Sermon, Dec. 17

Most weeks, I write my sermons in the same coffeeshop, on the same morning. I need the routine. And they make a good bagel sandwich. My particular coffeeshop tends to have the radio on – not loudly, just in the background, so that when I get stuck, or my mind wanders, or a song I especially like comes on, I notice it. This week, I was sitting in my coffeeshop wondering how to start this sermon. I knew I wanted to talk about nostalgia, its attraction and its risks, but I couldn’t find my way in. And then my ear caught the song on the radio – one I know because it’s a favorite of my son’s. It’s called “Stressed Out,” by the band Twenty One Pilots, and the hooky little chorus begins, “Wish I could turn back time to the good old days…”

Wish I could turn back time to the gold old days. There it is. Nostalgia. That’s the heart of it. In the song, a young man remembers his childhood: playing with his brother and bedtime lullabies and not having to make money. But nostalgia is all around us at this time of year – family traditions, grandmother’s recipes, ornaments from decades past, vintage Christmas movies, Charles Dickens and Santa and Bing Crosby on the radio singing, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas just like the ones I used to know…”

I told Deanna, our music minister: We don’t have to choose hymns for Christmas Eve. We sing the same hymns every Christmas Eve. Because that’s what people want: to enter that timeless time when we’re singing Joy to the World and Silent Night and it could be any year, except that we’re older, and some of us are gone. Wish I could turn back time to the good old days. Christmastide is heavy with memory, with longing, with nostalgia.

This passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah comes from a moment when the people of God thought they could turn back time to the good old days. This text – this portion of the Book of Isaiah – was probably written a little over 500 years before the birth of Jesus. Another five hundred years earlier, King David had ruled Israel, an independent kingdom at the height of its power, conquering territory and receiving tribute goods from other nations, wealthy and healthy and strong. David made Jerusalem the capital of his kingdom, and his son Solomon built the Great Temple there, the heart of the people’s worship of God. Two hundred years earlier, David’s kingdom had split in two, and the Northern Kingdom had fallen, conquered by the Assyrian Empire. The Southern Kingdom, Judah, somehow avoided that fate, but fell under Assyria’s power, its kings and its wealth under Assyrian control.  And about sixty years earlier, Judah and its capital Jerusalem finally fell to the next great empire, Babylon. Jerusalem’s walls were broken down, and the Temple torn to pieces, its holy vessels carried away as spoils of war. Many, many people died; and many, many more were dragged off into exile in Babylon. Anyone of any status or skill was taken away from their homeland. Only the poorest were left there, among the ruins.

God’s people live in exile. They learn, painfully, that God is with them even when they are far from their homeland and their Temple. But they still long for what they have lost – how could they not? Psalm 137 gives voice to that longing: “By the waters of Babylon, we lay down and wept. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill…” Wish I could turn back time to the good old days…

And then – wonder of wonders – they have the chance to do it! A new empire conquers Babylon, and their emperor, Cyrus, has a kinder, gentler approach to imperial rule. In the year 538 BCE, Cyrus tells the Judean exiles, Go home. Rebuild your city and your temple. Get back on your feet. Of course, you’ll send us taxes of money and goods, and do what we tell you do – you’re still part of an empire – but you can have your little nation, if it makes you happy and keeps you quiet.

The exiles are SO EXCITED. They can go home! They can rebuild! They can restore Jerusalem, which has only become more beautiful in memory; they can reconstruct the Temple, which shines with gold and holiness and love in the stories of their parents and grandparents.

But of course it’s not that simple. Jerusalem is eventually rebuilt, including the Temple, but it takes a long time, and it’s hard and complicated. The people who were left there during the exile think of this as their land now, and there are tensions between them and the returnees, those coming home from Babylon.  Most the exiles who return are young men, so there ends up being intermarriage with women from other groups, even as the religious leaders are trying to get everyone to be “real Israelites.”

There was a harsh drought at about that time, which compounded the problems of a ruined infrastructure and economy. Attacks by bandits and other tribes were an ongoing challenge while the returnees struggled to complete the city wall. And conflicts developed between factions of leaders with different priorities and visions for the rebuilding process. One source I consulted summed it all up saying, “Feelings of disappointment developed among the returnees.” Wish we could turn back time to the good old days… But we can’t.

The Gospels – the beginning of the Jesus story, whether you start with his birth or his baptism – That’s another moment when people thought they could turn back time. Get back to their glory days. You hear it every time King David is invoked: In Gabriel’s proclamation to Mary: “[Your child] will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” In the shouts of hope when Jesus enters Jerusalem: “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  O come, thou branch of Jesse’s tree…! David is remembered as Israel’s great king, Strong and just and holy, called and favored by God. Many, many people followed Jesus, hoped in Jesus, because they wanted him to be a second David. To kick out the Romans and restore Judea as an independent kingdom, with peace and plenty for all.

You can’t blame people for wanting that. Nostalgia is a very understandable emotion. But it’s also toxic.

That insight comes from John Hodgman, a comedian, actor, author, and fake internet judge. Comedians, like anthropologists, spend a lot of time observing human behavior; they just turn it into humor instead of peer-reviewed articles.

And Hodgman’s observations – including years of adjudicating disputes on the Judge John Hodgman podcast – have led him to the conclusion that nostalgia is at best, unproductive; at worst, poisonous. Hodgman says – and I think he’s spot-on – that nostalgia is based on two delusions: That the past was better, and that the past is attainable.

We are prone to the delusion that the past was better than the present for several reasons. Maybe we were kids, in the time we’re remembering, and everything seemed simpler because it was simpler, for us. Or maybe we weren’t even born yet, and all we have of the past are the idealized stories of our parents and grandparents. We idealize the past because memory is selective; the hard stuff and the bad stuff tends to fade. And that’s fine; we should hold and treasure our good memories!  The problem is when we start to take our selective memories of the past as the whole truth about the past. (Even the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes takes a swing at nostalgia: “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” Ecclesiastes 7:10.)

And then there’s the illusion that the past is attainable. That we could, maybe, somehow, turn back time to the good old days, and make everything great again.

Sometimes – in some cases – the past really was better, for a particular group of people. Take the 1950s, an era that is a huge focus for nostalgia in American culture. Sixty years ago – interestingly, about the same gap that separated the Babylonian Exile and the return to Jerusalem. In the 1950s, if you were straight and white and middle-class and moderate in your politics and basically content with dominant gender norms, then things might have been pretty great for you. But there have been massive, irreversible changes in the past sixty years. Women are not going back into the kitchen and nursery. African-Americans are not returning to the exclusions and oppressions of Jim Crow. GLBTQ+ folks are not going back in the closet. And it’s not just social change. The microprocessor and the Internet are not going anywhere. And the massive increase in economic inequality in America, which has polarized and blighted our social landscape over the past half-century, does not seem likely to turn back to 1950s levels anytime soon. Even if the past was better, for some very specific definition of better, we can’t get there from here. The past is not attainable.

Likewise in the time of our text from Isaiah. Before the Exile, life in Jerusalem was good for people of status and wealth. But the poor people who were left among the ruins when Babylon conquered the city – things might have been better for them before the exiles returned and said, Actually, all this land is ours. And for the exiles themselves: Not everybody came back. People made lives for themselves in Babylon, and stayed. Things had changed, as they always do; history moved along, as it always does; the past that some longed to recreate stubbornly stayed past.

Nostalgia tells us that the past was better, and tempts us to believe that we might be able to bring back the past. But that’s an illusion, and sometimes a costly one. You can treasure your memories, you can take what you treasured most about the past, and build it into the present and the future – as the Exiles did, eventually, in the renewed Jerusalem. But you cannot turn back time. If our hope for the future is that it will be exactly like the past, then it’s not really hope; it’s just nostalgia projected forwards. God says, We can do better than that.

The alternative to nostalgia is hope. Hope leans into the future, instead of back toward the past. Hope insists that we can do better, with God’s help. Hope is challenging; we can’t always visualize where it’s leading us. Hope demands our trust, and our labor, while nostalgia just bathes us in comforting, rosy images. There’s a very real sense in which many of us prefer nostalgia. When we’re tired or stressed or sad, maybe most of us prefer nostalgia – time to have a cup of cocoa and watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Right now, we are in the midst of the most nostalgic time of year, the weeks approaching Christmas. And yet there’s this provocative irony in the fact that what God is urgently saying to God’s people in our seasonal texts is: Look! I’m doing something new! It’s in Luke’s birth narratives, in Zechariah and Mary’s fierce songs of hope and redemption. It’s in John the Baptist’s proclamation that big change is coming, and everyone had better get ready. It’s in the Book of Revelation:  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.”

It’s all through Isaiah, the core Old Testament text of Advent: Chapter 65: “I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered!” Chapter 43: “Behold, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; can’t you see it?” And today’s text, the one that Jesus quotes when he begins his public ministry: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to proclaim a new time, a new season!

This text from Isaiah speaks to the exiles in their disappointment – their grief – that the present refuses to conform to the remembered past. That the good old days remain elusive, illusory. The prophet says to them, with joy and urgency: Return, rebuild, restore, raise up what has been cast down, repair what has been ruined; tut it’s not going to be the way it was. It’s going to be different, and it’s going to be better. You remember Jerusalem before the Conquest as the good old days, but the prophetic books tell a different story: corruption and arrogance, cruelty and licentiousness, hunger and hopelessness. The renewed City that God calls you to build will not have poverty and injustice built into its very foundations. It will be a city of freedom, not bondage;  of gladness, not mourning; of righteousness, instead of robbery and wrongdoing. While nostalgia calls us back, God calls us forward, with the voices of prophets and saints and Jesus himself. God calls us to as people of hope, people whose lives point towards God’s future, which is more just and joyful and true and free than any of our pasts.

Read more on John Hodgman on nostalgia here: 

https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2012/11/the-real-john-hodgman-were-not-making-this-up.html

https://medium.com/@pk.patrick.kelly/how-nostalgia-is-tarnishing-the-millennial-generation-41a8c4df133d

Homily, Dec. 10

The Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verse 7, says, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Because there was no place for them in the inn. That detail goes by fast, and it’s so familiar. And we love that the Holy Family ends up in a barn – the image of God Incarnate born among sheep and cattle and donkeys and chickens. If there had been room at the inn, there wouldn’t be ANIMALS in our Nativity scenes!

But this verse – there was no place for them in the inn – It’s an insult. It’s a failure. Hospitality was, and remains, terribly, terribly important in the cultures of the Middle East. And hospitality is a theme throughout scripture – the blessings that come when you practice it; the shame and danger that can follow, when you fail to welcome a guest.

Today we’ve shared a garland of stories of strangers and guests in Scripture, to help us reflect on that detail from the Nativity story: “There was no place for them in the inn.” Later, as a grown man, Jesus says about himself: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58) And it’s true even now, at the very beginning of the story: God’s incarnate presence among us begins with closed doors and angry faces. With failed hospitality.

This Advent and Christmas we are exploring together the music and meanings of Las Posadas, a custom found in many parts of the Spanish-speaking world. The word “Posada” means “inn.” Las Posadas is a community acting-out of Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Mary and Joseph knock at many doors and are rudely turned away. The asking – and refusing – take the form of a song, sung back and forth between the people participating.  In some versions, the Devil also plays a role, sneering at them and telling them to go away! Watch for that in our Christmas Eve pageant this year! Finally, finally, Mary and Joseph find welcome -a kind person allows them to stay in her barn. There’s a welcome song too:  “Enter, enter, holy pilgrims, holy pilgrims! Welcome to my humble home. Though ’tis little I can offer, I can offer, all I have please call your own.” We’re singing some Las Posadas music today – and we’ll hold our Posadas this Saturday evening at 5pm. I hope you’ll come!

Why are we doing Las Posadas this year? Well, one reason is to broaden our sense of our church and our faith. Midwestern Episcopalians tend to think of both our churches and our tradition as basically Anglo – white, and English in both origin and language. And that’s not true. There are lots of non-Anglo Episcopalians. In particular, Latino and Latina Episcopalians are a vibrant presence in the Episcopal Church. Even in Madison, Wisconsin! It’s been a gift to me as an Anglo to realize that our way of faith is bigger than my cultural experience. I am a cradle Episcopalian, friends, this church’s music and prayers are in my bones; but the Episcopal Church, La Iglesia Episcopal, is not limited to the music and the prayers I already know. The word “familiar” is closely related to the word “family” – but God’s family is bigger than what is familiar to us, and that is a holy and joyful opportunity.

But celebrating the breadth of our way of faith is not the only reason to weave Posadas into our Advent and Christmas this year. Las Posadas is an embodied reflection on hospitality. There are many issues in our civic life right now that hinge on our readiness to open our hearts to one another. And as Christians we cannot in good conscience separate those civic issues from our faith – because our faith’s teaching on hospitality is overwhelmingly clear. One of the strongest ethical mandates of Scripture is: Treat the stranger, the immigrant, the guest, with care and respect; for your people were once strangers too. I don’t know offhand how many times the Bible says that – but it’s a lot. As Christians – as people formed by Scripture – hospitality, welcome, is one of the fundamental ways we are called to engage the world.

Over the past few months, some members of our parish have shared their stories of immigration – their own, or a parent’s or grandparent’s. Those stories – and our own family stories – remind us that our country is overwhelmingly a nation of immigrants. And many of our immigrant ancestors were unwelcome when they first arrived here. They were seen as wretched refuse – tired, poor, exiles and huddled masses. And yet – we have been tempted to close the golden door behind us. To refuse welcome to today’s immigrants who seek to build lives here, for the betterment of both their children and our common good.

Immigrants today have heard the words of the Posadas song, the ones that go with doors slammed shut: We don’t have room for you. We don’t have enough to share. You might be robbers. Go away. This very month, many groups, including faith groups, are urging Congress to pass the Dream Act, which would grant permanent residency to immigrants brought here illegally as children. Without the Dream Act, people who have lived here since they were two, or four, or seven, people for whom California or North Carolina or Wisconsin is home, face living in shadow, secrecy, and risk.

And all of that, friends, is the second reason we’re trying out the custom of Las Posadas this year. So that we can do something unfamiliar. So that we who are Anglos, in this congregation, can have the immigrant’s experience of wondering if we’re saying the words correctly, if someone’s going to laugh at us. So that we can reflect on how it feels to say, or to hear, Go away! We don’t want you. So that we can remember how it feels to be strangers and outsiders – or notice how it feels, if we’ve never felt it before. So we can be both hosts and guests, and, receiving hospitality, may improve our hospitality, and make us more ready to welcome the holy in the guise of the stranger.

Announcements, December 7

THIS WEEK…

Service of Lessons and Music, Sunday, December 10, 10am: Our special Lessons & Music service this Advent will focus on Strangers and Guests in Scripture.

Capital Campaign Possibilities: Vestry Office Hours, Sunday, Dec. 10, 9am: If you have feedback on our capital campaign possibilities, come chat with members of our Vestry (church board) between services on Sunday, Dec. 10! We hope to gather all parish feedback by Monday, December 11.

Take home a hymnal! If you’d like to have a hymnal – or a set of hymnals! – at home, please take one or more of our old red hymnals from the boxes in the back of the church. Sing, play, and enjoy!

Christmas Pageant Practice, Sunday, Dec. 10, 11:30am: Actors with speaking parts are invited to a brief practice session for our Christmas Eve pageant.

Sharing Christmas – St. Dunstan’s style: Please look at the “ornaments” on the window and choose a wish to fulfill for someone in our community. If you took an ornament from the first round of tags (numbered 1 – 40), PLEASE bring it back by this Sunday, December 10! For other gifts, we hope to have wrapped gifts brought to church by Sunday December 17th so we can get them to their “homes” in time for Christmas. Any questions, contact Evy Gildrie-Voyles.

Madison-Area Julian Gathering, Wednesday, December 13, 1:00 – 2:45pm: We welcome everyone who is interested in learning more about contemplative spirituality in the Christian tradition. We meet the second Wednesday of the month for a period of contemplative prayer, after which we discuss a reading from Julian of Norwich, a 14th Century English mystic who has been called “a theologian for our time.”  We would love to have you join us. If you have questions, contact Susan Fiore.

Las Posadas Party, Saturday, Dec. 16, 5pm: Las Posadas (Spanish for “the inns”) is an Advent celebration practiced in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, revolving around the concept of hospitality. We learn from the Posadas that by welcoming the poor and the needy, we are welcoming Jesus in our midst. Our Posadas will be an opportunity for learning and fellowship, and will have food, music, (small) fireworks, and a (real) donkey! All are welcome!

FOOD SIGNUP: Could you bring a bowl of guacamole or a batch of rice or beans? Sign up in the Gathering Area or let Miranda know!

Coffee Hosts Needed! We are in need of coffee hosts for December 17, 24, and 31 after the 10am service. Please contact Janet Bybee  for more information. Thanks for your service!

Bread for the World Sunday, December 17: Peg and Dan Geisler will share about Bread for the World’s advocacy to reduce hunger in the United States and around the world and how we can be part of it.

#AdventWord – Praying with Images: AdventWord is the Anglican Communion’s global Advent calendar of prayerful images inspired by words like “Awaken,” “Mend,” or “Watch.”. Sign up at www.adventword.org/sign-up to receive a word each day by email, or follow AdventWord on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.  You can contribute photos of your own, or just see what others are offering. Follow @stdunstansmadcity on Instagram to see Rev. Miranda’s photographic musings.

Caroling 2017: Last year a group of singers from St. Dunstan’s had a wonderful time visiting a few of our members and singing Christmas carols. We’d like to do the same this year. All ages are welcome to participate. Possible dates include Sunday, December 17; Friday, December 22, or Saturday, December 23. Please sign up and indicate your availability in the Gathering Area, or contact Rev. Miranda.

Christmas Cards for Jail Inmates:  Christmas is a bleak time for those who spend the holiday as inmates of the Dane County Jail. Even a simple message of kindness can bring some joy and hope. Our card-writing Station is now set up opposite the kitchen. You can take a moment to write a message while at church, or take home a couple of cards and the card-writing guidelines, and write at home. These cards will be delivered to inmates through an initiative of our sister parish Grace Church. Our goal is to complete at least 100 cards by mid-December.

Bring Christmas Cheer to St. Dunstans! Celebrate what’s important to you with a gift that helps us decorate for Christmas and honors a loved one or a special event. Please see the red Christmas Flowers sign-up sheets in the Gathering Area. Write “Christmas Flowers” on the memo line of your check or on the envelope containing cash. Suggested donation is $25.

THE WEEKS AHEAD…

Rector’s Discretionary Fund Offering, Sunday, December 17: Half the cash in our collection plate, and any designated checks, will go towards the Rector’s Discretionary Fund this day and on every third Sunday. This fund is a way to quietly help people with direct financial needs, in the parish and the wider community. Please give generously.

Christmas Pageant Practice, Sunday, Dec. 17, 11:30am: Any actors able to attend are invited to a brief practice session for our Christmas Eve pageant. Pizza will be provided!

Evening Eucharist, Sunday, December 17, 6pm: Join us for a simple service before the week begins. All are welcome.

Young Adult Meetup at the Vintage, Sunday December 17, 7pm: The younger adults of St. Dunstan’s are invited to join us for conversation and the beverage of your choice, at the Vintage Brewpub on South Whitney Way. Friends and partners welcome too.

**DATE CHANGE** The Longest Night: A Liturgy of Light in Darkness, WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 20, 7:30PM: On December 20, we will gather together out of the darkness of the season for a quiet, meditative worship service. Feel free to invite friends who might appreciate this time set apart to name the darkness in the world and in our lives, and prepare our hearts for the coming of the light of Christ. Contact Rev. Miranda  with any questions.

NO 8AM WORSHIP ON SUNDAY, DECEMBER 24: This year, the Fourth Sunday in Advent is also Christmas Eve. After consulting with 8am worshipers, we have decided not to have our regular Eucharist at 8am that morning. There will be Advent IV worship at 10am. Christmas Eve liturgies are at 3pm and 9pm.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services:

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Sunday, December 24, 10am (NO 8am service!)

Family Service with Pageant, Sunday, December 24, 3pm

Festal Eucharist, Sunday, December 24, 9pm

Christmas Day, Monday, December 25, 10am

Christmas Service Helpers Needed! If you would like to be a part of the Christmas services, we need greeters, ushers and refreshments for each of the three services. Please see the sign-up sheet in the Gathering Area or contact Pamela at office@stdunstans.com.

Sermon, Dec. 3

Note: The beginning of this sermon is based on the Godly Play story, The Circle of the Church Year. 

What do you know about time? What are some of the times in your life? Like bedtime, work time, play time… We know all about time because we live inside it. But what is time, really?….

Some people say time is a line. Here, this rope can help us think about time being a line. Here is the beginning. It is the newest part. It is just being born. Now, look…. Take this beginning and walk over there with it, OK?  Slowly. Look, time is passing. The beginning that was new is getting older. I wonder how long time goes on? Does it go on forever? Can there ever be an ending? … Look – it ended. There’s the end. The beginning that was so new, is old now. – and the ending is new. We have a beginning that is like an ending, and an ending that is like a beginning.

Do you know what the Church did? They took the ending that was like a beginning, and the beginning that was like an ending, and they tied them together. They made time into a circle. So that we would always remember that for every ending there is a beginning, and for every beginning there is an ending.

Let’s look at it a different way. Instead of the rope, let’s use this cloth. These colors show us the circle of the church year. This blue is the beginning. It is the color of Advent, the season that begins today. Today is the Church’s New Year’s Day! Happy New Year!

After blue Advent comes white Christmas –  then green Epiphany –  then purple Lent – then white Easter – then red Pentecost – careful, it’s hot! – then the long green season of summer and fall, the great green growing season. There is the beginning – and there is the end. But they aren’t a line. They are a circle. So let’s fasten the end to the beginning.

Now let’s think some more about endings and beginnings. Think for a moment about some of the beginnings you have experienced. Times when you have started something new. Think about the things you feel, when there’s a new beginning. Happy? Excited? Hopeful? Determined? Afraid? Eager?

Now think for a moment about endings. Times when something has come to an end. When something is over. Think about the things you feel, when there’s an ending. Sad? Quiet? Full of memories? Relieved? Peaceful? …

Today we begin the season of Advent. Advent is a season that is about beginnings, and endings.  It is the beginning of a new church year.

And it is about getting ready for a Great Beginning: the Great Beginning of Jesus being born. The beginning of a new relationship between human beings and God, through Jesus’ life and the things he showed us and taught us.

But Advent is also about endings. Even though it’s the beginning of the year in the church, we feel and see that it’s the end of the year in the world. It’s getting colder. It’s getting darker. All the living things out there are dying or going to sleep or flying away. It feels like an ending. That’s why we light one more candle every Sunday of Advent – to help us count the four Sundays, but also because at this season it gets darker and darker, week by week. The days are getting shorter and shorter.

And Advent is about another ending, a big ending. Jesus taught his friends was that he would come back someday. He’s talking about that in our Gospel lesson today – he’s telling them,  After I die, and rise from the dead, and go to be with God, I will come again – someday. And when I come again, all God’s children will be gathered together, the living and the dead, and there won’t be any suffering anymore. And the world will be changed, too – the world that groans as it waits for God’s redemption. Maybe it will be like a garden, like the garden at the very beginning, where everybody has everything they need, and the fierce animals are friends with the gentle animals, and nobody hurts or kills anybody else. Maybe it will be like a city where there is a home for everybody, where there is plenty to eat and never any war, where people sing together day and night, and where God tenderly wipes away the tears of our grief and weariness. We don’t know what it will be like, but Jesus and the church teach us that that time is coming.

And it’s a little bit scary, to think of everything changing and ending. But it’s hopeful, too. It’s another ending that’s also a beginning, isn’t it? And God’s people have yearned for it, for so long, since long before Jesus’ birth. The book of the prophet Isaiah gives us these words: Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down! Say that with me: Oh! That you would tear open the heavens and come down! 

Psalm 80 gives us these words: Stir up your strength, O God, and come to help us! Say that with me: Stir up your strength, O God, and come to help us! And the songs and prayers of Advent say, Come, Lord Jesus! Say that with me: Come, Lord Jesus! 

We don’t know when that time will come. People have been waiting for it and wondering about it for a long time.  That’s part of what Jesus is talking about in today’s lesson. He’s saying: You won’t know when it’s coming. It’s a mystery. So be ready, always. Live so that you’re always prepared to meet God and walk into that new beginning that is also an ending.

We don’t think about it a lot, that ending-beginning, most of the time. We try to live our lives well, and love each other, and love God, and take care of the world. Most of the time we don’t think much about it at all, because it’s such a big mystery and it’s probably still a long, long way away.

But in Advent the church thinks about it. About that ending/beginning that will come someday. We get ready for the story about Jesus coming as the baby in the stable, the story that has already happened, and we also share the story about Jesus coming again and the whole world changing, the story that hasn’t happened yet.

Those stories are all mixed together in Advent, in the Scriptures and hymns and prayers of the season. Beginnings and endings all tangled up together. And all the feelings we have about beginnings and endings might be tangled up together too: happiness and sadness, excitement and fear, hope and remembering, gratitude and urgency. That’s Advent.

You can hear that in the songs we sing today. The song we gather with is a joyful song: People, look East! And sing today: Love the Lord is on the way! And we’ll sing another familiar Advent hymn that sounds very cheerful: Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free, from all fears and sins release us, let us fund our rest in thee!

But we’ll also sing a song that feels solemn and urgent: Signs of endings all around us, darkness, death, and winter days, shroud our lives with fear and sadness, numbing mouths that long to praise… Later the song says, Give us hope and faith and gladness! Show us what there yet can be! It’s a song of yearning, a song of struggling to hold hope.

And then we have some songs that I think invite us to slow down, to pay attention to how it feels to wait and wonder: O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel… Lullaby, lullaby, wait till tomorrow… Come now, O Prince of Peace, make us one body; come now, O Lord of life, reconcile all peoples.

And there’s one more – we sang it just now, at the Gospel proclamation. It is a song that was made by people who were suffering, and that story that hasn’t happened yet, about Jesus coming back and the whole world changing, gave them hope that their suffering wouldn’t last forever. It’s partly happy and hopeful, and partly sad and serious – just like Advent. It goes like this – sing it with me: “My Lord, what a morning, My Lord, what a morning, My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall.”

Welcome to Advent.