This Sunday is the first Sunday of the Advent season. Just in case you don’t know, I celebrate Christmas. From the first Sunday of Advent till midnight of Christmas day, I sing carols, I buy presents, I watch Its a Wonderful Life, and I read Charles Dickens’ Christmas carol.
It is, quite simply, my favorite time of the year. I realize that some Christians are too 'spiritual' to celebrate Christmas. They think that we somehow offend the Holy Spirit if we get a lump in our throat about a Virgin Mother, three wise men, and shepherds.
I have never understood that attitude. It seems to me that this world is full of such sorrow, such poverty of spirit; that it offers so few times of wonder and delight – I can’t see why this season, which makes peoples’ eyes sparkle, and moves strangers to take an extra moment for a kind word, would offend Christian people. But some Christians are nonetheless offended. They are as offended at Christmas as the American Civil Liberties Union, which every year, in an effort to protect our liberties, go to war against public nativity sets and lighted crosses. Well, I plan to ignore all the Scrooges this year – heathen, atheist Scrooges and Christian Scrooges alike, just as I ignore them every year, and wish them all a Merry Christmas. What better way is there of infuriating all the sourpusses of the right and left, than to just be happy as we celebrate Advent?
The Advent Season is about the surprising visit of a divine king to this planet. It is the story of an offended God who searched the entire world to find one righteous man, and could not find any. It is the story of how this offended God, our Creator Lord, chose to come down among us so that we would see for ourselves how he truly loved us and how He wanted us to live with him forever.
The advent story takes surprising twists and turns. For one thing, the Jewish priests in the temple seemed oblivious to the story as it unfolded all around them. The king of Israel listened to the story with great alarm. In fact, it moved him to horrible violence, as he commanded that all the children of Bethlehem be killed. Far away, in Rome, the emperor kept collecting his taxes, oblivious that the king of all kings was sneaking into the backdoor o the world. Meanwhile, in Bethlehem, the Innkeeper could not find even a small room for Joseph and for Mary, whose body was crying for a place to deliver her divine baby.
And you wonder how could a priest in the temple could ever miss this baby born in Bethlehem? Week after week he had been swinging the incense, chanting the psalms, preparing the altar -- was there not the slightest spark of longing in his heart? When he put on his robes of his office and walked into the holy temple, was there not a spark of hope that today might be the day the words of the prophet would be fulfilled? Didn’t the prophet say “ suddenly the Lord, whom ye seek will come into his temple, the messenger of covenant whom ye delight in?” Di none of the priest burn with anticipation that perhaps this would be the year messiah would come to “purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord a sacrifice in holiness”? They chanted these words day after day. But no priests came to Bethlehem. There were no priests to care for the mother of the Lord. There were no priests there to burn incense to her newborn son.
And no scribes came to Bethlehem. No, the scribes were too busy looking up words in old scrolls. They were defining this Hebrew word, and comparing it to that Greek translation. They were talking about how this rabbi over here viewed a passage as opposed to that rabbi over there. The scribes kept writing and pondering; they kept studying and reflecting. Herrod asked the scribes to look into the scripture to see where the prophets were predicting the child would be born. Of course, they found the passage right away. They knew the Holy Scriptures. They were knowledgeable men. But still there were no scribes in Bethlehem.
Then there was the king. I don’t mean the king of Egypt. I don’t mean the king of the Parthians or Phrygians. I mean the king of Israel, the nation of covenant. Israel’s king was supposed to lead God’s people like a shepherd. He sat on the throne of David, the man who wrote the twenty third psalm. He descended from the mighty Macabees. But Herod was comfortable in his palace, and owed his throne to the Roman government far away. He was not interested in change. He had no burning hope in his heart for a coming messiah. So Herod didn’t make the trip to Bethlehem.
It was simple shepherds up on a hill and heathen astrologers in far away Persia who heard angels singing. The heathen noticed the star blazing in the heavens. You see, there were some people ready for a visitation from God. There were some people willing to take a chance, willing to toss off the pursuit of reputation and riches, for the outside chance that there could be some answer to the deepest longings of the human heart.
Let’s talk about the shepherds first. The simple people. Rough people. People who had no stake in the system. People who had never seen the inside of a palace. People who had neither the lineage nor the training to enter the holy temple. These people spent their days watching sheep. They were not real pious most of the time. They got mad and swore. They worried about how to get keep a job to support their children. They tried to stay clear of robbers. They didn’t expect life to change much. Maybe they didn’t even realize how much they needed a word from Heaven. They were just dimly aware, as all of us are dimly aware, of a sharp, deep, sweet pain that keeps saying, ‘there has to be something more than this’.
Then, without warning, without any thought that they would be chosen to be the first to get the news, they were suddenly surrounded with visitors from the court of Heaven -- these rough, country people who had never even visited with earthly royalty. They had no idea how to behave. They had no sense of protocol to guide them, no knowledge of how one is supposed to treat the messenger of a high potentate. They were just awe struck as they heard a sound like they had never heard before:
Gloria! In excelsis Deo!
Gloria! In excelsis Deo!
The angels told them, “come to Bethlehem and see. There is born to you this day in the city of David, a Savior, Christ the Lord!” When they got there, they were so smitten with amazement. They had no words for to express what they were feeling. They could just repeat what they had seen. We still repeat their words when we sing:
Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing ore the plane. And with rapture their reply echoing their joyous strain!
Gloria! In excelsis Deo!
Gloria! In excelsis Deo!
Meanwhile, in far away in ancient Persia, were a few old men watching the sky. They were called Magi, and were the last remnants of an ancient class of priests. A new religion had come to Persia, so few people now had the patience to listen to these old men guarding their ancient religion. But they kept watch. For there was a prophesy in their sacred writings – writings which, by the way were related to the oldest texts of India, the Upanishads – in these writings, there was an old prophesy. This prophecy told them that a child would be born in the West which would signal the end of their religion. This child would bring a new word from God. After he came, their work would be over. So they watched and waited.
These old gnarled priests, these Magi, just kept going about the duties of their dying, and almost extinct religion. I wonder which one was the first to see the strange sight in the Western sky. He had climbed the crumbling old Ziggurat that evening, just like he had for years. He compared the sky as he saw it that evening with the observations of the ancients. He probably didn’t expect to see anything different that night from any other night. But there it was something different. There was a star. The star stirred him. Something about it glowed with a different quality. It had a power that was pulling his heart against his chest.
He couldn’t contain his emotions. He had been trained to be prudent. He was a man trained in calm and serenity. But somehow he knew that this star shinning out in the West, held the answer to the sweet pain of the human heart. We have all sorts of names for this secret pain. We sometimes call that pain “romance”. We call is “joy”. Sometimes we musicians call it “soul”. Whatever we call it, it is an indescribable hunger of the spirit, a desire to communicate on another level that what we have known. It causes us to search in the strangest places for something -- we are not sure what. This hunger can take us from love affair to love affair. It can make us love a gourmet meal, or a symphony. It can push us into a drug experience. It can make us risk some high-risk adventure. All our art, all our music, all our romantic passion, finds its source in this sweet pain that emits from the vacuum at the core of our being.
Most people finally try to drown that sweet pain with the business of life. We start our lives searching to find the object of this deep desire of the heart. Then, after many disappointments, we usually conclude that there is no answer for the deepest hunger of our soul. We often call this decision, “getting real.” Sometimes we even call it “maturity”. But what “getting real” often means is that we have given up the search for joy. It often means that we have learned how to grow a thick callous layer over the deep wound of our soul. That is why it is so rare to find an old person whose eyes still sparkle with life. Life has a habit of disillusioning the most life-loving spirit.
But what that one lonely man at the summit of the ancient Persian Ziggurat saw ripped the scab from his heart. He started feeling things he had not felt for a long, long time. So, he went and gathered his friends. I wish we knew more about that meeting of the Magi. We don’t. All we know is this: “when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy”.
So they quickly put together the treasures from their temple -- gold, incense, and myrrh . They loaded it on their camels and started off for a land they had never seen.
Look at what a strange thing happened when the Son of God came to visit us. The priests of God, who he had prepared to receive his coming, did not actually come. They didn’t have enough curiosity. It was astrologers from a heathen land who came with tears and gifts. The theologians read their books. They knew where he would come, but they had lost their curiosity. They did not come. It was shepherds and heathen who actually made the trip.
Isaiah, the prophet, had told about the dawning of this day, the day when the nations of the earth would begin their journey toward the God of Israel.
2 In the last days
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as chief among the mountains;
it will be raised above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
3 Many peoples will come and say,
‘‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
4 He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
5 Come, O house of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the LORD.
So advent is the season where the church remembers His first visit. But it also is the season where we rehearse what Christians call the blessed hope -- the belief that Christ will come again. We say it during the Eucharist; “here then is the mystery of our faith: Christ has, come, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again”.
This message, that Christ will come again, has continued to stir seeking hearts since the days of the apostles. In the fifth century, there was an aristocratic young man from Northern Africa who was studying in the city of Milan, Italy. He had been going to hear the sermons of St. Amborse, bishop of Milan. Now the words were piercing his heart. One morning in the garden behind his house, Augustine heard the voice of a child saying, “take this and read it”. He looked around and saw no one. But there was a book lying on a table. He took it up and saw that it was St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans. He opened the book and read these words:
The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
Awake from slumber! That is the first word for the person who wants to start the spiritual journey. Wake Up! Dare to hope again that the longings of your soul can be satisfied. Dare to feel again.
The advent story reassures us that we will not miss his coming if we are looking for him. But the story also warns us that it is possible to miss His coming. If we get caught up searching for thrills and sensation, if we get to full of lust for things, or we just get preoccupied with the cares of life, we can miss the thing for which the soul yearns. Many ministers will be too caught up with church work when the day of the Lord comes. Many theologians will be too interested declining Greek, or answering a question no one is asking. Many a businessman will be making yet another $100, 000 dollar deal, and many musicians will be working on the next hit song. They will all miss the only event that will make life worthwhile.
While many Christians are caught up with the latest gospel fad, the newest spiritual buzz, or the most up to date preaching style, there is a stir among the heathen. The heathen are buying crystals. They are trying to find peace by squatting on a rug and humming. While many Christians are spending all their energies on trying to resurrect the Eisenhower administration and pretending that the world has not changed, many of the heathen, without knowing what they are doing, are preparing for the coming of the Lord. They are listening for him. And all who truly listen for him, whether they be Christian, Jew, Muslim, or pagan, will hear him. For He, says the Bible, is not willing that any should perish.
No one knows when he will come. All those who say they do are lying. We buy their books and their tapes because we deeply desire to see the Lord. But only God Himself knows when he will come. He has not told us when that will be. He just tells us to live right, to be ready at all times, and to live our live in the glow of His glory.
No, we don’t know when He will come. But He will come. And when he comes, the pains and sorrow of life will melt like frost before the heat of the noonday Summer sun. In a flash we will forget all the hurtful things we have experience here. In a flash we will become immortal beings. We will live forever. All human limitation will be a thing of the past. We will suddenly know secrets that we have longed to know all of our lives. The look in his eyes as we see his face for the first time will make the entire journey of life worthwhile.
It will be worth it all when we see Jesus.
Earth’s trials will seem so small when we see Christ.
One look at his dear face, all sorrows will erase
So let us gladly run the race
Till we see God.
The shepherds were drawn into the drama of the ages in just a moment’s time. It took just a flash for the Magi to take the risk and start off toward the Holy Land. In that brief second of choice, the Magi and shepherds decided whether they would or would not trade their mortal lives for immortality. They took the plunge. They obeyed the deepest part of their heart, and journeyed toward that for which the soul longs.
My friend, this morning you may think religion is full of fraud and deceit. I wish I could argue with you, but I have often been dismayed myself at the religious tomfoolery that enslaves people and numbs their minds and spirits. And I will confess that religious deceit is not just to be found in other people’s religion. It is in my own. And I do not doubt that you will find it in this church, or that you will find it in any church you may visit. But I know something else. I know that if you haven’t found out already, you will sooner or later discover that the deepest desire of your soul cannot be found in money, in fine art, in collections of antiques, or even in the arms of a loving human being. All these are things are wonderful. I would not say otherwise. In their place, they are all good things. But the joys which come to us from art, music, companionship, romantic love, are all like the light of the moon. The all are borrowed lights. And sooner or later, the human soul longs to see the true light of the eternal sun, the light of lights, the light from which all other lights derive their own luminosity.
I want to invite you to join the pilgrims. Come join the magi and the shepherds. Come join the seekers. We will soon see something ever bit as grand and glorious as the choir of angels and a star in the East. We will soon see the eternal city of God coming down as a bride adorned for her husband. The Son of God will descend and evil will melt away in the brightness of his coming. An angel of the Lord will put one foot on land and one foot on sea and proclaim that time shall be no more. The pilgrims will see it. Something deep in your being wants to see it with us. Now is the time. Decide now. Make your choice.
And in this season, perhaps for the fist time, celebrate it as a spiritual experience. Sing the carols. Learn all the old words. Ponder and reflect on the messages they teach. Put lights all over your house. Wish people a Merry Christmas. Give unexpected gifts to people who don’t seem to have many friends or family. Tell people that you love them. Be a child again and feel wonder and joy. Watch the movie It’s a Wonderful Life and let the questions and hopes it raises in the heart stir you and wake up your spirit. Most of all – prepare your heart to live forever with God. Decide that this will be the season in which you really come to know Him.