WATCH FOR THE LIGHT
A sermon preached by Brian Mason
At the First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
On Sunday, December 2, 2018
Luke 21:32-36: Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away. And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares. For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.
Here we are again, knocking on the door of yet another Christmas season. One by one, the houses in my neighborhood shine just a bit brighter as Christmas trees are lighted in the front windows. The stores I shop have whole aisles filled with red and green wrapped merchandise and the god-awful sound systems that usually play smooth jazz and soft rock blare tinny Christmas songs.
Even the stores’ employees are plagued or perhaps possessed by the holiday themed sensory overload. I have a bet with myself whether the checker will say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” If I guess it wrong I have to put a dollar in the bucket on the way out; if I get it right, I get to walk past the bell ringer without making eye contact at all.
It is in these last weeks before Christmas that we plan our lives away. There are the school concerts and plays and ski club and the debate team that must be done. It seems to me that thieves plan most school events. After all, they rob Sundays from the church that guaranteed it as a day off in the first place. It’s as if they think our children benefit more from cardio and competition than they do from rest and prayer and matters of the heart; whatever happened to good old-fashioned boredom, anyways?
And of course adults fill holidays with parties and gift exchanges, many of which we feel obligated to attend, and only partially enjoy.
The titans of industry look forward to the Christmas season very much. Every Christmas I get an image in my mind of the Board members of big box stores swimming through pools of money like Scrooge McDuck. Consumer culture has replaced the season of comfort and joy with a sense of obligation to buy things; and popular culture has convinced us we need to do things simply to get them done. We must buy the ham, we must cook the ham; we must buy the gifts, we must give the gifts; we must say yes to the Johnsons, we must say no to the Kennedys.
To all that I say, “Bah humbug.” I want Christmas seasons filled with magic and mystery. I want a Christmas filled with hopeful expectation. I want a Christmas that fills my heart love. Christmas is a season for miracles. It was a miracle that led the wise men to Bethlehem to see the Prince of Peace lie helpless in a manger; it was a miracle that led the good people of Bedford Falls to help out old George Bailey; it was a miracle Ralpie didn’t shoot his eye out; it was a Miracle on 34th Street; and a miracle the Bells of St. Mary kept clanging. Christmas is about miracles!
Today the church celebrates the first Sunday in Advent, that season of active waiting. As the scripture lesson says, we should be on guard so that our hearts are not weighed down with worry and drunkenness. But we are hearty residents of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods, we have no need for warnings about worry or drunkenness, do we?
You’d be right to ask why we’re to guard our hearts and keep clear our minds – these warnings were spoken by people centuries ago, and the specifics about what happened on the first Christmas are questionable at best. Moreover, the season of Advent is supposed to prepare us for things that none of us have ever seen; it asks us to work for things that none of us has ever accomplished. And what are these things?
You won’t learn the true meaning of Christmas in many of the songs you’ll hear while shopping this season. Real Christmas songs have nothing to do with children spying their mother kissing Mrs. Claus’ husband—their poor father. They have nothing to do with laughter in a one horse open sleigh. Anyone who has actually taken a winter ride in a one horse open sleigh knows what fun it isn’t to freeze your stockings off while singing a sleighing song. Real Christmas songs, the ones sung in church shout joy to the world and peace to all. Real Christmas songs sing of angels heard on high. They tell of miracle things that never have been.
The roots of the faith we practice are, in the words of the late Reverend Peter Gomes, “based on assumptions too difficult to accept, expectations too unreal to contemplate, a phantom of truths that do not conform with the facts.” Advent and Christmas do not conform to the facts. They assure that light will prevail over darkness, goodness will vanquish all evil, peace will abide, and there will be war no more.
I read the paper this morning as I suspect many of you did, too. Several of the New York Times’ Top 100 Books of 2018 are about wars, inhumanity, and political divide. If the past and the present are any measure of the truth of Christmas then we are in trouble indeed. If we appointed a special counsel to investigate whom among us is guilty of doubting the true meaning of Christmas we’d all stand accused of collusion. We’ve all doubted peace on earth, good will to all; we’ve all questioned joy to the world, and we have ample evidence to do so—history and current events help make our case everyday.
The story of Christmas might be a fantasy left over from an ancient era. But Christmas was never meant to be a story about what was. Christmas is about things still to come; and Advent is the season when we live in anticipation of all that Christmas promises.
Living in anticipation of a world unlike anything history has ever known is taxing work. It requires a measure of patience no mortal has ever known. Even saints and martyrs question whether justice will prevail. I imagine Mother Teresa wept as she fed women and men as they died from leprosy and tuberculosis; I imagine Harriet Tubman wept while walking that underground highway to freedom; I imagine suffragists and abolitionists cried, too. Then as now, there is no history that guarantees perfect success. Nevertheless, they persisted. They were patient, expectant Advent people.
To be sure, Advent is a time of waiting and patience. But do not mistake it for a time that encourages passivity.
Any talk of patience is tough business these days. Modern culture despises patience. Recently I’ve noticed the local grocery store advertising an option to shop online ahead of time and receive a curbside delivery of your pre-ordered items. Even the library is doing this. It is a sad world that humans no longer find pleasure in skimming library shelves and impulse buying cookies and ice cream. Pretty soon we’ll get around in automated cars that whisk us from driveway, to job, to store. I’m sure by then most of our interactions will come in the form of tiny glowing screens. Patience is in short supply these days.
As the father to a seven-year-old I try to teach my daughter about patience. Like her parents, she’s a perfectionist and desperately wants to get things right the first time. I assure her that making errors in spelling or math is exactly how we learn; and missing a note in a song is part of learning how to play the piano. Still, she wants to get it right on the first try. I think a lot of us are a bit like this. Admitting mistakes and sticking with something is harder than it sounds. It’s so very natural to want to turn and run away.
But deep down we all know that anything worth doing takes practice and demands patience. The season of Advent celebrates this lesson. It is a season that shuns passivity and idleness; it is a season that calls us to live in hopeful expectation of a world in which everything is gotten right for a change. The Reverend Gomes calls this the art of impatient living, in that we are actively preparing for that which we wait.
Farmers and expectant parents are masters of the art of impatient living. Corn and onions grow according to their own devices, and babies do, too. But farmers and expectant parents are anything but idle. No farmer plants a field and sits down to watch it grow; no one worth their salt learns they’re to be a parent and waits until the child is born to get the house ready. There’s work to be done, other fields to plant, barns to clean, cribs to assemble, and gizmos and gadgets to figure out. This is what is meant by the art of impatient living, by actively preparing for that which we wait.
What we await in the season of Advent is the miracle of Christmas. So, in the spirit of the season, let’s set aside our reservations about the narrative’s validity and consider the story on its own merits. The story of Christmas is about God, the most powerful force in the entire universe emptying himself into the world, not in the shape of a powerful superhero, but in the form or a poor, pitiful child born in a barn of all places. The Christmas story is about a God who divests his power to be just like us: flesh and bone.
If this were a comic book we’d be pretty confused at this point. Most superheroes use their powers to move faster than speeding bullets; they wield thunder hammers, and bend metal with their mind. However, this hero asks his enemies to break bread with him, and seeks communion with society’s outcasts and rejects. This hero tells us that one day the meek with inherit the earth, that the first will be last; he tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to welcome strangers and refugees. In this story the superhero chooses to live and love, and suffer and die just like us. It is a story meant to inspire anyone who dares to prepare a way for truth to triumph over mere fact, for justice and righteousness to triumph over indifference, for joy to triumph over pleasure, and peace to triumph over hostility.
This, my dear friends, is what we are called to live impatiently for. This is what the season of Advent is all about. It has nothing to do with what has been; it has everything to do with what can be.
This is the true meaning of Christmas. The trappings of this season are undeniably seductive. It’s so easy to busy ourselves with things to do just to get them done. Let me be clear: I am no different than anyone else; and I experience no shame in admitting I enjoy a few of Christmas’ many trappings: I like the frantic pace of the season and ugly Christmas sweaters, and cookies and hot cocoa. I like getting a gift about as much as I like giving them. I even like the wine and eggnog, too.
But this season of impatient living is about much more. It’s about cultivating an inner light in this season of long darkness. It’s a season best experienced when you give the gift your self. When you give your time and attention to those overlooked spaces and places and love your neighbors as your self. That is why churches throughout the world fill up this time of year. Yes, your spouses and children dragged some of you here. But since we’re all here together, let us be inspired to work towards a world in which truth triumphs over fact—a world where peace, goodwill, and joy are known to everyone. Happy Advent, you artists of impatient living—Amen. I love you. And may God bless us all.