Advent is a strange season. It may be the strangest season of the church year.
The Christmas season is straightforward: Christ is born, and we celebrate with gusto! The season of Lent has a clear trajectory: we are walking with Jesus towards Jerusalem, and the cross. Easter season is the celebration of God’s victory over death in Jesus.
But Advent is strange. It’s almost a season of bait and switch.
Scripture can be found here...
Look at our sanctuary. It is different than it was last week, no? Gone are the autumn colors and leaves, the harvest decorations, and in their place are the greens we associate with Christmas. But the sanctuary is not fully decorated, and that’s because, despite what the radio stations and the grocery stores and the ads for Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday urge us to believe, it is not yet Christmas.
Advent tells us it is almost Christmas, but then it forces us to wait, a full four weeks for the real celebration.
Advent forces us to wait, and if the decorations in our homes and in the shop windows we walk or drive by are any measure, Advent causes us to be out of step with the culture in our waiting. No one wants to wait for Christmas.
Then… look at the gospel reading offered to us for this First Sunday in Advent. The first confusing thing is: here is Jesus, and he seems pretty keyed up about something. He seems upset. We think of Advent as preparation for our celebration of Jesus’ birth. So why, this week, are we hearing from him? And what’s he talking about?
The first week of Advent gives us Jesus as we heard him in the last weeks before Advent. It is late in Matthew’s gospel… Jesus is in Jerusalem with his disciples, a few days away from his own crucifixion, and he is looking at the end of his own life and the end of life as he and his friends know it.
Jesus is talking about a coming catastrophe, about death and destruction, and he’s talking about the cost to the community. Those who will be taken. Those who will remain. This is not about a supernatural rapture, but about something this community actually witnessed: the crackdown of Rome on Jerusalem, in which families were torn apart, in which all their religious and cultural treasures were decimated, and in which many, many people were killed.
And Jesus’ refrain to those who are listening is: keep awake, because the Son of Man is coming… and no one knows when.
The “Son of Man” is a strange and enigmatic expression. Jesus calls himself “Son of Man” a number of times throughout this gospel. And one way to read it is that he is emphasizing his humanity—it means, the mortal one, the one who is like everyone else. But the Son of Man is also a mysterious figure from the prophetic books of the Hebrew Scriptures, and sometimes that figure is a mere mortal, one who suffers and is incredibly humbled (Ezekiel); and other times that figure is the one who is coming, the Messiah, the Jewish King who has been foretold (Daniel).
Advent is a strange season. It’s a season of bait and switch. And though this first week in Advent we have decorated our sanctuary with Christmas trees, we are not yet focused on the birth of a baby so much as the birth pangs of something extraordinary God wants to create. We are acknowledging, in fact, that the kingdom of heaven, which is THE STORY of the gospel of Matthew, is still only partially here. It has not been achieved. It has begun. It is with us. It is among us. But we don’t notice it much, especially if we are paying attention to what the world actually looks like.
Jesus’ urgent message is: keep awake.
Ironically, the Advent season is a time of wakefulness—but not, I think, like Jesus meant. It is a time when we stay up too late ordering presents online or wrapping them or finishing up the Christmas cards. Or a time we spend lying awake in bed worrying about the effects of all this spending on our credit cards into the New Year. Or maybe, lying awake worrying about the kinds of things that make all the preparations for a time of jollity feel hollow—illness, estrangement from those we love, loss. Every Christmas is, for someone, the first Christmas without someone.
We keep awake, alright. But it is a kind of fretful, sorrowful, tense, inadequate-feeling wakefulness that leaves us twitching and ill-at-ease.
But hear me now. Even though he is upset, and full of warnings, Jesus isn’t talking about staying awake so that we can fret or worry, or add grey hairs and wrinkles to our collections. He’s talking about the kind of wakefulness we experience when we’re waiting for something wonderful. The call with the good news about the job, or the diagnosis. Someone we love walking through the door. Some wonderful surprise we’ve been tipped off to expect. Jesus is talking about staying awake in hope.
We have decked the halls of our sanctuary with beautiful greens, and we have done so with a view to observing the fire code of the Village of Endicott. But for those who deck their halls at home with fresh greens, those greens actually have something to say to us about hope.
Take the spruce tree. Native to North America, it managed to make its way long ago to Europe, where it was the first tree to be used as a Christmas tree. It’s an ancient species—it can be found in the fossil record dating back to the Cretaceous period, that’s 136 million years ago. And there is a spruce tree in Norway that is so old, it has a name—Old Tjikko. This tree has survived for 9,558 years.[i]
Spruce has medicinal uses as well: it is a natural source of vitamin C, and was carried on trade ships for the crew, to prevent scurvy. Its needles store water, and can be lifesaving in drought conditions. Spruce has been used in construction: its wood for interior walls, and its resin was traditionally used to caulk the seams of sailing ships.
Spruce is the wood of choice for the finest stringed instruments in the world. Have you ever seen and heard that video of Joshua Bell playing Bach motets in a subway station in Washington DC? The instrument he is playing, a priceless Stradivarius violin, was made with spruce wood from a forest known as the ‘Singing Woods of Paneveggio’ in Northern Italy.
More than you ever wanted to know, I’m sure.
But for us, in this season, we know the spruce as a Christmas tree. And at this point, it probably will not surprise you to learn that this tree, which has survived as a species for more than a million years, and whose wood can be used to build a home or an instrument capable of creating the most glorious music, and whose scent, I am sure because of my own carefully conducted research, can actually lower the heart rate and blood pressure… this tree, all around the world, symbolizes hope.
Jesus asks us to keep awake, not in the way we do when we can’t get an annoying song our of our head, or when the taxes are due and we are terrified. Keep awake, in the way we are keenly awake during a walk in the woods, inhaling the deep, grassy-fresh scent of the needles we brush by. Keep awake, as we do after the Christmas tree is up, and the lights are so beautiful in the darkness, we can’t look away. Keep awake, as we are kept awake by hope: unfailing hope in God, continuing hope in humankind, and even hope in ourselves.
Advent is a strange season. It begins with the chaos of prophetic words about destruction, adorned with a garland of promise that the Son of Man will return—no, will remain with us, throughout. We prepare to prepare for the coming of the Child, and are redirected to the urgent words of the man. We are told to wait—to wait in hope. To wait in wakefulness. To wait together! To wait… for whatever our mysterious God has in store.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] The Norway Spruce reproduces by layering (sprouting roots from branches that touch the ground) and by its root system rejuvenating and re-sprouting even after the trunk dies. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Tjikko