Coming Home | COME DOWN HOME
We begin our Advent series this year with a difficult passage. My colleague Jackson Henry noted that Isaiah’s words read a little bit like a legal document, or even a United Methodist resolution:
Whereas, the LORD would rip open the heavens and descend, make the mountains shudder at your presence;
And whereas, as when a forest catches fire, as when fire makes a pot to boil to shock your enemies into facing you, make the nations shake in their boots;
And whereas, you did terrible things we never expected, descended and made the mountains shudder at your presence;
And whereas, since before time began no one has ever imagined, no ear heard, no eye seen, a God like you who works for those who wait for him;
And whereas, you meet those who happily do what is right, who keep a good memory of the way you work;
And whereas, you have been angry with us;
And whereas, we have sinned and kept at it so long!
And whereas, we are all sin-infected, sin-contaminated;
And whereas, our best efforts are grease-stained rags;
And whereas, we dry up like autumn leaves, sin-dried, blown off by the wind;
And whereas, no one prays to you or makes the effort to reach out to you because you’ve turned away from us, left us to stew in our sins;
And whereas, still, God, we know you are our Father. We’re the clay, and you are our potter; All of us are what you made us;
Therefore be it resolved: We, your people, ask that you not be too angry with us, O God. We ask that you not keep a permanent record of our wrongdoing. We implore you to keep in mind, please, that we are your people—all of us.
(Isaiah 64:1-9, The Message, adapted by Dawn Chesser.)
We begin the season of Advent acknowledging our estrangement from our Creator. We acknowledge God’s anger and absence, and we confess our complicity in the situation: God has a right to be angry, because we, God’s people, have sinned against God and one another. We have not loved God with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done God’s will. We have broken God’s law. We have rebelled against God’s love. We have not loved our neighbors. We have not heard the cry of the needy. (Prayer of Confession (adapted by D. Chesser), “A Service of Word and Table I.” The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989. Pg. 8).
As my colleague Taylor Burton-Edwards notes in his sidebar on “Advent as Re-Alignment,” the season of preparing for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ is a time for taking stock of our present lives, straightening our crooked paths, and bringing our mission and purpose into sharp focus as we prepare not only for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but also his coming again in final glory.
The truth is, as the holiday season begins in the Year of our Lord, 2017, we need to be brutally honest about our current reality. We need to be honest about who we are and where we are headed as God’s people. We need to confess our sin, as individuals and as communities. For it seems abundantly clear that, as Isaiah put it only a couple of chapters earlier, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5 NRSV).
I write these words during early September. As I write, parts of Texas and Louisiana are still under water. In places where the water has receded enough for people to return to their homes, folks are coming face-to-face with their new reality: many have lost everything and will have to start fresh somewhere else. Others will have to spend months, perhaps even years, rebuilding. While there was not widespread loss of human life, the loss of animal and plant life has been profound. We grieve with our brothers and sisters who are facing the devastation.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Irma has swept across the Caribbean and the southern United States. A Category 5 hurricane, Irma’s power and force is unprecedented in the history of human record-keeping on such things. Islands were left demolished in her path, and while there were not a lot of deaths, thousands of lives have been destroyed. Only in her aftermath will we fully realize our own frailty as humans when faced with the power of nature. At about the same time, a massive earthquake hit Mexico, and a monsoon flooded India, killing over a thousand people. In the United States, fires raged across Washington and Oregon. On more than one occasion, I have wondered aloud if we are witnessing the end times.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has rescinded DACA, leaving nearly one million young people who immigrated to the United States illegally with their parents as children uncertain about their futures.
The rhetoric between North Korea and the United States grows ever threatening, as American forces and their allies run military exercises in and around the Korean peninsula. Meanwhile, North Korea continues to test rockets and has just exploded a nuclear bomb in a remote area deep underneath the earth’s crust, causing earthquakes and aftershocks and possible contamination.
By the time you read these words, I imagine there will be other disasters, catastrophes, challenges and fears occupying the headlines. Is it worse now than in years past? Could this be the end? Maybe, but if it is, we can’t know for certain, for no one knows the day or the hour. Therefore, we must live, always, as those who are ready, who are fully prepared for God’s kingdom to come, and for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Isaiah’s words help us to see our current predicament through a wider lens. The prophet reminds us that human beings have always and everywhere struggled with our failures. We have always had periods when it felt like God was angry or absent. We have always been sin-infected, sin-contaminated, and prone to blow about like fallen leaves on a breezy autumn day. As such, we have always needed rituals to help us return to God, right our ship, realign our lives to God’s mission. The Season of Advent, as we prepare the way of the Lord, is one of those times.
Whether we are sailing calm seas right now or facing a catastrophic storm, we need our Lord. We need to hear God’s voice speaking clearly. We need reassurance that unlike people, who keep records on the size of each hurricane, our Lord is not keeping a record of our wrongdoings. We need to be confident that the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 103:8, NRSV).
As we light the first candle in our Advent wreath today, officially enacting this annual ritual reminder, and as we move toward the celebration of the birth of the one God sent to save us from the law of sin and death, let us take seriously God’s call on our lives. Let us make our confession of sin, as individuals and as a human community. Let us pray that God will have mercy on us. And let us embrace our need for a Savior.
Perhaps, in part, because I grew up as a boy in the 1960s and 1970s, I have a strong association between Christmastime (all of December) and electric train sets. This was no doubt reinforced because my maternal grandfather worked on the railroad all of his working life. So not only did I regularly see commercials about boys and electric train sets from Thanksgiving to the end of every year, but my grandfather would regularly tell stories both about his life on the railroad (he lived right across from the tracks!) and the electric train that his family had running around the Christmas tree when their children were young.
I finally got my first electric train when I was ten years old. I was really excited when I opened the box and saw it. I couldn’t wait to put it together and make it run!
And then I found out how hard it was to do that-- not so much the putting it together part, but the making, and then keeping it running part. The tracks of the HO scale set linked together just fine with the couplers supplied. But the cars, especially the engine, were hard to get onto the track just right. I thought you should be able just to put them on the track and they’d be good to go. No. All the wheels of the engines and the cars had to be just right, or the train would either not move at all, or a misaligned wheel on one car would lead many to derail and fall off the track.
My father could see how frustrated I was getting with this. He did two things that helped immensely. He offered to staple the track to a plywood backing so the track segments wouldn’t be pulled apart by the train running over them. But more importantly, he showed me what the rerailer track was for. It wasn’t just for connecting the track to its electricity source. It was also and primarily there to align the wheels of any engine or car you ran over it. It might take a few tries since the length of the track was shorter than some cars or engines, but it would eventually work and then help keep the cars aligned or realign them every time they passed over it again.
Advent is like a rerailer track in the Christian year. It points us toward the culmination of all things in Christ as the North Star of our lives as individuals, congregations, denominations, and the body of Christ throughout the world. As we are reminded throughout this season, again and again, of where God intends to lead us all, we are enabled to get our lives realigned with the purposes and challenges of living in God’s kingdom here and now. We become aware of the great disjunction between where we are and where God longs and works for us to be, a disjunction so great the heavens themselves have to be torn apart and recreated, ultimately, to bring renewal to all things. We are also realigned with God’s intention to meet us where we are, to fill us with joy, and to do everything possible here and now through us to make this world more closely approximate what God is longing for it to become.
Is it possible to run an electric train without the rerailer track? Yes. There are other ways to connect the power source to the track. But does it make good sense to do so? Not so much. The tracks and the train wheels, though built to scale, are imperfect. Motion and expansion and contraction over time because of the heat introduced by electricity and friction will separate the tracks unevenly, even if electricity still flows, and this will cause the wheels to start derailing. Having a rerailer in the circuit helps put the wheels back on track even if they’ve started to stray.
So it is with us in the church and the work of Advent. We may have gone in a wide variety of directions during the season after Pentecost, many of them likely quite good. But in the course of pursuing all those directions, we may also have somewhat lost our bearings on where all our lives and labor as God’s people are heading. Advent comes around, year after year, to bring the whole church into the singular focus on that one thing. As with the rerailer track on my electric train set, it may take more than one passing over the track to realign us with our and the universe’s ultimate end. And so we take a full four weeks (and in the Eastern Church, six or seven weeks) to realign our lives around our true North Star.
It’s spending that time focused on the end, the culmination of all things in Christ, that truly realigns and so prepares us to celebrate and contemplate the mystery of their beginning in his Incarnation, and then carries us through the rest of the Christian year.
So my spouse (also clergy) and I were/are “modern” Christian parents who wanted to observe Advent and Christmas as the church has done so historically, and we didn’t want to teach our children the mythology of Santa Claus. This is hard to do in U.S. culture, even in U.S. church culture!
What we decided to do was practice St. Nicholas Day. The real St. Nicholas was a bishop in Myra, Turkey. While even some of the stories surrounding him may be more legendary than historical, what those legends contain is witness to a Christian leader who was personally committed to the care of people and families who faced poverty, particularly but not exclusively families with children. His “saints day” in the Western Christian calendar is December 6.
St Nicholas Day at our home would draw on some of the Santa Claus mythology, but primarily on enacting the witness of the actual saint. There were stockings to open in the morning, primarily including gold wrapped chocolate, relating to the legend that St. Nicholas would leave gold coins or balls of gold at the homes of people overnight as a means of concealing the gift was from him. We would then spend the morning involved in work with a local nonprofit that worked with people who were poor. This might be ringing bells with the Salvation Army, or volunteering with a food pantry, or getting a list for shopping for people who may not have much to give their children for Christmas. Over lunch, we would write Christmas carol parodies for fun (ask me about those sometime!). In the afternoon, we would shop for other people, not ourselves. And in the evening, we would put up the Christmas tree, watch one traditional Santa-centered Christmas video, and talk about how what we knew about the real saint related (or didn’t) with how the video portrayed Santa Claus.
St. Nicholas Day may be one way you might consider helping the children in your family or congregation bring Santa Claus “down home” into a full observance of Advent, rather than allowing that figure to overshadow the celebration of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ throughout the season and well into Christmas itself.