21 Dec Finding Joy in the Hard…
I have a confession to make, and this is a risky thing for a preacher to say out loud: Advent may well be my least favorite church season to preach. Ironically, I love Advent from a personal/family/worship standpoint, but preaching the story of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child each year is a real challenge.
The root of the problem is that the story is just so, so familiar. Every year we have the four Sundays of Advent plus the Christmas Eve service to tell and retell a narrative that people have heard over and over and over and over. So, each December I struggle with how to tell that story in a way that offers some fresh insight or creates space to encounter the Holy or opens us to the work of God’s Spirit. I don’t struggle with Lent and Easter or Pentecost to the same degree, but for reasons I do not fully understand, preaching in Advent in a particular, unique stress. It is a tension I have come to accept and live with, primarily because I trust that God’s ability to speak far exceeds my homiletical limitations. Were it not for this truth, I would never dare utter a word from any pulpit on any Sunday, Advent or not.
I also trust that the Advent narrative is profound and powerful not because of its newness but because of its message. We need to hear about the gifts of Jesus again and again. We need to be reminded that hope, love, peace and joy are not dependent on the circumstances of our lives and our world, but on the eternal promises fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ. What makes Christmas miraculous is precisely that in our uncertain and fearful places, real hope is not only possible but sustains us. In our loneliness and pain, love breaks through to heal us. In our griefs and suffering, peace inexplicably comforts us. Despite the gloomy news and our personal struggles, there is still joy that surprises us.
Advent invites us to enter the story from any angle that intrigues us and thereby, to experience it as a personal story. Are we, like the Innkeeper, needing to clear out some space to make more room for Jesus? Is there clutter in our lives that prevents us from opening wide the door of our hearts to welcome him in? Clutter comes in many different forms—the clutter of habit or time or stuff. The clutter of preconceived ideas or pride or selfishness. The clutter of busyness and distractions. How are we crowding Jesus out by hanging on to our clutter, and is this the time to set it aside in order to make room for the Messiah?
Perhaps we need to hear the angelic command, “Be not afraid.” What are you afraid of? What is pressing upon you, worrying you, interrupting your sleep, disturbing your peace? When those anxious thoughts come, the Advent story invites you to repeat to yourself the angel’s message: “Be not afraid. You have found favor with God.” (Luke 1:30) “Do not be afraid. I bring you good tidings of great joy.” (Luke 2:10) “Do not be afraid. Your prayers have been heard.” (Luke 1:13) The angel boldly proclaims the truth that because Emmanuel has come, God is with us. And since God is with us, there is truly no need to be afraid.
Familiar words, yes. A familiar story, yes. But as true and powerful and transformative today as it was on that dark, starry night so long ago. Let us not miss this Child because we think we already know what the Christmas story is all about. Let us take time, in the words of poet Ann Weems, to listen and to look.
To Listen, To Look
by Ann Weems
Is it all sewn up—my life?
Is it at this point so predictable,
that I don’t have time or space
for listening for the rustle of angels’ wings
or running to stables to see a baby?
Could this be what he meant when he said
Listen, those who have ears to hear….
Look, those who have eyes to see?
O God, give me the humbleness of those shepherds
who saw in the cold December darkness
the Coming of Light
the Advent of Love!