Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
December 1, 2013—First Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44
Isaiah 2:1–5 • This is what Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In the days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house will be the highest of the mountains. It will be lifted above the hills; peoples will stream to it. Many nations will go and say, “Come, let’s go up to the LORD’s mountain, to the house of Jacob’s God so that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in God’s paths.” Instruction will come from Zion; the LORD’s word from Jerusalem. God will judge between the nations, and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war. Come, house of Jacob, let’s walk by the LORD’s light.
Matthew 24:36–44 • “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows. As it was in the time of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Human One. In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away. The coming of the Human One will be like that. At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house. Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know.”
I love Christmas time. Andy Williams was right: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
The decorations brighten up a dreary time of year with vivid greens and reds. The lights shine out in the midst of the winter gloom. The music stirs the strings of our hearts with songs that everyone knows. And the food…let’s not forget the food.
But I think my favorite part is the waiting. When I was a kid, the waiting began as soon as the J.C. Penney Christmas Catalog arrived, sometime in late September or October. From that point on, the wait would be near excruciating. Every day just dragged on toward the 25th of December. Perhaps it’s because I’ve gotten older and the days seem to fly by much more often than they drag that I’ve come to appreciate the wait more than I did as a kid. Perhaps that also because I am not quite so desperate to get the Millennium Falcon for my Star Wars action figures as I once was.  But I have come to appreciate Christmas differently as an adult and appreciate the time of waiting that Advent is.
But all of this raises an important question: what is it we are waiting for? It’s probably a good idea to remind ourselves of what it is we are not waiting for.
See, contrary to the wishes of my 9 year-old self, we are not waiting for things. Not even the Millennium Falcon. Of course, this is the most prevalent understanding of what the holiday is about, especially in our contemporary culture. Christmas and gift-giving (and more to the point, gift receiving) are inextricably linked. The expectation that for the Christmas holiday you’re supposed to buy things for other people (with the implied promise that they will likewise be buying things for you) is trumpeted from every media outlet beginning earlier and earlier every year. There is no major voice in our culture indicating that Christmas is anything other than a massive shopping spree. No one in government, no one in the media (liberal or conservative). And there are few voices in the church (at least the portions of the church that anyone is listening to) who are strenuous in their objections. In fact, the most upset that people seem to get about Christmas shopping is not that it has taken over the holiday, it’s that they’re not wishing you “Merry Christmas” while you’re out shopping, which seems itself to accept the idea that Christmas and shopping are connected.
But it would surprise many to know that the “tradition” of gift-giving on Christmas is very recent. Probably Victorian era. Prior to that, gift-giving, if it took place, did so on the Feast of St. Nicholas, on December 6 or on the Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6, commemorating the arrival of the Magi. Of course, St. Nicholas has been transformed into Santa Claus and the Magi are always pulled forward onto Christmas, but they are reminders that the holiday wasn’t always about getting things.
What is even more surprising is that Christmas wasn’t even always celebrated. The Puritans of New England banned the holiday altogether claiming that it was not biblical and that it had more to do with paganism and idolatry. It did not re-emerge in New England until the late Victorian era when it was fashioned into the commercial holiday we now recognize it to be.
But we really ought to know this. It’s almost as if we forget the teaching of Jesus himself about the dangers of wealth, and who repeatedly seems to exhort his followers to give up what they have in order to follow him.
As martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero once said:
No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need ever of God– for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.
Indeed it’s almost as if we have focused on the child and forgotten all the things that child would say and do once he grew up.
B. The Baby in a Manger
In the movie Talladega Nights, there is a ridiculous scene (well, there are many ridiculous scenes, but one in particular) where the main character Ricky Bobby is saying grace before dinner. He begins:
Ricky Bobby: Dear Lord Baby Jesus. Or as our brothers in the South call you, Jesús, we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Domino’s, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell. I just want to take time to say thank you for my family… Dear tiny infant Jesus –
At which point his wife Carley interjects: Hey. You know, Sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him baby. It’s a bit odd and off-putting you to pray to a baby.
Ricky Bobby: Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best. When you say grace, you can say it to Grown Up Jesus, or Teenage Jesus, or Bearded Jesus, or whoever you want.
After another objection, he continues:
Ricky Bobby: Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, in your golden fleece diapers, with your curled-up, fat, balled-up little fists pawing at the air…
Finally his friend Chip interjects: “He was a man! He had a beard!” To which Ricky responds: “I like the baby version the best, do you hear me? …Dear eight pound, six ounce, newborn infant Jesus. Don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent…” 
This is a hilarious scene, but it highlights a really important idea: sometimes we reduce Jesus to something cute and cuddly and the implications are absurd. Chip’s statement, “He was a man! He had a beard!” is likewise funny but points out that Ricky has remembered the Christ Child but not who that Christ Child grew to become.
Because Christmas is not really about a child. It is about the Incarnation of the Word of God in the Flesh. An event of far greater significance than simply the birth of a child no matter how special.
Because we often forget that the birth of Jesus is supposed to be significant. But we trivialize it by turning it into an excuse to shop or thinking of it as a child’s birthday party. Or by lapsing into sentimentalism.
And sentiment runs amuck during the Christmas season. It’s often said that people are just a little bit nicer around Christmastime. That there is a little more concern for the poor and needy, more giving to charity, and so on. And you hear this kind of sentiment throughout the holiday:
This time of year means being kind
to everyone we meet,
To share a smile with strangers
we may pass along the street.
—Betty Black in “This Time of Year”.
Best of all, Christmas means a spirit of love, a time when the love of God and the love of our fellow men should prevail over all hatred and bitterness, a time when our thoughts and deeds and the spirit of our lives manifest the presence of God.
—George F. McDougall
Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.
—Norman Vincent Peale
Now, sentiment isn’t all bad. But Christianity isn’t sentimental and one of Christianity’s major festivals ought not be defined by sentiment. Especially since sentiment often has us looking in the wrong direction.
After the Puritan ban on Christmas in New England disappeared, it is said that Christmas emerged as the holiday we recognize it today: commercial and nostalgic. We’re used to thinking of Christmas as commercial but it’s interesting to think how nostalgic it is. I will admit some of my favorite memories are of “Christmases long, long ago…” and are simply treasured memories of a feeling. And think how much of our reflection on Christmas is tied to traditions of the past.
The line in the song Sleigh Ride is really indicative of this: “It’ll be nearly like a picture print by Courier and Ives…” Courier and Ives had been out of business for over forty years by the time that the lyrics Sleigh Ride was written in 1950. And come to think of it, how many people were going for sleigh rides in 1950? The entire enterprise seems one of nostalgia. And the thing about nostalgia is that it looks backward to a romanticized time in the past that likely never existed. It is full of emotion and sentiment about something that used to be that we remember fondly. Again, there is nothing wrong with that per se except for the fact that it is inherently looking backward. And the Gospel calls us to look forward.
It is important to note that the scripture lessons we have during Advent are not anticipating the birth of the Christ Child. They are anticipating the world-changing event that the return of Christ will bring. The passage in Matthew’s gospel speaks of the unexpected hour when the Kingdom of God will come and the wicked will be swept away.
No, the Incarnation of the Word of God is meant to be an event not simply like the birth of a political leader, whose birthday we celebrate as an excuse to celebrate (the way the birthdays of our presidents are). Nor is it meant to be simply the commemoration of the birth of an important spiritual leader whose teachings we admire (the way we celebrate the birth of, say, Martin Luther King, Jr.). The Incarnation of the Word is meant to be a cosmic event.
And that is reflected in the passage from Isaiah that we heard read earlier:
In the days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house will be the highest of the mountains. It will be lifted above the hills; peoples will stream to it. Many nations will go and say, “Come, let’s go up to the LORD’s mountain, to the house of Jacob’s God so that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in God’s paths.” … God will judge between the nations, and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war.
This vision of the prophet, known as the “Oracle of Peace” is not just some sentimental hopeful vision that everyone will be nicer to each other or of days gone by. It is a vision of the radical transformation of the world: a day when nation will not lift up sword against nation or even study the ways of war.
But to understand the extraordinary nature of this oracle, we need to look at the opening line: “In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house will be the highest of the mountains…” The hill upon which the Temple sat, where today the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque sit today, is not even the tallest mountain in Jerusalem. The declaration that it will be the “highest of the mountains” is a statement that the world will be radically reorganized. This is not sentiment. This is not ordinary. It is visionary. And hopeful.
It is worth noting that among the reasons that Jews have historically been reluctant to accept Jesus as the Messiah is that very concrete expectations have yet to be realized. As one Christian theologian points out, the Jewish ‘no’ is not the result of unwillingness or hard-hearted defiance, rather it is because Jews, in the words of Jewish theologian Martin Buber, “are not able to believe this.” Buber, who had a profound respect for Jesus, made the point clearly: “We know more deeply, more truly, that world history has not been turned upside down to its very foundations-that the world is not yet redeemed. We sense its unredeemedness.” Until peace, justice, and compassion reign, the Kingdom of God is, in the Jewish view, a future reality, yet to come. This is the basis for the Jewish ‘no’ to the Messiahship of Jesus.
But, honesty requires us to admit that we Christians proclaim Jesus as Messiah not just because of what he has done, but because of what we expect him to do. The Christian ‘yes’ to Jesus Christ is not a finished or complete ‘yes’—it is open for the messianic future, an anticipatory and provisional ‘yes.’
What this means is that at the heart of Christian identity is expectation. But not just expectation of the charms of the season, or of the gifts we will give and receive, or of the annual bump up in niceness and goodwill, or even of the arrival of a sweet baby in our midst. What we are expecting is the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God and the radical restoration and renewal of the entirety of the world.
We Christians are fond of saying we are an Easter people; and that is true. But we are also an Advent people; a people living in expectation and anticipation. But it is because of what we have experienced at Easter that we are able to be an Advent people, living in expectation with Hope.
Tonight is the first Sunday in Advent. In recent tradition, the lighting of the advent candle begins with the lighting of the candle of hope. Which is an appropriate place to start.
For it is in hope that we wait. While all around us people become more and more dominated by the consumerist and commercial culture in which we live, we live in the hope of the one who transcended possessions and calls us to stand in solidarity with the poor and the needy.
While all around us, people become more and more dominated by the desire for instant gratification, we live in the hope of the one who calls us to be faithful, to wait, to anticipate a world that is reborn and renewed.
While all around us we become more and more dominated by sentiment that passes for faith, we live in the hope of the one who demonstrated that faith is not feeling, but commitment, real commitment, to justice, to peace, to testifying to the reality of God’s kingdom even if it should cost us everything.
Advent and Christmas is still one of my favorite times of year, but not because of what Christmas used to be. But because of the hope that we have throughout Advent of what Christmas, and the world with it, can be.
 Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions [Weg Jesus Christi]. Translated by Margaret Kohl. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1990; reprint, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993, at 28.