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Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Advent Curmudgeon

Today's sermon for the First Sunday of Advent:

A Thousand Years in a Day
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 30th, 2008
First Sunday of Advent

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.
2 Peter 3:8-15a


“One of my least favorite liturgical seasons is Advent.”

Thus writes Peter Gomes in his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News?

Why is Gomes so grumpy about Advent? Isn’t it the season of hope, peace, joy, and love as the banners around our sanctuary attest? Gomes gripes not about hope, but cheap hope. He writes:
“The conventional wisdom is that Advent is the season of hope, and we light our Advent candles, one more on each Sunday, not simply anticipating the light but increasing it. Although Advent is, like Lent, meant to be a season of penitence,…it has become a month-long dress rehearsal for Christmas and a commercial phenomenon that is beyond the power of mere Christmas to defeat. Years ago, when in October I saw the first Santa Claus in a store window and heard tinny carols in a department store elevator, I knew that Thanksgiving could not be far away and that the battle for Advent had been lost. What I find difficult to take seriously about Advent is the note of false rather than authentic hope that is imposed upon people.” P. 214
I will get back to Peter Gomes in a minute. Here is my story that resonates with his.

In my first congregation, for several years I had a bit of a kerfluffle with my choir director, and the choir, and frankly the whole congregation. Fresh out of seminary, convinced of the correct way to do church, I insisted upon no Christmas carols during Advent. Instead we need to sing those dirge-like, minor key, Advent hymns. After Christmas we can sing Christmas songs all the way into February! But, of course by then, after the present exchanging frenzy and after the city has taken away the wrappers and boxes we have left at the curb, no one is in the mood for Christmas songs.

I had a good argument. During Lent, we don’t sing Jesus Christ is Risen Today. We don’t hear all the joyous Easter anthems. We let Lent be Lent. It is a season of personal discipline, repentance, and spiritual reflection. On Easter and after, we celebrate the mystery of Resurrection. Then and only then, do we sing out the Allelulias.

I continued my argument. The reason there is no pressure to sing Easter songs during Lent is because Easter has not yet been bought by the corporations to the extent that Christmas has. If Easter was a major shopping holiday that needed two months of build up, and if Easter hymns were played non-stop in the Wal-Mart during Lent, you can bet we would be singing Easter hymns in church during Lent as well.

They were intrigued by my argument, but not motivated. They said, “So, can we sing just a few Christmas songs during Advent?”

I gave in. Like grumpy Gomes, I conceded that Advent was a lost cause. I knew that if I didn’t compromise a mutiny would result and I would have a stake of holly driven through my heart. I did hold out for one Sunday, this first one. After that, Christmas indulgence was too overwhelming a force to curb.

What is Advent? Advent is the light of a single candle at the far end of a dark cave. That is its message. It is survival hope. You need that candle or you don’t get out.

But when we are in a shopping mall flooded by manufactured incandescent bulbs, holding up an Advent candle for light is preposterous.

“We don’t need your candle, bub, we have ten million megawatts of Christmas joy.”

America is not ready for Advent. It may be some day. Not now. Not when we still have the resources to spend 450 billion dollars each year at Christmas to indulge ourselves. To proclaim Advent hope in our context is either nonsensical or blasphemous. It either cannot be processed or it becomes a cheery optimism. Worse yet, it becomes a divine blessing for our materialism.

Gomes writes:
“Dietrich Bonhoeffer once warned against cheap grace, and I warn now against cheap hope. Hope is not merely the optimistic view that somehow everything will turn out all right in the end if everyone just does as we do. Hope is the more rugged, the more muscular view that even if things don’t turn out all right and aren’t all right, we endure through and beyond the times that disappoint or threaten to destroy us….This kind of hope requires work, effort, and expenditure without the assurance of an easy or ready return.” P. 220.
The texts that we have for Advent, like this one from Second Peter, sound out of place. In our context, these ancient words of hope are like a candle in the middle of a huge Target store the week before Christmas. Too much artificial light keeps us from seeing the real light.

Let’s try anyway:
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.
The context of this scripture, as is the context for much of scripture, is necessity. It comes from the dark cave of hunger, injustice, oppression, loneliness, grief, longing, and suffering. It looks with desperation for the light of the candle. It is this cry from the psalmist:
Restore us again, O God of our salvation,
and put away your indignation towards us.
Will you be angry with us for ever?
Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
Will you not revive us again,
so that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your steadfast love, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation. Psalm 85:4-7
I wonder if those who are in a position to hear the message of Advent hope are too depressed to be in church in the first place. Please don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting we need to feel guilty for not suffering or for not feeling hopeless. Nor am I assuming that you are not feeling hopeless. I don’t know to what degree of suffering any of you are experiencing.

What I am suggesting is that the season of Advent assumes darkness and hopelessness. It starts there.

Again, quoting Gomes:
“Hope works where nothing else does. If we want to know how and where hope works, we should look at the most desperate places and among people who suffer, for that is where hope is both necessary and evident. Hope, let us remember, is not the opposite of suffering; suffering is the necessary antecedent of hope.” P. 223
The obliterating artificial light of materialism doesn’t even give us an opportunity to be aware of our own suffering. Our culture doesn’t give permission to be sad. We are unable to acknowledge that we have any dis-ease. Certainly nothing that Christmas carols, toys, and technology can’t fix. What do we hear?

What a wonderful time of the year.
What a wonderful time of the year.
What a wonderful time of the year.

In the midst of this glaring brightness, any attempt to point to the candle light of Advent makes one look like a curmudgeon—a sourpuss at the office Christmas party.

“Everybody is happy, don’t depress us.”

OK.

However, for those who are aware of the darkness and who are in it, there is a candle.

• For those who can step out of the artificial light, because they know it is not a true light, and risk stepping into the darkness, Advent is for you.

• For those who are not convinced that the global economy and our technological prowess will move us onward and upward into the post-petroleum age without any significant change to our way of life, Advent is for you.

• For those who have lost a loved one and for whom this season is especially heavy, Advent is for you.

• For those who are doubtful that we are going to halt climate change and who are suspicious of political messiahs, Advent is for you.

• For those who feel the pain of a broken relationship, the angst of aging, a lingering illness, or an uncertain future, Advent is for you.

• For those who worry and wonder how we are going to sustain a hungry and thirsty planet of people, and are sick at heart at the extinction of our non-human relations, Advent is for you.

• For those who lay awake at night worrying about your job, your home, or your finances, Advent is for you.

• For those who cannot bear to watch another violent news story, Advent is for you.

• For those who look at our children in our church, in our schools, in our neighborhoods, and wonder what their lives will be like when they are our age, Advent is for you.

• For those who just don’t feel as happy as you think you are supposed to feel, Advent is for you.

• For those who are sick and tired of being sick and tired and no longer can pretend to bury the darkness under the artificial light of cheap hope, there is a candle. Advent is for you.

Advent is for those who would dare the darkness. It is for those who are acquainted with the night. Advent is for the author of this poem:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
O luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night” is an appropriate Advent poem.

I titled this sermon “A Thousand Years in a Day” from that sentence in 2 Peter:

with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.

This text and this image provide encouragement in the midst of desperate longing and disappointment. When that dark cave is long and deep and damp, and it doesn’t seem like we will ever get out, this is the message:

The Universe and whatever is beyond it is a lot bigger than we are. A day is but a thousand years and a thousand years are but a day in Divine time. Divine hope is not on our timetable. It is a reminder that our hope is from a place yet untapped, yet unimagined. It is something not calculable. It is a source of strength not yet discovered and yet it is discovered as we need it.

It is a hope that is stronger than suffering, but it comes from suffering. This hope is not cheap or easy. It is formed from our character as we honestly engage our suffering and the suffering of all living things.

Peter Gomes tells us that if we remember
“…that genuine hope, a hope worth having, is forged upon the anvil of adversity, and that hope and suffering are related through the formation of character, then we will realize that hope is much more than mere optimism. Hope is the stuff that gets us through and beyond when the worst that can happen happens. P. 220-1
Genuine hope comes from our experience of adversity as it relies on a place yet untapped and deep within. It invites us to be honest with the darkness. In the words of Robert Frost, to be “acquainted with the night.”

Whether we admit it or not, we are amidst a darkness that cannot be obliterated by the light of ten thousand Wal-Marts. This darkness can only be lit by a candle. Advent points to that candle. This candle shows us just enough light so that we can take one step. It is an honest step taken in honest hope about our real condition.

Even as we step with this muscular hope, in the words of 2 Peter:

“…we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.”

Amen.


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