We need Advent this year

Advent begins today. This is the new year. We could use a new year, a new start. I would venture this year we need Advent more than ever.

Advent is a time of waiting, a time of patience, a time of longing. We know about patience, waiting, and longing this year. We have been waiting longer than we imagined. And here we are, in one more season of waiting.

Jesus, it is often said, preached in the space between the already and the not yet. Jesus’ principle theme in his teaching is the Reign of God, the Kingdom. Jesus sometimes taught “the kingdom of God is among you. The reign of God is announced.” And, And, Jesus often used the future tense.

I’ve confessed to this congregation before, there was a time when I grew tired of preaching on the apocalypse. When I was a seminarian and a young priest, it seemed my rector always assigned the end of the world to me. In those days didn’t preach that often, and when I did, it seemed half the time the world was ending.

Jesus preached about signs in the heavens often enough to keep a young priest busy. Jesus talked about a future end to the world. Jesus said that the reign of God is already here, AND AND, Jesus said, the reign of God is coming, it is not yet arrived.

Jesus preached in the tension between the already and the not yet.

We know something about the tension between the already and the not yet. Already several vaccines have proved highly effective, but they are not yet widely available. Already we know that mask wearing is highly effective at stopping the spread, but not enough people are convinced yet that they should wear their masks. Already a new president has been elected, but a new administration is not yet at the helm.

Already we have identified the disparities faced by people of color in encounters with the police. Already we know our bail system means that folks in poverty rot in jail, while the wealthy and connected are set free. Already we know that women are paid 20% less than men, on average. Already we know, but we have not yet had the courage to enact changes to address these structural injustices.

I confess, I’ve grown weary with waiting. I’ve grown tired of patience. I have. I know I am not alone. This year has felt like one long wait.

A few days ago, I was exchanging text messages with my former rector, the priest who assigned me all that preaching on the apocalypse: The Rev. Dr. Luis Leon. I told him how much I miss church. I miss my congregation. I miss being able to plan more than a month or so in advance. These eight months have been long.

I texted something despairing about not really planning on any sort of normal worship until next Fall and he stopped me. “No,” he said, “with the vaccine coming it will be more like June.” Besides, he said, “I am thinking of buying tickets to Paris for late next summer, while they are still cheap.” Start making plans. Start making plans.

I hope he is right. But whether his timing pans out exactly, or he has to push his flights back, the conversation was balm for my weary soul. Because Luis was telling me, without saying the words: you’ve got to have hope.

You’ve got to make plans. You’ve got to hope.

This year, maybe, we can hear Jesus’ apocalyptic words with a different ear. Jesus says, yes, the world is ending. Yes there will be signs in the heavens. The sky will go dark. Jesus says, yes this world is ending.

Remember, Jesus lived in fierce times. Jesus’ people lived under the cruel regime of a client ruler of a dominant military empire. Jesus’ people had to pay taxes to support their own oppression. Of course Jesus would pray for, would work for, the end of that sort of a world.

Jesus worked for, prayed for, organized for the end of the world where the wealthy, the connected, the privileged thrived on the backs of the vulnerable. Jesus wanted that world to end in his day. God wants that world to end in ours.

Jesus said, “when you see signs of the world ending: keep alert.” Keep awake. When the sky is dark. When the news is dim. When all the not-yet-ness of our world is frustrating, do not let your hearts grow weary. That is exactly, exactly when you need to stay alert. When it’s been too long, when it’s been too hard, then, exactly then do you need to hope.

Usually in an Advent sermon, I plead with the congregation. Slow down. Stop all the rush. Don’t be distracted by all the shopping and Christmas parties. Spend some time at home. Spend some time in quiet.

This is a different sort of year. We find ourselves longing for the familiar. We are at the end of a weekend that was hard for many of us. Zoom Thanksgiving just isn’t the same. It’s just not. I am aware that the coming weeks are apt to be some of the hardest for many of us, as we forego our usual traditions.

But we don’t have another choice. The virus is spreading out of control. Too many people are waiting this season while a loved one is in the hospital. Too many people are worrying about whether they might get sick. Hope is on the horizon, but we have not yet turned the corner.

That is why, I say, this year we need Advent more than ever. We need the reminder to hope. We need the reminder that our longing is bigger than any one thanksgiving, any one Christmas. We need a reminder that our longing, ultimately, is a longing for God. We need to remember to hope, not just for an emergence from lockdown. We need the remember to make plans, big plans, grand plans so that the world we left behind is not the world to which we return. We need to make plans to change the structures. We need to make plans, hopeful plans, to address inequity.

We need Advent this year to remind us that hope often starts out small and antic. Hope often starts out sounding crazy, like the words of a prophet. Hope looks like a child, born in poverty, out of wedlock, on the edge of the edge of the empire, who will be proclaimed the king of kings.

God can work with the little bit of hope you can muster. God works with hope, often slower than we would like, but believing in God, saying you are a Christian, it means believing God can grow tiny green shoots into trees with sweet fruit.

Light a candle in the dark. Then light another. Wear your mask out of love for your neighbor. Make the hard decision to let go of the familiar. But don’t let go of hope. Keep awake to hope. God will come, even as we prepare for a distant Christmas. Even as we survive these strange days, God will make a new beginning out of a world that needs to end. This Advent: don’t let go of hope.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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