Are you prepared? This week I caught myself saying, “Christmas is coming like a freight train.” Does that feel true for you? Exams to finish? Papers to grade? Food to prepare? Gifts to buy? Family coming to town? Therapy appointments to schedule to deal with the family coming to town? It is a busy season. Are you prepared?
A decade or so ago, I heard one of my theological heroes talk at my alma mater, The University of San Diego. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Friar of the Order of Preachers, is a tiny little Peruvian man. You’ve heard me say this before, but I’ve noticed that many holy people are very short. Mother Teresa was five feet. Desmond Tutu is tiny. Gustavo Gutierrez is short in stature, but he’s a theological giant. He’s the father of Latin American Liberation Theology.
The speech I heard him give was around this time of year, in great Shiley auditorium. He made many fine points about God’s preferential option for the poor, about Scripture’s attention to the least and the lost. But for me the speech culminated when he talked about what he called the defining prayer of our culture. Our defining prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, stay there.” Stay there! We’ve got this handled.
I think he was right to say this is the defining prayer of our culture. We live a society that is more technologically advanced, more militarily dominant, more economically resourced than any society ever, in all of earth’s history. It can feel like we have “it” handled.
And it can feel like it is our job to get “it” together at Christmas. It can feel like if we just wait in one more line at Target, if we just get to the gym one more time to work off the holiday pounds, if we can just get the house cleaned before my mother arrives, we will have it together. We will be prepared for Christmas. It can feel like if we just get that one thing done…
But that’s NOT the point of Advent. That’s not the point of this season of preparation. It’s not.
Christmas isn’t about us having the details ironed out. Christmas is the celebration of God’s biggest invasion of our privacy: the coming of Jesus.
God’s work in Jesus, from the very beginning, is an inconvenience to human plans. In the stories of Mary and Joseph hearing from the angels, they are shocked. Mary and Joseph didn’t plan for this. You don’t plan for unexpected pregnancies. They eventually find the blessing in the disruption, but it takes awhile. It’s a long road to Bethlehem. The stories of Advent can feel like a cascading avalanche of dashed hopes, of ruined expectations. We’re not prepared for God’s entrance into our world, into our lives. We never are.
That’s the beauty. God isn’t waiting for you to be ready. God doesn’t need you to have your act together. God is showing up whether or not you have the presents wrapped and the ham out of the oven. God is always already coming to you.
You’re work is deceptively simple. Get quiet. Wait for the Lord. Be still, as the psalms say. “Be still and know that I am God.”
In the midst of all the rush, can you make room for stillness? In the midst of all our cultures preparing, can you quiet yourself down? Can you wait with hope?
Many of you know that I spent my first years as a priest serving with a Spanish language congregation. Advent sermons are a little easier in Spanish. Wait and hope are the same word: “Esperar.” And the word rhymes well with another good word for Advent: “Respirar.” Breathe.
Slow down and breathe. God is coming. Ready or not, God is coming.
So why slow down? Why breathe? Is this just one more thing on my to-do list? Make room to be quiet. Do I need to add that to my calendar too?
Well, yes, and no. As he worked for the liberation of El Salvador’s poor, and interviewer asked Archbishop Oscar Romero how he made time for an hour of prayer every day. They said, “you are so busy. You have so much work to do.” He said, yes, “on the busy days I need two hours.” We’re not all saintly archbishops. Two hours, an hour, that’s a high standard. Maybe start with five minutes. Work your way to twenty. Then give me a call. The point of the story isn’t the amount of time, it is the practice of taking time. Romero realized that to be fully present to his people, to live into God’s calling, he needed quiet time. He needed space to reflect and to listen, to slow down and be with God.
In Advent, it can seem like the stakes are high. Family members have expectations about what is served at dinner. Kids have expectations about what the gifts they will receive. Let it go. That’s not where the stakes really are. Too often in life we let unimportant expectations set us up for emotional drama. We want something specific under the tree, on the table. Let it go. What if we came together this holiday season with no expectations? What would that Christmas gathering look like?
What if we let go of our small expectations, and looked at the real stakes?
Advent is a season of prophets. Isaiah for two weeks has been speaking about wolves lying down with lambs. He puts forth this incredible vision of God’s Holy Mountain as a place of safety, of strength, of health. Jesus tells John the Baptist’s followers to relate to their leader the story of the blind seeing, the dead being raised. The prophets remind us that the stakes are higher than working Christmas lights.
The stakes are high, but we often use the wrong measuring sticks. God’s vision is one of health, of wholeness, of justice for all creation. God’s vision for humanity is not some postcard of snowflakes and a family gathered around a table, with a goose. In God’s vision we’re all vegetarians anyway (check Isaiah last week, the lion was eating grass like on ox). God would have us involved in the building of God’s kingdom.
In John’s Gospel, chapter 10, Jesus says “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” I came that you might have LIFE. He uses the plural “you” which our presiding Bishop from North Carolina translates as “all y’all.” Jesus came, God came into our world, to bring health and wholeness to EVERYONE, to the whole planet.
The central image of Isaiah’s prophecy today is the desert blooming. Now, I know that most of you grew up here in the midwest. This is a place that doesn’t lack for water, which means that we also don’t lack for vegetation. All year round something is growing, something is blooming. Let me tell you, my sinuses know. Missouri is fertile territory. In this state, it is always green somewhere. The desert is different.
Most of the year the desert is dry, brown, quiet. But have you ever been in the desert in the springtime? It’s unbelievable. Stretches of parched sand become fields of flowers seemingly overnight. I remember driving through Joshua Tree California one Spring when I was in college and being stunned silent, overwhelmed by the colors. “The desert shall rejoice” Isaiah tells us. The least expected terrain can show God’s blessing most vibrantly.
There are desert places in our world, countries where people are fleeing violence, where hope is hard to find. There are neighborhoods in this city that are deserts, where healthy food is hard to find and violence comes to easily. There are desert places in our lives, projects set aside, dreams differed, relationships left fallow. Can we be quiet enough to let God show us the blessing that is possible? Can we quiet our own small expectations enough to hear the still small voice of God, presenting us with abundance?
I began by asking, are you prepared? Let me conclude by asking: why are you preparing? What are you preparing for? I think all of us, this preacher included, could use a dose of prophecy. We all need a reminder from time to time that we are not in charge. We need to pray, but we need to let go of the prayer of our culture. We need to let go of the busy, commercial, culturally loaded preparation. Let it go. Advent is a time to realize that we don’t have things together. God does not need us to hang the tinsel. We need to pray: “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be they name. THY KINGDOM COME.”