This past Thursday at Grace we hosted a Community Thanksgiving Dinner. About fifty of us from all walks of life gathered in the parish hall to talk and eat together with gratitude and joy. Then on Friday, many of the same folks – and millions of others – hit the stores to take advantage of Black Friday deals. Lots of us will do the same tomorrow for Cyber Monday. Less people, I’m afraid, have marked their calendars for the following day – Giving Tuesday, in which we are asked to think about donating all our super savings to nonprofit organizations that provide for people in need. “Christmas season” – the commercial name for the frenzied period of consumption that occupies the last two months of the year – has begun.
Which has absolutely nothing to do with the Jesus movement – the true community of those who follow Jesus the Christ. Sure, commercial Christmas season has adopted (and twisted) a few of our religious Christmas traditions – the name of the holiday, Christ-mass, for one, as well as the customs of gift-giving, decorating evergreen trees, and singing carols – but Christians originally borrowed most of those ideas themselves. The fact is, early in our history we stole several pagan customs - and now they’re taking them back. Frankly, I don’t think it matters. Fighting for sole ownership of a random date during the Winter Solstice is not a worthy cause. Honoring the nativity of the one who gave his life to save us is.
Paying homage to the nativity of the savior of the world is, as Linus so famously told the children of the sixties, what Christmas is all about. It is understanding that the child whose birth we recognize each year is the same divine grown-up who opened the door to the salvation of the world. That means that when we get caught up in “Christmas season” madness that causes people to assault one another in stores and parking lots in the name of the feast of the birth of Jesus, we have definitely lost our way.
That’s why we have Advent, otherwise known as the “anti-Christmas season.” Advent asks us to turn inward instead of immersing ourselves in the manufactured traditions that exhaust us more often than they delight us. It is the church’s reminder of what Jesus’s birth really was- the beginning of a revolution that taught us that amid the anger, violence, and hatred of our decaying world there is always hope. There is always the promise of salvation through the baby who became Jesus the Christ.
The first scripture we hear on this first Sunday of Advent is a prophecy. In it, Isaiah reminds his people - a tribe plagued with idolatry, greed, selfishness, and cruelty - that what God wants for us is different than what we have learned to desire for ourselves. Isaiah sees a world in which God’s law is ascendant – where people live and work together in peace and equitable prosperity. Isaiah’s vision of the day when we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks is so compelling that it has been memorialized in literature and art for millennia all over the world.
Unfortunately, we do not seem to be any closer to making it a reality than the people of the eighth century BCE, or the followers of Jesus in the first century after his death. Perhaps that is because we have become Christian sleepwalkers rather than evangelists. This apathetic doze is such an easy thing to slip into that writers have coined a term for it: apatheism. Apatheism, according to Jonathan Rauch, is “a disinclination to care all that much about one's own religion, and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people's.” Several religious writers have suggested that while American Christians are engaging in epic power struggles to definitively dominate the narrative of what it means to be “Christian,” the majority of Americans are adopting apatheism. In other words, ask them about God, and most people simply want you to shut up and go away.
Don’t do it - because it is exactly this kind of somnambulism on the part of true believers that has kept us from seeing the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. “Wake up!” Paul tells us. Now is the time. Salvation is near to us - but we have to fight for it. We have to act in hope.
Hope is a difficult concept. I have, in fact, spent a lot of time this week trying to clearly define “hope” – especially in relationship to its theological partner, “faith.” Faith is pretty plainly defined in scripture as the proof of something we can’t see. For Christians, this is the belief that God loves us, Jesus died for us, and the Spirit of both are always with us. The question is: if we have faith why do we need hope? If we believe that we have already been saved, then what is there to hope for? The answer is the fulfillment of our faith – a movement in which we, and all those who do not know God or even understand their need for God – can witness to the truth of God’s promises to creation. Hope then, is the act of living into our faith.
This is what Paul means when he tells us to lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. It is what it means to engage in the struggle to bring God’s world into ours. It is the reason we must, as Thoreau said, “reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by our infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep.” And, as he points out, we cannot simply set an alarm so we can get ourselves together at the last minute, because we have no idea when God’s going to run out of patience. The sign-bearers are not wrong: judgment is coming.
Today’s gospel spells it out: “But about that day and hour no one knows.” This scripture is popular with apocalyptic branches of Christianity, which have interpreted it to mean that the events of the end of the world can be predicted, and sides must be chosen - because not everyone will be accepted in God’s kin-dom. This is not what we believe – because it is inconsistent with everything we know about our loving and inclusive God. For us, this passage is not a directive to separate ourselves from those we deem unworthy, but instead to work together to make all of humanity worthy of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s beautiful vision.
Faith may be the ground we stand on and love the reason for believing, but hope energizes both. Hope is powerful. It is what allows the grievously wounded person to struggle to live even as certain death approaches. It is what makes the suicidal teenager call a help line instead of taking lethal action. It is what keeps the enslaved person believing in the possibility of freedom. Hope is faith and love in action.
What do you want for Christmas – what do you hope for – and are you working to get it? Do you hope for a world that looks like Grace’s Community Thanksgiving, or one that resembles the materialistic and false religious nationalism that currently inhabits our culture? If God’s community - saturated in light and love -is what you really long for, then begin acting in hope - and together we can bring about the Advent of a new day, and a new way. AMEN.
Jonathan Rauch, (May 2003), “Let It Be,” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/05/let-it-be/302726/ Ibid. Henry David Thoreau, quoted in Goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/5998-we-must-learn-to-reawaken-and-keep-ourselves-awake-not.