Sunday, December 3, 2017


On this first Sunday of the Christian year,
         I want to make a plug for the liturgical year.
I recommend the liturgical year because I believe in it,
         but I know most people do not.
Most of us think Christianity is one particular mood,
         one experience, one idea that we think all the time.

For example, some say we are an Easter people
so we should use the liturgy for Easter every Sunday.
The special tension this time of year is that on the secular Hallmark Calendar
         it’s already the Christmas Season;
         but on the Christian calendar,
it’s Advent, which has a darker feel
to go with the short days of December.

The father of American psychology, William James, said back in 1902
         that some folks try to stay optimistic all the time.
But that positive thinking religion shuts down a huge part of their experience.
Constant smiling strains the face.
It doesn’t come to grips with reality.
It’s too shallow a pool of grownups.
James said that Buddhism and Christianity
are the most psychologically effective religions
precisely because we make room for the bad stuff.
Our faith is willing to look at the whole picture.

That’s where the Christian year comes in.
We can’t see the whole picture at once.
We can’t feel everything at once.
The Christian year makes a time for all our feelings,
         moods, and dispositions.

Sometimes we really feel God’s Presence.
We celebrate that experience in Christmas.
Those 12 days are all about God with us.

But, if we’re honest, we have to admit
         sometimes God doesn’t feel so real to us.
Sometimes God seems pretty far off, even imaginary,
         while we’re here in the mix and muddle of life.
That’s ok because if we always felt God’s Presence,
         we wouldn’t know what it is to long for God,
         to hunger and thirst for God.
Advent is the season of longing.

“Oh that you would tear open the heavens
         and come down.”
Isaiah’s prayer is poignant, painful in its longing,
         ardent in its desire.
“Oh that” is an expression like “if only”
         – but so much stronger.
Isaiah wants God now.
We need God now.

That is the Advent prayer.
In Advent, we face our experience of God’s absence.
“Oh that” is a cry of raw desire.

Who is this God Isaiah longs for
         and what do we hope God will do?
Since the 7th Century, in December, the Church has sung
         the O Antiphons of Advent.
They invite God to come and be with us.
Each Antiphon uses a different name for God.
to express a different thing we are missing.

The first of these ancient prayers is,
is O Wisdom of our God on high.
The world can be so senseless, so inept, so cockeyed,
         we need some Wisdom in the conversation.

The second ancient Advent prayer is
O Leader of the House of Israel, give us the law.
The world is lawless sometimes.
It gets pretty dog eat dog, everyone out for himself.
We need a taste of morality, a little attention to right and wrong.

The third prayer, is O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people.
This world can be a loveless place.
We have more people hating each other right out loud these days
         than I remember in my lifetime.
We could use some divine love flowing in the stream of humanity.

Fourth, in Advent we pray,
O Key of David opening the gates,
         come and free the prisoners of darkness.
Do you ever feel stuck in your life,
         trapped in a memory, a grudge, or a situation?
We need a liberator to open the gates so we can move on.

Fifth, O Radiant Dawn come and shine on those who dwell in darkness
         and the shadow of death.
Anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote a classic book, The Denial of Death.
He argued powerfully that we unconsciously organize our lives
to avoid admitting our mortality.
Paul Simon wrote,
         So Ill continue to continue to pretend
         My life will never end . . . .
We are too busy running from death to really live.
We need a Radiant Dawn to scatter the shadows
         of death and its denial.

Sixth, O King of Nations come and save humankind
         whom you made from the dust.
Save means to make whole, to put together what has broken apart.
The nations, races, and even genders break apart
         and set us against one another.
We need a spiritual King to remind us we are all one dust.

Finally, we pray, O Emmanuel come and be with us.
Life gets lonely -- even in a crowd.
We need God to enfold us, know us completely,
         and befriend us so we can feel that we belong.

Those are seven ways the Church has expressed
         what humankind is missing
         and who God is for us.

But I’m going to ask you a personal question,
         maybe the most personal question.
What do you want?
What is the hole in your life?
What’s missing for you?

It may not be something that sounds spiritual or religious.
You may not think it has anything to do with God.
But let me tell you something about human desire.
Our hands down greatest theologian was St. Augustine.

He said, we all have one basic desire.
We are all born with a God-shaped hole in our hearts.
Our fundamental desire is for God.

But that holy desire is refracted like white light into a rainbow.
It comes to us in the form of many different smaller desires.
But – now this is St. Augustine talking – if you follow any desire,
         no matter how mundane, shallow, or materialistic – any desire
         to its source, what you find is God.

So, I ask again, what do you want?
What do you really, truly – just between you and me
in the confessional booth– want?
Don’t judge yourself for wanting something for yourself.
Don’t judge your desire as not being holy enough.
Tell yourself the truth. Admit what you want.

 Now I’m going to give you two spiritual prescriptions for Advent.
First, spend some quiet time by yourself, search your heart,
--use a journal if it helps --
         and find the answer to that question.
Again, don’t polish it up.
Admit your honest desire.
You are making your grown up Christmas list.

Second, pray for it.
Don’t hide your desire behind just praying for others.
Don’t be ashamed to admit what you want.
If it’s a bad idea, God won’t do it just because you told him to.

 You aren’t the boss and prayer isn’t magic.
What will happen if you tell God the truth
         is you and God will get a whole lot closer to each other.

The Ancient Greeks and the even more Ancient Egyptians
taught that the beginning of wisdom is to know yourself.
That takes enough courage to be honest.
God has given us that much courage.
You can do it.

Advent is the time to get to know yourself
         and tell a bit of truth – just in the privacy of prayer.
It’s the season to get real with God.

Then watch what happens next.