Sunday, November 28, 2021
Yesterday, in a garage in Greenland, I sat at supper with a handful of you, and with our good friend Antony. A rickety table. Stacked high with salads and stews. Friends gathered round. Shovels and snowblowers keeping watch. It was a holy communion of sorts, a eucharist of hope in a season of loss. Many of you have been there. At that table with Antony. Tearful sharing, soulful words, family separation and irreconcilable grief and unrelenting fear. And yesterday, communion—the breaking of bread, the bright tangy oranges of life. A circle of lovingkindness in a world that seems so hard and so cruel so much of the time.
And I found myself thinking about Advent at that table. In that garage. With that community. I found myself thinking that Advent is a practice this year—not a box of baubles, ornaments, tinsel in the attic, and not a stack of sheet music plucked from the piano bench for caroling. As sweet as all that is. Advent is a practice this year, planted in a promise, primed by hope. It’s our calling. It takes shape in these deep dark days of late November. The trees are bare. The birds gone south. Even bright afternoons dissolve too quickly into darkness.
But somehow, somehow, Advent emerges here, emerges among us now. A seed is planted. A hope is kindled. And we are enlarged in our waiting. That’s the verse that kept tossing in my heart yesterday, in the garage, at the table, with Antony and those friends. “We are enlarged in our waiting.”
So I want to think about what that means this morning, for you and me, for the church of Jesus’ friends and disciples. What does an Advent practice look like, this practice planted in a promise? How will we partner with God in the birthing of new life? How will we keep watch together through long winter nights? And how are we enlarged, empowered, encouraged in the waiting itself?
You know, Paul has this whole thing going on in his mind, and in his heart, and in his theology: and he believes, he’s counting on this, he believes that Jesus is coming back. And soon. The same Jesus who was crucified by the Romans. The same Jesus who promised love and spirit and mercy without end. So Paul’s Letter to the Romans is animated by this kind of expectation, by this kind of readiness. Jesus is coming back. And soon. To hear Paul’s encouragement, to digest it—we have to sense this electric sense of urgency. Love is on the move. All that’s difficult, all that’s painful, all that’s bewildering and befuddling in our lives: it’s all birth pangs. Something new, something holy, something good is in the works.
And because that’s so, Paul says, because Jesus is coming back, the Christian community waits joyfully. Because that’s so, because all the rest is birth pangs, the Christian community waits boldly. Because that’s so, the Christian community waits for the healing power of Jesus, for the reconciling love of Jesus, for the “glorious times ahead.” And this hope—it’s not just for the church. This is so often missed in studies of Paul. But it’s not just for the church, this hope, it’s for all creation: for fields and forests, for fauna and flora, for humankind and otherkind and all God’s creation. Jesus isn’t coming back just to go to church on Sunday morning! Jesus is coming back to bless all the nations, and all the faiths, and all the peoples, and all the continents, and all the tables stacked high with all the blessings of creation. Love is on the move to reconcile our wounds and sorrows, and to make all things new.
And then this: “The longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.” So it’s not just that Jesus is coming back; it’s not just that Jesus is returning from a long trip, from some distant, exotic land. The Spirit of God is arousing new life from within the church, from within the Beloved Community, from within the good earth itself. The power of Jesus, the love of Jesus, the healing energies of Jesus: all of this is stirring within us, straining within us, like labor pains within us. “We are enlarged in the waiting. Of course,” Paul says, “we don’t see what’s enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.”
Friends, this year Advent takes shape between the lines of another story in another paper about another variant. You know where we are. This is a virus that refuses to yield. But Advent is a practice planted in a promise. Our practice. And Paul says: “We are enlarged in the waiting.” This year, our Advent takes shape in our own bewildering questions, questions that have no answers, questions that provoke despair and even desolation. But the Word of God says to the church this morning: “The joyful anticipation deepens. The Spirit of God is arousing us. And we are enlarged in the waiting.”
For all the hope, for all the joyful anticipation in Paul’s letter, there’s also this. This morning’s reading is honest and sober. There are times when the waiting itself exhausts us. There are seasons when we don’t know how or what to pray. I imagine many of us have experienced these seasons just this year. I imagine some of us are exhausted to the point where even faith, even the familiar patterns and practices of faith make very little sense. And Paul gets that. I get that. We all get that.
I visited a couple this week who dear to us, and who are grappling with decisions at the end of a life. A couple who are profoundly faithful to one another, and deeply in tune with the Love of God in their lives and in their family and in their world. But illness exhausts them. The weariness of treatments without end—it exhausts them. And sometimes they just don’t know how or what to pray. We’ve all been there. This particular couple are in an especially tender and bewildering moment of incomprehension, and uncertainty, and weariness. My heart breaks for them, and with them.
Just the same, sitting on their porch, looking deep into their sweet and loving faces, I think I grasped what Paul’s saying to us this morning. “The moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along.” This is so important, friends; for our friends Mary and Bob, and for every one of us in fragile faithful community. “The moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside, helping us along.” So then, Paul says: “If we don’t know how or what to pray, it really doesn’t matter. God does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans.”
So you don’t have to be a theological wizard, a seasoned and published poet. You don’t have to read through centuries of theological reflection, digest libraries of spiritual wisdom. You just have to trust your wordless sighs, you just have to trust your aching groans. And God will pray for you.
So if you’re among the broken this morning, if you’re among the disheartened, there is a place at the table just for you. There is a place at this table with your name on it. If you get tired with all this waiting, if you are demoralized by all the violence, if you don’t know how or what to pray anymore, there’s a place in this circle for you.
Because what we are here, what we have here is a communion of hope. Because what we are here, what we have here is a community of the hopeful. The Advent of Christ is a mystery to us: we don’t know how it happens, we don’t know what it looks like, and we certainly don’t know God’s timing and how it is that grace plays out among us. But we do trust that all of our waiting, all of our struggling, our pregnant condition itself, is a sign of God’s devotion to us and to life itself. Advent is a practice planted in that promise. We wait, we pray, we sing, we organize, we resist together. And with the church in every age, and in every place, we watch for the joy that is our inheritance. We watch for the coming of the Christ whose ways are love, whose paths are peace. The Christ who makes all things new.
Amen and Ashe.