Jesus Is Coming, Look Busy

This Sunday is the first Sunday in the season of Advent. Advent means “expectation.” For many this marks the beginning of the Church calendar, the beginning of our shared story as Christians. I was reading an article by Conrad Hoover on Advent, and he wrote that for the Church, “the new year is not marked by drunken and numbing merrymaking on December 31, but rather by joyful anticipation and urgent exhortation to stay awake and be watchful on the 1st Sunday of Advent.” But if those of us who call ourselves Christians should be waiting in expectation during the season of Advent, what are we expecting? If we are called to be awake and watchful on the 1st Sunday of Advent, what is it that we hope to see or experience?

My guess is that for most Christians we would offer up some sort of Sunday school, saccharine-sweet response like, “We’re expecting the birth of Jesus, the coming of the Prince of Peace, the arrival of the Messiah.” Most of us who call ourselves Christians will say these kinds of things because we are supposed to, it is what he have been taught to say. Our traditions demand it of us. But our actions betray us in the end. We say that we are expecting the Messiah, but we clearly position the story of the Messiah’s arrival safely in the past. Our expectations during the season of Advent are fairly low, pedestrian, in fact. The world around us may be filled with deep, aching and abiding needs, but most of us spend the Advent season worrying about how we are going to pay for all the Christmas presents we are going to have to buy.

I was watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade with my four-year old son on Thanksgiving Day. He was excited, to say the last. It was Thanksgiving, after all, and the smell of cooking was in the air, there was a fire in the fireplace and his family was all around him. He found a spot on the floor in front of the TV and watched intently as all of the bands, balloons, floats and singers paraded down the streets of New York. But the real reason why he planted himself thusly had less to do with the bands, balloons, floats and singers and more to do with the fact that Santa was coming on the last float of the parade. This fact alone kept him sitting there, despite all of his four year-old energy, and the obvious over-stimulation that comes from a house full of 15 people and four dogs. When Santa brought up the rear of the parade, Jackson leaped to his feet and began exclaiming, “There’s Santa! There’s Santa!”

Some 82 years ago, Macy’s department store in New York launched the first ever Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade to signal the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. The arrival of Santa at the end of the parade was both a sign and a symbol that Thanksgiving was over, and the season of Christmas had officially begun. It’s strange to think that in 1926, three years before the great Stock Market Crash of 1929 and just a few years before the Great Depression, Macy’s began what has now become a uniquely American holiday tradition----Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year.

The theme for this year’s Macy’s Christmas marketing campaign is encapsulated in a single word: “Believe.” The word was emblazoned on balloons, floats, posters, banners and presumably will be featured prominently on all of the upcoming Macy’s holiday advertisements. “Believe.” You couldn’t ask for a more appropriate symbol for the fears of our time. “Believe in the power of retail.” it seems to say to us. “Believe in the magic of spending money this Christmas.” In a world that has been struck by fears of global economic meltdown, we all need something to believe in, I suppose. And the best our culture has to offer is a department store ad couched in sentimentality with a tinge of the spiritual thrown in for good measure. “Take comfort,” this cultural sign and symbol tells us, “when everything else falls apart, when you are just sitting around waiting for the world to fall, when you are struggling to find something to believe in...don’t fret, don’t be alarmed. Just go shopping.”

Black Friday is the day that most retailers use to gauge how the rest of the Christmas season will turn out in terms of overall sales. The object is to turn your financial ledger from “red” to “black”---which means you will make a profit rather than take a loss. I was flipping through some of the news channels this morning and many of them actually had reporters doing live stories from shopping malls, and big retailers where people were lined up to take advantage of some of the great deals that stores were offering. I heard of some stores that opened their doors at midnight, the morning after Thanksgiving. Further, more than a few opened their doors at 6 AM or earlier to accommodate the early risers. That’s the context within which tragedy struck in Long Island, NY this year. A Wal-Mart employee was crushed to death when the crowd that had been gathering outside all night surged in and trampled him. Store employees who tried to help him were knocked aside. People were literally stepping over the man while he lay dying on the floor. There were other stories... Two men shot each other to death in a Toys R Us in California, crowds were unruly and huge outside retailers who promised huge discounts and incredible give--aways, countless fights broke out among shoppers around the country that required police action. In fact, the police in Long Island were not at the aforementioned Wal-Mart because they had been called away to disturbances at Best Buy and Circuit City.

People in our culture used to ask the question, “Where is God?” “Where is God in this war? Where is God in the poverty and hunger and violence all around us? Where is God in the racism, sexism, judgement and intolerance we experience? Where is God in these hard economic times? Where is God in my broken relationship? My lost job? My addiction?”
I think that they’ve stopped asking, and have decided to go shopping instead.
And those of us who call ourselves Christians have gone with them.

I was reading Isaiah 64:1-9 as I prepared for my sermon on the 1st Sunday of Advent. This was a prophecy, a prayer, that was prayed on behalf of a people who had lowered their expectations. This passage of Isaiah was offered for the Hebrew people who had been living in exile in Babylon for over a generation. Babylon was their reality. It was all they knew. The cultural memories of an idyllic past in the Promised Land had begun to fade. Even though they were being given the opportunity to return to the Promised Land to build something new, they were afraid. They were afraid of impending war and violence, economic hardship, poverty, hunger...they were afraid of an uncertain future.
In Isaiah 64, the prophet prays a prayer on behalf of the people---interceding in a way that completely identifies him with their need, their plight. The first part of this passage is essentially a cry out to God to reveal Godself as God has done in the past. The Hebrew people had been reared on the stories of God’s miraculous interventions throughout their history, but it had been a long time since the parting of the Red Sea. Those were just stories, firmly rooted in the past.
But there’s more here than just a plea for God to reveal Godself to God’s people. By praying such a prayer, the prophet is revealing God’s desire for the Hebrew people to re-capture their imagination, their sense of wonder. The prophet is essentially urging the people to believe once more in the impossible and to know that all things are possible with God.
There’s more.
This is not one of those “wand-waving” moments where God just magically makes everything all better in one fell swoop. This prophecy-prayer reveals God’s desire to be in relationship with God’s people. Further, it reveals God’s desire that the Hebrew people fulfill their destiny to become God’s agents for change and transformation in the world. They had been called out and set aside to point the nations to God, to be God’s “city on a hill.” Instead, they have become immobilized by fear, and had forgotten whose they were and who they were called to be. Now, the prophet declares, they must confess, repent of their faithlessness and their lack of hope, and return to wild, unpredictable belief.

As Christians we need to be honest with ourselves this Advent season, this season of expectation. We have lost our imagination. We say that the Messiah has come, we say “Emmanuel”---God is with us, we declare that we want “peace on earth, goodwill to humankind,” but we don’t really believe a word that we are saying anymore.

If we truly want wars to end, peace to reign... If we truly want hunger to be stamped out, diseases to be cured, genocide to cease... If we truly want prosperity for all and not just for a few... If we want healing in relationships, freedom from addiction, equity and equality and justice for all... Then we have to begin believing that God can and will make it happen, and that it must begin with us, those of us who claim to be God-followers, Jesus-lovers... Christians. We have a lot to repent. We have a great deal of time to make up for. We have to learn again what it means to believe, and to imagine. We have to learn again what it means to hope.

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