By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
First Sunday of Advent
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, December 1, 1996

Isaiah 64:1-12 Longing for the Lord to come
Mark 13:24-37 The coming of the Son of Man in the clouds
Arcana Coelestia #6895.2
The Lord's spiritual coming

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. (Mark 13:35)

I hope all of you had a nice Thanksgiving, as Patty and I did--sharing meals with family and friends, and spending the day visiting with each other. Now that Thanksgiving has gone by we are beginning a magical time of year. It is especially magical for children, who do not have to worry about staging Christmas, but can simply enjoy it. Yes, Advent season is upon us again!

For children, the four weeks from Thanksgiving to Christmas seem like an eternity. In my growing up years I remember counting down the days with my brothers and sisters until it would finally be Christmas day. Sometimes we would even put the countdown on the kitchen calendar. Then there are the Advent calendars, with little doors opening up to reveal a surprise picture for each day leading up to Jesus' birth.

This is a time of anticipation. A time when the young and young at heart can hardly wait for the days to go by. A time of wondering what the surprises will be on Christmas day. A time of looking forward to days spent with family and friends.

However, it is not an easy time of year for everyone. If we have recently lost a loved one; if we live far from our family, or are not on good terms with them; if we are weighed down with the cares of providing a happy Christmas for others, such as our children . . . These and other trials can turn Christmas into a difficult time for us. This can be especially hard, since we feel that Christmas should be a happy time. If it is not, the contrast between our expectations and the reality is all that much harder to bear.

This contrast of light and darkness, joy and pain at this season is not a coincidence. As much as our society accentuates the positive in Christmas, it is a festival that, in its very essence, involves both the positive and the negative side of our experience. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, Christmas happens in the winter time, when days are short and nights are long; when plants are dormant and snow and ice are taking over the landscape.

We do not know exactly what time of the year Jesus was born. We celebrate Christmas at this time of year, not so much because it reflects the actual date and time of Jesus' birth, but because of the symbolism and traditions in the festivals that occur at this time of year. In many cultures there is a festival of lights just when nature provides us with the least light and the most night. Our culture's practice of putting up decorative lights for Christmas follows in this tradition. Just when things are darkest, we put up hundreds, even thousands of lights in our houses, along the streets, and in our town squares to remind ourselves that there is new life emerging even in the dead of winter.

As Christians, at this time of year we celebrate the greatest emergence of new light and life: the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Whether or not Jesus was born in winter, he was born at a time of spiritual winter for humankind. Religion had degenerated from its true purpose of teaching people love and compassion, to something that mostly involved external ritual devoid of its deeper spirit. We were like sheep without a shepherd. Even those who wanted to live a good and spiritual life had difficulty finding any guide to show the path. We were in danger of losing our sense of God and spirit altogether.

Yet it is at these times that we as human beings also feel our greatest longing for God and spirit. When things are going well for us, we often do not stop to think about the true source of all the good things in life. But when things are not going well, and we feel dead inside, then we begin searching for something more. We are more likely to be searching for--to be waiting in anticipation of God at these times than at any other.

This is just what was happening in our reading from Isaiah. The prophet starts with an anguished plea to the Lord: "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!" Don't we often feel like this when the going is difficult? Don't we often wish that God would, in a sense, tear the sky open and come to us in a blinding, all consuming flash that would give us new life and new purpose?

Isaiah probably wrote these words during or just after the time when the Jews were held captive in Babylon. This was a time of great hardship for them. Their hopes for national glory had been smashed by the captivity, and their spirits as well as their bodies seemed to be imprisoned in Babylon. Even after they returned to Judea, they had a heartbreaking task in rebuilding their shattered nation from the scraps of it that were left.

For the ancient Jews, this was the darkest time in their history since the period of Egyptian bondage--which was before they even became a nation. They longed to see once again the awesome deeds that the Lord had done among them in earlier times. Yet it seemed that the Lord was hiding from them--was angry with them and even punishing them for all the ways they had broken the Lord's commandments and their covenant with the Lord. Everything was in ruins.

Still, there was hope. A feeling. An anticipation of a new coming of the Lord among them with divine power to save. They could not believe that the Lord would forever hold back from coming and helping them in their pain and anguish. This hope was only partially and temporarily satisfied for the Jews. Their nation was restored, but never to its former splendor, and mostly under foreign domination. They were able to rebuild the temple, only to have it destroyed again by the Romans in the year 70 AD. To this day, the Jews have not been able to rebuild the temple--the centerpiece of their worship.

Yet the hope of new life--of the Lord coming in power--was satisfied much more fully in a way they did not expect. Many people missed it altogether. That coming is the centerpiece of our Christmas holiday and, indeed, of our religion. It is the coming of the Lord on earth to save us, not so much from political oppression and material anguish, but from the spiritual oppression of false belief and wrong living. Without the Lord's coming, our destructive ways of living would take over our lives and enslave us much more fully and deeply than any earthly king or nation ever could.

Our reading from Mark speaks of the same longing for the Lord's coming in our times of struggle and darkness. This coming, says the Gospel, will be at a time when "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." All the great lights--the sun, moon, and stars--will have failed at the time of the Lord's coming. Only then will we see "the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.

We as individuals often have the same experience of the Lord coming into our lives. In our church, we read the Gospels' predictions about the time of the Lord's coming as figurative, not literal events. We do not believe the stars will literally fall from the sky. We know that the stars are far, far bigger than the earth. Even if they could travel the billions of miles that separates them from our earth, they would burn the planet to a crisp long before they reached it.

No, the sun, moon, and stars that are darkened within us are our feelings of love for the Lord and each other, our faith in the Lord's presence with us, and our knowledge of spiritual things that we turn to for guidance at our times of spiritual darkness and night. When these fail . . . when we feel that there is no life left in us--and especially when we feel there is no spiritual life left in us--then we are at the time of spiritual winter. This is when we most long for the Lord to come into our lives with new light and warmth.

As the Gospel says, we do not know just when this will happen. That is what hope and anticipation are all about. We may think the time is right, but perhaps we still have a little farther to go before we are truly ready to accept the Lord into our hearts in a new way. We are advised by Mark to "keep awake--for we do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn."

This is the hard part. As children, we felt we just couldn't wait for Christmas to finally come. Of course, a lot of our impatience had to do with our desire for new stuff--new toys to play with that would be all our own. This is not a very spiritual reason to anticipate Christmas, and most of us eventually grow out of it. As the years go by, we realize that the pleasure of getting new possessions wears off with time, and still we have not reached our deepest sense of joy. For many of us, when the material attraction of Christmas begins to wear thin, there is not much left of the season. We begin to dislike and even dread Christmas because instead of bringing us joy, as we feel it should, it brings us a sense of loss.

Yet the loss of a materialistic attitude toward Christmas is really a spiritual gain. Not that there is anything wrong with giving and receiving gifts on Christmas. The wise men gave gifts to celebrate the Lord's birth. Celebrating through the spirit of giving is a good and healthy part of our Christmas festival. But if that stays at the center of our Christmas celebration, we will have lost the deeper joy of the holiday.

If we begin to feel an emptiness about the materialism and commercialism of Christmas; if Christmas seems to grow cold and dark for us, and we experience it as a time of sadness or apathy, then in that darkness of spirit we may be ready and waiting for the real, divine light that comes at Christmas. We may be feel an anticipation of the Lord's birth as an infant within us. This is the infant of a new spiritual life from the Lord that can grow and mature within us as we care for it with love.

Yes, Christmas does come at a dark time of year. It is no accident that we celebrate Christmas close to the time of the winter solstice, when nights are longest. It is also during the time of our own inner winter solstice that we are most ready for a festival of lights to come in celebration of the Lord's new birth within us.

Are we ready for that birth? Are we waiting for it? This is a time when we can wake up our spirits in preparation. For, as the Gospel says, we do not know when the time will come--when the master of our spiritual house, our Lord Jesus, will come to us. Amen.

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