Sermon of the Week
On the Way to Christmas: Keep Alert
Keywords: Advent, Mini-Apocalypse, Charlie Brown Christmas, Salvador Dali, Clyde Butcher, The Avengers, Waiting.
Last night we had a great little concert here at The Kirk.
The Don Accurso Orchestra set up here on the chancel
and filled the sanctuary with the classics,
some Duke Ellington, some traditional Christmas music.
It was lovely, particularly since it’s the first Sunday in Advent,
and our wonderful friends on the Worship Team
helped hang the greens in our Sanctuary yesterday morning.
The dessert after wasn’t all that bad either.
I was talking with one of Don’s family members who was here.
Don passed away just a few weeks ago
and this concert had been on his calendar for months.
We know that when Don put a concert on his calendar
they play the concert.
Sometimes contracts follow us even beyond our passing.
I was talking with her about just how fitting it all was,
the music, and the way that the sanctuary looked,
all bedecked with garlands of evergreen and red ribbon
and all the things we do to mark this time of year.
It is such a wonderful time of year, for the most part
even when there are blue moments, for many of us
that make even the most fitting times bittersweet.
And so I’ve been thinking ever since about all the things I love about this season.
We’re not there yet.
Three more Sundays to go until Christmas,
so you still have time to get all your gifts, do all the wrapping
go to all the parties, get your Christmas jammies
and make plans to ponder your New Year’s resolutions.
Lots of time.
But this moment before Christmas, this season of watching and waiting,
this is the season of Advent.
She was asking me if this is my favorite time of year to be a pastor
and that’s a tricky thing to answer,
because there are lots of little things that go on all year
and its hard to pick out a favorite among all of them.
But I told her I do love this time of year.
I love the lights, twinkling in the still darkness,
particularly just a few of them,
like a candle in the window or a luminary on the front sidewalk.
Those are beautiful.
I’m not sure my mind quite can get around
these new massive light displays
which people apparently have to upgrade their electrical box for
so that it can handle all of it.
They’re coordinated with music, using a computer.
Don’t get me wrong, they’re great.
Every year we join a neighbor family and go around town looking at the lights.
We grab some ice cream first and map out a trip.
There are websites where you can find “the best lights”.
For example, I recommend that you find Candy Cane Lane.
Some of them even broadcast the music they’re flashing to
on a local radio transmitter
and you can pull up close and tune your radio just right
and listen and watch and marvel at everything
flashing blue and white and red and green
in complete coordination to Mannheim Steamroller or the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
But for me it’s the simple display, a few lights here and there
braving the dark nights of December
that give me pause,
that take my breath away this time of year.
And I love the classic movies on TV:
sure, It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street
but also Elf and A Christmas Story and a Charlie Brown Christmas.
Actually, the music last night reminded me a lot of a Charlie Brown Christmas,
and I could close my eyes and see Charlie and Lucy and the gang
walking around looking for just the right tree.
There are a lot of things I love about this time of year.
You probably have your own things, too:
Hot chocolate with marshmallows.
Putting ornaments on the tree.
Baking Christmas cookies or decorating gingerbread houses.
We all seek out our hallmark card moments
even as we know our lives are more complex and messy than that.
But what I don’t like very much is the waiting.
We just said: Advent is the season of watching and waiting,
preparing our hearts for the incarnation of God among us,
Hark! The herald angels sing: glory to the newborn king.
Four weeks: we get our heart and our spirits and our minds ready for that.
Which is plenty of time, don’t you think?
A good long time.
The equivalent of a nice little light display
although just like some have their 50,000 watt super-show up in October,
the Starbucks red and green cups are ready to go on November 1,
and My local Target and CVS and Grocery Store all had their Christmas merchandise
up on the shelves Halloween morning.
It’s a bizarre sort of conundrum.
Earlier and earlier we seek to want to get a jump on this season
but not so that we can wait longer
not so that we can sit in that moment of anticipation and yearning and hopefulness.
Instead, it seems to bring us all down just a bit more every year
like a warning that there’s just going to be so much on the horizon
TOO many holiday parties,
TOO many gifts to have to wrap,
TOO many lights to put up,
and man, maybe it will take FOREVER to get to Christmas this year.
We don’t like to wait very much.
I don’t, at least.
I was reading a great little devotional book for this season written by Quinn Caldwell.
Quinn is a UCC pastor in upstate New York,
and he wrote the little book called: All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas
and he observed this little conundrum about the season too.
There’s waiting, he says
and then there’s waiting.
Sometimes it’s the oh-God-when-will-this-pain-end kind of waiting.
Sometimes it’s just annoying, like waiting your turn at the restroom.
Sometimes it’s worse, like waiting out the period after a gnarly divorce.
But there’s another kind of waiting, too,
a delicious, shivery kind:
there’s smelling the almost-done pie in the oven;
there’s sitting in the theatre listening to the opening theme of a movie
you’ve been waiting a year to see;
there’s feeling the baby kick you in the bladder
a week before due date,
there’s lying in bed listening to [your partner] coming up the stairs.
Advent—those weeks leading up to Christmas—
is about both kinds of waiting, Caldwell says.
On the one hand, it’s about looking around at the state of the world
at the wars and the climate and the corporations and the seasonal allergies,
and longing for God to end the wait and show up already.
It’s about choosing to see God’s absence.
On the other, it’s about choosing to see God’s almost-presence.
It’s about looking around at the state of the world,
At the struggling schoolteachers and rich philanthropists
doing the right thing,
at the babies being born, and the
[passion between couples deep in the throes of love],
and the ancient stars shining bright as hope in the cold night sky.
It’s about looking around at all of this,
reading the signs,
and knowing that everything is about to change.
Advent is about standing in the slop
and calling, “How long, Lord?”
But just as surely, it’s about standing in the shining
shivering with delight and singing, “Come, Lord, Come.”
Advent is practice in waiting, and watching
trying to see the world for what it REALLY is.
People often ask me about why we do all this Advent music in early December?
O Come, O Come Emmanuel and In the Bleak Midwinter?
There’s an upper of a hymn title for you
In the Bleak Midwinter….
Even if the words and the meaning are far less dreary.
(In truth, it’s one of my favorite hymns of the season).
Ok, but why the meticulous plodding of an advent candle?
One light each Sunday, as we inch our way to Christmas Eve.
Why do we turn to readings like this one in Luke every year when we start Advent,
readings that talk about distress and confusion and calamity,
roaring of the sea and the waves,
signs in the sun and the moon and the stars,
fainting and foreboding, the powers of the heavens,
which we in the biz call a mini-apocalypse?
(The answer isn’t because no one would come for the full-length apocalypse,
though that might be a true answer).
And the answer isn’t that we don’t quite understand that genre,
the apocalypse genre, and don’t give it the credit it is due,
even though that would be a true thing to say, also.
This genre of biblical literature is often misunderstood
We don’t read the book of Revelation very much,
or parts of the old testament that are similar, like the book of Daniel
because they have such a different cosmology:
that is, a different understanding of the way that nature and the universe work.
And we don’t look at them because it feels a lot like, when we do,
like we’re watching Ghostbusters,
you know, the movie,
or maybe some other science fiction show
Star Trek or The Blob or the new Avengers movie or something,
with Thor and Iron Man and Doctor Strange
standing before Thanos in some weird space realm,
bending space and time.
And if you think THAT when you’re reading these texts: then that’s good, really,
because you begin to get a sense of what they’re for.
Even our most fanciful and popular science fiction,
if you can step back
and think of it as art, as communication,
seeks to help us understand something about ourselves,
as human beings,
the communities we form,
the struggles we share,
our anxieties and our fears,
our pettiness AND the way we can set it aside to do
something good and noble and beautiful and true.
Science fiction is no different in that respect than any other story-telling genre.
And ‘apocalypse,’ as a biblical format, functions in exactly the same way:
it uses allegory and powerful imagery to convey meaning.
The word “apocalypse,” actually, literally means “to take the cover off,”
kind of like opening a wrapped box, or a present, and looking inside,
or, when you’re cooking, to remove the lid off the pot on the stove to season and give it a stir.
An apocalypse is meant to reveal something, to make things more clear:
not to confuse us with all the fancy gobbledygook,
demons and horsemen and demigods…
We can explore that for fully in another sermon on another day,
but we do turn to these types of readings
when we start the season of Advent,
because they were meant to give us practice in looking around
and seeing through all the ‘everyday,’
with its stress and its worry and its fear and its boredom,
and to say: look around you, and see if you can see something different going on.
One person I read this week put it this way:
Luke wrote with a deep and growing sense that
christian discipleship is a kind of living in between—
aware of Jesus, waiting for Jesus,
and coming to know this Jesus for whom we wait
in the midst of an eventful, unpredictable, even tumultuous world,
waiting to stand before him,
yet not always knowing where he is.
Look at the fig tree.
It tells you when summer is coming.
Read the times as you read a fig tree.
Do not let your hearts get weighed down with things distracting
from the truth of it all.
The world is a scary place,
but don’t let your hearts be troubled.
I have overcome the world.
So wait in the midst of it all,
just before the dawn,
for in the midst of the night
there are strange and redeeming events afoot.
With all of this, the church, the Christian, you,
we all begin a new year,
asked to begin afresh,
not just on a calendar,
but in our hearts,
in our relationships,
in how we do church together,
in our yearning for a promise worth living for.
Jesus reminds us of our living in the meantime,
the here and now, and the not quite yet,
as we look to the future, and wait.
There are a lot of things I love about this time of year,
but waiting, I’m not all that good at waiting.
And I sometimes wonder if I’m getting less good at it,
with the instant access to news and the constant distraction of my cell phone.
But you see things when you wait, sometimes,
when you slow down and look,
that you’d never otherwise see…
–The sunrise you might miss, if you never look up from the front page of the paper
–The joy of the kids playing on the living room floor,
if you’re fretting too constantly about work
–The feel of your partner’s hand
–The smell of the snickerdoodle cookies
–The still of the snow falling on the lawn on a winter night.
When Brook and I were in Florida last month for a friend’s wedding
we stopped by the Salvador Dali museum in St Petersburg.
Dali is incredible, actually,
his paintings feel a lot like an apocalypse on canvas,
when you think about it.
When we were there,
we were lucky to see a special exhibit
of the work of photographer Clyde Butcher,
who went to Spain, where Dali was born and lived and painted,
to try to understand the man and the landscape
behind such bizarre and jarring art.
And so Clyde traveled there, and took some wonderful photos,
black and white prints, in the style of Ansel Adams
wnd it was really great,
You could see the rock formations on the coast of Spain
that clearly influenced Dali…
You saw all the egg-shaped statues that would sometimes pop up in the paintings…
You see the lines of his childhood home,
the desolate seascapes.
To give you a quick example:
Here is one of Dali’s more famous surrealist paintings
called Persistence of Memory.
And here’s a landscape picture Clyde Butcher took:
It was a fascinating exhibit, really,
if you have patience for that sort of thing.
But one thing about him stuck with me that I thought about this week
when I was pondering over this text from Luke,
The special exhibit was full of his photographs
Sixty, seventy pieces or so, huge prints, all over the gallery.
Must have taken up half the floor of the museum.
But when I listened to a bit of the story of Clyde’s trip to Spain
they stressed how he only took one or two pictures a day, tops.
He’d go, and he’d sit, and he’d wait.
He’d look for the light, falling just so over the childhood home,
or he’d listen for the wind, rushing down into the valley from the hillside,
to where it ran over the rock formations as it had for centuries
to make that unique landscape.
And at just the right time, in just the right moment
He’d snap the picture.
And voila: there it was: a moment where you could see
what was there the whole time,
but which you needed to wait for,
in order to understand it.
Keep Alert, says Jesus.
Don’t be weighed down by the distractions of the day
and the worries of this life.
The Kingdom of God is near.
You can see for yourselves that God’s realm is coming.
My favorite part of Advent isn’t the waiting,
but it is the promise
of that new day that God ushers in
with a newborn, fragile, helpless baby,
a symbol to the world
that God’s redemption is gentle, and good, and beautiful, and true,
just like you see when you look at a newborn smile at you,
as her eyes melt your heart.
But to get there,
we have to wait,
and keep alert.
Otherwise, we might just miss the signs
and be stuck in our worry and our fear and our anxiety,
and that’s not where God wants us to be.
May we, instead, take this time,
and walk, deliberately but slowly, toward Bethlehem,
and watch with hopeful anticipation
the signs of the season,
saying Come, Lord Jesus. Hope of the World.
May it be so.
 Caldwell, Quinn G. All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2014), 12-13.
 Avram, Wesley D. “Pastoral Perspective: Luke 21:25-36” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1, Advent Through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown taylor, Eds, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 22.
Image: The Don Accurso Orchestra, at The Kirk on December 1, 2018.