Someone is coming! John the Baptist tells us the one coming is more powerful than he and is coming after him. When the Sunday School class was asked, “Who is coming,” they responded, you guessed it, Santa Claus, with obvious glee and delight.
Perhaps I am getting a bit soft in my old age, but that response really doesn’t bother me too much. Certainly we want to be clear that Santa Claus is not the Christian symbol of the fullness of God and the hope of humankind. In the extreme, and with a profound “bah, humbug,” one might say that Santa is a crass corruption of the real St. Nicholas remembered on the Christian calendar last week, and is even the antithesis of Christian values and stewardship. We can, however, learn much from children who unabashedly show delight, excitement, even joy, for the one who is coming.
It might serve we who are adults well to rediscover that special eagerness with which children wait and wait for a wonderful thing that has been promised by those they love and trust. Advent gives us this permission, to desire what we anticipate. It was C.S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory, who said that, “Nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we follow Christ contains an appeal to desire…Indeed it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.” Do we, for example, truly “thirst after righteousness,” or say our “Amens” with heartfelt gusto? Out of a deep spiritual hunger, can we not wait to come to the Lord’s Table?
Desire is what Advent preparation is about, but if we are not careful we will squash any possibility for desire, even glee, to bubble to the surface. For one thing, we are often taught that desire is bad and surely it can be misplaced and misused. But rightly seen, desire is a gift of God. As St. John of the Cross teaches, all desire, at its root, is a longing for God. Furthermore, depending on how we approach it, we can make Advent itself squash desire. We are told to get ready, and as if in a “Blondie” cartoon, become like Dagwood who is always on the lookout for his boss to come in and catch him asleep at the desk.
Today, center stage is taken by John the Baptist, the preacher who is often seen as an outlandish, “one who eats bugs,” as my boyhood friend Ricky used to say when we were kids. John the Baptist can come across as an abrasive, unkempt fanatic who keeps telling us to clean up our act. The Baptist’s prophetic message becomes one more version of someone is coming to town, so make a list, check it twice, find out who’s naughty or nice, and shape up. If you are not good you won’t get presents easily becomes, if you are not good God won’t love you. I’ve actually heard parents use a version of such a ploy to punish their kids. What a way to squash desire and delight for the One, Jesus, who is to come. Who wants to be waiting with anticipation for one shaking his finger at us?
Perhaps Advent can give us an alternate vision. I wonder if it can be with expectation and hope? The Collect for today prays that we would greet with joy the coming of our Redeemer. And as Advent always does, it calls us to see time differently by taking the long view. II Peter suggests that the reason the final coming of Christ has not occurred is that God is being patient while waiting for us. Listen to Isaiah, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” says our God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Encourage the people of God’s peace. Tell them they have suffered long enough. The penalty is paid. God is coming to lead them home!”
Rather than hearing John the Baptist or Isaiah scold us into getting our life together, not crying or pouting, knowing when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake, we hear today cries of glad tidings! It is to prepare for a future without fear for the promise is that God will not abandon us. God has acted to save us and now comes to care for us like a shepherd, gathering the lambs in his arms to gently lead us all.
This is the God to whom our confirmand Carol is giving her life today—the God taught by Jesus who does not rail on us, but who patiently waits. Even John the Baptist is saying that God knows we get lost and is sending One to look after us, seeking us out in the ruts and mazes of life. As Isaiah recognizes the frailty of human beings, “all flesh is grass…too quickly dried up and withered in the heat…” The promise of God therefore is comfort. In this sense it means literally, “one who stands with.” It has little to do with ease or luxury and everything to do with the strength given to do the work God calls us to do.
Until that final coming we wait with hope as we actively participate in making the world ready to receive the gift of God in Christ. With delight embrace this One who is coming to you, the One who first loved you, and be filled with a holy desire for the good news of God’s justice for all. For the One born in Bethlehem is the greatest gift of all.