Anticipation – First Sunday of Advent

“The house lights go off and the footlights come on. Even the chattiest stop chattering as they wait in darkness for the curtain to rise. In the orchestra pit, the violin bows are poised. The conductor has raised his baton. In the silence of a midwinter dusk, there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen. You walk up the steps to the front door. The empty windows at either side of it tell you nothing, or almost nothing. For a second you catch a whiff of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you’ve never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart…The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.”  — Frederick Buechner

Every Christmas brings with it all kinds of anticipation.  At best, it is the excitement to gather with family and friends for good company and good food.  It is the struggle to fall asleep on Christmas eve to discover what the next day will bring.  It is the thrill of the unopened gift, the hopeful uncertainty of what is inside.  However, it can also be a time of anxiety, stress and fear.  It is facing the hurt and anger all too often linked to those we call family.  It is the dangers of financial instability in an all too expensive season.  It is the deep worry that the heart-felt gifts you have chosen for those you love will be met with disappointment, or worse yet, indifference.

As we consider the Advent of Christ’s birth, can often get swept up in the romance of the story.  The beauty of the nativity as we portray it is deeply moving.  Few hymns of praise are more universally enjoyed than those we sing during this Christmas season.  The majesty of the angels, the quaint and simple reverence of the shepherds, and the mystic devotion of the magi from distant lands.  What magical story!  After all, we know that this tiny child will be the salvation of all Creation.

And yet, like the conflicting anticipation of the Christmas season, the story of Christ’s birth is anything but quaint.  The fear and loneliness Mary and Joseph must have experienced!  Not only was Mary’s pregnancy the source of much controversy, but now they would have to bring the child into the world in an over crowded in among strangers.  No sooner had they brought Jesus into the world than they had to flee into a distant land to save His life, bearing the knowledge that so many other infants would die in their wake.

Imagine too the anticipation of Israel.  Long had they waited for their Messiah to come and inaugurate His reign.  Under the thumb of the Roman empire, they dreamed of the day when God’s Anointed One would raise His people in triumph over their enemies, demonstrating to the world that Israel was God’s chosen people.  And yet, when the Messiah did come, it was to a handful of dirty shepherds and a group of strange practitioner of a foreign religion.  Talk about not getting what you want!

And yet, in the face of such unlikely events, in ways that seemed so ineffective to the ultimate end, God manages to surpass our expectations through the very way in which He underwhelms us.  His entry into the world was not the triumphant victory of a military liberator, yet no person before or since has had more of an impact on all of Creation.  So too His confrontation of the great enemy that is Death was not a refusal to die but an embrace of the cruelest death, yet it led to the single greatest hope through His resurrection in the promise of our own resurrection.

The lesson we learn, then, is not that we should not live in anticipation.  Far from it!  The whole story of God through history, including the promise of hope for the future, has led His people always and ever into deeper anticipation.  Rather, the lesson we learn is to believe the power of grace- that when life seems to offer us it’s greatest struggles and harshest circumstances, that our anticipation would not falter, but instead bloom!  Whenever the realities of life seemed to indicate weakness, suffering and even death, it is there that God’s greatest love is made manifest.

And so we must enter into that anticipation, confounding the wisdom of the world by celebrate His hope in the face of suffering and death.  And we must let that anticipation fuel us in living and proclaiming the hope of salvation and resurrection before a watching world.

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