In the name of the God who is coming and who is already here. Amen.
For the past few weeks, as my mind has slowly begun turning toward Advent, I’ve been unable to shake this quote. It’s attributed to Michelangelo, about the process of sculpting in marble. He said: “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block before I start my work. It is already there; I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” The creation is there. The image is there. The figure is there. The work is in pushing away everything that’s obscuring it.
We tend to think of this season as waiting for something to happen – waiting for something to come. Our tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas reinforces that – the anticipation is often about acquisition. And it is true – we’re waiting for the birth of Jesus. But just as much, we’re letting go. And just as much as we’re waiting, we’re preparing. It’s not just about passively sitting around, waiting for God. It’s about doing the work of making space for God in our lives. It’s about doing the work of pushing away the superfluous material, and revealing the “God with us” that is already true.
One of my favorite names for Christ is Emmanuel – meaning “God with us”. It celebrates and emphasizes the idea that the gift of the incarnation was about God taking on human form in the person of Jesus. It rejoices in the idea of a God who would care so intimately for us as to want to share with us in our own experience. It’s a beautiful idea.
But it doesn’t mean that God wasn’t with us all along. The novel thing isn’t that God wanted to be with us – it’s that God found a new way to be with us. God has been with us from the beginning. The issue has never been God’s availability, but our own sense of God’s distance. And I say that both as the ways that God was with us before the time of Christ, but also about the ways that God is with us still – even in these times when we forget, or when we don’t know. The novel thing isn’t that God wants to be with us, right now – it’s that God keeps finding new ways to be with us. God keeps finding ways to break through all the superfluous material – to break through the barriers that we have built up.
That’s what we work toward this Advent. It’s not just about waiting, anticipating, hoping… It’s about actively working to prepare, to make space, to see what we’ve been missing.
But the Gospel we read today, on this First Sunday of Advent, seems to paint a decidedly different picture. Not different from the focus of Advent that I’ve outlined, but different in tone. The tone of the Gospel lesson today is a bit harsh.
“There will be… distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
Happy holidays. Be sure to put that on your Christmas cards.
But seriously, there is a lot of confusion about this style of writing in the Bible – this apocalyptic literature. It’s a common style that’s found throughout our scriptures, but it is often misunderstood. We approach it from our post-modern perspectives, as though it is some kind of literal prediction of events that we might expect. But it’s not a weather report. It’s a way of trying to impress upon us that something new is happening.
People tend to speak about apocalyptic literature as “end times” predictions. And if that’s true, it wouldn’t make much sense to be reading about it in Advent. But really, what it points to is not so much an ending, but a beginning. Something entirely new may feel like the end of the old – in extreme cases, it may even feel like the end of the world. But even more so, it’s the beginning of what’s next.
And seeing the world in a new way – experiencing the world and our relationship with God in a new way – that can be a scary thing. It can feel like the world has turned upside down, like we can’t know what to expect. It can sometimes be easier for us to fall into our comfortable patterns. Not that the status quo is ever really ideal, but in it we do at least know what to expect. The devil you know, so to speak, right?
That’s an important thing to keep in mind this Advent. Hope and anticipation are great. They’re fun and exciting. But new things are almost always tinged with a little uncertainty – even a little anxiety. That’s a lot of what the stripping away of Advent is about. Part of our preparation is pushing through the complacency of our everyday lives. Unless we already have a perfect and fully realized experience of God in our lives, then something’s going to change if we take this season seriously.
I know I don’t have a perfect and fully realized experience of God in my life. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who did. But for the next few weeks, we get to practice trying. We get to practice stripping away the superfluous material that’s gotten in the way.
Rather than seeing this as a season of waiting, or hoping, or expecting – imagine your experience of Advent as a season of preparing. What would it mean for you to strip away the superfluous material in your own life? What would it mean for you to spend these weeks actively preparing to see God in a new way? What would it mean for you to spend these weeks actively seeking to experience God where you might have missed opportunities that were right in front of you all along?
The experience is already here. God is already here. The work is in clearing away everything that’s obscuring this truth. Amen.