Yikes, it’s Advent. That’s the proper liturgical formulation for this season: “Yikes, it’s Advent!” It is an admission that no matter how closely we pay attention to the calendar, no matter how much we follow the development of the Christian year, we are still surprised when Advent comes. It seems too early. Too early is our normal greeting for this time of year. “It’s too early,” we exclaim to all we meet. “It can’t be time for this,” we opine. And who knows what opine means, but it seems to fit this season. And not because of the greenery!
We are just not ready; we have too much to do; our lists grow longer; our accomplishments are fewer. For everything we check off, six more slip onto the list. How does that happen? This is where the whole legend about elves came into being – people found their Christmas to-do lists growing almost before their eyes. Who is doing this? Must be elves. We’re not ready.
That is precisely why we need Advent. The creators of the Christian calendar knew that we all would need a swift kick to get the new year started. So, it begins with a call to get ready. Because we aren’t ready. Worse than that, we’ve forgotten that there is anything to get ready for. Or we thought that what we are supposed to be getting ready for is a celebration of the past. We are preparing for a historical observation of something God did at one time. And we are still grateful for it; we are still defined by it; we still try to live differently because of it. But it is to an extent, old news. It is a case of “been there, done that” when it comes right down to it. Or is it?
What is it that we are waiting for? What are we looking for? The first reading for this first Sunday of Advent reminds us that what we long for is not a historical remembrance but a new reality, a new encounter. And this new encounter can be shocking; it can wake us up from overlooking what really surrounds us.
You no doubt remember being sent to clean your room. And you also remember your first thought as you stumbled through the door and flopped onto the bed: “Looks clean to me!” Right? Never mind the pile of dirty clothes on the floor. Or the stack of papers teetering on the edge of the desk you can barely see the top of. Yeah, maybe that’s a banana peel on the floor or an apple core, or a bag of chips you finished a few days ago. “But it looks clean to me,” you think. Or maybe clean enough.
Isaiah comes along to ask us to take another look at our living space. Like our mom, Isaiah stands at the door and tells us that company is coming and would you just take a look at the kind of squalor you’re living in. What would happen, the old prophet shouts, if the one you claim to be waiting for were to show up today? What if the one you want to come home, tore open this door right here and came charging into this room? What then, smart guy?
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” Isaiah cries on our behalf. We know you are present; our faith tells us that you are here. But we need to know it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Shake us up, so that we can be certain again. We’ve begun to wonder; we’ve begun to doubt. So, do it again, Lord. Do it again.
There is where our historical observance comes in. There is where telling the story becomes so important —not just so that we can look back with a sigh and long for the good old days, not so that we can wistfully wish for the blessing that they had back in the day, but so we can learn to recognize it when it comes again.
That is the task of Advent, to pay attention to what is and what might be, not simply to look back at what was. The people of God were in exile; the foundations of their nation had been shaken; the comforts that they had begun to take for granted were taken from them. The human institutions that they had constructed no longer held the security that they had begun to take for granted. So, they began to look elsewhere, and they realized that their faith was shaky as well. They needed a boost, so they looked back; and they looked forward at the same time. The mountains of our society were shaken; so shake the mountains, O Lord. The foundations of our nation were shaken; so shake the foundations, O God.
They needed an Advent upside the head! We remember, they claimed, we remember how you used to deal with us, and we want that again. We want to remember as you remember. The words seem like they were reminding God, but really they were reminding themselves. The look back was not just to give them a warm feeling about what once was, but a way to spur them to living differently.
Advent is a reminder to get out of our sense of complacency. Though it is hard to be complacent when things are difficult. When all is going well, then we need the two by four of Advent to wake us up. But when things are difficult, we use Advent as a prayer, as a reminder to hope.
Believe it or not, that is the call of Jesus in our gospel passage for the week. It is a call to hope. We sometimes must listen hard to hear something hopeful in these descriptions, but it is there. It is underneath sometimes, but still there.
But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven (Mark 13;24-27).
Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake. (Mark 13:33-37).
Nervous? Well, yes, because there is much to do and a deadline to meet. But at the same time, there is the promise that the master is near – not as a threat, but as a promise. We are not alone. What we see in front of us is not all there is. History is heading somewhere. We may not know where exactly, except that it is someplace called the kingdom of heaven, or as Jesus was fond of describing it, life. And that is what we long for in the end, life – life in all its fullness and meaning; life in all its joy and promise. That’s what is coming; that is what is promised.
And we forget every now and then. We forget that we are looking for anything, that we are hoping for anything. Until Advent comes and knocks us upside the head with a not so subtle reminder. Then we look and see what a mess we’re living in, and we need to do something about it, because “Company’s Coming!”