By the Rev.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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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