First Sunday of Advent Sermon
For many folks, Advent is basically a month-long countdown to Christmas. That’s why Advent calendars have always been popular – even more so, lately, it seems. Marketers are figuring out that anything can be packaged in an Advent Calendar and they’ll sell 24 times the product!
You can buy Advent calendars with a different beer for every day of December leading up to Christmas. Or there’s one for your dog at Costco with a special dog treat for every day. There’s no end of consumer glory!
But for us in the church, Advent offers a different kind of anticipation. It’s not just a way of counting the days until the big holiday finally arrives; it’s about remembering why that holiday matters. Namely, at Christmas – through Jesus – we encountered what the character and purpose of God is truly like.
Because the real intent of Advent is the church’s four-week anticipation of when Christ will come again, when this whole human drama will reach its intended destination.
And the way we do that, is to grab firmly ahold of what we already know to be true of God and God’s intentions for us, as revealed through Christ at his first coming. And what is it we know?
1. That God is one with us and wants us to live in the reality of that union;
2. that God desires our well-being – especially to set us free from brokenness and evil;
3. that God has a particular care for the poor and whomever is separated from the stability of healthy human community;
4. and ultimately, that God is overcoming death and the grave.
These are the things that matter to God. This is what Jesus has shown us of God. And we can be assured that, if they were a priority at his first coming, there will be more of the same at his second. Whatever it will be, whatever form it will take, it will be consistent with the first.
So, in our liturgical tradition, we begin this season of Advent by calling the community of faith to prepare: Christ is coming again, so take stock of your life; look at how you’re living; make whatever adjustments are needed to live in such a way that, should Christ suddenly appear, he would find you ready.
Sadly, this message often comes across as a scare tactic: “Stop doing the pleasurable things you enjoy and start doing all the prudish, religious stuff instead.” It really is an outrage how the church, through the centuries, has believed and pedaled a perception of God who is so pernicious and grumpy and demands such joyless disciplines. We’ve been given Jesus, for heaven’s sake (!) – the friend of outcasts and sinners – and traded him in for our unwavering suspicion that God can’t be that kind. We keep reverting to this stern god who’s perpetually disappointed in us and certainly prefers to punish us.
And it’s this conception of a grumpy, judging god that permeates so much of our culture, such that whole swaths of the church still proclaim “God is love,” but everything about their behavior and message communicates just the opposite. And there’s an even larger swath of society that’s given up on the hope of God altogether.
And it’s this group of people I particularly want to consider today: atheists who have decided there is no god; agnostics who have decided, “I don’t know what to think,” but have often stopped giving it any serious consideration; and those who may still claim some general belief in God, but – for all practical purposes – do nothing with it.
When we lit the first candle of the Advent Wreath this morning, we did so on their behalf. It was a spirit of recognition that they are our kin; and – for whatever cause – have found no reason yet to believe that God is real or that the pursuit of God will lead to anything beneficial.
Now, to some degree, I blame the church for this. I’m not finger-pointing. I mean “we, the institutional church,” have often failed to live into and give witness to the richness of God’s kingdom in any substantive way. And if people’s experience of the church or of Christians has been disappointing or hypocritical or just plain boring, it seems reasonable for people to dismiss God and the faith altogether.
I appreciate Simone Weil’s perspective on this. “It’s very easy for me,” she said, “to find solidarity with atheists. When they describe the god they’re rejecting, I simply agree with them; I reject that god, too.” And what she meant by it was, that if the god they’re rejecting (even if they think it’s the Christian god), is some petty, angry, eager-to-damn-for-every-damn-little-thing-god, isn’t such a rejection actually an appropriate response?! Aren’t they rejecting heresy and perjury of God’s character? I think so. And couldn’t it, in fact, be evidence of a spirit still holding out for a worthwhile god, one worthy of loving, even if they can’t admit it to that hope? Maybe so.
In a like manner, I find it very difficult to believe that at the day of judgment (whatever that will be), someone will be damned for failing to believe in a doctrine of God which, at best, was incomplete, and in most cases, was outright wrong. Which, for many people, is the only doctrine they’ve ever encountered.
Which is all to say, our posture – and God’s posture, I think – towards those don’t believe, must surely be one of compassion. For whatever the circumstances, their experience with God and with faith, so far in life, has been a disappointing one, an unpromising one.
Years ago, the Irish rock band, U2, released their song, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” It was this extraordinary anthem of yearning for deep satisfaction in this life. Now, U2 wasn’t a “Christian band;” they weren’t writing “Christian songs.” But its members were (and still are) quite sincere Christians. And I remember this very pious friend of mine criticizing them: “If they’re Christians, how can they say they still haven’t found what they’re looking for?” And I remember thinking, “Because they still haven’t met God face-to-face! They’ve found a belief system that points to God, and there’s genuine satisfaction along the way. But it’s not the belief system we’re after. We’re after God – our soul’s unfiltered union with the Divine!”
None of us has ultimately found what we’re looking for. We’re all still somewhere along the way.
Faith is often more of a concept than an actual experience – more doctrine about God than relationship with God. Which makes me realize, I really don’t think there’s a huge difference between “us” and “them.” Everyone is just figuring it out as we go along. Some of us are doing it within the church – within the community of hope that God and God’s ways are true and trustworthy. And some are doing it outside the church, with varying degrees of belief or disbelief. But all of us are trying to figure out what this life is all about, and making the best choices we can at any given moment, even if they aren’t always good choices.
But here’s the thing: even though everyone “still hasn’t found what they’re looking for,” that’s not to say we’re all doing a good job of actually looking. What happens for most of us, is we get stuck in ruts of “good enough.” We find a pattern of living that is comfortable enough, amusing enough, stable enough. We find our beliefs (or disbeliefs, as it were) about God to be good enough, and we give up seeking deeper meaning, more intimate relating. Playing little games on our cell phones might not be “what we’re looking for,” but at least it’s reliably accessible. We can’t will a deeply satisfying relationship into existence; we can’t conjure God to materialize in front of us. But we know how to turn on our phones. (Tick!) And there we are, vaguely satisfied for another day, another month, another year. But we still haven’t found what we’re looking for.
And, you know, no matter how hard life has been, no matter how disappointing our experience with God has been, there remains a dignity lying dormant within us, waiting to come alive every time we step out again with desire: “I still want more. I do want meaning. I do want hope. I do want God.” And even though we can’t force God into action, our desire for God matters – and has consequence.
Several years ago, I was at a season of life where I clearly wanted more of my relationship with God. I was exploring the Celtic tradition of spirituality, especially their sense of relating with God through everything in creation. And I was talking with my spiritual director, a little anxious that I might be wandering beyond the boundaries of orthodox Christian faith. She looked at me, compassionately. “Eric, are you looking for God?” “Yes.” “Then stop worrying. You desire God. Now let God meet you in that desire.”
So a little while later, I was by the sea and wide awake, late one night. So I went out walking in the sand dunes, with no light at all. The wind was howling, and I was deep in the throws of my experimental praying, greeting God in the moon and in the wind and in the grass. And I stumbled across some huge bird roosting in the grass, and it shot out with a burst of wings. It freaked me out. But I started talking out to the bird, wherever it was in the night, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. Be at peace.” And then, whoosh, right over my head, this barn owl comes flying over me, and starts hovering over me. The wind was battering it around, and he’d bend his wings to find his place again, right over my head. And in that moment, it was as if I were being visited by God, the Holy Spirit descending upon me. I’d been seeking God through creation, and that’s where God met me. How long did the owl stay there? 30 seconds? A minute? I don’t know. It was a long time. Very long now, indeed, as that moment with the owl has remained with me – an iconic moment of God meeting me in my desire, “I am real. And I am here, with you.”
Our pursuit of God matters.
For some, we can name that pursuit as “God.” It is made in a posture of faith. (Or at least some degree of faith.) For others, perhaps through many disappointments, they can only go so far to say they are seeking for “meaning” or “truth.” Okay. That’s fine.
The point is, to actually keep seeking. From within the ruts of our complacency, to determine, “I want more.” And to do something about it. Whether it’s new choices in reading or praying or vulnerability or ethical action – anything – that’s rooted in a clear desire, “I want more.” And in the active seeking, to be watchful and open for God to meet us.
There are owls everywhere, I suspect. Not everyday. (And not always owls!) But moments of clarity, when our yearning for God weds God’s yearning for us, and it is enough to hold onto – until the next encounter of the journey, so long as our days shall last.