Monday, December 2, 2019

Advent Disconnect

This year, as we enter Advent, I feel sharply the disconnect between the language the church uses to express the hope of this season and the language the world uses to express its own version of hope. In a Sunday school class, we read the four collects for the Sundays of Advent and the proper preface we use during the Eucharistic prayer each week. We read the text of "Lo he comes with clouds descending" and watched a video of a cathedral choir and congregation singing the last stanza. And it's hard to ignore the huge gulf that separates our liturgical language of sin and judgment from the world's language of pretty lights and material pursuits. What does the church do about that?

I believe fully that both spheres are peddling messages of hope. The consumer-driven world wants us to find the warmth of love, family, and security this season. It is better to give than to receive, and Amazon makes it easy for us to express love for others through one-click shopping. The church also has a message of hope, but it's harder to hear over the din of what's going on around us. We are broken. We are sinful. The fact that we feel strongly the desire to escape our reality through the pretense of the holiday season underscores that brokenness. And an escape is valuable for as long as it persists. But, before you know it, it's time to take down the tree and face the reality of mid-January. And then February. And then March. The church wants the world to know that there is lasting relief for that suffocating sense of loss, grief, hurt, and futility that plague us, and it isn't found in pretty paper or bright lights. But making the connection between the beloved sentimentality of the holiday season and the reality check of Advent isn't easy.

This Sunday, we will hear John the Baptist preaching a message of repentance and pointing us to the one who is to come, Jesus Christ. But why would we focus on that? Why would people stop long enough in the holiday rush to listen to a message like that? Because we are called to repent and return to God not so that we can obtain a moment's forgiveness--temporary relief from our guilt--but so that we can be made new and whole by God. The message of repentance doesn't stop with rejecting the futile pursuits of worldly ways. It always includes an invitation to be remade. As we prepare for the second advent by commemorating the first advent, we invite the world to behold the first coming of Christ as the means by which God makes the world new--taking our brokenness onto Godself--in order that we might pursue the second coming of Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of that re-creation. And the gulf between the two approaches to hope becomes the very means for proclaiming the gospel.

I need more than a feel-good season of the year. I need more beauty than even the prettiest lights. I need more hope than a present under the tree. I need to know that, even when the holiday shine has faded, there is something real to hold onto. The instinct we feel to celebrate this season of hope, light, joy, and peace is a good one. The desire for connection and love is good. Those of us who climb in pulpits this season do our congregations a disservice by lambasting those impulses, but we also deny the fullness of the Advent gospel if we're merely preaching a pre-Christmas message. Instead, we can invite people to see beyond December 25 or January 6. The hope that the world would sell us might fade, but the message of repentance and return and renewal is one that persists. But preaching it doesn't mean wagging fingers at Amazon or early-decorators or mid-December carolers. It means helping us see the common need and the bigger hope.

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