2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 Romans 16:25-27 Luke 1:26-38
“May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and the actions of our lives be acceptable in your sight, Oh God our strength and our redeemer.”
Well, we’ve made it to the end of Advent - Advent 4 for most of the church and Advent 7 for you Advent overachievers at St. Aidan’s. We’re all a little thrown by the fact that today is also Christmas Eve day – I’ve seen lots of clergy blog posts about this unusual combining of Advent and the coming Christmas. Some argue that we must focus on Advent today, others are dispensing with Advent 4 altogether and focusing on Christmas eve services and readings. I’m really glad that we’re doing both Advent and Christmas eve at St. Aidan’s today and mediator that I am (sorry, I can’t help it) in this homily I’m going to talk about a little of each. I figure, why not? It’s not that often that they come together.
So, to begin with Advent. I love the Advent season but I have to confess that I always struggle to hang onto the deep meaningfulness of this season amidst the crazy realities of a secular world where Christmas advertising begins before the Thanksgiving dinner dishes have even been washed, where materialism seems more rampant than ever, and where love for our neighbors seems in precious short supply. This year in particular I have been distracted by the news and have forced myself to stop looking at Twitter. It just all seems so sad and hard and hopeless. So – Advent this year has been challenging for me. Has it been so for anyone else?
This has frustrated me because Advent is such an incredible opportunity to slow down, reflect, pay attention, and get ready for the birth of Jesus. It’s about the promise of new possibilities, and it’s about realizing, as the Angel Gabriel in our Gospel today put it, while chatting with Mary – that “…nothing will be impossible with God.” And then, as I think about Christmas Eve, the culmination of the Advent season, I remind myself that Christmas eve is all about hope and wonder. Hope in the form of a baby born in a manger, sent by God to save us and to show us the way. A baby who is Jesus – our beloved teacher, prophet, healer, servant, activist, leader – the most unlikely of kings. Come to share with us the wonder that comes from the unconditional love of God.
So, in an attempt to ground my Advent and our coming Christmas, I tried this. I tried to reflect on the joy and wonder of this season throughout my life. My thought pattern was that this might move me from my angst about the world today into a more reflective place. I recalled the looks of wonder and surprise on my sons’ faces when they were little boys, as we walked through our small town in New Hampshire with holiday lights twinkling and soft snow falling. I remembered the beauty of the Christmas Vespers service I so loved in college in New England. I brought to mind warm visits with my grandparents throughout my childhood in the Midwest. I thought about moments large and small that have brought me close to God in this season.
And - although memories are always lovely, I realized that my attempts at grounding weren’t really working. It began to dawn on me that, actually, I needed to be in the here and now of this complicated Advent and Christmas of our time – of 2017. I realized that I needed to hold onto my worry about the world – and I needed to hold that worry really close to my faith in God. I needed be in the business of finding beautiful moments of hope right here. Right now.
The incredible preacher Barbara Brown Taylor has raised up this kind of struggle related to Christmas, saying that “For good or ill, every Christmas Eve functions like a kind of time machine for us, taking us back to every other Christmas Eve we have spent on this earth.” She points out that some of these “time machine” memories are filled with warm and pine-scented moments, and some – well, not so much. She makes the point that Christmas is thought to be about going home and about memories, but then she notes something very profound. “Only where is home, exactly?” she asks. And she goes on to say “Some of us know and some of us are still trying to find out, but today the answer is, right here. This is our home, and we are all inside. This is our Bethlehem, where we have hauled the hopes and fears of all our years to lay them in front of a manger.”
This is our Bethlehem. A world full of war and environmental degradation, a nation full of divisions and power struggles and hatred, a city with income inequality through the roof and compassion fatigue on the rise. Our Bethlehem.
All of this caused me to wonder - where is the hope in Our Bethlehem? Thomas Merton wrote “Hope then is a gift. Like life, it is a gift from God, total, unexpected, incomprehensible, undeserved. It springs out of nothingness, completely free.” So how do we find this unexpected gift? One answer, I think, is that hope comes to us in the vast and rich teachings of Jesus – in the stories we have heard throughout this Advent season. Stories of the fig tree, of keeping awake, of John the Baptist and the angel Gabriel. And of course hope is all over the place on Christmas Eve – as Mary and Joseph await the birth of the baby Jesus. And hope abounds in the stories and teachings of Jesus that are to come - teachings that form us as a community of faith.
But what about outside of our church community – out there in the world? Because that’s the place where hope seems really hard to find. I heard a small story that reminded me about this the other day from my friend Sara Miles, author of several amazing books and founder of the Food Pantry at Saint Gregory of Nyssa. Sara is working with Faith in Action in support of our immigrant brothers and sisters in the City, and she told me about accompanying a young, monolingual Honduran man with schizophrenia upon his release from detention. He had been arrested by immigration agents and held for eleven months. Sara was with him while he had to wait several hours in the bus station before boarding a bus to Fresno, where a family member could come to meet him. He was in a highly anxious state, lying down on the bus station floor then jumping up again, holding his head, saying he felt sick. I imagine Sara talking with him quietly, reassuring him, listening, perhaps putting a hand on his shoulder. Sara told me that a few hours in she noticed two rather tough looking young teenage men with numerous tattoos watching the goings on. They approached Sara. “Is he OK?” they asked. “Here’s a piece of candy for him.” They said they were from Mexico, and, whispering, that they didn’t have papers. “We’re going to Fresno too,” they said. “We can watch out for him on the bus. We’ll make sure he finds his family when we get there. Does he need something more to eat?” A gift of hope in the face of great sadness. Unexpected, springing up, completely free, as Thomas Merton would say. I called this a small story when I began to tell you about it – but actually, it’s not small – it’s big.
At this very end of Advent, also Christmas eve day this time around, as we await the birth of Jesus, we are reassured over and over again that the God of hope is with us. That's what this moment is all about. In our reading from Samuel this morning we hear "I have been with you wherever you went" and "the Lord will make you a house." Our psalm proclaims that "I am persuaded that your love is established for ever." And in the story of Mary, we hear reassurance over and over again - "do not be afraid" "the Lord is with you." There is no doubt that our world is scary and troubling and that our faith will be tested. But with God all things are possible, and as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "The task ahead of us is never as great as the power behind us." Last month, David Stickley and I attended the revival hosted by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in the Diocese of San Joaquin. It was a joyful celebration of the renewal of our sister diocese after much waiting and praying and hard work – kind of an Advent story, as I think about it. Bishop Curry preached at the revival and he reiterated his message about how we are expected to live, as followers of Jesus. He talks a lot about Jesus, this Presiding Bishop of ours. He talks about what Jesus means to us and for us in these hard moments in our country’s troubled life. He talks about the messages Jesus is sending us right here and now, in 2017. Bishop Curry reminds us - “This is the Jesus Movement, and we are The Episcopal Church, the Episcopal branch of Jesus’ movement in this world.” He also is fond of adding “Now is our time to go. To go into the world, let the world know that there is a God who loves us, a God who will not let us go, and that that love can set us all free.”
And so on this last Sunday in Advent, just before Christmas, in our Bethlehem, I pray for us that we feel the hope of new birth and of Jesus and of our loving God. And I pray for us that we believe deeply in the words from the chant you prayed on Wednesdays nights throughout your seven week Advent – words that cry out to us saying “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.”