Welcome to Advent, which launches off every year with a good old fashioned End Times Bible thumpin’ street preaching session!
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Luke 21:25-28, lectionary passage for the first week of Advent
Who put this lectionary together, anyway?! This isn’t Christmas Cheer!
If we can banish from our minds raggedy street preachers yelling at gay folks, Nick Cage thrillers, and the second-rate novels that have shaped our theological imaginations – the Apocalyptic texts have a lot to teach us about Advent.
Let’s keep our eyes open and explore. Let’s start with a story.
Hidden in Plain Sight
Last week, I walked four miles on a freezing November day to a Family Dollar, because I walked right by Dollar General half a mile down the road.
My Very Productive Day™ was cut short by loss of internet at my apartment, so I decided to go for a winder-day walk to pick up some holiday party snacks. GoogleMaps told me that there was a Dollar General half a mile away, which I could instantly picture – oh yeah! it’s next to the gas station in the strip mall!
It was a gorgeous, chilly day for a walk. Sunny, cold, bright blue sky and a few bursts of color left on the trees. But when I got to the strip mall, there was no Dollar General. I cut through the parking lot, past the Marcos Pizza and Atlanta’s BEST COFFEE! and the Ethiopian diner, checking each store window, but it wasn’t there. Maybe it’s a bit further?
So I kept walking, past pine trees and water oaks, abandoned houses on the left and tacky new condos on the right, over train tracks and past the Christian fundamentalist thrift store. This was way past half a mile now, but I had left my phone at home, and I just wanted to get to any store that would sell me hot chocolate and butter cookies. Finally, as the sun sunk below the tree line and old men honked at me from duct-taped trucks, I rounded the bend to a Family Dollar. Thank God. I bought my groceries (and a useless porcelain owl with tiny ear muffs because it is Christmas and he was $1), and headed home, musing about the Dollar General that must have gone out of business.
Until I come around the hill near my house and see – tucked behind the strip mall – a huge yellow sign.
Dollar. Freaking. General.
But – how did I miss it?? I was looking for it! What the heck??
Well, I was so sure that it was in the strip mall. I walked right by the cement building and the bright yellow sign, walked right by that huge Dollar General, because I had my eyes on the mall right past it.
Because I was so sure of what I was looking for, I missed it completely.
Turns out “expectations” are not quite the same as “expectation.”
Expectations and Expectation
Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
Luke 21:25-36, Lectionary passage for the First Week of Advent
We start Advent with these end times passages as a reminder that we’re still waiting, that God’s work in the time isn’t done, and that there’s more to come. In the first week of Advent, many churches will light the first candle in their Advent wreath tomorrow – the candle of expectation.
We sure enter this season with a helluva lot of expectations.
But expectations are different from expectation.
Expectations, good ones and bad ones, are mini predictions that we cherish – some of us cherishing the bad ones just as much as the good ones. We expect certain things out of the holidays, certain interactions, certain sacred and annoying moments.
We don’t usually enter Advent with open hands, open eyes, and curiosity, wondering what will happen. We know what will happen next. We know how our holiday season will go. Theologically, we know the “end of the story.” Baby in a barn! Teenage mom! God becomes flesh and dwells among us! Joy to the world!
Which means we will miss things.
The End of the World and Christmas.
Our rigidity feels protective. If we can only know exactly what we’re waiting for, it won’t catch us by surprise. We won’t get hurt if we never lose control, and opening our hands means releasing our grip. Some days it feels like our grip is the only thing keeping us safe.
It’s really hard to wait and not be sure what we’re really waiting for.
It’s a radical act of trust.
To hope, even while we release the certainty of what our fulfilled hope will look like, means trusting God so much that we’re willing to sit still as the future comes to us. It means believing that God will do something good, even it’s not what we anticipated.
These End Time passages are so important to hold during Advent, because we can pile Advent cliche on top of Advent cliche, tut-tutting at the ancient people who didn’t see Jesus coming.
But the End Times passages call us back to Jesus’ command that we watch, wait, be alert – keep our eyes open! – not to what we expect will come, but to the inbreaking of God in ways that we could never predict.
We hold on to our rigid theology because we’re scared, and God knows there is a lot to be scared of in our world. But Advent is an invitation to courage – to trust God enough to release our certainty and sit with open hands and a curious heart, waiting to see what new thing God is doing in the world.
My loves, if we hold on to our expectations too tightly, we will miss what God is doing.
If we baptize our expectations as gospel, we’ll miss the Gospel. We’ll walk right by Jesus, because we didn’t expect to see His face in that radical theology, in that queer kid, in our incarcerated siblings, in the face of the poor, in other religious traditions, in metaphors and poets and stories and songs.
We can power through our whole lives piling certainty on certainty, but when we value certainty over openness, we will walk right by Jesus and not even notice that He’s there.
Stay alert, loves, Jesus begs us in this passage. Keep your eyes open.
Wait. Watch. Expect.
Jesus is longing for us to have hearts that are open to mystery, to newness, to what is next, because in all our busyness and predictions and expectations, we’re in danger of missing it.
Jesus is longing to help us cultivate openness, curiosity, and the holy discipline of being surprised by something that we didn’t see coming.
Advent Spiritual Disciplines
I’d like to encourage you to practice stillness and curiosity this first week of Advent.
There are some critters in the woods that only come out if you sit very, very still.
There are spiritual mysteries we only see when we drop our expectations.
And dearly beloved, God is always so eager, so willing, so achingly ready to meet us in breathtaking ways. God isn’t miserly with goodness, with intimacy, with revelation. God is so reckless with His revelation of Himself that He became a colicky baby in a garage just to get closer to us.
It isn’t a lack of revelation on God’s part that keeps us in darkness. It’s our fear and rigidity that insulate us from the curiosity that can help us see the Light that’s already here.
In Advent, we practice releasing expectations, so that we can enter into expectation. We practice stillness, trusting that God is with us, and we don’t need to go anywhere to find Her.
She’s here, Beloved. Just maybe in some ways that we didn’t see coming.
In Advent, we stop moving. We stop striving. We stop predicting. We wait, in curiosity, in openness, in expectation.
Who knows what we’ll see when we sit very, very still.
God – help us be curious.
Teach us to live with open hands.
Draw us into expectation.
May we hear Your invitation to stillness as a promise this Advent.