Advent is the four-week season of preparation for Christmas. On the first Sunday of Advent (November 27 this year), we change the colors that adorn the sanctuary to blue. We also light the first candle on the Advent wreath. Each year, the blue hangs in our worship until they are changed to white for the celebration of Christmas.
36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only God alone. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Advent has a way of sneaking up on us. At this time of year we know that Christmas isn’t too far away, even in an unusually warm November, but the countdown of remaining shopping days does not get us ready in the same way for this first Sunday of Advent. Tucked away in what’s better known as Thanksgiving weekend, the beginning of Advent can easily get overlooked, and we may find ourselves unprepared for this season of preparation. I can say that there have been many years when already just a few days into Advent I’ve felt the need to play catch-up. Unpack the Advent calendar and wreath at home, read the few daily devotions I’ve already missed, and so on.
But I’ve never been too concerned about getting ready for Advent because in a sense it’s the season of the year that I’m always most prepared for. I like what Pastor Heidi Neumark says about this. She writes, “Advent is a reflection of how I feel most of the time. I might not feel sorry during Lent, when the liturgical calendar begs repentance. I might not feel victorious even though it is Easter morning. I might not feel full of the Spirit even though it is Pentecost and the liturgy spins out fiery gusts of ecstasy. But during Advent I am always in sync. Advent unfailingly embraces and comprehends my reality…my longing.”
While Advent may surprise us, it doesn’t take any of us much time or effort, I suspect, to get in touch with our own sense of longing. Our desire for healing, for peace, for wholeness, for what’s known in Hebrew as shalom, this longing is something we carry we us, though it takes different forms for each one and it varies from year to year.
Christian writer Diana Butler Bass shared in the Washington Post last week about her own preparations for Advent. As she was selecting candles for her Advent wreath at home, she briefly considered the once traditional penitential purple and joyful pink ones, but then she quickly settled on blue, just as we have used in worship for the past many years. “Blue candles,” she thought. “That’s what I feel like this year. Not penitent. Not joyful. Just blue.”
She believes she is not alone in feeling blue this year, and I’m sure that’s true. At this particular moment in our country, at least, many feel a unique kind of sadness or longing. Butler Bass says, “No matter how one voted in the recent election, it is obvious that happiness was a big loser in recent months — with therapists, psychologists and clergy reporting high levels of ‘Trump-related stress,’ especially among women and minorities.” This year you may have had more worries than usual about what would be said at your Thanksgiving tables. You may be distressed after hearing stories about others getting yelled at or even more serious hate crimes since the election. You may have experienced some of those things yourself. These realities can leave one feeling afraid or angry, but they also cause one to feel sad, really blue. “A blue Advent,” Butler Bass says. “That sounds about right.”
And so our blue candles and paraments in worship today seem especially appropriate. They may reflect our general mood. But they—and the season they mark—not only embrace how we feel but are also intended to help transform us. Blue may be the color of sadness, but it is also the color of hope. The blue in our worship is the color of the sky right before dawn. It’s a blue of promise that no matter how dark or cold things may be right now, we will see the arrival of a new day. There may be ample evidence to the contrary, but still we light candles not only in the darkness but as protest against the darkness. And as the light grows over these four weeks, we pray that so will our trust in God’s promise of shalom.
So on this first step into a season of longing and hope, we read a passage from the prophet Isaiah which itself serves as a kind light against the darkness. The prophet, after calling attention to the violence, corruption, unfaithfulness, and trampling on the poor within their own city of Jerusalem, offers a picture of what that city can yet become. Nations will stream to it, he says, even those who had been fierce enemies. They will come to learn to walk in the light of God. They will dismantle instruments of violence and transform them into tools for production. They will study war no more but will instead study the things of peace and will go out into all of the world to bring healing and establish justice. It’s an image that sounded as absurd then as it does today. But for centuries it has pointed people of faith to God’s dream for a transformed earth. It has been a source of faith-nurturing hope.
I don’t know how people first responded to Isaiah’s message, but despite everything else going on, the prophet persistently kept watch for God’s shalom in his own life experience. He waited for it.
Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote an Advent reflection in which he said, “Not everyone can wait: neither the sated nor the satisfied nor those without respect can wait. The only ones who can wait are people who carry restlessness around with them.”
There’s a big difference, it seems to me, between passive waiting and carrying restlessness around with you. We are called to an active kind of waiting, a waiting that is confident that the world as it is is not how it should be or will be, a waiting that can only come from faith in the One who promises healing in the midst of brokenness.
We are called to restlessness, which leads us to participate in God’s healing work even as we watch for its fulfillment. Restlessness is my prayer for all of us this Advent.
That’s why today is a great day to celebrate the gift of baptism. Like nothing else, this sacrament points us forward with restless anticipation of what’s to come, both in the lives of the children baptized and in God’s unfolding mission in the world. We could not participate in this sacrament—none of us—if we did not carry with us the restless hope—even joy—in what God is doing. And in telling and hearing God’s promise around this font, we provide a shining light against the darkness. Thanks be to God!