Advent I 2020
Mark 13:24-27, Isaiah 64:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Imagine it is New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. Now, I’m not thinking of looking ahead a month or so to now as 2020 yields to 2021, but to what you would normally be doing on normal New Year’s. What are you experiencing? Perhaps some are feeling the result of the holiday punch at last night’s festivities, others feeling a bit of nostalgia for years past, and yet others hopefulness and joy.
Many of us might answer that we are experiencing the hope, or the challenge of a new year and the resolutions we might be making for a new start, a changed behavior, or a healthier lifestyle in the new year. Perhaps some are recalling the joy of simply having another day to spend with loved ones.
Each new year seems to feel like a new start and a new opportunity for many people, for all kinds of things.
We might be experiencing the camaraderie of friends and family as we see in a new year with all its promise. In the years of my youth we were always cooking a big meal for family members who would be joining us later. The Rose Bowl Parade would be accompanying us on the TV as we made our preparations. My dad would be preparing for the football that would take up a large part of the day.
There would be joy, and hope, and something special about that day, regardless of how we were preparing to spend it.
Today, the first Sunday of Advent truly is a New Year’s Day of a kind. For it is on this day that in the church, the “year” resets and we begin a new cycle of readings. In a liturgical church like ours, Advent is a big deal, though living in the world as we are it might be overshadowed by the commercialization and secular rush toward Christmas.
There is a tension in these weeks of Advent, as we hear from our lessons a kind of lament, even as cheery white or colored lights are going up on the inside and outside of our houses.
There is a tension as we sing songs like today’s “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” during worship,” and then turn around a sing along to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “O Come All ye Faithful,” or “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” as we go about the rest of our day.
This year, however, while we long for the cheer, a manifestation of which saw decorations and trees going up extra early all around our neighborhoods and even, perhaps, in your house, the truth is that for many of us and for the world around us, the lament expressed in our lessons today much more closely where our hearts are, than any other Advent season of our memories.
It appears as though this year will go out with as much stress and difficulty as we have experienced for the last nine months of it. COVID has changed our world. With the onset of winter in the northern hemisphere, and increased time indoors, and the inevitable gathering of people for the holidays taking place regardless of the recommendations publicized for public health reasons, the peaks of virus we are experiencing right now are likely to carry us into the new calendar year as well.
In the past few months, some of us have lost loved ones to COVID, others have been separated from the ones they loved in their last days because of COVID. Many of us are following mandates and keeping to ourselves this holiday season, with great departures from our normal activities. And we are sad.
The environment around us is so different, our activities so different, our lives are so very different from what they were just a year ago. Some of us are trying our hardest to accept the changes in our lives with grace and humor – an enormous feat some days.
Others of us are angry at the restrictions placed on our lives or on the insensitivity of others whom we judge as selfish, willing to risk or reduce the quality and quantity of our lives in order to maintain the quality and desires of theirs. This has created enormous divisions between many of us and our neighbors.
Making the season a time of restraint and contemplation for the hopeful anticipation of God’s in-breaking into our lives? Well, maybe we can make room for that too, if we must. All too often, however, such “preparation” is relegated to singing a few bars of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in church on Sundays.
For many if not all of us, however, this year really is different. The thing is, it is different not in a way that we perceive as holy, but a way we experience as burdensome, sad, and indeed, lamentable.
The reading from Isaiah might strike us in a very accessible way therefore, much more so than in years past. The prophet’s words are full of lament.
“We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity,” writes the author.
Whether we have lost loved ones this year or lost the ability to gather and visit with our friends and family, whether we are grieving the loss of employment, or life’s rituals and celebrations that we feel were stolen from us, whether our experiences of lament are over the tangible or intangible changes the pandemic has wrought in our lives, we have all been changed by 2020.
Therefore, we need a word of assurance, we need a word of promise; we need to know that God has not forgotten us or forsaken us. We yearn for the coming of the Christ child this year perhaps in ways we cannot remember experiencing this wait ever before. For many of us there is no comparison in the way we are approaching this Christmas to any we have ever faced before. For others, it measures up only to times of war when a loved one was worlds away with their future uncertain, or to the times in our lives when we faced a frightening or devastating diagnosis or imminent loss of a loved one or any other deep, unshakable grief.
Whatever we might be comparing to this December, whatever life experience this season is reminding us of, however living through this time resembles shades of other times of sorrow and lament, the Scriptures guide us through this time and reveal to us the great human need of the Savior for whom we wait.
Coming he is. It is he who has been promised and God never gives up on his promises.
The writer of our first lesson knew this, and so, even as he laments the darkness of his world, he affirms,
“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.”
We are God’s people. Though stressed and broken, though fearful and impatient, we belong to God. Though imperfect and sinful, we are loved by God.
While sometimes undependable, and often forgetful, while preoccupied in our lives and unappreciative of God’s great mercy and goodness, God cherishes us and desires communion with us.
In God’s hands and by God’s abundant generosity and kindness, the Child we wait for is God’s answer to the darkness of our lives. Regardless of our circumstances, no matter what the world or life present to us in the way of challenges or rewards, God is the constant, immeasurable, awesome Lord of our lives.
In God’s hands we are shaped and formed in His image, to be light for the world, reflecting the very light of Jesus. In the meantime, is it okay to struggle a bit with the waiting of Advent. It is okay to look for the coming of Christ with a bit of impatience and a lot of hope. It is okay to have huge expectations of what Christmas might be like, pandemic or no pandemic, when Christ comes, the long-expected deliverer of our hope, our love, and our peace.
As you continue this season of waiting, may you be encouraged by the Spirit of the God who loves the world in all its brokenness, all its sorrow and straining. May you know the peace of the God who keeps his promises and sends a redeemer. May you know that despite the doubts and fears that keep you up at night, indeed, God will never leave you nor forsake you, but in the Christ Child, will love you and hold you forever.