to think about anything related to Jesus until the following year. Christmas Day is my Sabbath from God. I love the festivities, the company, the football games, even the mess in the middle of the room. Just don’t ask me to talk about why Jesus had to come. That is too painful a subject for such a glorious day.
That is why Advent is so important. Advent is when we raise those unspeakable questions. Advent is when we expose our most secret yearnings. Advent is when we cry “Come Lord Jesus,” even though we doubt he will. Christmas Day comes and goes, comes and goes, and comes and goes. The presents change with the ages of the children. The food is always wonderful and the stories delightful. The reason for the day hardly matters as we celebrate our families and cherish how much we have been blessed. We need this one day as a respite, a break, from the tragedies of our world.
The writer of third Isaiah offers a minority opinion. He prays, “O God, come down to us so that even the mountains might quake at your presence. Make your name known to my enemies so that the nations might tremble.”
How many of us have prayed this prayer? We call out for God to rage against our adversaries and bring justice upon those who have blasphemed God’s holy name. We want vindication. We want God to step back into our world and make things holy. We understand Isaiah because we all have our holy causes. All we desire is a holy response. What is not to like about the words of Isaiah?
I warn you, Old Testament prophets will tease your appetites and then pluck the candy from your lips before you can take the first bite. Isaiah answers his request even before the Almighty can speak. “God, have you been silent because we have been negligent? Have you been absent because we have forgotten your ways? Have you become angry because we have sinned and become unclean? If we call on your wrath, would your punishment begin with us? Do not be angry. Do not remember our sin forever.”
Few of us want to hear a sermon about the anger of God, especially when there are only 25 shopping days left until Christmas. None of us want to hear a sermon suggesting our disregard for Holy expectations has left God deaf to our prayers demanding holy retribution.
This prayer of Isaiah has always fascinated me. Its inspiration comes from a people complaining it had been too long a time since God made a house call. The cynical prophet mocks an unfaithful people, when in their voice, he prays, “My flaws may be many, but can they compare with the sins of my enemy? Come down from heaven and do something…..NOW!”
Ever pray that prayer? I suspect we unconsciously pray it far too often. I also suspect until we admit our own sins, we will never fully appreciate the necessity for God’s anger.
The hardest job I ever had in my life was being a parent. Deb and I were blessed with two really good kids. I also like to think they were blessed with two pretty good parents. That does not mean we did not encounter active resistance on behalf of our two children. We were not their “best friends forever,” we were their parents. More than once we were told we were the worst parents in the entire universe. We made choices for our children, which they would have never made. We engaged them in activities other parents found questionable. We had high expectations, which were not always met. When our children failed, they knew offering excuses or blaming others was not acceptable. As they got older, they didn’t fail nearly as often.
I can still remember getting angry with my children. I can remember moments when their actions were less than appropriate, and I was terribly disappointed in the choices they made. I could have stepped in and smoothed things out but I didn’t. What would they have learned? More importantly, what responsibility would they have taken for their inappropriate behavior? I would seethe, but when I cooled down, Deb and I would try to initiate the proper discipline to motivate different behavior. We loved and continue to love our children more than life itself. But sometimes it was our anger, not our love, which helped Martina and David become who they are today.
Imagine how often God must seethe at our behavior? Imagine how angry God must be over skies swollen in smog, water unfit to drink, children dying before the age of two, and others living as slaves. Do you think God is unaware of the tragedies of the Middle East or riots in Ferguson, Missouri? Where is God? Why doesn’t God step forward?
Could it be that God the parent is wondering why we are so inactive? Could it be that God the parent wonders why we cannot comprehend the choices we make? Could it be that God the parent has become really tired of our excuses and our inability to share in the responsibility for our personal and global problems? Could God’s greatest pain and anger come from good folks doing nothing in the face of these injustices? Could it be that God the parent would like to hear our confessions?
The world has turned Christmas Day into a global timeout. For one day we call a truce on having to think about any of the ungodliness that soils our lives. That’s why some folks want everyday to be Christmas. No more thinking, no more responsibility, because one day God will come and clean up the whole mess.
Advent highlights both the love and anger of a righteous God, who has great and holy expectations.
Advent proclaims that God has saved us once, and God will save us again.
Advent reminds us that until Emmanuel comes again,
GOD IS WAITING ON US!