Advent is an exercise in paradox.
For four weeks, we stand in the pulpit and speak visions of peace and hope, hills made low and valleys raised up, lions lying down with lambs or swords beaten into plowshares.
We read ominous warnings of the end and watch a crazy man cry out in the wilderness that salvation is coming. We pronounce beautiful promises to the poor and oppressed, and we center our worship on the ethereal concepts of hope, peace, joy, and love.
And then our people get into their cars and drive back into the swirling vortex of charity drives, jewelry commercials, consumer guilt, family pressures, and worries about money drowned out by tinsel, carols, baked sweets and promises of incredible interest-free financing for 18 months. And the words of peace and hope for an amped-up and worn-out world seem quaint and pretend. Not really real at all.
I know what feels real. I can describe for you the smell walking through the mall, the taste inside my seasonal red Starbucks cup, the sound of the 24/7 holiday music stations and the feeling each time I hand over my credit card. And when I turn on the news and see more war and starvation and sickness, and when I look into my own life and the lives of those I love, and let myself notice all the brokenness and anger, the sadness and stuckness, I can even sometimes admit that there’s an easy and sickly sweet comfort in succumbing to the holiday buzz. Where the perfect gift can heal the breach and the brightness of children in scarves and puppies in bows obscures for a while the darkness inside us and around us.
And yet every week in Advent, I must stand in the pulpit and talk about this other reality. The one that’s often hard to see and that we almost never touch — this reality of enduring peace and transforming hope, this eschatological vision of rightness. This light that the darkness can never put out. Every week of Advent we suggest that Christmas means something, and something is coming; that something changes at Christmas. And we use words like “incarnation” and “salvation,” and sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and then we bless our people and send them all back into the real world.
Advent is absurd.
It’s utterly absurd what we preachers do. We talk about a beautiful, peaceful world of wholeness and harmony, as though saying all of this makes any difference. As though Christmas really changes things. That God came near, God entered in, means everything is different! we declare. And sometimes we even believe it.
But if we’re honest, we will say we’re still waiting. Waiting for things to be made right. Waiting for wholeness. Waiting for hope. If we’re really honest, we’ll talk about the darkness and not just the light. And our people need to hear us doing this. Or else we are collaborators with the retailers and feel-good spirit peddlers of the season who turn Christmas into a temporary antidote to our pain.
Just because Christmas is coming doesn’t mean cancer is leaving, or deployed children are returning home for good, or jobs suddenly appear and tensions between us disappear. The birth of Jesus doesn’t erase the death of a child or the loss of a lifelong partner. And unless we say this aloud — unless you and I announce that Advent embraces these realities, makes space for them and gives voice to them — our people will feel more alone and isolated right now than any other time of year.
And this is where Advent’s absurdity is a profound and blessed gift to us.
Advent is honesty. Advent lets us go to those places of waiting and unearth them, hold them out in front of us, and cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus!” and “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” (Isaiah 64:9) Because when all the rest of the world would rush us out of our discomfort and shush us into cheer, Advent calls to us, Keep Awake. See the need, hold the sorrow, and sit in the waiting.
God has come; God is with us. At Christmas we will celebrate this astonishing and world-altering truth. And because Christ has come, the end is written. (Advent oozes eschatology.) We are the people of the promise; we wait for its fulfillment. Advent commissions us.
We hold the waiting for a world that so desperately needs saving. We hold the promise on behalf of those who feel forsaken, and for ourselves in our own forsakenness. In Advent we become — all of us, but preachers most of all — the voices crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord. We declare what we cannot see — or what we only see in glimpses: hope in the face of hopelessness, peace amidst conflict, joy in apathy, and all-forgiving love. We preach it and sing it and live like it’s true, because it is, even if we can’t always see it around us.
This Advent, let’s make our sanctuaries the places where we say it like it is. Where we sit in the darkness together and point to the light that is coming, already breaking through. Let’s let “Come Lord Jesus!” be a real cry that means something to our world and our families and our own selves. Let’s enter the absurdity this Advent.