Today we enter the season of Advent, the first Sunday of the new church year. Happy new year everyone!
The season of Advent is a season of waiting…we’re waiting for Christmas and the birth of a Savior, waiting in expectation for the coming of a miracle, even though when we look all around us it doesn’t seem like miracles are imminent…too many problems, too much pain…still we wait this Advent. It’s the whole point of the season.
I have to confess as we begin Advent this year that this is a tough season in my profession. Here we are, inside our little churches, preaching about waiting for a Savior, a radical savior who comes to change the whole world, while all around us things are going crazy.
Like, shopping crazy.
I wondered this week when I saw all the news reports about assaults in the WalMart electronics department why we call the Friday after Thanksgiving Black Friday. Turns out that day got it’s name in 1966 from the Philadelphia Police Department. It was not a term of endearment. The Philadelphia Police Department was on alert because Black Friday was creating massive traffic jams, over-crowding sidewalks, and mobbing downtown stores. And now it’s not just Black Friday anymore…it’s Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday and probably some others that I haven’t heard of yet.
It’s tough to keep talking about the radical, counter cultural message of the one for whom we wait, while it seems that our main preoccupation is blessing consumerism at Christmas. It’s an ongoing battle between the instant gratification of our culture, with all the ads and the enticements to spend and the guilt over not spending enough, versus an attitude of expectant waiting…just waiting…looking around at the despair and hopelessness that pervades our culture and still…waiting…waiting for God to break into our world and to make hope, peace, joy, love all realities even in the middle of the wreckage that surrounds us. And as the church of Jesus Christ we affirm that, even in the middle of a culture whose values stand in distinct opposition to the message of the one for whom we wait, that we will keep waiting, and we will keep preaching a message of light in the darkness, as we wait for the coming of God.
This year we’re focusing our intention by joining a movement called Advent Conspiracy.
Advent Conspiracy is a movement started in 2006 by a small group of pastors who were alarmed by the growing hyperconsumerism they were finding, even among Christians. The intent of the movement is to spend these four weeks of Advent focusing on four guiding principles: worship fully; spend less; give more; love all.
The hope of Advent Conspiracy is that if we are willing to engage in intentional spiritual practice this Advent, that we will be able to avoid being caught up in the consumer craze that surrounds us, that we will cultivate hearts that are open to the coming of a Savior, that we will nurture lives that reflect the radical message of Jesus…even in the middle of a culture that encourages the opposite.
I know you want to have a meaningful Christmas season, filled with love and family and joy and memories…and Jesus. None of us wants a holiday season filled with stress, or debt, or missed moments. So every week during Advent we’re going to be talking about these guiding principles. Each week you’ll have prayers to guide your spiritual practice during the week and an assignment, an Advent Conspiracy assignment, printed on the insert of your bulletin. Your challenge this Advent, should you choose to accept it, is to take the task of reclaiming Advent seriously, to pause in this season of busy-ness and wait, really wait, for the one who is coming to turn this world upside down. Are you ready?
Very often on Tuesday nights you will find me at yoga class. I’m not great at the practice of yoga, but I try. Some poses are easier than others for me, but there’s one I really have a hard time with. I don’t know the Hindi name for the pose—I’m not that serious—but it’s a balancing pose where you stand with your hands together above your head, shoulders back, neck straight, looking straight ahead…and then you pick up one of your feet and place it on the inside of your opposite thigh. Then, if you can even get to that point, you are supposed to stand there, balancing, and breathe deeply for several breaths.
It’s hard to get the balance you need to do this pose, but the teacher always says the best thing to do to help yourself get there is to pick a point on the wall—a number on a clock or something hanging on the wall—on which you can focus your eyes. You pick out that object on the wall and get it in your sights…then you focus as intently as you can just on that.
As you focus your eyes in that one spot, the rest of the room starts to kind of fade into the background. You can keep your mind still and focused on your balance, and usually, you can stay in the pose for several breaths.
I thought of this yoga pose as I considered our work this first week of Advent, where we begin this season of being assaulted by the messages of our society to consume more, more, more…it’s easy to lose focus.
We can forget that what we’re about in these few weeks is…Jesus.
We want to live lives in the pose of active waiting for the one we worship, with hearts and minds focused on his coming, but it’s hard to keep our balance. Today’s challenge is to think about how we can worship fully, keep our focus intent and unwavering, on the one we know is coming to save us.
The people who heard the prophet Jeremiah preach were people who had lost focus, for sure. In fact, they were so engrossed in the situation all around them, that Jeremiah’s message of waiting with hope for a better future seemed almost ridiculous.
When Jeremiah the prophet was writing, the army of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar was advancing on Jerusalem; there was no way to stop their progress. Once the army arrived, the streets of Jerusalem would be filled with the slaughtered bodies of their people. Jeremiah the prophet would be thrown into jail. The remaining inhabitants of Jerusalem would be carted off into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah had been warning that this was inevitable for years and years but nobody listened. Now, devastation is imminent and what does Jeremiah do? He changes his tune. Listen to what he says: The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety….
Wait, he says. Wait for the promise of God. Don’t let yourself be taken in by what is swirling around you, calling your focus away from the task at hand. Stay focused. Keep vigil. Don’t stop waiting. God is on the way.
This is the essence, the heart, of what it means to celebrate Advent. We wait in a time when peace in our world is fragile, if it exists at all.
We wait in a society that values consumption more than almost anything else.
We wait in the wealthiest nation on the planet, filled with people whose lives are impoverished by hopelessness and desperation.
We are a people who have been given the prophecy of Jeremiah, the hope of a savior, a righteous branch springing from a tree thought long dead and gone, one who will bring righteousness and justice to our world so desperately in need, not of more expensive Christmas presents we can’t afford, but all of those things that Jesus the Christ brings to us with his coming.
And so, we wait.
We wait with focus and intention, determined to worship fully this Advent season, to keep our eyes on the real meaning of this Advent season as we wait for the coming of Messiah. In doing that, we are living radical, counter-cultural lives, rejecting the frenzied chaos of our culture and embracing the call of messiah, the one for whom we wait.
But, just a second. This sounds very nice, but what if we determine to do Christmas differently this year…and it all falls flat? What if we reject the crazy consumerism of our culture and work to do things differently and it’s not as fun? One of the pastors who dreamed up Advent Conspiracy had this nagging worry—it all sounds good, but how do we break it to the kids that we’re not going to buy and do all the things we have done in past years? What if we make a family rule that we give homemade gifts to each other this year…and nobody’s really that interested in getting a crocheted pot holder from Dad?
He was worried about all of those things, but what happened was this: evenings were spent together, gathered around the fire, each one working on secret Christmas gift making projects. The family determined to give the money they would have spent to a project in Africa that’s making clean water available to thousands of people. Siblings did things like: plan an afternoon spent with another sibling doing whatever that sibling wanted to do…as a gift. Crazy wonderful things like that began to happen, and no one felt cheated at all. In fact, you could say they were all richer for it.
I am willing to try to do things a little differently this year. How about you? On the front of your bulletin is a list of guiding principles to consider as you plan your Advent. They are:
Remember those people who truly need my gifts,
Express my love in more direct ways than gifts,
Examine my holiday activities in the light of my deepest values,
Be a peacemaker within my circles of family and friends, and
Rededicate myself to my spiritual growth.
What do you say? Should we give it a try?
Blessed Advent to all of you. As you look out over the next four weeks, may you find moments of peace and grace, and may you remember the one for whom we wait. Amen.