© 2020 Evan D. Garner
How long has it been? How long have you been waiting? How long will you have to wait? There are 26 days until Christmas and 33 days until the end of the year. There are eight weeks until January 20, and there are 47 months until November 2024. How long have you been waiting? How long will you have to wait? How long until you graduate? How long until you retire? How long until your wedding day? How long until your baby is born? How long until you conceive? How long until the adoption is complete? How long until your child or spouse returns from their deployment? How long until the doctor calls with the test results?
This week, our children received their yearly Advent calendars in the mail from their grandmother. Behind each number is a small piece of chocolate, and you can be sure that all four of them will faithfully mark each day of the season as Christmas approaches. I miss the days when Christmas was the most important thing I waited and watched for.
This year more than any I can remember, it feels like the whole world is waiting and watching for something else. For nine months, we’ve been cooped up, laid off, and hunkered down, and now, even though things will get worse before they get better, it feels like the end is in sight. How long until a vaccine will be released? How long until it becomes available to the general public? How long until all of us can be vaccinated? How long until it is safe for us to come back together again? How long until we can hug each other? How long until we can live without fear?
Every year, on the first Sunday of Advent, preachers like me try to convince their congregations that this season is not just about waiting for Christmas. Even though the streets are decorated and the stores are playing holiday music, Advent sermons attempt to remind us that this is a time to prepare ourselves—our homes, our families, our lives, our souls—for the coming of the Son of Man on that great and glorious day. In the worship of this season, our prayers, our music, and our readings all point to the final day of judgment. Traditionally during Advent, the church focuses on the “four last things” of death, judgment, heaven, and hell—not the pageant or the parties or the presents. In most years, that feels like a losing battle. Who cares about the end of the world when there is so much good to celebrate between now and the end of the year?
There is still so much good to celebrate, but it seems like something else is on our minds this year. This year we’re all hoping and waiting and watching and yearning for something different—a change of direction, a new start, a total do-over. This year, it feels like the faithful thing for a preacher to do is to remind folks that this struggle won’t last forever—that the hardship we face will give way to a new and brighter day—and that is exactly what Advent is all about in the first place.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake at your presence!” the prophet Isaiah wrote. Have you ever yearned for God so deeply that you called out and begged for God to come down? Have you ever wept the desperate tears of one who aches for God to come and turn everything around? Have you ever stayed awake all night, watching for the miracle that you would willingly trade your life for if it would only make it happen?
In every generation, God’s people have waited and watched and hoped for God to come and set the world right. They wait not for the kind of salvation that can be accomplished in a laboratory or in a stimulus package. They yearn for something that is not made possible through politics or won in the courts. They hope for a deliverance that is not guaranteed by the military or defended by the police. They pray and watch and hope for that day when “the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, [when] the stars will be falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” O that God would tear open the heavens and come down like that! O that God would come and turn the world upside down and give us the new beginning that we are all desperate for!
If we are scared of judgment, we either don’t understand what it’s about, or there’s a part of us that recognizes that we’re on the wrong side of it. Advent is a time for us to take a look deep inside ourselves and deep inside the world around us and identify the ways in which we need God to come and turn us upside down and make us new.
At the beginning of Mark 13, Jesus’ disciples beg him to tell them when all of these scary-sounding things will be accomplished. “When will everything come crashing down?” they ask. They didn’t ask because they were afraid. They asked because they didn’t want to have to wait any longer. For generations, God’s people had been subjected to the tyrannical rule of one dictatorial power after another—the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, the Greeks, and now the Romans. When will it ever end? Sure, there had been fleeting moments of relative independence, rebellions that had provided the illusion of self-determination. But they had always given way to another despotic ruler. When would God’s people finally be secure? When would God come once and for all and take over on behalf of God’s people? When, indeed.
The answer Jesus offers is good news for God’s people: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that [the Son of Man] is near, at the very gates.” Jesus invites us to reinterpret the signs of struggle that surround us. They are not an indication that God is abandoning God’s people, Jesus tells us. Instead, they are a sign that God’s salvation is near, even at the very gates. As Jesus’ disciples, we are called not to wait and watch for a salvation that is foreign to this world—for a victory that will only come after human history has run its course. We are called to anticipate a salvation that breaks through into this world, into this life, and to orient our whole lives around that promise, trusting that it will come at any minute.
Advent is a season of encouragement, a time to rekindle our confidence that God is coming and is coming soon. Despite what slick corporate marketers would try to convince us, we do not need any help believing that Christmas will come again this year. Even if it comes without its usual full dose of festive cheer, we know that the Christ child will be born again at Christmas. Even in 2020, we can count down those days. But the coming of our savior so long ago, which we celebrate again each year, is not merely an opportunity to reminisce, a chance to reenact what took place in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. It is a reminder to us that God’s salvation is not encapsulated in a heavenly vault, a gift that belongs to another place and time, but something that God gives to us here in this life.
Jesus describes God’s great salvation as a moment when God will gather again to Godself those who have been scattered by the four winds even to the ends of the earth, and he reminds us that that salvation is very near to us. It is right around the corner. It is as close as the dawn. It will come at any moment, even here and now. So do not lose hope. Do not give up. Do not forget that he is coming to make all things new. Watch for him, and wait for him. Stay alert. Keep awake.