(A sermon for the first Sunday of Advent based on Psalm 25:5 & 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13)
Our family does not steer in the direction of Christmas until we have arrived safely at Thanksgiving. Only after we make the ten minute drive from Yatesville to Barnesville, ten minutes that pass quickly because we spend them listening to the greatest non-religious Thanksgiving song ever recorded, which of course is “Alice’s Restaurant,” eat our traditional Thanksgiving meal with my mother’s family, stop by to visit my step-brother and step-sister’s families, then drive back to Yatesville for the Ruffin family’s traditional Thanksgiving bonfire, hot dog roast, and hayride, do we start intentionally listening to Christmas music and plotting our Christmas shopping.
That approach is wise, I think, because once you start giving your attention to Christmas it pulls you forward like a super-magnet. Why? I suspect it is because to our minds Christmas has the potential to bring out the best in people; after all, who could not be at least somewhat affected by all that talk about peace and love and giving? I certainly remember how, when I was a child, the days leading up to Christmas brought out the best in me because I took seriously those rumors about a “naughty and nice” list and didn’t want to run the risk of not getting all of the G.I. Joe stuff for which I had asked.
The longing for Christmas, you see, affected my attitude and my behavior—my life—in the meantime.
As strange as it may sound, though, from the Christian perspective it’s still not time to turn our full attention to Christmas because on the Christian calendar the Christmas season starts on Christmas Day and extends over the twelve days between Christmas Day and Epiphany. These four weeks leading up to Christmas are known in the Christian tradition as “Advent,” a word that means “arrival” and that refers to the arrival or coming of Jesus Christ in at least three ways: (1) his coming all those years ago to Bethlehem’s manger, (2) his coming in these days to our lives, and (3) his coming in the future to our world.
These days of Advent, then, are days of longing—we long for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we long for his second coming and, most significantly for today, we long for his coming to our lives here and now in ways that will affect our attitudes and our behavior—that will affect our lives in the ways that matter the most. We long for his coming to our lives here and now in ways that will form and shape our lives so that the presence of Christ in them will be evident to the people who are around us a lot or who come into our lives for a few seconds.
Paul longed to see the Philippian Christians because he loved them and because he wanted to help them fill up their faith. Paul knew that they, like all Christians in every place and in every time, had a long way to go and he wanted them to get there. Unlike Paul, I am not away from you, but like Paul, I want what is best for you, what is best for all of us; what is best for all of us is that we, here in this time between the first coming of Christ and the last coming of Christ, take full advantage of his coming to us here and now so that we will grow in our faith.
Notice Paul’s prayer: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (vv. 12-13). Paul prayed that the Lord who had been born in Bethlehem, who had died on the cross at Golgotha, who had risen from the dead from the garden tomb, who had ascended to the Father from the Mount of Olives, and who had come to the Philippian Christians’ lives to love and save them would work in their lives to make them holy—which means to be useful in God’s purpose—and blameless—which means to have matured as they should have—so that they would be ready when the Lord returned.
And what is the essence of being holy, of being blameless, of being ready? It is to “increase and abound in love for one another and for all.”
We are Advent people—we long for the celebration of Christmas and for the fulfillment of all things, but let us also long to be all that God means for us to be here and now; let us long to be holy, to be blameless, to be ready—which means to be more and more loving toward each other in the church and toward all those folks out there in the world.
This is a noisy, busy, hectic time of the year. Frederick Buechner, after talking about all the hustle and bustle surrounding Advent, said, “But if you concentrate just for an instant, far off in the deeps of you somewhere you can feel the beating of your heart. For all its madness and lostness, not to mention your own, you can hear the world itself holding its breath” [Whistling in the Dark: a Doubter’s Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), p. 3].
And that’s true—the world and we who live in the world hold our breath in anticipation of what is to come; nonetheless, I want to encourage us to breathe—to breathe regularly, to breathe deeply, to breathe consistently—to feel our breath, to ponder our breath, to increase our breath—and our breath is our love.
Let us pray that we will grow fuller and fuller of God’s love that we might love each other more and more. How do we love? That may not be as important as that we love!
One year, a few days before Christmas, my parents and I went to a magical and exotic place called Greenbrier Mall in Atlanta. That particular year, one of the items on my embarrassingly long Christmas list was a toy guitar; being me, I could not make up my mind which of the two models I wanted. The mall had three or four department stores and each one of them had their own stand-in for Santa, who was of course busy at the North Pole making the guitar that I would eventually receive. I went from store to store, constantly changing my mind and constantly letting the next store’s Santa know of my change of mind. It didn’t really matter, of course, which one I settled on, because either way I would have a guitar; in fact, I do not remember which one I finally received. What does matter, though, is that I never actually learned to play the guitar. It doesn’t matter which one I got; it does matter than I didn’t use the one I got.
So how do you love? What practices will help us to grow in love? Again, that we love is more important than how we love, but here are some simple suggestions.
You see, to long for Jesus is to long to live like Jesus would have us live. To long to grow is to long to love. To long to be holy is to long to love. To long to be ready is to long to love.
Look into your heart. What are you longing for?