This week we begin the all-too-short journey toward Advent, that season when the Church’s prayer is the urgent and expectant: “Come, Lord Jesus.” For most folks, the Advent hymns and prayers invoking Emmanuel, God-with-us, conjure up domesticated images of babies, a glowing virgin mother, and churches gathered to sing carols and raise candles high into the air. These are comfortable images for us. We like to be in control of our lives and our futures—and this Christmas story is one that we’ve long had our hands on. Jesus the baby does not threaten us. And so, because we’ve already got this part of the story down pat, we use these 4 weeks of Advent to do more important things – like shop, cook, clean, and party. We’ve got Advent under control; we could do the season on auto-pilot. Yes, Come Lord Jesus, so we can finally open our presents.
Yet, auto-pilot Advents are exactly what the lectionary texts for this week warn us against. “Keep awake,” Mark’s Jesus warns, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour and you don’t want to be found asleep at the wheel. Domesticated images of mothers and babies are hardly part of Isaiah’s heaven-shattered, earth quaking invocation of God.
This is a good week for us to remember that the Savior for which we yearn does not and will not come in a form or fashion that we can control or fit into our holiday social calendar. It’s a good week to remember that basic tenet of our faith that the Christ who comes, comes to “judge the living and the dead.” He comes, and will want to know what we’ve been up to in his absence.
Annie Dillard, in her essay, “An Expedition to the Pole,” captures the false sentimentality and hubris with which we are tempted to invoke God. Dillard writes:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, making up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies hats and straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
This Advent, we wait and watch with hope. We wait and watch, believing that the God who comes—whether as a baby in a manger or a king in glory—has the power to turn the world as we know it on its head. May the Church be awakened from its slumber to watch with active expectation for the God who comes yet again to be among us. In the meantime, put your chairs and tray tables into the full upright and locked position—it’s going to be a wild ride.