When expectations are high and patience is short
Many years ago, when my husband and I were driving from our honeymoon in the Outer Banks back home to Delaware, we decided to take the scenic route. At the time, the idea of a scenic drive sounded romantic. We were excited to take the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. And of course, as newlyweds, we were just excited to have more time together. But by hour ten, I thought I was going to lose my mind. I devolved into a whiny mess who could not keep still and who huffed and puffed in frustration. I kept shifting around and fidgeting in my seat, and I am pretty sure I groaned at some point, “Are we there yet?!?” Any notion of a romantic journey was lost – all I wanted was to get home immediately.
Truthfully, I feel similarly about Advent. As a priest well-trained in preaching from the lectionary, I know I am supposed to be appreciative of the intentional ways in which the lectionary shapes, prepares, and teaches us. But as soon as Advent starts, I get overly excited. I think about the Advent candles, the purple vestments, and the greenery. And because I know what is waiting for us on December 24th, I turn into that car-trapped honeymooner, complaining, “Are we there yet?!?” Since I know a baby is coming, all I want to think about is Mary’s pregnancy, her relationship with Joseph, and the long journey to Bethlehem. I am not saying I need to celebrate baby Jesus right away, but I at least would like to throw a baby shower or see Mary’s baby bump.
But that is not how Advent is presented to us in the beginning of Advent. Instead of talking about the first coming of the Christ child, we talk about the second coming of Christ. Instead of giddy, romantic stories about lovers making it work with an unexpected pregnancy, we get dark, foreboding tales of earthly disorder and destruction. Instead of happy expectation, we get somber warnings to prepare ourselves and to stand guard. Normally, I do not mind these texts at the beginning of Advent. Theologically, I understand the concept of framing the first coming of Christ within the second coming.[i] I understand that in order to appreciate Christ’s birth I need to remember what his birth means many years later. I understand the need for a warning about being on guard for the second coming – a reminder that I do not get to enjoy all the fun stuff of Christ’s birth without realizing the significance of Christ’s death and return as well. But emotionally, I am tired of being on guard. I am tired of earthly destruction. I am tired of feeling like the end is upon us.
That is what is so hard about Advent this year. We are already on guard this Advent. With terrorism striking worldwide, with gun violence in our own country, and with debates about welcoming refugees, we are already “alert at all times,” as Jesus demands. I know people who are avoiding shopping in Manhattan this year because they are afraid of potential threats. There are rumors of out-of-state school field trips getting canceled due to fear of danger. And some states have shut down their borders to refugees because of suspicions of terrorists in refugee disguise. We know all too well the reality of living in fear, guardedness, and preparation for the darkness of this world. And quite frankly, when we come to church, especially in this season of preparing for the Christ Child, the last thing we want to do is dwell on the darkness. We want a little bit of light from Christ too.
Last weekend, the final movie in The Hunger Games series premiered. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, the movie features a dystopian future after a failed revolution. As punishment for revolting against the Capitol, the Capitol designs what is called The Hunger Games – a battle to the death in which two children from each of twelve districts faces one another in an arena. Not unlike ancient practices in Rome, and yet uncannily familiar to modern times, the residents of the Capitol watch the games with a detached sense of enjoyment as they cheer for their favorites. In the first film, President Snow talks to the head of the Games about why they have the games and a winner in the first place. “Hope:” he explains, “It is the only thing stronger than fear.” He goes on to say, “A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous.” You see, the President wants to keep people oppressed. He knows that the people need to fear him – but he balances that fear with a tiny bit of hope so that they do not revolt again: if they can believe that there is hope for a slightly better life while keeping the status quo, then they will strive to stay in line. But the hope most be managed so that the hope does not liberate people from submission to the Capitol.
We could easily live lives of fear when hearing Jesus’ words today about the Second Coming. We could worry about natural disasters, about violence, and about destruction. We could hear Jesus’ words about being on guard, being alert at all times, and standing up to raise our heads, and be worried about the burden of constant vigilance. But Jesus is not trying to scare us into preparation. Jesus does not want us to live in fear.[ii] Quite the opposite, Jesus wants to give us a big dose of hope today. Unlike President Snow, Jesus does not manipulate us by only giving us a small amount of hope. Though today’s text can feel full of gloom, Jesus, in his weird Jesus way, is actually trying to give a large dose of hope today. Instead of asking us to cower in fearful anticipation, he is inviting us to stand tall, raise our heads in certainty, and be people of sober, joyful expectation.
In our collect today, we prayed these words, “… give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light …”[iii] Many of us may question whether we can put on an armor of light in such a despairing world. Perhaps we worry about sounding like Pollyannas or being insensitive to the suffering of the world and our communities. But putting on the armor of light is not putting on the armor of denial or dismissiveness. Putting on the armor of light is an act of seeing and experiencing the deep groaning of our time and proclaiming that God works as an agent of light despite what feels like overwhelming darkness. By putting on our armor of light, we are acknowledging that “God in Christ is coming because God loves us – because God wants to redeem us.”[iv] Putting on the armor of light means that despite all that is falling apart in our lives, our communities, and the world around us, we claim hope over despair.
Now some of us may think that putting on armor is preparing us for battle – that we are going to be issued light sabers like the Jedi fighters of Star Wars. But the armor of light is a bit different. The armor of light requires us to stand tall as beacons of light in the world – much like the lighthouses that line our shores on Long Island. Now, I do not mean putting on that armor is a passive act. In fact, as N.T. Wright explains, our armor is not for an “exciting battle, with adrenalin flowing and banners flying, but the steady tread, of prayer and hope and scripture and sacrament and witness, day by day and week by week.”[v] Knowing that we are slowly, steadily treading toward Jesus’ return, we need that armor of light more than ever: to protect us from allowing fear to overcoming us, and to remind ourselves of how we are grounded in liberating hope.
And just in case you are not convinced that you can survive a long, steady tread, the community of faith gathers here every week to witness and wear that armor of light with you. We are like those freedom fighters from the Civil Rights movement, who steadily marched – from Selma to Montgomery, through the streets of Washington, D.C., and anywhere else where fear was reigning. Their power was in their numbers, their fortitude, and their hope. They wore the same armor that we don today. Yes, we will get to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child soon enough. But before he comes, when he comes, and after he comes, we will still need to stand up, raise our heads, and be agents of light and hope. The world needs our light – and so do we. Amen.
[i] Mariam J. Kamell, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 21.
[ii] David Lose, “Advent 1 C: Stand Up and Raise Your Heads!” November 23, 2015, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2015/11/advent-1-c-stand-up-and-raise-your-heads/ on November 25, 2015.
[iii] BCP, 211.
[iv] Kathy Beach-Verhey, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 25.
[v] N. T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 260.