“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Matthew 24: 36-44
Advent is a time of waiting and preparation for Jesus’ coming. The word Advent means “coming” or “arrival.” The focus of the entire season is the celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ in his first advent, and the anticipation of the return of Christ in his second advent. Thus, Advent is far more than simply a 2,000 year-old tradition. It is a celebration of the truth that God revealed her love and presence in the world in the past and will do so again. In this double focus on past and future, Advent also captures the spiritual journey we undertake as we affirm that Christ has come, that He is present in the world today, and that He will come again.
Advent is marked by a spirit of expectation, of anticipation, of preparation and of longing. When we wait for something to happen, we usually have expectations that we build up in our minds about the event, person or thing. With Christmas coming, many of us look forward to the presents we hope to receive. We have expectations and hopes about what we might find under the tree Christmas morning. I remember as a child asking my parents for a variety of extravagant and impossible gifts, and I remember my disappointment on Christmas morning when what I had hoped for did not appear. Did I really expect there to be a horse under the tree in our living room? Yes. Sometimes I could not even manage to be interested in the gifts I did receive because of my childish stubbornness and disappointment in not getting what I had expected to get. I have found that there are ways in which I continue to live out this cycle of expectation and disappointment in which my expectations can hinder me from seeing the gifts given.
When I was in college I was a performing arts major and in one of my classes I had the chance to explore the role expectations play in life. My professor gave us a book called Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. After reading this I was encouraged to look at the world with a fresh perspective. I realized that there were many details that I missed because I would see something, label it, think I knew everything I needed to know about it and move on. When you stop labeling and let go of what you expect to see, you can often discover unexplored depth and fullness. We can even do that right here at church. Can you challenge yourself to enter these doors with fresh eyes each time you come in? What can you notice if you look beyond what you expect to see and invite a spirit of curiosity about where you are and how God is with you there?
I would like to share with you some insights I discovered on a trip to Cuba 10 years ago. My father’s father is from Cuba but he left in the 1940’s. While I was growing up I often heard him tell stories about the island and I developed a fascination with it. One summer I had the chance to spend the summer in Cuba and take a course on historical preservation. For the course we visited many old and beautiful churches. I learned from the pastors that after the Revolution many churches were forced to close down because they were seen as hotbeds of counterrevolutionary activity. Over the past 20 years there has been significant church growth in Cuba as restrictions have relaxed. One
pastor who has been ministering in churches in Cuba for over 40 years said that they were in a very exciting time for church development. He said, “When you invite a person to church in the United States, even if they’ve never been, they probably know what you’re talking about and have some expectations associated with churches and worship services. Here in Cuba when you invite someone to church they have very few expectations. Some of them have never even heard of church and so they come with open eyes and open hearts experiencing faith with a fresh perspective.” Imagine that. What would you see, hear, feel if you were encountering church and Christ for the first time?
During this Advent season I invite you to examine your expectations as you prepare for Christmas. The true gift we are preparing to receive is the gift of God’s presence in the world. How will you prepare yourself to receive this extraordinary gift anew this year? Will you prepare yourself in a way that opens you up to Christ’s coming? Over the course of our lifetimes we develop many expectations of God and how we believe that God is or is not in our lives. I have found that over and over again God surprises me with the way that God shows up. Every time I really think of Christmas I find awe at God’s presence in the world through a teenage girl, into a humble, dirty and most likely smelly barn as an infant.
This past week I visited one of my best friends from elementary school who just had a baby. He is 6 weeks old and adorable. Seeing his tiny body amazed me with his little fingers and toes. My friend saw my delight and handed him over to me. I hugged him and rocked him, and within the first minute of cradling him to me, he became a projectile on me, over me and even past me to the rug and the couch. All I could do was laugh, and being a minister I could not help but find myself wondering if even Jesus the Christ spit up like this on Mary or Joseph or possibly even the three wise men who were visiting.
With Christmas coming soon I am in this mindset of wondering where I will see God come into the world, and I find that I am more willing to see God amid the messiness of life. Usually my expectations tell me to look for God in the peaceful, soaring moments of worship at church or in the beauty of the sun rising in a burst of colors out of the waters of Lake Michigan. My expectations do not tell me to see God in messiness of an infant, the crying child, the neediness of a neighbor, the frustrations of family life. David Bartlett writes in Feasting on the Word: “One day Jesus may appear in the clouds, suddenly, like a thief in the night. But before that – as Matthew reminds us – Jesus will appear just around the corner, suddenly, like a hungry person, or a neighbor ill-clothed, or someone sick or imprisoned.” God shows up in the wonder of beauty and in the muck of messes. As we are told in Genesis, God is there in all creation, in all of us and all our lives. God may not show up in the way you expect. You may be disappointed, but that does not mean that creative, sustaining and redeeming power is not with you. I encourage you to open your eyes and your heart this holiday season to the holiness that is all around and within you.
Scholar and former priest Barbara Brown Taylor offers inspiration this first Sunday of Advent as we prepare for Christ’s coming and seek to live our lives fully right here and now: “Every morning when you wake up, decide to live the life God has given you to live right now. Refuse to live yesterday over and over again. Resist the temptation to save your best self for tomorrow. Live a caught-up life, not a put-off life, so that wherever you are….you are ready for God. Either way, our lives are in God’s hands. (“On the Clouds of Heaven” in The Seeds of Heaven).
We have just celebrated Thanksgiving and it would be such a gift to carry with us this celebration and practice of gratitude into our every day existence. If we awake each morning with a prayer of thanksgiving on our lips, grateful for another day to embrace the possibilities of a new morning, we will soon find that we cannot help but see blessings everywhere and in those blessings we discover the hand of God.
May this advent season be for you a time of great hope.