So are you sick of Christmas yet?
Okay, that’s not exactly a good way to start out a sermon at this time of year is it? But for many people out there in society, we are already in the midst of the Christmas Season. Songs like “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” blare in the background, and people try to put on a good face, rushing from place to place, having only just survived Black Friday. One could easily be forgiven for thinking we are on the verge of Christmas Eve. The hectic schedule threatens to swallow us up.
It is no secret that diagnoses for depression spike in December, as all of society around us tells us that we should be happy, and put a smile on our face, or at least pretend like it is… and it doesn’t work.
But that’s not what Advent is about. Advent is not about pretending this are happy, it is not about making sure we get all our baking done, or that our gift list is done, or worrying that Uncle Lou doesn’t wreck Christmas Dinner.
If anything, those of us in churches feel well behind the game, because Advent started late this year. Every year it is a struggle, because while all of the society around us stampedes towards Christmas, we try to do something different, at least a little bit. We try to mark Advent for what it is: a season of anticipation, of preparation for the coming of God in our midst. It isn’t just about getting ready for Christmas, but rather, it is reflecting on how we can prepare in a way that’s healthy.
It is hard to do when life and society piles it on. So what do we do when we feel that the frenetic pace is eating away at us, with despair lurking so close at the door?
With a word: Hope… and not just a rose coloured glasses approach to it either.
One of the major takeaways from the Evolution of the Bible series that I finished up in November is how much of the Bible came together in the midst of extraordinarily difficult times. The Bible that we know today, both Old Testament and New, came together in the midst of crisis, adversity, and darkness. If it weren’t for the Babylonian Exile, and all of the darkness and hardship that came with it, the Hebrew Bible as we know it wouldn’t exist. Why? Because the greatest hope is forged in the fires of adversity.
Let me say that again: the greatest hope is forged in the fires of adversity.
Even when we encounter these words in Isaiah, written in the years immediately after the Persian King Cyrus had defeated the Babylonians, and had allowed the exiles of Israel and Judah to return to their homeland, hope was still hard to come by. When the exiles returned home, perhaps their expectations were too high. They expected to come back to their beloved city and temple, shining and glowing on a hill. What they found was rubble: the city and the temple lay in ruin. They found that surviving the exile was only the first part. The real challenge still lay ahead of them. As they stared at these piles overgrown rubble, it was a demoralizing hit. They had built up such high expectations of their return, even the prophet was having a hard time seeing the hope for all the turmoil and infighting they were experiencing.
Out of frustration, out of anger, out of an ideal of what could be, Isaiah 64 lets rip this plea to God:
“ If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!
Mountains would quake before you
like fire igniting brushwood or making water boil.
If you would make your name known to your enemies,
the nations would tremble in your presence.
It is an expression of hope trying to overcome a genuine sense of despair. It would take time, but eventually their hope would not only be realized, but their faith would become stronger and more resilient than they had ever imagined. It was a hope beyond hope.
The returning exiles found that it wasn’t about change. Change happened around them, and they had no control over that. Rather, the challenge became about reinventing themselves, and adapting to the new reality that they faced. Rather than being a technical problem that needed to be fixed, this was a challenge that they had to adapt to, and adapt they did. Not only did the prophet’s words stir up the fires of hope to meet this challenge, but in them, they re-forged their faith in a way that was far more powerful than they realized. So powerful, that this quirky local religion would evolve into a worldwide faith tradition that would still be speaking thousands of years later.
Maybe that’s why we need Advent, as a reminder that God is still speaking today, and calls us to prepare for something new. Advent is about self-reflection, of actually taking time away from the frenzied pace of life to reconnect with our Spiritual lives… to build our relationships. Rather than stampeding our way into Christmas, we need to stop and take it to heart. As the carol says: “let every heart prepare him room.”
It is in those moments that we may discover God’s hope beyond hope. Amen.