First Sunday of Advent
I want to begin by letting you know that the original title of this sermon was “Stay Awake!” But I work with 20 and 30 year olds, and when we were planning the worship service on Tuesday, they thought it would be cool, or more cool, or cooler to title it “Stay Woke!” And because I want to be on record as having listened to them sometimes, it is what it is.
Words like “stay awake” or woke, pay attention, or be alert are good Advent words. We see them throughout the season, a series of weeks in which we hear the old familiar story— old as dirt – but we listen as though it were brand new. The incarnation of God being made flesh breaking in on us in a physical, tangible way to be seen, touched, and experienced no matter how things might appear.
We’ll light candles and pray around the wreath. We’ll hang a different banner each week to remind ourselves to be hopeful; that peace is possible; that love and joy are God’s intent. We’ll sing hymns and carols that only come once a year.
The staff has taken good time to write and produce Advent reflections to try to draw us all in. I hope you will receive them for the good gifts that they are, each one as unique and special as the person who has written.
Today, we make certain claims about our faith. We say that what we believe in the Christ born so long ago remains necessary and relevant for our time and lives.
Nothing can be more ordinary nor more extraordinary than a baby born into the world. It is the most natural of things, yet never to be taken for granted. Every child—every child—every human being begins in miraculous wonder and amazement and every child, every child is precious and worthy of love and opportunity.
The premise of a baby born, a Savior encased in flesh, made low and humble, reminds us to stay alert and to be attentive to what is low and humble and vulnerable in our time.
On this first Sunday of Advent, the Church declares that somewhere at some point in time, something definitive happened that has changed the course of history for all time.
And in order to draw ourselves into the real reason behind all the shopping and gift giving, all of the hustling and juggling, and all the things that grab our attention is the God who chose to come and be with us and to be like us. The God who chose us because God wanted to.
We read these lessons in parallel with what is happening in our world not as distant history—once upon a time in a far away place—but in parallel with the evening news and headlines in The New York Times.
Mary was pregnant before marriage. What are we to think about that? And how are we to respond to those parents who have not followed the “traditional” route? That mother—at first single—who struggled for the most basic of needs like a shelter over her head?
Mary and Joseph were homeless refugees, immigrants and poor, looking for a place to stay, but there was no room. How can we have a really good Christmas without at least remembering the poor, the working poor who still cannot pay their rent? Without remembering immigrants still at our borders? How can we disconnect ourselves from people is desperate need of hope?
And yes, it seems messy to be thinking about all that and I know we tire of it—why do we have to keep bringing politics into the church, and why can’t we escape it sometimes? But there is no celebration of holy baby Jesus born without being clear of who he was and is, who he cared about, and why he was born the way he was and lived the way he lived and died the way he died.
The Roman rule was fraught with chaos and harsh treatment. The government wrecked havoc on the people, and they were looking for some help, some hope, some way forward, powerless against the powers that be. Conflict and division were everywhere.
How are we to think about those who are so harshly treated in our time, living with chaos and terror as their constant under the threat of death and deprivation? What does hope look like for them?
Peter Gomes, that great theologian and former dean of chapel at Harvard University wrote:
“Hope is not merely the optimistic view that somehow everything will turn out all right in the end if everyone just does as we do. Hope is the more rugged, the more muscular view that even if things don’t turn out all right and aren’t all right, we endure through and beyond the times that disappoint or threaten to destroy us.”
Today, is “Hope Sunday” when we ask Christ, the world’s Hope, to be born again in us and in our world.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Come into the brokenness of our lives and open us up; shake us lose. Come into this city so bright and fare; these United States of America; our home. Come, Emmanuel, into the war-torn countries of this world so ravaged by death and slaughter; anxiety, doubt, fear, and dis-ease; atrocities, and famine. Come to Trey and Laura as they bury their mothers and others who grieve.
Shine your light of hope in the darkness. Anchor us on those things that truly matter. And then, push our restless souls out until all of your beloved have basic human rights and dignity.
Come into those moments when we cling to our own way so tightly as if that is the only way possible and we turn others away. Help us to stretch beyond our narrow view. Remind us that the world, the city, the Church is big enough to handle many perspectives; many points of view.
Help us to make ourselves ready for your appearing. The Gospel writer Matthew reminds us to stay awake, to be woke, to pay attention, to be alert and mindful so that somehow Jesus will come without a lot of fanfare (imagine that), and we’ll struggle to notice him if we are not careful. Jesus will appear in unexpected ways and through unexpected channels, people and circumstances; perhaps shrouded in mystery and the unplanned, but present nonetheless.
Perhaps our job is to not consume ourselves with trying to figure out the time, when, and where. I think it is a good thing that we do not know so much about such things, don’t you? I mean really? Do we really want to know what the future holds? Imagine all the anxiety that would be heaped upon us if we knew what would happen and when? Can you imagine the mess we would make of things if we really knew when the end of the world would be? Or even when we would draw our last breath? Or what was going to happen tomorrow or next year? We tell ourselves that we would live differently, that we would do better and love more earnestly, but I’m not so sure. What we know for certain is that we have here and now. Today. This moment. And we have this season, this time to reflect about things and to make an effort.
This is the good news we celebrate this season and, really, all the time: as the Christ child was born into that ancient city of Bethlehem all those years ago, he is also being reborn in the present Bethlehem’s of our own lives, in those obscure out of the way places in our hearts and minds where we least expect him; in those changes of thought and attitude that catch us off guard; in those gifts that have long been buried manifesting themselves. Our stories are situated within the context of that great story, and we live and move and have our being according to the promises of it.
Perhaps the question before us this morning is: do we really expect Christ to be born in us this holiday season? I mean really expect a transformative miracle in our lives and world? Will we be that light of Christ shining in the darkness – offering hope and making it possible in real and tangible ways?
Isn’t that what we long for most of all? That amid the darkness; through all the ups and downs; the laughter and tears; the adventures and misadventures, God is with us. We are not alone. We are loved beyond measure. Hope will prevail somehow; peace is possible. Let us not only live in hope, but may we also be signs of hope; signs of hope. Imagine that!
Stay awake. Stay woke. Keep alert. Be ready. And I promise you will be surprised beyond your wildest dreams.
 Peter Gomes, Hope or Optimism, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, Inward/outward, March 1, 2016