The years go by so fast I can hardly drum up excitement for Christmas Day anymore.
Each year I feel more and more like, Didn't we just do this?! It arrives so fast it hardly feels "special." Perhaps my ennui is exaggerated because stores immediately switch out Halloween decorations for Christmas ones, so the Christmas "season" gets longer and longer!
Conversely, when Advent I rolls around I feel the thrill of the new year, of new possibilities, and of new hope; that sense of a "clean page with nothing written on it," as Anne of Green Gables is fond of thinking.
I feel the anticipation, wondering what's around God's next "corner?" Even though I know the "end" of the Advent story, each year the plot unfolds toward the birth of that tiny child with so much mystery and suspense, that every Sunday I still wonder what happens next.
How do we help our congregations experience this same anticipation and wonder? How do we cultivate the tension and suspense of this momentous, world-changing event year after year?
To help you build towards the birth of the Christ-child, consider these three possible Advent themes: Yearning; Change; and God With Us
For what and for whom do we yearn?
For love? For safety? To know where we belong? To be accepted, warts and all?
Of course. For all that and more.
We also yearn for God.
We yearn to know and recognize God in the middle of our crazy, wonderful, uncertain, amazing, mixed-up world.
We yearn to know that it's all going to be OK—that even when it's not OK right now, God in the midst of us makes it OK right now.
Look at the themes of yearning that run through the four Sundays of Advent. For example, from Psalm 80 of Advent 1:
Restore us, O God of hosts; * show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
16 Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, * the son of man you have made so strong for yourself.
17 And so will we never turn away from you; * give us life, that we may call upon your Name.
18 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; * show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
- How do you describe the character of God who "restores" and "show[s] the light of his countenance" and "saves"?
- What do we hope for in and from this God? What is our deepest heart's longing?
- What do you hope for in and from this God? What is your deepest heart's longing?
Many place an emphasis on penance for Advent, while others place the emphasis on waiting.
Regardless of emphasis, we're preaching change by turning around (metanoia).
If we emphasize penance, we encourage a change in course. When we atone and seek God's forgiveness, a true apology not only accepts responsibility but also changes future behavior. Our remorse and the lessons we've learned are demonstrated through different actions.
For instance, from Mark 1:1-8, Advent 2:
"John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins."
Ask yourself, if we turned around from sin to receive forgiveness:
- Who have we been? Who might we become?
- Who have I been? Who might I become?
Likewise, when we mark Advent as a season of waiting and anticipation, we change to make room for this child of God who affects us in ways we can't begin to imagine.
Anyone who has anticipated the birth of a child—whether our own or someone's close to us—marks time by the arrival of the baby.
We know when the baby arrives, schedules, households, and relationships with others will change—including, most fundamentally, our identities. We are now a mom or a dad, an aunt or an uncle, etc..
Isaiah sings out this anticipated change and preparation so poignantly in the second Sunday of Advent:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Ask yourself: How do we make room for another?
- Not only by making physical preparations like an extra setting at the dinner table, but in our hearts and spirits?
- How do we prepare ourselves to welcome guests sincerely?
- By analogy, how do we prepare ourselves to greet and welcome God, physically, spiritually, and sincerely?
God With Us
The Rev'd Micah Jackson, Ph.D., the John Elbrige Hines Associate Professor of Preaching at Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, TX, asked me this recently: What if the Second Coming is really the Third Coming?
When I looked at him as though wondering if he'd gotten his teaching credentials from "Sacred Degrees R Us," he went on to say (paraphrasing):
"The First Coming was his birth, right? But then, where did he go? Yes, he ascended, but he also stayed right here with us. He shows up all the time. So when he comes back, it's really going to be the third go-around! It's when we start acting as if he's not here and is hidden until he comes back again that we get into trouble."
Scripture seems to corroborate this idea. Think about this from Isaiah, Advent 3:
"The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn...."
Is there ever a time when this is not happening?
Is there ever a moment when Jesus is not bringing good news, proclaiming liberty, or comforting those who mourn?
I usually gather the altar party to pray with me before processing into a service. My prayer includes these words: "...that we may see you [Christ] as you reveal yourself to us so graciously, in Word, Sacrament, and Gathered Community."
Jesus always reveals himself graciously in the Church and outside of it. God is always with us.
Ask yourself: Are we living during the Second Coming?
- If so, what are the signs that Jesus is here?
- If this is the "Second Coming," what might the "Third" one look like?
- How might it be different? How do you hope it's different?
Blessings to you as you prepare yourself and your congregations to receive Jesus through Advent.
One way to prepare yourself for Christmas is to join our annual
December 18-22 at 4:00 PM EST
Give yourself the gift of peace of mind this year, knowing you'll finish your Christmas sermon in advance, without the stress, and in good company.
Each day, you'll meet online for an hour with colleagues and a mentor to be led through a process to write an effective sermon in real time. In addition to writing your sermon, you'll learn strategies you can apply in the new year.