In 2002, Jenee Woodard wrote an Advent reflection wherein she talks about her then 10-year-old son, Phil, who has autism. She says, “Our family learned to slow down at Christmas a number of years ago when he was unable to tolerate *any* of the celebration. He could not handle the changing scenarios – the twinkling lights, the changes in grocery store displays, the changes in the sanctuary at church, presents appearing under the tree, the tree itself, and the moved furniture. He would fall on the floor and scream, unable to move, afraid to open his eyes, almost constantly from Thanksgiving until well after Christmas when it was all over.
“Of course our neighbor across the street was one of those folks who bought every new outdoor Christmas display. My son slept on the sofa in the living room for two Decembers, trying to stay awake so he could make sure that all of the lights across the street were functioning correctly. I spent an hour one cold night on top of a neighbor’s garage, replacing one bulb in a Santa display so (my son) would stop screaming and sleep!
“Christmas celebrations at home were a nightmare. Phil would scream and cry as each package was moved and unwrapped. As frightened as he was when each new thing appeared, he was equally frightened when it changed or disappeared. We’d try to find him a present he’d enjoy, but he’d merely scream and cry. He wanted nothing (and didn’t want to be involved in anything.)
“This year, right around Thanksgiving, we once more asked the kids what they wanted for Christmas. Our 14-year-old daughter sat down and made out her list. And our 10-year-old son, for the first time in his life, answered the question. “PlayStation 2,” he said. “I want PlayStation 2 Christmas.” We just about fell over. His sister gave him a piece of paper. She wrote “Phil’s Christmas List” at the top. He wrote, “PLAYSTATION TOW” under her heading. “At Sam’s,” he said. “Go to car.” So, we drove to Sam’s. He has never looked at anything there, never seemed to notice that Sam’s has anything he might want. But he led us right to the PlayStation 2 sets, picked out the bundle he wanted and put it in the cart. “Open at Christmas,” he said. He watched gleefully as we wrapped the package.”
Jenee says about Advent, “This Advent season I am grateful for being able to appreciate what complexity and miracle is involved in such small “selfish” acts as wanting something for Christmas and expressing those wants to another person. I’m grateful for the many ways Phil helps me stop and look again. And I’m especially grateful that my son helps me see Christ’s humble birth, over and over again, even in the midst of nightmares and worries I could not have imagined 10 years ago, even in the midst of Advent.” I am grateful for the hope this Advent Season brings.
Now, we could hear this story and think of Phil as very inconvenient, especially during the holidays when one wants to celebrate and be joyous. But his parents and, I presume, his sister, waited and hoped for the time when Phil would one day be able to participate in life more fully without so many constraints and emotional outbursts. As of 2015, Phil was working and employed half-time by the Intermediate School District of Jackson, Michigan as a Technical Assistant at the Information Technology Help Desk. Waiting and hoping in Jesus Christ led him to that place.
As you know, Advent concerns the coming of Christ, God made flesh as a tiny baby born on a day we call Christmas. This four-week Season comes again and again every year, giving us hope that we can be refreshed and renewed in the baby Jesus every year. The English word “Advent” comes from the Latin word “adventus.” It is a combination of two words: “ad” meaning “to” or “toward” and “ventus” meaning “coming.” Advent means toward coming. During the 4 weeks of Advent, with all the anticipation we can muster, we look toward the coming of the baby Jesus on Christmas morning. We speak of Advent as a noun but its meaning is very much a verb: coming. We wait and hope for the coming of Jesus, God among us.
Singer Michael Card wrote a song called “Promise,” as well as a Christmas devotion based on that song. He explains, “Christianity is founded on a promise. Faith involves waiting on a promise. Our hope is based on a promise. Promises are made with words, that part of myself that goes with every promise given to you through my words. Our God is the great maker of promises. (God’s) word, our Bible, is a collection of (these) promises.” For Christians, many of the promises point to or concern Jesus, who came to be known as “the Promised One.” It is the Promised One for whom we wait and hope.
Waiting and holding onto hope is not easy in our world. There are days and times in which we know how difficult it is to wait upon God, when we can’t see any visible signs that God is present. This is the problem the Israelite people are having when they return from their long exile in Babylon to a destroyed Jerusalem in 536 BC in the book of Isaiah. The author cries out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence… because you hid yourself we transgressed.” The people cannot sense the presence of God among the devastation. In chapter 64, and also in 65, of Isaiah we find out that it is because of the people’s sin that God seems hidden from them.
Our Psalm reading from the lectionary for today has a similar sentiment directed to the God of hosts, “how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?” It proclaims, “O God, let your face shine, that we may be saved.” From our beginning illustration, I can well imagine Phil’s parents crying out, asking those questions and pleading for God’s face to shine on them. I am probably not remiss in saying that we all can identify with the sentiments expressed in these passages. Our world is hurting and dark; where is our God in the midst of it? Artist and writer Jan Richardson asks: “How do we hold on to hope when everything around us seems to be falling apart? How do we hum along to the endless soundtrack of happy Christmas songs playing over the loudspeakers of every place we go when inside our hearts are broken and bleeding (and) we can’t see anything positive in the world around us?” Some days we lose hope that things will get better. Our faith in waiting on a promise seems very inconvenient because we simply don’t see or notice hope and promise.
We know of, hear of, and read of so many people who are lost, afraid, lonely, depressed and desperate. Nuclear war once again hangs over our heads as other wars rage on in various parts of our world. Our streets are violent. We hold our breaths waiting for the next terrorist attack, homegrown or from another country. The opioid epidemic in this country is ever before us. We can’t trust people we ought to be able to trust. We don’t know what to believe anymore. Where is God; has God hidden from us?
During Advent, we remember that God is not hidden from us but peeks in as a brightly shining ray of light through the dark clouds of our lives at the birth of Jesus. Jesus, who is the promised Messiah. That light grows stronger and stronger as Jesus grows up, teaches, ministers, heals, and feeds, leading us to hope again.
Jan Richardson, whom I quoted earlier, leads retreats for groups. She gives participants supplies to make collages. Jan explains, “Paper collage—the medium through which I began to experience myself as an artist—is a particularly user-friendly medium that I love to use with groups, and so I always bring an array of gorgeous papers of wondrous patterns and textures and hues. I tell people that it’s okay to tear the papers, and that tearing them often creates more interesting effects than simply using scissors. I know my own work took a richer turn when I gave myself permission to be less precise and to trust the unpredictability that comes with ripping the papers. I can’t always control the direction the tear will go. That is the challenge, and the gift. People often have a hard time tearing into the papers. ‘They’re too pretty to rip!,” they say. When they make one small tear, however, and see the edge that’s revealed, something in them shifts.”
I envision this as applying to our lives of faith, especially when we let go and allow God’s tear in our lives to go where it will. As I reflected on this notion before writing my meditation, I began to think about the many messy tears God made in my life and continues to make in my life- at times it can be quite inconvenient! Sometimes those tears are very painful, at other times they make me uncomfortable, and frankly, at other times they make me angry. Yet even in the inconvenience, my living Lord enables me to endure through the inconvenience of faith to the revelation of God that comes through it, as I am ever drawn closer to Jesus Christ in my life.
Jesus bids us to stay awake in our inconvenient faith this Advent Season as we prayerfully and thoughtfully prepare our hearts and minds to once again receive the Christ child on Christmas Day. Together, we now enter into our Service for The Lord’s Supper remembering, hoping and waiting. Amen.