It seems as though we preachers are challenged to come up with new sermons every Sunday. This can be especially tricky during the holidays. How many different ways can we find to talk about Easter, Christmas, and Advent? I had a minister for many years who joked with me that he basically had about 12 sermons, and he just recycled them with different content and in different ways.
I used to think that was a little rude. I mean seriously, you’re the preacher, feed me with your insights and spiritual genius! I realized Jesus basically had one message, so maybe having 12 sermons was okay. Jesus’ one message was essentially about “the kingdom,” and he taught this message in multiple ways. He used parables and metaphors to make us think in ways we never had before, and he did it over and over with that one message. He used ordinary, everyday objects, and analogies to direct us to the “not so obvious” so we could love our God and love our neighbor. How many can say they are experts at that?
For instance, most everyone I know contends that the mustard seed parable (Matthew 13:31-32) is about faith. I think that’s an easy route to take. When you read the parable, it is, on the surface, about a tiny seed growing into a large bush—it seems to make sense why one might think it’s about faith. For me the power in Jesus’ teachings is that he posited the not-so-obvious, in order to dismantle our conventional ways of thinking and being. He wanted to wake us up and make us as alert, attentive, and alive as never before. We are invited into a journey of discovering what matters most in life, and to be that which matters most—an invitation to touch the dark, so that we might be the light. It’s a tall order, to say the least.
His teachings are about bringing to the conscious mind our unconscious, unexamined assumptions. This brings us back to our mustard seed parable. Mustard was considered a weed in the time of Jesus. That means the parable is potentially about the things in life we consider to be “weeds”—those experiences that choke the life out of our goodness. The kingdom is not about a destination or a place to get to. It is about what is unfolding when we can’t see the goodness, when we are overwhelmed with the suffering in and around us, and when we forget that it is through the darkness that the light is awakened.
Jesus gave us a highly counterintuitive message to continue our evolution, to be more divine through being more human. His message, regardless of your religion, is to live courageously, to be in relationship with the darkness and challenges of life. Be creatively maladjusted, as Martin Luther King Jr. would say.
This brings me back to Advent. The word means “to come” or “arriving.” Like many holidays, I find it becomes harder and harder to preach. How many different ways can you talk about the anticipation, the waiting of what is to come, about a story where we all know the ending? Naturally, these questions start excavating my own theology, my own deeply held beliefs, that, as usual, are not quite mainstream, but nonetheless necessary for today’s world. For this preacher, I have found at least one new way to talk about Advent.
I grew up with Advent as an integral part of my religion. For a month, we engaged in a daily ritual of lighting a candle on a wreath and reading particular scriptures from a small booklet—the Hebrew and Christian scriptures alike. It also typically involved singing a song or two. Mom was lucky if she could get us to sing one song, but the one I remember is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” I never understood why. Today, I do. The word Emmanuel means “God with us.” More than anything in life, I want God right here and right now in my life, in your life, between us, through us, and as us.
Is that not what Advent is really all about? That God is with us now? Instead, throughout the centuries it has become a time of waiting for baby Jesus to arrive. It has become a sentimental month, almost a nostalgic path to December 25. And in some cases it’s almost too cognitive, rather than a practice for us to be irrevocably changed at depth.
Advent is preached about as a time to focus our expectations on the birth of the “Christ” in each of us—where we are emptied and surrender to what it means to be the “Christ” in full expression. To me, this means glorifying this human condition—to bring God to this present moment, especially in the most difficult moments. But where do I see it happening as me or as you?
This is a time of an inward journey, self-reflection, and self-awareness. How else can I know my own blind spots to becoming an ever-expanding expression of God-consciousness, of being Emmanuel? Mystic Thomas Merton says, “Be still. Listen to the stones of the wall. Be silent, they try to speak your name. Listen to the living walls. Who are you? Who are you? Whose silence are you?”
In light of Merton’s directive, what concrete ways am I not demonstrating how powerful it is to be human? Is that not what Jesus’ birth is about—telling us it’s good to be human, to glorify humanity? It’s easy to be spiritual in a cave, but in what concrete ways will I carve out time for my own contemplation that leads me to be Emmanuel? We have entirely too much suffering, devastation, injustice, desolation, loneliness, violence, and poverty on our planet to continue seeing and practicing Advent as a sentimental season about “an infantile Jesus or infantile gospel,” as Father Richard Rohr puts it.
Advent is, above all else, a call to really be awake, moving out of our comfort zone, to be in full consciousness, and paying the price that comes with being incredibly alive and aware. Yes, we pay a price during Advent. I pay a price to embrace my humanness in all its glory and all its suffering. You pay a price to engage with your suffering, for “listening to the stones of the wall.” It takes struggles for our light to fully form, to be Emmanuel, “God with us.” Jesus’ one sermon about the kingdom says it is always here and always not yet here. This is one of our greatest paradoxes of the spiritual journey.
The kingdom is always here because I can imagine and affirm what “God with us” looks like through me. While moving toward what is most uncomfortable, and most important, I can be it. I can be God with us—kindness, peace, service, support, faithful, and open with those unlike me. I can be the active Emmanuel among those whom I feel most challenged by—family, friends, colleagues, coworkers; people of different religions, creeds, colors, and politics. I can practice compassion. I can do unto others as they would like to have done unto them. That is the kingdom that is always here.
The kingdom that is always not yet here encompasses all whom I have yet to love as my neighbor. It includes those who have harmed me, enemies, those who actively seek to be racist, who assault the helpless, and those who seek to wage war and dismantle the glory of being human. It includes those who work to tell people they are not created with sacred worth because of their age, race, sexual identity, creed, religion, lack of religion, or gender identity. It also begs me to ask myself, Am I willing to be Emmanuel, to create a world through a consciousness of compassion and wisdom knowing I may never see the fruits of my labor? Also, knowing I may be hurt in the process?
This paradox is the price of Advent, of engaging the kingdom of heaven, which is always unfolding, always arriving, not yet here, and yet always here. Really, this is what makes our lives one giant Advent, and not that one month out of the year before the birth of a baby. Ironically, it is a baby, Jesus, who taught us about Advent and the price of Advent centuries before there was even Advent!
Because it has nothing to do with a particular date on a calendar, and everything to do with me, Advent is always arriving. Frankly, it has everything to do with all of us being Emmanuel, being God with us. Through the listening for my name at the stones of my walls, by emptying myself of what I think I know, surrendering to whatever darkness there may be, and moving through that darkness with my fellow humans into an ever-expanding, healing, joy-filled light, I glorify humanity.
The next time you hear the song “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” hear it as your rallying cry to be the light shining the way for the world. It is the symphony of you gladly paying the price to restore yourself and all of humanity to our original goodness. You are God with us. Peace.