Why Observe Advent?
December 3, 2017/Advent I/ Pastor Holmer/First Reading: Isaiah 64: 1-9/ Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9/Gospel : Mark 13: 24-37
Advent is a brief season – made even shorter this year because the fourth and final Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve. In three weeks we will be celebrating Christ’s birth. So, why do we have Advent? What’s the purpose of observing this transient season? Let me state clearly that the purpose of Advent is not to delay our celebration of Christmas. The point is not to keep us from enjoying what is broadly referred to as “The Holidays.” People ask: “Why should we wait to sing all the wonderful Christmas carols?” The answer is: “Because it’s not Christmas – it’s Advent.” But that answer makes sense only if and when we understand what Advent is. Advent is not intended to restrict or confine us. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The same goes for Advent. You and I aren’t here for the sake of the Advent season – Advent is a season made for us. It is intended to be a blessing – not a burden or a hindrance. Again, the purpose of Advent is not to try to ignore or postpone Christmas. Instead, Advent is an opportunity to look beyond Christmas – beyond what’s routine and familiar, to ultimate and consequential things. Think of Advent as a gracious invitation to set aside some time, to take some moments apart from all the busy-ness, all the holiday doings, to allow some time for just being: time to be still and remember God and God’s beautiful promises to us.
The scripture readings in this season speak of waiting, waiting for what is still to come. Advent, after all, means “coming.” Christmas is coming – yet we are waiting for more than Christmas to come. We are waiting for God’s promises to come true – we know not how or when. We wait for Christ’s Second Coming. Lutheran pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis toward the end of World War II. He found that being in jail gave him a new perspective on Advent. He wrote: “…a prison cell is a good analogy for Advent; one waits, hopes, does this or that – the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.” We wait for God to do what we cannot do for ourselves: we wait for salvation. In Advent we can also come to realize how God is waiting for us – waiting for us to wake up and turn to him.
Advent offers us time to get in touch with our deepest, heartfelt longings – time also to acknowledge our disappointments. Advent makes space for our hopes and our fears to intersect and to inform each other. Advent reminds us that beyond all our various hopes and fears, we have an underlying confidence which is founded on the promises of God. Now is the time to ponder our real need for a Savior. Why did Jesus need to come from heaven to earth, anyway? The reason is made perfectly clear in our First Reading today. The prophet Isaiah announces: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” What a poetic – and sobering – summation of our human condition! All of us are unclean. We can point fingers at the Harvey Weinsteins and Roy Moores of this world – deploring their outrageous behavior. Yet not one of us is without sin, and even our good deeds can be tarnished by pride and self-interest. All of us are as fragile and as mortal as a fallen leaf. Despite our vitality, our lives here are temporary. And so we all need a Savior. That’s why Christ came in the first place – and why he is coming again. There will come an end to our lives and to this world – and in the end we can’t save ourselves. As Bonhoeffer noted, it’s like we are in a cell that must be opened from the outside. This is the reality that Advent brings into focus.
How, then, can we observe this Advent season? Well, we don’t have to “pretend” that we are not in “The Christmas Season.” We go to Christmas parties, put up Christmas decorations, purchase Christmas gifts, send Christmas cards. Advent is not anti-Christmas, nor is it simply about getting ready for Christmas. Advent is a season to take some time apart, to b e still, to be quiet, to reflect. Advent is time to ask some questions – even if you don’t have all the answers. What do you long for and hope for? What’s missing in your life? Where is your life heading? What fills your heart with joy? Who is a blessing to you? And to whom are you a blessing? And why? How do you hope to be remembered? Where is God in all of this? There is a reason why we offer devotions for Advent, and provide additional opportunities for worship and prayer. It’s to encourage us all to break our regular routine, find time outside the usual hustle and bustle. Advent gives permission and encouragement to take some time out, time to draw closer to what matters most, time to make room for God.
In today’s gospel, Jesus keeps saying: “be alert, keep awake, be watchful!” Advent is a time to be alert to your own life, to pay attention to the realities of your human condition. Long ago, Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Advent is a good season for taking a personal inventory. What distinguishes humans is our capacity for self-reflection and evaluation – our ability to consider and to make ethical choices. Advent is also a time to be on the alert for God. Be aware of the ways God is present – here and now. We are familiar with God in the past, and we look forward to God in our future. Yet God is also with us today. It can be harder to see God’s presence now than in the past (with hindsight) or in the future (with hope) – which is why we need to be alert and watchful now. Isaiah speaks of how God can seem to be hidden: “…you have hidden your face from us.” Most of us have known times when God is hard to find, hard to know. And so we can also relate to the refrain that is repeated in our Psalm today: “Restore us, O God of hosts, show the light of your countenance (face), and we shall be saved.”
In this darkest time of the year, pay attention to the light. I have been noticing that both sunrises and sunsets are striking and spectacular these days. Sunrise and sunset draw our thoughts to beginnings and endings. As Advent begins another church year, our thoughts are directed to the ultimate end of things. Much of what goes on around us in our culture has the effect of distracting us (whether deliberately or accidentally) from what truly matters. In Advent we are called to pause, to watch, to pay attention. In this season, when there is so much to divert our attention, what will you do to focus on what matters most? How will you draw closer to Christ?