Sunday afternoons are for football in my house. After church I come home, change into jeans and a sweatshirt, and wait for the games. It’s one of the few times in the week where I relax and do nothing other than watch TV.
But, really, I don’t actually relax much. Not this year, at least. You see, I’m a Washington Redskins fan. I have been my whole life. My family has cheered for them since they moved to my father’s hometown in 1937. And while I love them, the past twenty years or so have not been their finest. We haven’t won the Super Bowl since 1992. We haven’t even been in the playoffs since 2007.
But this year is different. We have a quarterback who connects, a team that works together, and momentum. Last week we moved into first place in the NFC East. My dad and I excitedly text and call each other throughout the games, holding out for a win. And then at the end of each Sunday, I can’t wait for the next one. I can’t wait to see if we are going to go all the way this year. Because, goodness knows, we’ve waited long enough.
Being a Washington football fan has taught me about waiting. And that’s good practice for Advent. Because Advent is all about waiting. It’s about waiting for Christmas eve, and the celebration of Christ’s birth. It’s about waiting for the world to be transformed by God’s love. It’s all about holy waiting and watching and preparing.
There’s a difference between football and Advent, though.
Try as I might, I can’t do anything to make my team win from my living room in Vermont. I can’t block. I can’t pass. I can’t sack the opposing team’s quarterback. Even as I hold my breath and wait for a completion, I can’t will the ball into the hands of the guy in the end zone.
But Advent is different. We aren’t watching Advent play out on TV. We aren’t even just sitting in the stadium. In Advent, we’re actually players on the field. We might not be Jesus, but we are preparing our world for Jesus. We are actively involved in transforming the world from a place of violence and hatred and pain to one of hope and joy and love and peace.
We cheer on Sundays for teams to advance a ball down a field in a game that, while fun to watch, doesn’t really change the world. But do we give the same amount of energy and excitement to something that can change the world? Do we do the work of peacemaking and the pursuit of justice the same level of attention and importance? Do we take the Advent message so seriously that, while maybe we aren’t donning jerseys and face paint, everyone who sees us will know who we really worship?
Advent is about perspective. It’s about looking at our lives and seeing what matters most. This afternoon I’ll watch the game. But tomorrow I hope that I cheer just as hard for something I can actually a part of. And then, I hope I suit up, and get out on that field. At its best, Advent can be a time when we make a choice to join the team, and to change the world. We don’t have to wait on the sidelines anymore.
This time of year many of us are feeling two things: overjoyed and overwhelmed. There is so much about the Christmas season that is wonderful. But at the same time there is so much on our to-do lists, that we might not give ourselves much time to feel that joy.
Today I’m working mostly at home. I’m writing the liturgies for Christmas eve, finalizing details for the service, and doing other things that don’t require me to be either at the church, or on the road. This means I’m sitting by the Christmas tree, listening to carols, and getting to enjoy the season.
As an added bonus, my wife is baking cookies behind me in the kitchen. So far she’s made sugar cookies and chocolate crinkles. Gingerbread, peppermint meringues, and peanut butter blossoms are on deck for later. Which means that as I write, the wonderful smell of Christmas cookies is all around me.
This time of year, we have reminders of Christmas joy and cheer all around us. The lights, the trees, the cards, and, yes, the cookies, are all little reminders of joy. And just as the smell of cookies are a reminder of what is to come, the joy of the Christmas season is a reminder of the world that God wants us to be.
But the reality is that right now, this world is not the world that God wants for us. The last week has reminded us of that in the most horrific of ways. God wants a world where all of God’s children are loved and respected and live in peace. We’re not there. No where close.
But every so often we get a foretaste of what it could look like. And it is good. Last week, in the aftermath of the greatest trauma, the clergy of Newtown came together to pray for their community. Priests, ministers, a rabbi, and an imam, all offered their prayers. And as I watched, I couldn’t help but think that this is what God wants for us. In the midst of unshakeable grief, we are coming from our respective traditions, and offering comfort in the best ways we know how.
By contrast, some religious leaders are using this tragedy as a way to push their own agendas. Instead of comforting the afflicted, they are further afflicting them. They blame the shooting on everyone from gay couples to those who advocate religious freedom to divorced couples. And their words, far from glorifying God, lead us away from the world that God wants for us.
This Advent season, test the voices that you hear that claim to be speaking for God. Are they voices of comfort? Of hope? Are they pointing you to God’s love, and giving you a small taste of the world that God wants for us? Or are they sowing division, and pain, and hatred?
In our hearts, we know the voices to follow. They’re the ones that, even when they are at the center of tragedy, still find a way to speak with compassion and peace. We heard them in Newtown. They are the religious equivalents of all the things that remind us God’s love in this holiday season. They are a sign of a better world to come. And they deserve our attention.
There is a Christian tradition about the spot where Jesus was born. There is a church in Bethlehem that was built over the very spot where Jesus was said to have laid in a manger. It is considered so holy that three different Christian traditions, Catholic and Orthodox, have laid claim to it for centuries and now they all have monks that live there and there is sort of an uneasy truce. The monks still to this day sometimes even have fist fights over the space, including one last year just after Christmas.
Now, I don’t think that’s what Jesus wants for the place he was born. I’m not even sure if that’s the exact place he was born or not, or if it even matters. But what I am sure of is that we want to remember that place where Christ was first born. We remember it enough to want to know exactly where it was, and to keep that place as holy ground.
But as holy as we consider Bethlehem I wonder if our understanding holy ground has to be limited to the places we find in the Bible?
When we tell and retell the most important stories of our life, we often find that every time we tell it, there are a few details that we can’t leave out of the story. Whether it’s the name of the hotel where you stayed on a honeymoon, or the hospital where your children were born, or what the course looked like on the day you got that hole in one. There is some detail about every important story of your life that may seem insignificant, but that you can’t leave out.
The story of the nativity, the birth of Christ, is no different. There’s one detail we never leave out: When Mary and Joseph got to the inn, they were told there was no room for them there.
But they didn’t. And so Jesus wasn’t born in the inn.
The question is, when you tell the story of your faith, do you want to be the inn that closed its doors? Or do you want to be something else?
Scripture tells us that out in the fields, the shepherds heard the baby had been born. And they got up and they came to the manger and saw the new thing that God had just done in the world.
That’s who I want to be on Christmas Eve, and everyday. I want to be the one who doesn’t close the doors to my heart when God is about to do something new, but the one who hears about it, and comes running. When God works in this world, I want to be a part of that story. Like that piece of ground in Bethlehem, I want to be the everyday thing, that becomes holy, not because of who I am, but because of who Christ is. I want to be a part of the story.
I can be. And so can you. And so can we all.
We call Jesus the “Prince of Peace”. It’s there in our Christmas carols. It’s there in our church services. It’s even right there on our Christmas cards. We know who Christ is, and this time of year we repeat that phrase again and again. This year especially. After Newtown, we need the Prince of Peace more than ever. We pray, we sing, we call out to Christ asking for that peace right now.
My wife and I were stocking up on Christmas groceries this morning, and getting ready to bake cookies. I was working over my Sunday sermon on joy in my head. This morning felt light and festive and free. And then, right there in the grocery store parking lot, I looked down at my phone and saw a text from my mom about the latest school shooting. And in a split second joy turned to despair.