Advent Hope

[Advent 2009]

We are Seventh-day Adventists. Seventh-day tells the world that we observe the Biblical Sabbath. Adventist says our lives our oriented by our hope in Christ’s advent, a word that means “coming.”

We await his second coming in the clouds of glory at the end of time. And we believe that day to be near because of the signs he gave. Signs that we read about in the Scripture we just heard.

Luke 21, beginning with the 25th verse (King James Version)

 25And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh. ,,,

And because of our hope, we believe that we should live differently today than those without that hope. Because Jesus also says, Luke 21, verse 34:

34And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares. For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.

We aren’t the only Christians who read these verses, of course. In fact, these verses from Luke 21 were read in every Catholic church in the world last Sunday. And in every Lutheran and Anglican church in the world—and most Methodist and Presbyterian churches, and many others.

These churches use a lectionary—their Scripture readings each week are taken from a three year cycle—and this was the reading for this year for the first Sunday in a season called Advent.

Advent is a season consisting of four weeks before Christmas. It’s celebrated by many Christians as a reflective time of preparation for Christmas. To prepare for the celebration of the First Advent of Christ, his birth in Bethlehem.  Hymns for the Advent season are different than Christmas hymns, though. They focus on expectation and hope.

There are traditional readings for each week—the angel’s message to Mary that she was to give birth to a son; the message of John the Baptist to “prepare the way of the Lord”; the angel’s message to Joseph, “Don’t be afraid.”

But Advent begins each year, in Lutheran and Methodist and Presbyterian and Catholic churches, by remembering the second advent of Christ. By remembering that we live in a time in between his first advent and his second advent, and that we must now be preparing to greet him at his return in glory. By warning against getting caught up in the cares and concerns and fears of the world.

I began celebrating Advent as a Lutheran pastor—and I still value its themes and its symbols. I don’t like the way the world’s Christmas of chintzy trinkets and expensive gifts. I don’t like the world’s preparation that starts before Halloween and fills the stores with temptations of what you must buy. I don’t like the pushing and the shoving and the camping out that characterize Black Friday.

I like Advent’s call to wait. To pray. To reflect. To prepare. And to celebrate his first Advent by remembering, and preparing for, his Second Advent.

I like the traditions of the Advent season that were developed by German Lutherans, and we celebrate these in our home.

We have an Advent calendar to count down the days—we use an Advent wreath, of four blue or purple candles. We light each new candle at Friday night at sundown for the four weeks before Christmas. We sing a stanza of one of the best known Advent hymns: “O Come, O Come, Immanuel.” Then we light it briefly at meal time each day during the week.

How do you celebrate the Christmas season? How do you prepare for Christmas? What traditions do you find meaningful? There are so many; our culture mixes together Christian and pagan and secular—and jumbles them all together on front lawns in a mish-mash of electric reindeer, inflatable wisemen, and plastic snowmen.

That has led some Christians to say, “Bah humbug” to it all.

Some Adventists think we should have nothing to do with any of it.

But I take my cue from the apostle Paul, who said, in Philippians 1: “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. … But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”

The Adventist movement arose at a time when our modern traditions of trees and gift-giving and Santa Claus were taking the form in which we know them.

Many early Americans didn’t celebrate Christmas. The Puritans had banned Christmas completely. It was illegal to celebrate Christmas in Puritan New England. Christmas was celebrated instead by the Dutch, who imagined that St. Nicholas brought their children gifts. It was celebrated by Germans, who decorated Christmas trees, following the custom of German Lutherans since the days of Luther. In the mid-19th century, these traditions were combined, and they spread beyond their original cultures and were adopted by all. St. Nicholas became Santa Claus and began to be drawn in a red coat with white fur. Christmas trees spread from Germany to England because Queen Victoria’s German husband, Albert, put one in the palace. From there they spread to the whole English speaking world. And Charles Dickens taught the world to cherish the spirit of Christmas.

This all was happening at the time Adventism was being formed. And I think it important to note that though the early Adventists were almost all of old New England Puritan stock, they didn’t go the Puritan route and ban the celebration of Christmas. Instead, they celebrated it with joy, and used it as an opportunity to preach the gospel—and to draw attention to the needs of the poor.

Consider Ellen White’s approach. In a chapter that appears in The Adventist Home, she wrote, “When the world at large celebrates the day, they show no honor to Christ. They refuse to acknowledge Him as their Saviour, to honor Him by willing obedience to His service. They show preference to the day, but none to the one for whom the day is celebrated, Jesus Christ.”

She acknowledged that we don’t know when Jesus was born—but that didn’t matter to her. She urged Adventists to use it as an opportunity to preach Jesus Christ—and to come together as families.

“Christmas is coming. May you all have wisdom to make it a precious season. Let the older church members unite, heart and soul, with their children in their innocent amusement and recreation, in devising ways and means to show true respect to Jesus by bringing to Him gifts and offerings.”

Adventists put trees in their churches, and pinned offerings to them. When a concerned sister asked Ellen White, “Is this in keeping with our religion?” She smiled gently and said, “It’s in keeping with mine.”

She celebrated Christmas in her own home with a tree and the giving of gifts, as did her son, Willie. Her granddaughter, Grace, told how the family gathered around the tree and sang carols, then opened their presents. Ellen gave practical gifts to her grandchildren, including books and clothes. It was a joyous family time.

Let it be so with us. If there are traditions that are meaningful to your family, and if Christ is uplifted in them, celebrate them in the freedom that we have as sons and daughters of Christ.

We have a nativity scene on our mantle, handcarved in olive wood by Christians in Bethlehem, given to us by Palestinian Christian friends.

We put up a tree as a reminder to us of the light and life that Christ brings.

And, as I mentioned at the beginning, we also celebrate the season of Advent—we have found it a meaningful way to celebrate Christmas in a countercultural way.

The message of Advent is what we heard in our Scripture reading: Christ is coming. Be ready. Don’t be distracted by either revelry or the obligations of life.

At the time of Christ’s first Advent the world was oblivious. Only a handful of shepherds knew—and it took an angel’s song to pull them from their watch. Three wise men knew—but it took a star to bring them from the east.

The world of today is oblivious. Christmas is celebrated as a mish-mash of Christian, pagan, and commercial symbols and sentiments, and the clutter obscures the truth of the season: it’s about Jesus.

Pastor George Vandeman used to tell the story of what happened when the Hope Diamond was donated to the Smithsonian Institution. It was 1958. Harry Winston had bought the 45 carat stone nine years earlier, but he felt all the world should be able to enjoy it. He sent it in the mail, in a plain brown wrapper, paying $2.44 in postage—and $145.29 for a $1 million insurance policy. “Registered mail is the safest way to send gems,” he told a reporter. The instructions were clear: Deliver at 11:45 a.m. on November 10, 1958. A crowd gathered at the Smithsonian for its arrival. The U.S. Postmaster General, Arthur Summerfield, stood on the steps of the Smithsonian waiting for it, along with other dignitaries, including Leonard Carmichael, the head of the Smithsonian. Mailman James Todd was given the job of bringing the envelope the last mile of its journey from the post office, and he brought it unarmed and alone. But he was running late. The crowd grew anxious. When he arrived, it is said that he had to push his way through the crowd, who were a little annoyed at this man with the plain brown envelope. But he made his way to the front and handed it to Summerfield, who passed it Carmichael, who signed for it and then handed it to the Smithsonian’s mineralogy curator, George Switzer, who unwrapped it carefully and then held it up for all to see.

All the rich and wealthy people who were there for the glamour and the glitz almost missed the treasure, because it didn’t come as they expected it to come.

What of you, this morning? What are you hoping for? An iPhone or iPod? A Wii or a PlayStation?  

Or is your hope fixed on Jesus Christ, and his advent?

Will you allow clutter and busyness and the world’s hopes and expectations to occupy your life–or will you open your heart, and receive him?

What symbols you might use in this season is not important. Whether you choose to use none at all is not important.

What is important is that we take advantage of the time—to preach him, to prepare ourselves, to our hearts, and let him come in.