Julie Strope (the Associate Minister) greeted me on Monday with, “We begin a new season (of the church year) on Sunday.” Well, it’s hard to wring new out of a cycle. Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Advent, and so on, as year succeeds to year. We can call it new if we want to, but nothing changes. Take a look around. It looks like we have stepped back in time. Things are almost exactly what they were last year on the First Sunday in Advent. Things are this way every year at this time. We ring in the new with the same old same old. What are we thinking? Who are we kidding?
We take Advent, and really, the whole Christmas experience, and freeze it in place, mold it in concrete, chisel it in stone, keeping it carefully the same forever. What is that all about? Nostalgia? We don’t want anything to change from the way we remember it when we were young? Sentimentality? We like to be reminded of a gentler, simpler time? A time when a Coke was a Coke? A time when we were wrapped in the warmth of love and happiness, and hope for the future? What do we think hope is about?
It’s an interesting thing about hope. Hope hopes for what is not, perhaps, for what has never been. Advent and Christmas are sometimes described as the season of hope, yet, we don’t want anything to change. We want things to be different without anything changing. Advent—anticipation, hope—forces us to confront the need for things to change and the desire for things to stay the same. Something has to go. The desire for things to stay the same seems to have the advantage.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has an office on the denomination level for New Church Development. The churches which the office develops aren’t new. Only the buildings are new. Only the area of town is different. The churches that are developed are just like every other church. How new can a “new church” be? Not very.
One of the motto’s of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is “Reformed, Always Reforming.” It’s a catchy phrase. It rolls right off the tongue. Sounds good. But, the truth is, as Bill Hamilton points out, there hasn’t been a fresh idea about God in two thousand years. Our best theologians in our best seminaries are simply rehashing the old hash. Serving up serving after serving of the old, old story. We like to say we are “always reforming,” but it’s ho-hum, heard it before, and there is nothing new under the sun.
Where would we go for something really, wildly, radically, unnervingly new? Here we are at Advent, again, stuck in the middle of the same old story as it carries us to the manger, and then to the cross, and then to the empty tomb, and then back to the manger. Our problem is how to break the cycle. We begin to do that by thinking about what we are doing. What are we doing? What are we doing going to the manger, again? What are we doing singing, “O Come, O Come, Emanuel,” again? And, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” again? We stand around, singing, hoping, waiting, always waiting, for what, exactly?
We keep going to the manger and waiting for Emanuel, but the waiting is over! Jesus talked about the harvest being plentiful but the laborers few, and the angel at the ascension asked the disciples what they were looking for when there was work to be done, or words to that effect.
“Here I am! Send me!” How about that for an Advent hymn? Why don’t we understand Advent as our stepping forth into the world? As our becoming? As our unveiling? As our bursting forth? With that perspective in hand, we wouldn’t be waiting eternally again for another year. We would be waking up, moving about and actually doing something—aligning ourselves with that which is deepest, best, and truest about us, and living so as to exhibit that in each moment of our lives. Advent then would be about the unfolding, the emerging, the creation, the becoming of the self we are built to be. It would be about our particular interpretation and expression of the qualities of God in our lives, in the way we alone could set those qualities loose in the world.
Love, joy, peace, patience—you know them as well as I do—kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self-discipline, not to mention compassion, and hospitality, and grace, and the like. Those are the qualities that we are to bring to life in the world, and we are all going to do these things differently. We aren’t going to love the same way, or exhibit peace the same way. Bit, it is all going to be beautiful with each of us out there, and in here, bringing God to life as well as we can—as only we can—in each moment of our lives. Boom!—as John Madden would say. That’s Advent! Bringing God to life here and now is Advent.
We don’t come here, in this place, at this time of year, to talk, again, about something that happened two thousand years ago. We come here to remind ourselves to get cracking, because we have something to bring to life in the world. We aren’t waiting on Emanuel! Emanuel is waiting on us! Emanuel is wondering what we are waiting on!
Remember the Angel’s word at the empty tomb. Don’t be standing around here looking for Jesus. He’s gone before you into Galilee. If you hurry, you may catch him. If we hurry, we still might. If we hurry and wake up, and realize that what we seek, that what we wait for, isn’t coming to us from out there, but it is in here, within us, waiting to be given expression, waiting to come to life, waiting to bloom in Galilee and all the world. We wait for what is waiting for us. We are what we are waiting for. How crazy is that?
We are waiting for Jesus, when you’re Jesus, I’m Jesus, we’re all Jesus. We are Emmanuel! We are the Messiah! We are the Anointed One! We have a little bit of God tucked away inside of us waiting to be given a shot at life, at doing it right, at doing it the way it ought to be done, at doing it as only we can do it. The only reason we might even consider gathering at the manger once a year to peer down at sweet little Jesus boy is to remember that, as with Jesus, so with us.
Desmond Tutu said it as well as it can be said at the recent Bryan Lecture: “You and I are created by God to be like God. We each of us have a God-space within us.” There is that which is of God within each one of us, and the spiritual task is clearing the path to the core, the genius, the wonder that is of God within us, so that it, not only shines through, not only comes to light, but also comes to life in our lives. We are those in the wilderness, clearing the path of God, preparing the way of the Lord, by living in ways which evidence God to those about us, and the wilderness is within us!
We don’t go to the manger to see Jesus. We go to the manger to see ourselves, to see us, to see what we are capable of, to remember that which is of God within us. Last week, Dave Fox, and this morning Jim Ritchey, provided us with a glimpse of that which is of God within him, with the graciousness, kindness, creativity, imagination, and subtle elegance which he exhibited in sharing his talent and his mastery of the art of music with us. It was, he is, a beautiful, wonderful gift unto us. And I told you then, and I’m telling you now, as it is with him, so it is with us.
We cannot do music the way Dave, the way Jim, does music, but we have the capacity to shine before others in our lives the way they shine before us in theirs. We have the gift of us to share with the world. And, when we dismiss our gift, our genius, our capacity to grace the world with the beauty and wonder of that which we bring to life in ourselves, other people, and the world around us; when we discount ourselves and refuse to consider that we have a gift, a genius, as surely as the baby in the manger did, we disparage that which is of God within us, and live in denial of the truth we were born to reveal.
This is the thing: The revealed truth of God does not come in the form of pronouncements, or concepts, or doctrines, or explanations. It comes in the form of a baby in a manger; in the form of a Samaritan exhibiting the goodness of compassion to a Jew; in the form of a father welcoming home his prodigal son; in the form of kindness extended, and grace expressed, and love conveyed. The revealed truth of God comes to us, and flows from us, in the form of experiences which disclose the heart of God for all to see. That heart beats within each of us. We only have to believe it, and begin living in ways that exhibit it, to know that it is so. The hope of Advent is precisely that we will wake up to the fact that there is that which is of God within us, and that if we don’t live so as to align ourselves with it and express it in our lives, it will die unknown. We simply cannot allow that to happen. We cannot forsake our birthright. We cannot refuse to be ourselves.
The return to Advent represents the continuing saga of the unfolding, the emerging, of us in the world. It reminds us again of the importance of bringing to life that which is of God within us. We need to remember that at least once a year!