The War on Advent
Bible Text: Isaiah 40:1-11 | Preacher: Rev. Alex Peterson | Series: Advent 2019 | There’s a war for America’s cultural soul going on. For centuries, people slowly stopped greeting each other in reference to this ancient winter season. Its name has been lost from stores, city halls and even some churches. I am, of course, talking about the War on Advent. Now I imagine the talking heads on radio and TV already are complaining about alleged Wars on Christmas, as is their tradition. But I tell you: those very people are chief offenders in the War on Advent! Because Christmas does not start until December 25th! The “Twelve Days of Christmas” carol? Those days go from Christmas Day on December 25th up until Epiphany on January 6th. Those twelve days are Christmastide: they start on, not before, Christmas Day. Until then, we Christians are in the season of Advent, not Christmas. And so I’m afraid we already lost the War on Advent. Because if you look at American culture, Christmas already conquered all of December. Now it’s marching on Thanksgiving, with Black Friday sales, carols on the radio and holiday ads coming earlier and earlier each year. If we’re not careful, even Halloween might be swallowed up by legions of candy canes and sugar plums.
Melodrama aside, today is the first day of Advent. Though I absolutely love Christmas, my goal today is to convince you to leave Christmas until Christmas Eve and to embrace Advent instead for these next four weeks. And though according to official church calendars I’m technically correct—which is the best kind of correct—merely pointing at church tradition would be boring. Sure, our Christian ancestors roughly 1500 years ago decreed that the season of Christmas would run from December 25th through January 5th each year, with Epiphany starting on the 6th. And sure, those long-dead Christians also declared that the separate season of Advent would be a distinct time of fasting, discipline and anticipation over the four weeks prior. Or as a friend of mine joked about our ancestors’ more severe Advent traditions: “Instead of “Merry Christmas, I’m saying ‘Have a solemn and penitent Advent you miserable sinners!’” But if I just say “Them’s the rules” or “That’s how it’s always been,” I’m not being helpful or interesting. So let’s explore today’s scripture to learn why Advent is so crucial to our Christian faith and our holiday sanity.
Our scripture begins: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” Who are the hardest folks to comfort? The already happy. It’s only possible to comfort sad people, because the happy have nothing to be comforted over. This scripture doesn’t speak to holly-jolly people or those times when all is merry and bright. God speaks here to those who suffer, who are at the end of their rope. It’s thought this prophecy originally was given to Jewish people living in exile in Babylon, after Israel was conquered and its people taken away in chains. Isaiah basically tells them: “Receive the comfort and tender care of God, for your suffering will soon end, you have faithfully endured this trial.” Isaiah never tells the Israelite exiles, “Better not pout, better not cry,” because he’s speaking to people who have lost it all and have every reason in the world to cry, even if Santa watching. This scripture wasn’t meant to celebrate happiness per se but to bring happiness to the sorrowful, to give hope to the despairing and to comfort to the grieving.
And that’s the first reason we need to reclaim the unique season of Advent. Most Christmas pop culture pressures us to be happy, so when you have a Blue Christmas, you often feel out of place. There’s no room for feeling lonely, fretting over mounting debts or being unsure when the culture around you demands all be merry and bright all the time. Yet that pressure is the opposite of how these weeks before Christmas are meant to be. Advent is a time of admitting that we struggle, that we need God to give us hope, that we need comforting. Sure, we can say Christmas brings joy into the world. But don’t put the joyful cart before the joy-needing horse. Advent gives us a few weeks to remember and reflect upon how the world needs that influx of heavenly joy, that we ourselves need comfort and hope… so we can know that just as Christmas brightens the long nights of winter, so too will God’s love brighten our weary souls. Christmas ads for the next few weeks will sell the mantra of be-happy-all-the-time-and-shop-shop-shop. But in contrast to forced and false happiness, Advent is a season that admits life has its shadows and so yearns and hopes that the loving light of God will someday dawn in full.
Second, some later verses in today’s scripture: “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers, and the flowers fade, when the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass.” What those lines of poetry mean is that you and I are mortal. We all shall die one day, just as grass withers and dies in the field. Moreover, our faithfulness—our piety and devotion—is like grass, for it too proves weak and unreliable. Part of being human is imperfection and change. Yet this glum stanza concludes: “But the word of our God endures forever.” So yes, we are mortal, make mistakes, and are often unsure or afraid. That’s part of Advent too. But Isaiah reaffirms our hope by arguing that the good news he brings doesn’t rely on us but on the everlasting Lord of love. This stanza reminds us that this mortal life is filled with uncertainty and change—“all people are grass”—but also that God is a solid rock of love, grace, justice and hope in a world filled with stormy turmoil.
And so too, Advent is a season where we reflect on transitions and on change. The old year soon ends, while a new one soon dawns. Christmas leads us from Old Testament expectations to New Testament fulfillments. Churchgoers transition from winter’s cold darkness outside into warm, candle-lit sanctuaries inside. Advent is a time where you embrace that tension of in-betweenness, the sensation of knowing God’s promises are true but aren’t here quite yet. We anticipate not only one special day of the year but something special for this world and our lives. Contrast that Advent awareness of change against your average Christmas commercial. Those ads all want you focused on the here-and-now: “Don’t forget to buy gifts!” or “If you don’t decorate just right, you don’t have the Christmas spirit!” In contrast, Advent looks beyond itself. It admits these lives of ours shall fade like grass. Even the most beloved Christmas presents, ornaments and fa la la’s shall fade, and that’s okay. It’s a powerful thing for your soul and your sanity to reflect on life’s impermanency, the longing for something more, the in-between-ness we all feel… and then to remember God promises to be our shelter from life’s fading and frenzy. That is a hope and joy far more solid than any of the latest gizmo gifts.
Finally, in my favorite lines of today’s scripture, we read: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” While I know Michigan is car country, these verses do not suggest that God drives a Chevy. Rather, kings in the ancient world often sent messengers ahead of their arrival to alert their subjects: “The king is coming, so clean up the roads to make his journey easier and spruce up your cities to make his stay nicer. Prepare, and expect his arrival soon. Or else” Isaiah uses that image here to tell the Israelites in exile that God shall soon deliver them from oppression once more, so get ready. But where a mortal king can only move roads or walls, God vows to move heaven and earth to prepare the way for what is about to happen. “Every valley shall be raised up; every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed.” While beautiful poetry, think about what Isaiah is really saying. As a native Californian, this scene seems like what you all imagine happens to west coast every time there’s the teensiest earthquake: mountains crumbling and valleys rocketing skyward. The imagery is of massive upheaval and reconstruction, as if to say all of creation must prepare itself for what God will do next to help his people.
And so third and finally, Advent is most of all a time of preparation and expectation. As a season, Advent links three spiritual expectations. 1) Old Testament expectations for God to fulfill his gracious promises, from his covenant with Abraham to today’s promises in Isaiah to the shepherds on that first Christmas rejoicing that at last God has sent the messiah. 2) We who read those stories today as we prepare for the Christmas season that follows Advent… we expect and anticipate that, just as Jesus entered the world on that first Christmas, so too will he enter our hearts if we let him. 3) Finally, these past and present examples of preparing for and expecting God’s arrival in our lives teach and prepare us to await Christ’s second coming, that promised day when death at last is ended and sorrow no more. All three faithful expectations—Biblical hopes in God’s covenant faithfulness, personal hopes for Christ to enter our hearts, eternal hopes for Christ to come again in glory—all three hopes are linked together in Advent. Just as a child eagerly await the joys of Christmas morning but also can recognize that it’s not quite yet that day, we likewise expect and await the joys of God’s heavenly reign. American Christianity these days is too quick to rush straight into Christmas. We don’t like Advent’s delayed gratification. But instead of feasting on Christmas cookies, our ancestors in Advent often fasted, gave things up and repented of sins as many still do in Lent… so they could all the more eagerly embrace Christmas, not only the one day of the year but all the fulfilled promises that holiday contains.
All that said… perhaps some of you are thinking I’m just being a Grinch right now. With my jokes about a War on Advent, it might feel like I’m trying to steal Christmas from you! Who else besides me cites Church tradition and scripture to complain that people are too happy? Perhaps you feel I’m a humbug like Ebenezer Scrooge, who reacted to holiday cheer by wishing that “every idiot who goes about with a ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled in his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” And sure, Scrooge did have a few good ideas, I’ll give you that. But that’s not my point today.
Instead, I hope you understand why Advent exists as a separate holiday season from the twelve days of Christmas that come afterwards. Because while Christmastide is a time to embrace the joy and love we feel… Advent is a season to admit we need comforting and hope, that not everything is perfect, that our lives and world do need a little Christmas right this very minute. And Advent is a season to know this life fades and changes like grass on the wind and then to know even more that God is with us in all those changing, crazy, in-between times. And Advent is a season to embrace the ancient expectations and preparations for the first coming of the messiah… so that we today can patiently yet confidently wait for Christ to enter our hearts and one day to reenter our world in full glory, when God at last shall wipe away every tear, make war no more, undo death, and soothe every wound and hurt.
Now Christmas is great: it’s probably my favorite holiday. But! I invite you for the next four weeks to let Christmas be Christmas… and let Advent be Advent. Reflect on where you need love and hope in your own life. Adopt a spiritual discipline to center yourself amid the frenzy of this time of year. Imitate ancient expectations of Christmas by building a similar anticipation for Christ to enter your heart, to forgive every sin and heal every wound, exploring and embracing that yearning for something more in our lives and world. Honor that yearning for relief at the heart of Advent by bringing relief to others through volunteering, charity or random acts of kindness. Whatever you do, know that I won’t to wish you a Merry Christmas today, sorry. Christmas won’t arrive for another 24 days. Instead, I wish you a Hopeful and Expectant Advent. Amen.