The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A)
“#AdventFail” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
There are six — count ’em, six — more shopping days until Christmas! How did that happen?!
I think I’ve mentioned before — every year when I get to the end of Advent, I’m never ready for Christmas. Every year I make Advent plans — to pray as our family lights the candles in our wreath every night; one Jesse tree ornament every day; stamp and send the Christmas cards (which I never even got around to ordering this year); cross every name off my shopping list; all while setting aside extra time for prayer and reflection. Making time to grow, to do good. But work gets in the way. Family issues demand my attention. There are Christmas parties, choir concerts, papers or exams or projects.
By this Sunday every year, I admit: I failed at Advent.
This week I wondered whether anybody else felt this way, so I searched hashtag #AdventFail on Twitter. Here’s what came up:
- @hashtagCatholic said “Eek! I don’t have my purple and pink candles. #AdventFail”
- @JordanTrumble (who describes himself as an Episcopalian, West Virginian, and snark aficionado) said, rather snarkily I thought: “Pastor at my aunt’s church began the service by saying ‘Merry Christmas.’ #AdventFail”
- @LeighLem said — and this is good advice — “This Advent, I’d like to remind church-goers there may be some new candles in unexpected places — watch ur hair. #AdventFail”
- @ReedsTweets1 said “Ate entire Advent calendar in 12 minutes. Apparently that’s not how you do it. #AdventFail”
Failure can be a common feeling in Advent.
There’s no way you can see this from where you’re sitting, but just imagine that you can — This is Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Nativity, and I want to introduce it as exhibit A for this homily. See Mary is in the center? She reclines beside the baby she’s wrapped tightly in swaddling clothes, and she captures our attention. In the gospel narratives Jesus’ birth, Mary is a paradigm of readiness for God. Gabriel tells her she will have God’s child; she says “Let it be unto me according to your word.”
But there’s another figure in the narratives. This figure, in Rublev’s icon, is not in the center — he sits off in the bottom left corner, and he’s not alone. Joseph, the human foster father of Jesus, sits with a troubled look on his face talking to a bent and wizened old man. Tradition says Rublev painted the devil whispering to Joseph — giving voice to all Joseph’s doubts about this event and his role in it:
- Joseph, how can you be sure this baby’s yours?
- This is not how you planned for this to go!
- How could you not feel like a failure?”
This morning, if you’re like I am, if Advent hasn’t gone as planned, may I suggest three practices in Matthew’s story that we can emulate? Three things to do when we fail at Advent: (1) Dream, (2) Let Go, and (3) Obey.
First — Dream — Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put [Mary] to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid . . . .”
I don’t know how Joesph could sleep, but he did, and when he slept, he dreamed. That’s when his angel appeared and told him another story. Not just the story of his reputation in shambles, of his dashed hopes and spoiled plans. And when Joseph woke, he must’ve thought, “What if that’s really true?”
For Joseph, and for us — what if the dream was really true? What if this baby was really God’s son and really Joseph’s son? God and man? Dorothy Sayers, in Letters to a Diminished Church, says this:
One thing is certain: if he were God and nothing else, his immortality means nothing to us; if he was man and no more, his death is no more important than yours or mine. But if he really was both God and man, then when the man Jesus died, God died too; and when the God Jesus rose from the dead, man rose too, because they were one and the same person.
Do you see? If the angel told the truth in the dream, everything changes! How can we doubt God loves us when he dies for us to prove it? And why be afraid of anything? Even death can’t keep us because it couldn’t keep him. We’re free to risk everything for a God like that without ever being afraid we’ll come up short and he’ll find us wanting. Let that be our dream. Dare to dream the angel told the truth.
Practice number two: Let go — Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
I had a plan. When Renee and I got married, I had a plan. I wanted 6 kids, she wanted 1. We had Ellie, and Renee moved her target up to 2, and I came down to 4 (it was harder than it looked). Then we had Paddy, and we both said “Change of plans — let’s stop at three.” And that was Flannery.
What were Joseph’s plans for his life with Mary? They certainly didn’t involve a suspicious and very public pregnancy, two years on the run from King Herod, and a son who even his own family would come to believe was mad. But God said: Don’t be afraid; let go or your plans; let me set the course of your life.
Our Advent plan is to be good — to live better lives. And we make Advent all about what we will do for God, like he’s some kind of celestial bookkeeper marking deposits and withdrawals. But the gospel says that’s just not what God’s like at all! If you’ve prayed the collects for these past Sundays, maybe you noticed something. Listen:
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness (Advent I)
Give us grace to heed the prophets’ warnings and forsake our sins (Advent II)
And because we are sorely hindered by our sins (Advent III)
Purify our consciences by thy daily visitation (today)
Those aren’t prayers to a God who’s surprised we fail. Who’s surprised we’re still sinners, even if we’ve praying those prayers for 50 years. God sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good — and he loves you anyway! No Advent discipline will ever make God love us any more, and no amount of Advent failure will ever make God love us any less.
You’re free to let go — Let go of your best-laid plans. Let go of your false image of yourself, or the false image you broadcast to those around you, that you’ve got it all together. Just let go, then . . .
Practice number three — Obey. Once you’ve dared to dream Jesus was who the angel said he was, once you’ve let go of the illusion you need to dress yourself up in good works for God, then, and only then, begin to obey. When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.
Notice the order: God didn’t bless Mary because she obeyed; he didn’t bless Joseph because he obeyed; the angels announced the blessing, then the couple said “let it be as you say,” and they began moving obediently toward Bethlehem.
Do we dare to dream of a world where we are not under law but under grace? The only problem with a glorious season like Advent is we’re prone to make Advent into something we do, not something that’s being done for us. It’s our default position — to plan more, do better, work harder, and to forget we’re on the cusp of Christmas, the day we celebrate the birth of the One who was born into the world to do all the things we couldn’t do to make ourselves ready for God. All we must do to get ready for God is open our eyes, our hands, our mouths — and let him come to us. Only then will our obedience really be free.
Let me close with a quote from a friend of mine, an internet friend at least. Sarah Condon is a priest in Houston, TX (and a graduate of Ole Miss, by damn), and she closed an Advent sermon of hers with these words:
This sounds crazy, because I have a Christmas to-do list that will not get to done, but we are already ready . . . because Jesus is ready for us . . . . So I’m not in a big hurry to start the manic exercises of what we seem to culturally call “Getting into the Xmas spirit.” I am thrilled at the idea of not feeling like I should control all of it. I am joyful at the thought that nothing I do this season, nothing, will improve upon the Christ child who will come into our midst to save us . . . . We are here to get ready for Jesus, and the incredibly good news this morning and every morning is that Jesus, in all of his mercy, has always and forever been ready for us.
☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Go Deeper //
- Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson), 5.
- Sarah Condon, “Don’t Get Ready for Christmas, Get Ready for Jesus” (30 Nov. 2016), available via the Mockingpulpit podcast, https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-mockingpulpit/id682011512?mt=2&i=1C00378432593 (last visited 16 Dec. 2016)).
- Click foC audio of this sermon.