Ralphie stood in line with his brother Randy waiting. This was it. His last best chance to get his much longed-for Christmas gift. He had tried many ways to tell his parents about his hoped for present, and he eloquently expressed his desire in a theme for his teacher, and at every point he was rebuffed. They didn’t understand why a boy would want a BB gun. And not just any BB gun, mind you, but an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two hundred shot range model air rifle. So he waited in line to tell it to Santa who just so happened to be at the Higbees Department Store.
An Advent Sermon on Isaiah 64:1-9 & Mark 13:24-37
Except when Ralphie finally got to see the Big Guy, he became tongue-tied. He stood there dumbfounded, wide-eyed, and utterly lost. The adult Ralphie who narrates the film “A Christmas Story” can be heard in the background getting more and more frantic as Santa asks the muted Ralphie if he would like a football for Christmas, and Ralphi simply nods. Santa and his elf then move Ralphie along to a windy slide that will take him away from his only remaining chance. As he begins to slide down narrator Ralphie yells, “Wake up, stupid! Wake up!” You know what happens next. Young Ralphie screams, “No!” as he jams his foot against the slide, turns around, and then slowly climbs back up. He tells Santa exactly what he wants, and Santa responds simply, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” Ralphie is crest-fallen. He loses all hope as he slides down backwards on his belly to the main floor where he bumps into Randy.
“Wake up!” Mark our patron saint has Jesus proclaim to his disciples this morning, leaving off the part where he calls them names, but it’s sort of implied. “Be alert! Pay attention! You don’t want to mess this up!” Jesus is coming back but you don’t know when exactly, so you better be on top of it. Get ready and then stay ready! And if you’re the one assigned as the doorkeeper, never sleep!
Now wait just one minute, Jesus. Is that really what you’re saying to us? Because even you went off to find rest when things got difficult. Never mind that we can’t stay awake that long anyway, even if we continue in our overly-wired state as we try to get it all done before Christmas. The decorations and the cards and the baking and the presents and whatnot. We’re barely scraping by now, and you want us to to pull a month’s worth of all nighters on top of it?
Minister Lillian Daniel writes, “With all there is to get ready for the holidays, secularly and sacredly, nobody needs to tell us to ‘stay awake.’ As a pastor, it strikes me that this may instead be the season to pass out the sleeping pills or the chamomile tea, to a revved up, over-caffeinated culture of busy-ness. [However] let us be clear that while the world’s busy-ness may seem pointed toward Christmas, it is seldom pointed toward the coming of the Christ child.” She continues, “These days we are startled into extra hours of wakefulness in a liturgical season that annoyingly presumes we might be asleep. … [Yet] in Advent, we are indeed asleep to much of what matters.”
We know this, of course. Or at least Hollywood does. From Ebenezer Scrooge to the Grinch to “It’s a Wonderful Life” to “Christmas with the Kranks,” we’re reminded that it’s not about the stuff but relationships. As the Grinchy Claus himself puts it, “Maybe Christmas (he thought) doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more.”
Wake up! You’re missing it!
We’ve become those described by the prophet Isaiah who depicts the people who have forgotten about God and followed their own ways. They’ve gone down the path that leads away from God. “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities—like the wind—take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you.” It’s not unlike our culture that makes the season all about deals and shopping and consumerism with Christmas spending in our country predicted to be between $1.1 and $1.3 trillion this year. It’s not about Jesus, it’s about being blessed as consumers.
But then Isaiah throws in one more line. “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you, for you have hidden your face from us, and delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” Because God was no where to be found, the people gave up and chased after their own devices and desires. They bought and sold and trampled the poor and forgot all about God who had also seemed to forget about them. So which way was it? Did the people follow after their own ways first, or did God pull back? Or both? And yet, according to the prophet, God is the only one who “works for them who wait for you.” Those who put their trust and hope in God, who wait for God, God cares for and helps them.
Wake up! You’re missing it!
A big part of the issue is our over-consumption but we just don’t recognize it. A few chapters earlier, Jesus will ask his disciples, “What will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your life?” Or put another way, what difference will finding the perfect Christmas gift mean, if you’ve lost the real message of the season in the process? What do we gain by getting all sorts of stuff, but being too exhausted to greet the Christ child? What will it mean in the end if much of our whole life can be summed up simply by all the things we leave behind?
Now before you start thinking I’m Ebenezer Scrooge and that I’m against gift giving, let me say it plainly. Our gifting should be well thought out for those we love and cherish, bringing them joy, while recognizing full well that the best present we can offer is our own presence. It’s about the relationships. Part of those relationships are also with this world of ours that cannot continue to handle our over-consumption which is at the root of our environmental crisis. And all this significantly impacts the poor in our world who tend to work in horrific conditions to manufacture all that stuff and who also feel the impact of climate change more acutely.
It’s enough to make us lose hope, frankly. Why else would we choose to keep spending more and more to create that nostalgically perfect Christmas in the belief that it will bring us momentary if not lasting peace?
Pastor Lillian Daniel again: “This life is precious and unpredictable. It’s seasons are short. Let us not have it slip away, only to realize we spent it shopping. On this first Sunday of Advent, there is still time to wake up from that bad dream. There is still time to encounter instead the presence of Christ in our waking hours.”
It’s a question of how. How do we go about encountering the presence of God in our waking hours? Isaiah points to the potential way forward. “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter, we are all the work of your hand.” How do we become people who wake up and are filled with hope? We allow God to form us. To knead and mold us. To soften out the rough edges, and administer the fine detail. We open ourselves up to God’s healing touch to shape us into the people we are called to be.
Friends, so many voices are blaring at us during this season, and it is so easy to miss the most important one calling for us to wake up. To realize that this season is so much more than holiday shopping. That what we truly want when we arrive at the manger is not another sweater, but true and lasting peace—shalom, salaam—in our lives and in our world. As we prepare and wait during this Advent—as we pay attention—God can form us into the people we know we want to be. But it might mean going against the grain. It might mean buying less stuff, or making a larger donation to a worthy charity. It might mean taking a different path. But in the end we might just find what we’ve been longing for. May it be so.