Well, it's official... as of today, it's the most wonderful time of the year.
Although every year the most wonderful time of the year starts earlier and earlier... In my childhood they started playing Christmas carols and decorating stores right after Thanksgiving. Then a little later they started decorating the stores and playing the carols right after Halloween. And I believe I saw Christmas things in the stores not long after Labor Day this year, but now I'm in Las Vegas, and I believe you folks do things a little differently here!
But the celebration of Advent and the Christmas shopping season are not the same thing. The Christian church gets to say when Advent begins, not Macy's or Nordstrom's.
Advent is a peculiar season. Is it a season of memory or hope? Does it look forward or backward?
Do we remember the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem or do we hope and pray for his return to judge and redeem us and the world in which we live?
Is Advent a time of preparing for Christmas or a journey into the past?
Does Advent awaken memories of a young woman named Mary, only a teenager, and her husband Joseph... a crowded town... a filthy stable...shepherds watching... angels singing... a star shining... magi bringing gifts... cattle lowing... "The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes"?
Or does Advent anticipate a nearly unimaginable future when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea? Of a time when we shall beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, when there shall be no need to send our troops to Kabul or send F-14 fighter jets over some islands claimed by both China and Japan?
In these weeks before Christmas do we hope and pray that some day God will spread out a banquet for all who hunger and are homeless?
Do we fervently pray for that day when every tear shall be wiped away and death shall be no more and there shall be no more mourning nor crying nor pain?
"Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free..."
So which is it? Is Advent a journey into memory or a time of hope?
The answer of course is both.
Advent reminds us that we live our lives in that uneasy and sometimes uncomfortable place between the already and the not yet.
Several years ago my friend Rabbi Jonathan Miller and his son Aaron, now a rabbi himself, visited a history class I was teaching. One of my students asked a question that she had always wanted to ask a Jew: "Why don't you believe in Jesus?" And so I sat there, red-faced and deeply embarrassed. But Jonathan calmly turned to his son and said, "Aaron, would you like to answer that question?" And Aaron just as calmly replied, "Jews believe that when the messiah comes, he or she will bring in an age of peace, and that hasn't happened yet."
It's a great answer. And also a great challenge.
If Jesus is the messiah, then why isn't the world at peace? Why haven't the lion and the lamb snuggled up together? Why are there still troops in Kabul?
Maybe we all had the wrong idea about the messiah. Maybe Jesus is saying to us, "What are you going to do to bring about an age of peace? What are you going to do to help the lion and the lamb to become friends? What are you going to do to build a world in which troops won't have to go to Kabul or Baghdad again?"
I think those are even better questions than the one my student asked Rabbi Miller. The question is not, "Why don't Jews believe that Jesus was the messiah?" The better question is why don't Christians live as though Jesus really is the Prince of Peace?
In today's gospel reading, the psalmist tells us to "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem," but we misunderstand that psalm if we believe the psalmist is only telling us to pray that there will be no more violence in Jerusalem.
The Hebrew word shalom that we translate as "peace" means so much more than an absence of conflict or violence. Shalom is a positive word. It means well-being, plenty, prosperity, completeness.
"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem" means "Pray that Jerusalem - God's city, the place where God dwells on earth, may be a place of plenty, a place where the hungry are fed and the homeless will have a roof over their heads, a place where the lion will lie down with the lamb, and little children will dwell in security."
In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah says, "In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it."
The "mountain of the Lord's house" is Mt Zion, in other words, Jerusalem. Isaiah is expressing the hope that Jerusalem, the city of God will encompass the whole world, that all the world will know the peace, the shalom, for which the psalmist bids us pray.
Advent is the time when we hope the hopes that Isaiah and the psalmist hoped, when we pray their prayers, and when we work for the future they envisioned.
In Matthew's gospel, Jesus said, "Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming." Keep awake, watch... These are the key words of Advent.
Each day we must be like Noah building an ark... like a man plowing a field, like a woman grinding grain. Each day, each hour, we must be doing whatever we have to do to build the new world that God wants to build in our world.
So my hope and prayer for you and for all of us in this Advent season is that we will live just a little UN-comfortably, a little UN-easily between the memory of the past and the hope of the future. And that our discomfort and unease will prompt us to build that world in which swords will be beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.