Sunday, December 18th, 2011 – the Fourth Sunday of Advent
First Christian Church of Winston-Salem, NC
Scriptures: Mark 1:1-3, Isaiah 40:1-8
Hymns: Let Your Day Begin (Tree63), People Look East (Eleanor Farjeon), Come O Long Expected Jesus (Charles Wesley), Everlasting God (Brenton Brown & Ken Riley), Wait for the Lord (Taize), Joy to the World (Isaac Watts & George Handel)
So a little while back, I decided it was time to change the CD in my car’s CD player. It had been the Dave Matthews Band’s Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King for a couple of weeks, but I thought that it was time to change to something a little different – in this case, Switchfoot’s Vice Verses.
Well, when I popped the Dave Matthews Band CD out of the CD player, the sound system automatically switched over to the radio, and immediately my Dodge was filled with the sounds of Nat King Cole singing, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose.”
Ah, yes. The Christmas Song. A wonderful piece of music for getting into the holiday spirit. Offering a simple phrase to kids from one to ninety-two, it is one of the best ways to say, “Merry Christmas to you” – provided it isn’t NOVEMBER FIRST.
That’s right, that inauspicious day that my ears were assaulted with the first wave of the 2011 Christmas invasion was Monday, November 1st. It was a sunny day, the high reached 62 degrees, Lowe’s and Harris Teeter had just put their Halloween candy on fifty percent off clearance, and some joker with an FM station and an FCC broadcasting license thought it would be a good idea to start playing CHRISTMAS MUSIC.
Ladies and gentlemen, Bill O’Reilly can talk about the war on Christmas all he wants, but quite frankly, if there’s a war involving Christmas, it’s a war that Christmas DECLARED – THE WAR ON ADVENT!
Okay. Hyperbole aside, let’s do a quick poll – how many of us have Advent wreaths in our homes? I don’t. Christmas trees? You betcha. We as a people have become so enamored of Christmas that we tend to lose sight of the month that leads up to Christmas – the month in which we prepare in the wilderness a highway for the Lord.
Let’s think about this morning’s Isaiah text for a moment. Verse five says, “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”
Well, that’s ALMOST what it says. It actually says, “THEN the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” That “then” makes all the difference, doesn’t it? It’s implying that the glory of the Lord isn’t going to be revealed until something has first been accomplished.
But what has yet to be accomplished?
“In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Now, from my own past, I happen to love this particular image, mostly because of how it connects to my home congregation, Foothills Christian Church. Foothills used to be out in the middle of the desert, at the intersection of a poorly-maintained, poorly-paved two-lane road and a dirt street – the intersection of Happy Valley Road and 39th Drive in north Phoenix. When Foothills moved there from downtown Phoenix in 1988, there wasn’t even an exit off of Interstate 17 to Happy Valley Road – you had to exit a mile earlier, at Pinnacle Peak Road, then drive north on 29th Avenue past the Adobe Mountain Juvenile Detention Facility to get to Happy Valley.
In the wilderness, indeed.
Over the intervening twenty-three years, that part of Phoenix has changed dramatically. It is now one of the most densely populated parts of the city, and not only does Happy Valley Road now have an exit from the 17, but it’s three lanes in either direction. 39th Drive is two lanes in either direction, and Foothills now has a prime spot on the corner of one of the busiest intersections in the city of Phoenix.
A highway was built in the desert, the way of the Lord in the wilderness. Foothills had to be very patient for things to get to where they are today – they had to wait. And honestly, that congregation – myself included – was not very good at waiting or being patient.
But is that just us? Is it just one congregation? Or is it Americans, and especially Christians, as a whole? Let’s think back to this spring – if you drove north on University Parkway past Shattalon Road at any point, you probably saw a rather unfortunate billboard on the southwest corner of that intersection, just past Target. Does anybody remember what that billboard said?
“JUDGMENT DAY, MAY 21ST 2011! THE BIBLE GUARANTEES IT!”
A gentleman by the name of Harold Camping, from Oakland, California, decided to prophecy that the Rapture was going to occur on May 21st. Christ was going to return, the Earth would be judged, and in the words of the great theologian Michael Stipe, it would be the end of the world as we know it.
Let’s think about that for a minute. First of all, with regard to Mr. Camping, in the parlance of modern slang, “he crazy.” And not just normal crazy, but theologically crazy. I say that because Jesus wouldn’t have even known if that was going to happen on May 21st. In Matthew 24, He says, “Heaven and earth will pass away… but about that day and hour, nobody knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but ONLY the Creator.” Last time I checked, Mr. Camping sure as heck wasn’t the creator.
Secondly – why is Mr. Camping in such a big hurry to usher in the time of Christ? Isaiah doesn’t say, “Declare the day of the Lord,” it says, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground will become level, and the rough places a plain. THEN the glory of the Lord will be revealed.”
Have we as Christians lost the ability to be patient and to wait? Have we been truly enchanted by the lure of the now now now gimme gimme gimme instant nature of American society?
Have we lost focus on Advent?
I’ll admit, it doesn’t help when things happen like what happened to me on October 29th. I went down to Hanes Mall to look for a part of my Halloween costume – a Green Lantern t-shirt. My first stop was JC Penney, because I know that they carry all sorts of goofy screen-printed nerd shirts, and as luck would have it, they did in fact not only have the Green Lantern t-shirt, but they had it on sale.
However, before I found that t-shirt, I was severely traumatized. You see, when I walked into JC Penney, I was immediately confronted by a giant Christmas display – on OCTOBER 29TH! Halloween hadn’t even come and gone yet, and JC Penney was already getting ready for CHRISTMAS! To my horror, I shortly discovered that Macy’s, Dillard’s, and Sears had all followed suit, with Belk being the only apparent holdout. As I left the mall, I found myself channeling my inner Clark W. Griswold and irrationally muttering, “Gonna get some matches and gasoline, we’re gonna have a merry Christmas BONFIRE ON SILAS CREEK PARKWAY!”
Okay, maybe I’m being a little hyperbolic again.
But realistically, we exist in a culture that just doesn’t have time for Advent. As soon as Labor Day weekend has come and gone, retailers are already getting ready for Christmas. The “shopping season” starts earlier every year, because profit margins have to go up, up, up! Christmas has declared war on Advent, and for all intents and purposes, the Church has run up the white flag.
And I’m here to tell you it’s time to bring that white flag back down and replace it with one that has three purple stripes and a pink stripe.
Advent is the beginning of the Church’s liturgical year. It’s when everything starts, but we so often tend to skip right over it, paying it lip service through the weekly lighting of the candles, and move right into Christmas. That’s why we’ve got to be intentional about reclaiming Advent.
Christmas carols, much as we love them, really ought to wait until Christmas Eve at the earliest to be sung. Preparation should be the emphasis of the season, and there’s so many ways to do that – not just in the Church, but in the community, through acts such as cleaning up along the highway – after all, what better way to do things than to ACTUALLY prepare the highway for our God – and ensuring that ministries such as Crisis Control are adequately prepared for the holiday season, and in our homes, by taking part in family Advent rituals, in lighting the candles, reading the Scriptures, and talking about the journey to Bethlehem. The church of a friend of mine back in Arizona has figured out a very unique way in which to go about keeping an emphasis on Advent.
On the first Sunday of Advent, the Nativity scene is set up – or at least, the stable is. That’s it, an empty stable with an empty manger. It stays empty for the first three Sundays of Advent, and finally, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Mary and Joseph are added to the scene – they’ve arrived in Bethlehem. On Christmas Eve, the baby Jesus is added, with shepherds joining the scene on the first Sunday after Christmas – or, in the case of this year, on Christmas Day – and the Magi being added the following Sunday.
It’s a small thing, sure, but it’s a ritual that keeps that congregation from getting too far ahead of itself. It makes them slow down, to really take time to prepare the way of the Lord, and in the desert east of Phoenix to make a highway for our God.
In the twenty-first century, we seem to be constantly looking for ways to find time, to get more out of our lives. Maybe all we need to do is slow down a little, have a little patience, and put a little preparation into the arrival.
And then… the glory of the Lord will be revealed.