Sermon for Sunday, December 2, 2012
The Rev. Adam Thomas
I’ve never been good at staying up until midnight on New Year’s Eve. I always seem to nod off at about 11:35, or in recent years, much earlier. There was one year back in my wild college days when I managed to keep my eyes open for Dick Clark’s countdown, but now that he’s gone, I won’t ever have that pleasure again. So maybe some of you can fill me in on last night’s frivolities. Who took Dick Clark’s place? It was Ryan Seacrest, wasn’t it? Show of hands – how many of you stayed up until midnight last night to watch the ball drop in Times Square?
Did I print the wrong sermon?
No, I didn’t. The world at large won’t celebrate the New Year for another month. And the world at large is already celebrating Christmas, or to be more precise, perpetual Christmas Eve, with all the hustle and bustle of shopping and the butchered covers of “O Holy Night” playing in the mall, and the newspaper circulars I could weight train with. The world at large, as it so often does, has everything backward.
For us followers of Jesus Christ, today is New Year’s Day, and Christmas doesn’t happen until we tick the next four Sundays off the calendar. Today begins a period of deep-breathing, of collective Lamaze, if you will, while we wait and watch with the Virgin Mary as she comes to full term. This is the kind of breathing that the world at large can’t participate in, because the world at large never stops to catch its breath. So what is today, this New Year’s Day, this Day of Deep Breath? Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church year. Over the next three and a half weeks, we have the wonderful opportunity to breathe into the quiet spaces within ourselves and allow God to fill those cavities with the perpetual hope that marks this pre-Christmas season.
That’s what this sermon is about, by the way: hope. Advent is about anticipation, expectancy, keeping our eyes open, and hope fuels these things. But hope has always been a tricky concept to convey, so we’ll try to tease out its meaning a bit in the next few minutes as we talk about what this wonderful season of Advent, this season of deep breathing, has in store for us.
When discussing hope, we first must acknowledge the fundamental paradox of our lives as followers of Christ. This is, as the Pirates of Penzance sing, a “most ingenious paradox.” [“A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox. Haha haha…”] The pirates’ response to the paradox is to laugh, which isn’t a bad place for us to start either because laughter keeps things light, and this sermon could easily get very, very heavy.
So what is this most ingenious paradox of the Advent season and of our lives as followers of Christ? Well, rather than tell you straight out, I think I’ll illustrate by using the most beloved of Advent songs, which we won’t actually be singing until next week. “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here until the Son of God appear…”
The name “Emmanuel” is a special one. First appearing in Isaiah’s prophecy, the angel who comes to Joseph in a dream gives this name to the unborn child in Mary’s womb. Emmanuel means “God with us.” Do you see the paradox yet?
O come, O come, Emmanuel. O come, O come, God with us. O come, O come, One who is already here, One who is closer to us than we are to ourselves. O come, O come. This is the paradox – we wait for and anticipate the One who is already and forever with us. My father has often said, “The best way to prepare for the coming of Christ is never to forget the presence of Christ.” This is the paradox that we live into as followers of Jesus and celebrate especially in this Advent season.
And this paradox shows us why hope is such a difficult concept for us to get our heads around. You see, hope is faith projected into the future. Hope is the willing expectation that the bounds of possibility are far wider than we can perceive. The trouble is that the times when we most need to be hopeful, the times when hope really is the only thing that can sustain us, are often the same times that faith is in short supply or when those boundaries of possibility feel impossibly narrow.
Today’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah comes during one of those narrow times. Things are looking bleak for the people of God because they haven’t been acting like the people of God for some time. By coincidence, I actually just finished reading the entirety of Jeremiah last week, and man, is it a depressing book. One tragedy after another befalls the people of Jerusalem: siege, famine, betrayal, assassination, murder, all culminating in the worst tragedy of all – being carted off en masse to Bablyon and the desolation of exile from their homeland.
But in the midst of this darkest of dark periods in the history of God’s people, the Word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah and says, “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David…In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”
In the midst of the darkest of dark days, through Jeremiah God affirms God’s promise. There isn’t much hope in the book of Jeremiah, but here, in these few verses in the middle, we get a tiny whiff of hope.
But even a tiny whiff of hope is still hope. Hope of any size or strength is still hope – full, effective hope. Here again, is our paradox. Hope sustains us with the promises of God fulfilled at some future time that we cannot see in the midst of desolation. But at the same time, God is the One catalyzing the hope within us, the tiny whiff of hope, which is all we can manage right now. And so we pray, “O come, O come, God with us. You are here, O God, but come just the same because this tiny whiff of hope is wavering. O Come, O come, Emmanuel.”
How many of us have found ourselves in this situation, in this dark day of desolation? Perhaps yours happened on the day your mother died and you realized that you would never again hear her voice on the telephone? Perhaps yours happened when your son was diagnosed with severe autism and the life you had mapped out for your family took a sharp turn? Perhaps yours happened when you lost your job, or when you didn’t get accepted to the college you had your heart set on, or when you had sunk so low into depression that your bed became an island in a vast sea of nothing. Perhaps today, New Year’s Day for the Church, you are in the midst of your dark day, your time of exile.
Whether you are or whether you are remembering when you were or whether you are dreading when you will be again in that dark day, I invite you on this First Sunday of Advent, to take a deep, cleansing breath. Let that breath fill the quiet spaces within you. Feel God breathing into you that tiny whiff of hope, an embryonic hope, as small as those cells coalescing in Mary’s womb. The hope growing in Mary’s womb will be with us soon, in three and a half short weeks. But, as our most ingenious paradox goes, Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel, is forever with us, and he’s breathing hope into our desolation, he’s breathing vastness into our narrowness, he’s breathing promise into our faith. Rejoice. Rejoice. Emmanuel comes. Rejoice. Rejoice. God-with-us is here.