“Journey in the Spirit”
It is Advent – the time for us to get ready to encounter the Christ anew. Advent is the beginning of the church’s liturgical year, and so it was a time to begin again as a disciple. Historically, Advent, the four weeks before the celebration of Christmas, served as a little Lent for Christians. It was a time for quiet, heart and soul searching, and repentance. Advent hymns were often solemn and sometimes even in a minor key: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” sounds like something medieval monks chanted in darkened cathedrals. “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” - is another soulful Advent standard that this congregation doesn’t know or care to learn.
Of late, say in the last 100 years or so, Advent has become a more joyful, hope filled and expectant time, in which we attempt to remind one another of the amazing gift of God that is “The Reason for the Season” – Jesus Christ.
With post-war prosperity and the economic imperatives of a consumer society, Advent has changed once again. Now, the challenge of Advent is to prepare to receive Christ anew, while at the very same time decorating one’s home, entertaining business clients and personal friends, baking family member’s once a year favorites, buying gifts, attending school and church holiday functions and dealing with appeals from charities every time you go to the mailbox or walk into the supermarket.
I don’t want to give you another task to get done by the time December 25th rolls around. Someone shared another church’s worship folder with me this week. THIS ADVENT – it read in all capital letters: WORSHIP MORE, SPEND LESS, GIVE MORE, LOVE ALL. Wow, I thought. That’s a lot of imperatives to pile on people who, if they are anything like me, are already feeling a little overwhelmed. So, at church this Advent, I won’t be asking you to perform yet another holiday obligation. Instead, I want to invite you to “get away from it all” – to go on a journey - think of it as a guided tour if you like – a journey to Bethlehem. Our tour guide will be the prophet Isaiah. Our destination is the place where Christ was born.
In each heart lies a Bethlehem,
An inn where we must ultimately answer
Whether there is room or not.
When we are Bethlehem-bound
We can no longer look the other way
Conveniently not seeing stars
Not hearing angel voices.
We can no longer excuse ourselves by busily
Tending our sheep or our kingdoms.
This Advent let’s go to Bethlehem
And see this thing that the Lord has made known to us.
In the midst of shopping sprees
Let’s ponder in our hearts the Gift of Gifts.
Through the tinsel
Let’s look for the gold of the Christmas Star.
In the excitement and confusion, in the merry chaos,
Let’s listen for the brush of angels’ wings.
This Advent, let’s go to Bethlehem
And find our kneeling places.
We’ll be traveling companions for each other – and we’ll meet some interesting natives along the way. But mostly, we’ll be taking in the sights and sounds and experiencing the wonder of what God has done. Advent isn’t about what we do. It is about God has done, and continues to do – he comes into our world, into our lives, into our messes and our mistakes, and brings divine love.
So where does our journey begin? The journey to Bethlehem begins at the sign of a shoot coming up from the ruined stump of the old Kingdom. The old Davidic dynasty had Israel’s pride and joy and hope for the future. But the majestic oak was rotten at the core. With each generation removed from David, the corruption grew worse, until the Assyrians, and then the Babylonians and then the Romans swept in and loped off branches from the tree until nothing was left but a stump. The life was gone out of it. It was a failure. It was a mistake. And yet, Advent begins with the sign of new, fresh, vibrant life, emerging from the ruined past and promising a new future. What a wonderful promise that is!
For those of us who have stumps of dreams, or ambitions, of plans, or relationships, of careers, or even just the stumps of Christmases past – Christmases in which we were too frazzled or too pressured or too inattentive to meet Christ anew – the sign of new life with which Advent begins is a beautiful gift. God is not one to let our failures or mistakes in the past rule out a beautiful future. He is coming to offer us another chance at Christmas, at love, at life. This is the very first thing our tour guide, Isaiah, wants us to notice as we set off toward Bethlehem. The possibility of new life.
The second thing is that this journey is a chance for us to breathe deeply and freely. The Hebrew for Spirit is the same word – ruah – as breath. So read that verse 2 substituting breath for spirit and it says,
“The breath of the Lord shall rest upon him.
The breath of wisdom and understanding,
The breath of counsel and might,
The breath of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
What we breathe in and what we breathe out will make a big difference in our journey. How great to know that God offers us an alternative to the polluted atmosphere of commercialism, greed, fear and cynicism that the world seems to exude, even in the midst of the holiday season.
At Christmas we collide with the mystery that God entered our world as an infant. And this verse reminded me of a how a baby’s breath smells. You mothers, if your think, you will remember. Fathers, big sisters and brothers. How would you describe it to those who haven’t held a baby so close that you are breathing in the little puffs? Like a airy, sweet, caramel-y. Like a can of Eagle-Brand sweetened condensed milk, only softer and lighter. Like heaven. Like little puffs of heaven, pure and good.
At the beginning of the Advent journey, stop for just a moment and breathe God’s goodness in.
And then get ready for lots of surprises. The journey is through a land we can barely imagine – where the wolf and the lamb are friends. Where the leopard curls up next to a baby goat. Through a place where hurt and destruction are things of the past. A child fearlessly leads us into the presence of the Almighty God.
This is our destination. And this is where we begin. As poet TS Eliot wrote:
Is where we start from . . . .
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Let us go to Bethlehem.