What Are We Waiting For?

Good Morning. For those who don’t know me, my name is Terry DeLisio. I am a member of this parish and of the liturgy committee. I teach liturgy and theology at Bexley Seabury Episcopal Seminary in Hyde Park, where I also serve as Academic Dean.

If you have been coming to Sunday Eucharist over the last couple of weeks, you will have immediately noticed that some redecorating has gone on here since last week.

The All Saints/All Souls flags are gone. There is now a beautiful wreath hanging over the altar. This lectern, our altar, and our priest are dressed in purple and blue.

As we began the liturgy today, we used a different opening dialogue through which we welcomed into our midst the light that darkness cannot overcome. Also different is that we lit one of those seven candles standing around the sides of our altar.

And, of course, we sang, “O Come, O Come Emanuel.” So that might have given you the biggest clue to what’s going on around here. Welcome to the first week of Advent!

But wait—isn’t Advent a bit early? Yes! It’s earlier than some of you might be accustomed to. For the past dozen years or so, many liturgical churches that observe the church year have started celebrating a 7-week instead of a 4-week Advent. Not every Episcopal parish does it, but many do now, and All Saints has been doing it for at least the past three years. I’ve been asked to tell you why we do Advent this way.

One of my liturgy colleagues – Dr. Bill Petersen, who is an Episcopal priest and a former Dean of my seminary – is the person who originally came up with this idea of an expanded Advent. He gathered a group of scholars and pastors to study this possibility, wrote a book about it called What Are we Waiting For, and convinced others in and beyond the Episcopal church that there are good reasons for spending more time in Advent. I’d like to tell you about three of them.

First, in denominations like ours that observe the church year by following the scriptures appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary for these seven weeks, the scriptures themselves point in the direction of starting Advent earlier.

In the months before Advent, beginning after Pentecost in the Spring and continuing through the Sundays of summer, the scriptures we hear take us on a journey with Jesus and his disciples. We hear of their travels around the countryside as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem. We hear the stories about the ministry of Jesus–his teaching, his preaching and his healing. We hear his proclamation of good news that all who love God and others as themselves are welcome to share in the kingdom of God; we hear his parables about what that kingdom of God is like. Once Jesus gets to Jerusalem, though, the scripture narrative shifts. The appointed readings after All Saints day begin to take an apocalyptic turn.

As we did in today’s readings, we will continue in the coming weeks to hear references to such themes as the shaking up of the natural and political order, the Day of the Lord, the rebuilding of the Temple, the second coming of Christ, judgment of the wicked, and the resurrection of the dead.

For the Jewish people at the time of Christ and for those in the early church, all of these themes were recognizable signs of the coming apocalypse–the end of days when God’s final purpose for history will be revealed and fulfilled by a savior–the long-awaited Messiah.

But along side these terrifying themes we will hear, as we did today, exhortations to the faithful people of God to stand firm, have strength, take courage, keep the faith, turn back to God if you have fallen away, work for the kingdom of God, and hang on to hope; because the God of the Living who was, is, and will always be with them is a God who keeps promises. The message we will hear in the next five weeks is the good news that this God is about to bring about a new age of justice and peace. You will hear John the Baptist shouting Wait! Look for it! The kingdom of God is coming – and it is very near.

Only in the last week of Advent do the lectionary passages shift our focus from the second coming of Christ to his first coming. In the last week of Advent we will hear about, as Joseph and Mary are fleeing to Egypt where the story of God’s saving deeds began, so that their unborn child Jesus, whose name means “the one who saves,” may come into the world and live. And when Christmas comes on December 25th, we will celebrate the birth of this Messiah who arrives in humility yet is destined to shake things up, disturb the status quo., and be called King of the Jews. He will anger the powers that be and die an unjust death. But he will be raised up, and will promise to come again to rule in the kingdom of God.

So, when we extend the season of Advent to 7 weeks, we don’t even have to change anything in our readings. We just acknowledge what is already being proclaimed over these weeks and hold up this message of hope as a light in the darkness of our own times.

I don’t know about you, but I am ready for some light and the dawning of a new age. These are crazy, trying, unnerving times we live in. Unapologetic hatred and cruelty seems to have run amok. We see wars unending. We see innocent children locked up in cages. We hear of senseless shootings almost every day. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We hear lies upon lies coming from our TV sets. Sometimes I just want to scream: Please God, thy kingdom come!

So I welcome this opportunity to claim and cling to whatever might be the good news of the kingdom of God that is already there for us to ponder and take comfort in over these three extra weeks of Advent.

Celebrating an expanded Advent gives us, as individuals and as a community, more time and space–in these very busy and distracting days of the year–to enter more prayerfully and intentionally into the promise of the kingdom of God, and into new church year, which begins with Advent. Advent invites us to reflect more deeply on what the kingdom of God looks and feels like, and to let the vision and promise of it challenge and inspire us to work toward it in our life together as a community of faith, and in our own daily lives.

We already see glimpses of the promised kingdom of God if we take notice. We see glimpses of the kingdom here and now whenever we witness the least among us being cared for, when those who are reviled and despised out there because of who they are and who they love are welcomed in here. We see it every week when the hungry are fed right here in our parish hall and from this very sanctuary.

The kingdom of God breaks through when we bring meals to those who are sick or dying or lonely. It erupts when we visit the Breakers. It is baked into the cakes we make to raise money to help our brothers and sisters in South Sudan so they can have books and health care, and a safer, better life. The kingdom of God is present, palpably, when we march for justice, when we participate and partner in activism with others such as United Power, and when do our best to teach our children how not to grow up to be racists. Closer to home, we experience the kingdom every time we give love and receive the love of another who sees us and accepts us unconditionally or forgives us for hurting or disappointing them.

If we just allow ourselves to take time to look and reflect during this Advent, where else will we find glimpses of the kingdom of God in our lives?

We all know that the kingdom of God is not quite here yet, not fully realized. The kingdom of God will only have arrived fully when every human being is valued, when we see and value one another, all of us, as beloved children of God—and we are not there yet.

So, this expanded Advent season invites us to slow down and take time to acknowledge our brokenness–our alienation from God and one another–our feelings of being lost. Taking time like this is an important step in reorienting ourselves toward the light of the kingdom that awaits us just over horizon.

It’s easy to get caught up in the pre-Christmas chaos that starts so early. Advent gives us an opportunity to re-examine our priorities.

Finally, an Advent extended over seven weeks can help the church to live more deeply into its countercultural identity and mission. It’s a time for the church to push back against the false teachings of our over-commercialized culture that tends to overshadow the real meaning of this time before Christmas. Lite FM started having 24- hour Christmas music on Nov 7. Christmas cards, Hallmark holiday movies, and holiday baking shows make it seem that Christmas is already here!

I remember a time in my childhood when the Christmas season did not seem to start until a couple of weeks after Santa Claus arrived on his sleigh at the end of the Thanksgiving Macy’s Day parade.

What’s happened since? Now the Christmas season starts in September! We start to be bombarded by retail sales commercials on TV telling us it’s time to get ready, it’s time to buy more stuff, the next new shiny thing. And don’t miss it, Black Friday is coming! The culture around us is sending us a message that has nothing to do with the coming of Christ or the reign of God.

You have heard it said that we would do well to put Christ back in Christmas. Well, an extended Advent might help us to put the vison and promise and hope of the kingdom of God back into Advent!

What might we do to embody the kingdom of God this Advent season?

Our collect of the day put the great themes of our extended Advent in a nutshell. We prayed…

“God with us, whose birth still shakes the foundation of our world,
give us the courage to wait with eagerness and hope for your coming again, that we may embrace without terror the labor pangs of the new age.”

May it be so! AMEN.