The past few days have been full of seasonal celebrations in Exeter. We had our Christmas open house on Thursday night, which is always one of my favorite nights of the year. The live Nativity is going on out front, the carols are ringing inside, the crowds are streaming through the doors to look at the gingerbread houses, and everything in the church is in a sort of joyful chaos.
Last night we also had the town holiday parade. We walked down to the corner by the bank at around 5, and we staked out a spot. The parade doesn’t even step off from way up on Portsmouth Avenue until 5:30, so we were very early, but the crowd was already swarming. So we stood there, bundled up in our jackets, looking down Water Street, and watching and waiting.
Every year we do this, and every year around 5:45 or so, we start to hear that the parade is almost here. They’ve almost made it to the other end of Water Street. And then, maybe ten minutes later, way down at the turn, we start to see the signs. The blue lights from the police car start to reflect on the buildings. Maybe we can start to hear the band play just a little. And finally, they turn onto Water Street, and it’s there. The waiting is over…the joyful parade is marching into town.
I love Christmases here in Exeter. I love how we celebrate. I went home feeling the joy of Christmas last night. But this morning, here we are in church. And this morning, we are contrasting all that Christmas joy and anticipation with today’s Scripture reading. And let’s be real…today’s Scripture reading is a doozy. Let me read you one of the lines again:
“the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken”
So, if you are looking for a good line for your Christmas cards this year, there you go.
The things is, every year on this Sunday, we read a Scripture lesson with a message like this. Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the first day of a brand new church liturgical year. Every year on this day we start the cycle of stories once again, with these four Advent Sundays where we watch and wait for the birth of Jesus Christ.
This name of this season, Advent, literally means “coming” in Latin. Something is coming, just as surely as that parade was coming last night, something that we cannot yet see, but that will not be stopped. Something that is about to command our full attention.
If Scripture is to be believed, it sounds a bit scary. Everything is about to be shaken up. The sun will stop shining, the moon will go dark, and stars will fall. Even the heaven will tremble. This isn’t the kind of seasonal merry-making we are used to this time of year.
And yet, something is indeed coming. Something that is going to change everything.
You and I know how this story plays out. The “something” that is coming is nothing less that Jesus Christ. Advent is the story of waiting and watching for Christ’s birth. During these four weeks we retell the story of what happened just before then. We talk about John the Baptist, and of his mother Mary, and of a trip to Bethlehem, And on Christmas Eve we gather here, and we talk about his birth, and about how it changed the world.
It’s worth repeating the story each year just for the fact of remembering. But it’s important to remember that this isn’t just about recreating a historical event. It’s not that Jesus was coming and now he’s here. It’s that Christ did come into this world, and that Christ continues to come into this world, time and again, through our own hearts and our own hands. Advent has sometimes been a season of the “already, and not yet”. Christ is already here…and yet in so many ways, Christ is not yet here…not fully anyway.
If you don’t believe that, look at our world. We are living in a time when so much is at stake. This week North Korea launched a missile further than ever before, and the saber rattling between our two countries grew louder. Meanwhile, major decisions are being made in Congress that will impact generations. And across the country, years of silence are giving way to a chorus of “me toos” as people tell their own stories of sexual harassment and assault.
We are standing on the edge of a new day, one that could either be very good, or very bad. We can enter a more enlightened time, when justice and peace and respect for others prevails. Or, we can enter an age where war, and poverty, and inequality regain their footing.
In other words, we are living in a time that was a lot like the one in which Jesus was born. And just like the people back then, we are looking for hope. We are watching, and waiting, and straining to see signs of what is to come.
Jesus tells his disciples “keep awake”. He tells them they do not know the hour in which something new is coming, something that will topple the order we know and usher in a new era, and so they must stand watch. They must be ready.
All these centuries later, we retell the story of Jesus’ birth using his own words: keep awake. Watch and wait. Something is coming. The theme of the first Sunday of Advent is traditionally “hope”. It’s about the hope that we have that something is indeed coming, and that this something is good.
The Christian church has traditionally believed that Jesus was more than just a really good guy. We believe that Jesus was God in human form. We sometimes call Jesus “Emmanuel” which literally means “God with us”. And so when we sing on this first Sunday of Advent “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” we literally are saying “o come, o come, God…and be with us”.
O come, o come, Emmanuel…come into this world that teeters on the brink, and push us into something better. O come, o come, Emmanuel, and bring us hope.
I believe that hope is coming, just as surely as I believed the parade was coming last night. I believe in that hope not because I have seen the fire trucks and floats of hope come down Water Street yet, and not because I’ve heard the band at full volume. I believe because, when I use all my senses, I can observe the signs that it is drawing near.
They were there on Thursday night, when the cookies that were made and donated by so many of you brought in hundreds of dollars for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. And they were there yesterday afternoon, when Pastoral Counseling Services began setting up their new offices upstairs in the parsonage, using our space to provide some healing to those in our town who need it. And they were even there yesterday, at Wes Burwell’s funeral, when we gave thanks for the life of a man who was good, and kind, and brave enough to do the right things.
Sam Cooke wrote a song during the Civil Rights era when the signs of hope were beginning to be visible. Unfortunately, that also meant that the backlash against that hope was starting to come too. One night in late 1963, Cooke showed up at a hotel in Louisiana where he had made reservations. When he got to the front desk, the man there saw him and said that suddenly there were no vacancies. He was turned away.
He knew why, and he was angry. And so he went away, and he began to write a song about how he felt, but also about how he hoped. It was called A Change is Gonna Come. He ends the song with these lyrics:
There been times when I thought I couldn’t last for long/
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long time coming /But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.
A change is gonna come. Just as surely as that parade was coming last night. But unlike most parades, you don’t just wait passively for this one, watching it pass you by. This is the kind that you dare to join. It’s the kind that you get in front of, before it even makes it to you. It’s the kind that is driven by hope, and that grows stronger with every soul that enters it.
A change is gonna come, and that change is named “Emmanuel”. As the parade rounds the corner, now is your chance. Will you stand to the side? Or will your hope make you jump in?