Take a look at that picture. Which is it? Sunrise… or sunset? Truth is, we don’t know. Well, I know because I picked the photo, but maybe the photographer just said it was a sunrise. Maybe he lied. How would I know? Welcome to Advent, the time of unknowing.
Americans don’t get Advent. We always jump straight to Christmas. The day after Thanksgiving, it’s like Christmas puked all over everything: the streets, the stores, the radio. Everyone is getting ready: decorating the house, hanging the greens, buying the presents. We gotta go go go, and get things organized, so that when Christmas finally comes, it will be… perfect.
Brothers and sisters, that is so amazingly not Christian. You think Mary was ready? After 8 months of pregnancy, she was probably ready to be done, but that’s not the same thing, is it? How about Joseph? Was he ready to love this baby, when the only thing he knew for sure was it was not his son? Pick any character in the story. Were any of them marching resolutely toward Christmas, with a hustle, and a bustle, and a plan?
Christmas was marching toward them. Whether they’re ready or not, this baby is going to arrive. And nobody knows what that means. Not them. Not us. But the difference is they knew they were confused. They had no choice but to hope and trust. But we’ve got it down to a catchy jingle, packaged in plastic, and on sale today at 50% off. My goodness, do we need Advent. If we work at it, a month might be enough time to forget what we think we know.
All these things we talk about week after week. Faith and doubt. Hope and fear. These are all natural human reactions against the same exact same human limitation. We don’t know. We think we know. We act like we know. We have to, or else we’d never get anything done. But most of what we “know” is really intuition based on experience.
If you ever have fr iends visit from Alaska, and you want to mess with them, take them for a ride on Blue Star Highway. Chances are, every time you meet a car, they are going to flinch. Even when they know you’re just doing it to mess with them. Even when they intellectually know you’ve driven this road a thousand times. They are going to flinch, because their intuition does not have enough repetitions to believe it’s safe.
We have the exact same problem with Christmas, only in reverse. We don’t flinch. Too many repetitions. We’ve been inoculated against the beauty and the mystery of something that ought to be flat out impossible.
Ask some random stranger on the street, “What’s Christmas about?” They’ll tell you. “Generosity. Charity. Family. Tradition.” And if that’s all we get out of Christmas, fine. If one day a year, we actually try to do what everyone says we should do all the time, then fine. Good! At least it’s one day, and maybe it’ll start a trend.
But if you ask someone who grew up in church, you’ll probably get a different answer. They’ll tell you it’s the day we celebrate the birth of the Son of God. What does that mean? God is sitting up I n heaven, with his kid next to him, and God sends his Son down to be born in a manger?
There’s only one small problem with that story. It’s heretical. The earl y church councils settled this over a thousand years ago. The message of the church, consistent since before the councils of Chalcedon and Nicaea is that when we look at Jesus, we do not see a god-like being, God Jr., or God lite. When we look at Jesus, we see God as God truly is. As far as it is possible for a human mind to grasp, in some way that is impossible for us to truly understand, this is what has been revealed.
Which ought to leave us with questions. How does infinity become finite? How does the timeless enter time? How does omnipotence become weak? How does the unknowable God, beyond time and space, step into our world to become known? The answer, the only possible answer, is we don’t know.
That’s what Advent is for. It gives us time to remember we are approaching a mystery. This is not the same old story and the same old songs. This is Emmanuel. God with us. Right here in the middle of our mess. A God strong enough to be weak, big enough to be small, and rich enough to be generous. A God who experienced suffering, loneliness, betrayal, and death. A God who loves us as we are. Not as we could be, or should be, or will be some day. God loves messed up, frantic, everyday us.
If that’s what Christmas means, then this is not a disposable world and there are no disposable people. This matters. You matter. Every choice we make matters. If you were the only person who ever lived, and never committed a single sin, God would still do the impossible just for the joy of looking you in the eye and saying, “I love you.” And not just you, everyone. Even the ones we wish would just disappear.
If that’s what God is doing, and has been doing, since day one, then suddenly this whole world makes a lot more sense. We seem to be evolving. Pick any measure. Infant mortality. Literacy. Slavery. How we treat women, or children, or foreigners. On a world-wide basis, we are getting better. This is not an accident. God is pulling us forward. Day is dawning. Yet the more light we have, the more shadows we see.
By faith, we claim the gloaming light around us as a sunrise, not a sunset. Like Mary and Joseph, we dare to hope that our dreams will not end at Christmas. And like Paul, we rise to face the day. We wipe the sleep from our eyes “…because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.”
We take this month, this Advent, and while everyone else gets crazy, we get calm. While everyone else prepares their home, we prepare our hearts. We set aside whatever distracts us or drags us down, and we live as if Christ himself were coming to our house for Christmas. Because he is. And because he is, we don’t have to be perfect, or have it all together, or even understand. Thank God, it is not about us. God is doing something impossible. Welcome to Advent.