The challenge of Advent

At first, it is a drop of water. Out of the middle of nowhere, perhaps on your forehead, or on your dusty hand as you reach out to pull a weed from the dry soil. One drop. And then, in sixty seconds, another, and another, until for the first time, you see the grey soil variegated with brown.

A cool mist descends around you, and for the first time in weeks, months, you can see the world around you begin to take shape out of the settling dust. You… we… are soaked, and as the rains settle in, the whole earth seems to take a breath… in… out. The rain has finally come.

Being caught in unexpected rainfall is like the church’s entry to the season of Advent: we are alternatively exhausted, thirsty, relieved, and drenched by the sheer force of the new church year. And for many of us, it’s an excellent reminder that we maybe need to go inside and get a fresh change of clothes and a shower… perhaps literally, for those of us in the midst of finals… or figuratively, for ourselves and our congregations. Advent is a time of preparation, a time of examination.

And I’m going to make a generalizing statement that, in the church, we love preaching in Advent, because it’s a great opportunity to slip all of our cultural pet peeves into a sermon. Prepare for the coming of Christ! and shrug off your obsession with material objects! secular culture! capitalism! socialism! Black Friday! fast fashion!

So I would like to clarify that when I make the statement, in this Advent sermon, that we can be too easily distracted by the here and now, I’m not actually talking about these things.

Because calling out obvious and alluring pieces of secularism… that’s the here and now that’s culturally acceptable for us Episcopalians to condemn, isn’t it? Our own version of a culture war in Advent, ironically, to counter the war on Advent, as some of you fastidious advent-lovers occasionally imply.

But what about the here and now which is good? The work of the church? The feeding of the poor? Caring for the orphan and widow? Advocating for policies, and even politicians, who reflect those values? Caring for the environment? And whole host of important values, embedded in our tradition and in our Bible?

Perhaps we can too easily be distracted by the here and now, and even in these good works, here also be dragons:

In Isaiah 7, much earlier than our reading today, we have the famous exchange between Isaiah and King Ahaz. Ahaz is king of a petrified people, terrified of destruction by Aram and Ephraim. And Isaiah says, ask for a sign from God, that this destruction will not take place. Anything! Ask for anything as a sign.

And Ahaz, says no, I won’t test the Lord.

And we sort of smugly laugh at Ahaz now—obviously THAT was the wrong answer, right? Right?

I bet Ahaz had a to-do list. Distribute food to those in Jerusalem, set extra watch on the outlying cities, prepare to do some negotiating with Aram, maybe move the elderly inside the city walls for protection.

But I wonder what would have happened if he had stopped and asked for a sign.

Our to-do lists as a church are all well and good, so were Ahaz’s: necessary, important for the care of others. But if we do not know the holy vision which compels us to these things, then we are nothing more than agnostic, secular humanists.

Advent is not an invitation away from our cultural and political pet peeves, into our world-saving to-do list of good works. Advent… is not… an invitation at all.

Advent is Isaiah at our door, our window, our pulpit saying ASK for a sign from the Lord. Advent is one of those annoying prophets that makes us hold up our sacred idols—our holy to-do lists—against the purifying flame of God’s vision. Advent is John the Baptist, at the street corner with a microphone and posterboard screaming REPENT, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

If we allow Advent to call us out of our complacency, then we will ask for a sign of God. We will give up the here and now—our ministry, vocation, and holiness as well as our sins and cultural ills—and we will TEST our actions and to-do lists against God’s purifying fire of repentance.

And so Advent asks us, to imagine ourselves, with everything that we think so important, so alive, so vibrant—as a desert. In a wilderness. Where the date palms that we thought so lush are just withered sticks against a grey sky.

If King Ahaz had asked for a sign, if we ask for a sign, this is, I think, the sign that he, and we might receive:

In the middle of the desolation of our works made brittle by the overwhelming, holy fire of God’s vision. In the wilderness of Isaiah 35. The sign comes upon us in a drop of rain. One drop, and then another, until the patchwork of sand and rock sputters into dark, fertile soil. Water, breaking through the topsoil, awakening the seeds that lie dormant within, until almost overnight, the once barren-land is filled with tiny shoots of green poking above the ground.  

And standing there, soaked by the promise of this eschatological vision… that’s when we’ll hear it. Just one voice, and then, another. A familiar sound, like the echo of a memory, the voice of someone dearly loved and almost forgotten. And then another voice turns into a multitude, coming into view on the horizon, rising up from the ground like the shoots of green beneath your feet. “And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way… The redeemed shall walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing.” The great cloud of witnesses will overtake us like a torrent, a rush of holy floodwater, and suddenly, we will be caught up in that multitude, rushing toward the highway laid before us, further up and further into God’s Holy Way.

This is our sign. God’s vision of the future. The ultimate good that all of our good is working towards, if only we would open our eyes to see it.

Christ has come once, and with his body and blood, made a way where there was no way. And so in this Advent, may the rain of God’s holy vision for the future wash us and our work afresh, as we pray, come, Lord Jesus.

Audio Recording of senior sermon, preached at Virginia Theological Seminary on December 9, 2019. Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10.

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