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A Sermon by Mark D. Roberts

"The Heart of Advent "

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts          December 5, 2004

Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church

Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this sermon at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at mark@markdroberts.com . Thank you.  

Scripture Reading: Psalm 130:1-8

1    Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
2         Lord, hear my voice!
     Let your ears be attentive
          to the voice of my supplications!
3    If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
          Lord, who could stand?
4    But there is forgiveness with you,
          so that you may be revered.
5    I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
          and in his word I hope;
6    my soul waits for the Lord
          more than those who watch for the morning,
          more than those who watch for the morning.
7    O Israel, hope in the LORD!
          For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
          and with him is great power to redeem.
8    It is he who will redeem Israel
          from all its iniquities.

Advent Calendars

     Growing up, I knew the word "Advent" in one context: Advent calendars. Every year when I was young, my parents would give me an Advent calendar: an elaborate picture of some winter scene, perhaps a quaint European village, complete with glitter for snow. What made this picture really special was the fact that it contained twenty-five hidden windows, each one numbered from one to twenty-five. Behind these windows were little drawings of things we associate with Christmas: bells, candy canes, holly, angels, shepherds, and so forth. According to the rules of the Advent calendar, I could open one window each day of December, beginning with window #1 on December 1st. As December proceeded, and more windows were opened, my excitement for Christmas increased. I knew it was coming soon! Of course my favorite Advent calendar moment happened on Christmas morning when I was finally able to open window #25. Inevitably it revealed a tiny nativity scene. Jesus was born! It was Christmas at last!

     Sometime in my teenage years my notion of Advent was expanded. My church started using an Advent wreath to focus the congregation's attention upon the coming of the Christ Child. Much like the wreath we use in this church, the one at Hollywood Pres contained five candles, four embedded in the greenery and one in the center. During each of the Sundays in December the pastor would light one of the outside candles, relating each candle to some aspect of the Christmas spirit, including hope, love, joy, peace, etc. Like the Advent calendars of my childhood, the liturgical Advent wreath kindled my excitement for the coming of Christ. I looked forward to Christmas Eve, when our pastor would finally light the center candle, the Christ candle, signifying the birth of the Savior.

     It wasn't until I was preparing for my ordination exams that I came to learn more about Advent. Advent wasn't just about paper calendars and candle-filled wreaths. In fact Advent was a season of the Christian year, a time of intentional preparation for a deeper and richer celebration of Christmas. Many Christians, even Presbyterians, I discovered, viewed Advent as a holy season, not so much a time for parties and Christmas shopping as a time for spiritual devotion. Some even considered it to be a time for fasting, not feasting. All of this impressed me, but didn't make too much difference in my life because Advent didn't receive too much attention at Hollywood Pres, where I worked on the staff during the 1980's.

     But then I came to Irvine Presbyterian Church in 1991. For the first time I was part of a church that had a history of honoring Advent. Beyond using the Advent wreath, this church saw the weeks prior to Christmas as an occasion to prepare hearts for the birth of Jesus. Our music director at the time, Loren Wiebe, told me that he strongly preferred not to sing Christmas carols before Christmas Eve, though he usually gave in to popular demand and allowed for carol singing on the Sunday prior to Christmas. Even Lessons and Carols, you may recall if you were a part of this church in the early 90's, used very few if any songs we generally associate with Christmas.

     Now that's not to say we got to sing Christmas carols only one day a year. Loren led us in the Christian tradition of viewing Christmas as a twelve-day season. We'd sing carols for at least one more Sunday after Christmas, and usually two. Yet, I soon learned a couple of things about Loren's "no-Christmas-carols-before-Christmas Eve" rule. First, I found out that it was not unique, but was in fact commonly practiced among highly liturgical churches. Second, I ascertained that it was pretty unpopular in this church. Most of us were just fine with the main themes of Advent, but as we moved into the middle of December, we wanted to sing some familiar Christmas carols and were pretty cranky if we didn't get to. So, in time, we found a compromise that seemed to work for most people. On the first week of Advent we sang Advent hymns only, such as "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus." But as we moved worshipfully through the four weeks of Advent, we introduced more carols each week. The frequency of carol usage became a kind of musical Advent calendar: the closer to Christmas, the more carols.

     During the last thirteen years I've learned quite a bit about Advent, not just about its traditions, but about its deeper meaning. I've come to understand and to treasure the heart of Advent, and it's that heart I want to share with you today.

The Heart of Advent in Psalm 130

     In preparation for this sermon I asked myself a simple question: Which Psalm best epitomizes the heart of Advent? After some exploration, I came upon a clear answer: Psalm 130. No Psalm does a better job expressing the inner spirit of Advent. In fact, no chapter in the whole Bible is more thoroughly an "Advent-chapter."

     Psalm 130 begins with a cry for mercy. The psalmist - we don't know who actually wrote this psalm - calls out to God from "the depths," from a place of deep despair and desperation. Though we aren't sure of the precise nature of his problem, it is obviously connected to some grievous sin he has committed. As verse 3 says, "If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, who could stand?" The psalmist yearns for deliverance in general, and more specifically for forgiveness. He needs to be set free from the dire results of his rebellion against God.

     Here we find in the life of one individual the story of Israel before Christ. Though called out and blessed by God, and though bound to God through a divinely-wrought covenant, Israel rebelled against the Lord time and again. Finally, after centuries of mercy, God judged and punished his people. The nation of Israel was obliterated and the chosen people were placed under bondage to foreign despots. Yet, through the prophets, God let his people know that he hadn't given up on them forever. One day in the future he would come to save them. He would forgive their sins. He would redeem them from their iniquities. And he would reestablish his kingdom in Israel. For centuries before Christ until the time of his birth, the Israelites yearned for God to fulfill his promise. They ached for him to come, so that he might forgive and redeem them. They waited for God to act. And they waited. And waited. And waited.

     Likewise with the author of Psalm 130. As he cries out from the depths of his sinfulness, he knows that God will forgive him. So he waits. As it says in verses 5-6:

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
     and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
     more than those who watch for the morning,
     more than those who watch for the morning.

This is not casual waiting, but intensive expectation. The psalmist yearns and aches for God. He craves the forgiveness and redemption that God alone can give. His waiting dominates his consciousness, much as the watchmen who focus their attention on the coming dawn and the security afforded by daylight.

     Yet notice one added dimension in the psalmist's waiting. He says, "I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope" (v. 5). He waits, not only with eagerness, but also with hope. He waits, knowing that the God who forgives and redeems, the LORD of steadfast love and power, will reach out to him in God's own time. The psalmist's waiting, like the waiting of Israel for salvation, is hopeful . . . literally. It is full of hope.

     Do you understand the difference between hopeful and hopeless waiting? I imagine that many of you do. Hopeless waiting happens when we realize that our heart's desire will probably never occur. It's the waiting of a couple who receive the sad news that they are medically infertile. Or it's the waiting of a husband for reconciliation with his estranged wife when he finally recognizes that this reconciliation is never going to come. Hopeless waiting is mingled with discouragement, despair, and often depression.

     Hopeful waiting, on the other hand, always has a tinge of joy. It anticipates with confidence the fulfillment of hope. If you've ever been pregnant in the ninth month, or been married to someone who was, you've experienced hopeful waiting. Of if you've been engaged, you can remember the hopeful waiting prior to the wedding.

     This is like the hopeful waiting of Psalm 130. And it's the hopeful waiting of Advent. It's the hope of Israel waiting for God to fulfill his promises of a messianic deliverer. It's the hope of the church as we wait for the return of Christ, when he will make all things new as he has promised.

Living With Hopeful Waiting

     When you wait with hope, you find strength to live each day. You are able to see life's challenges and discouragements in broader perspective. Your life is infused with transformational hope that empowers you to live with greater meaning and energy every day.

     When I first came to this church in 1991, I experienced both kinds of waiting - hopeful and hopeless. My two greatest challenges, apart from learning to pastor this church, were finishing my Ph.D. dissertation and trying to have a child with my wife Linda. As I was waiting to finish my dissertation I felt hope, because my advisor had given me an official "thumbs up" about my progress. I still had to do lots of writing and editing, and lots more waiting for the academic machinery at Harvard to spit me out. But I felt fairly certain that, in time, I would finish my degree, something I had been working on for twelve years. So my waiting was truly hopeful.

     In 1992, as the month of April drew near, this waiting seemed near to the end. I was going back to Massachusetts at the end of the month to defend my dissertation before a committee of four professors. If I could make an acceptable oral defense, then my thesis would be approved and I'd graduate in June. I felt nervous about this last step, partly because I'd never met the majority of my committee. But I still felt hopeful in my waiting, believing that my 12-year wait would soon be over.

     Not so with my desire for Linda to get pregnant, however. By the time I arrived at IPC, we'd been waiting to have a baby for four years. In the previous year we'd sought out significant medical assistance, but even that didn't work. Once we had moved to Orange County we started again with a new doctor, but his expertise didn't help either. By April of 1992 we were facing terribly difficult choices for how we would deal with our infertility. If Linda didn't get pregnant in April, then we'd have to step up to a whole new level of medical intervention, something both very expensive and very invasive, or we'd be forced to accept the likelihood that we'd never bear children of our own. As I had done for years, I was waiting to have a baby. But by that time my waiting was mostly without hope.

     Two days before I was due to fly to Harvard for my oral examination, Linda took her routine pregnancy test. I expected that it would come back, as it always had before, negative. No baby. No hope. But this time the result was astonishingly different. Linda's home pregnancy test came back with an unbelievable plus sign. And our doctor confirmed the results. She was finally pregnant. For the first time in years I felt hope for our childbearing. Though well aware of the danger of miscarriage, nevertheless my waiting for a baby was transformed in one day from hopeless into magnificently hopeful waiting.

     This completely changed the way I experienced life, including my oral defense of my dissertation. As I sat before my judges only three days after receiving Linda's good news, I felt nervous, to be sure. But I also felt pervasive joy. What I wanted more than anything in this life - to have a baby - was now going to happen. If I had to choose between baby or dissertation, I would have taken baby hands down. So I went through the ordeal of my thesis defense, not in fear and trembling, but with a strange sense of calm and confidence. Hopeful waiting . . . it made all the difference in the world.

     Sisters and brothers, this is how life should be for you and me all the time, but especially in the season of Advent. We can live with the assurance that our lives are in the strong hands of God. Even when we face overwhelming challenges, we know God will be there for us. And we know that, in the end, the good guys will win. God will renew heaven and earth. Justice will triumph over evil. Broken bodies will be healed. Mourning will be turned into everlasting joy. And we will live in the fullness and richness of life as it was meant to be.

     Though we are waiting for Christ to return, we wait with confident hope, and this makes all the difference in the world. It gives us strength to live each day. It gives us the freedom to mourn freely now, knowing that one day we will fully rejoice. And even in our grief today, there is a tinge of joy because we know how the story will end.

     In a world so bogged down with despair, Christians are people of unusual hope. Our hope isn't that earthly circumstances will always turn out for the best. They won't. Yet our hope transcends this earth. And this hope - hope in the Lord of steadfast love - will never disappoint us. So we wait, but with hope.

Yearning for God

     In Advent we get in touch with our waiting for God. Yet this is also a season to reawaken our yearning for God right now. In Advent we remember that we were created for eternity and we wait hopefully for that eternity. But we also sense our desperate need for God in this moment.

     Advent is a time to remember our neediness before God. Don't you long for more of God in your life? For more of his peace? For the experience of forgiveness? For cleansing? For healing? For deliverance? Advent is a season to get in touch with how much you need God in your life. In Advent we pray: "Lord, help me. I can't make it without you." Or, perhaps, "Gracious God, bring my son back into fellowship with you." Or, maybe, "Mend my broken marriage." Or "Heal my wounded body." Or "Help me to discover my purpose for living." Or . . . you fill in the blanks with your need for God.

     My prayer, dear friends, is that in this season of Advent, each and every one of us will discover what my former pastor and mentor Lloyd Ogilvie used to say: "We have a great need for God, and a great God for our need." I pray that you will sense in a new way how much you need God in your life, and that God will meet you in your place of deepest need.

     The good news of Advent is that it ends with Christmas, with God entering our lives as a human being. This God, who came to save all humankind, also reaches out to bring wholeness to you and me even now.

Advent Communion

     I know we tend to associate Communion with Holy Week, especially Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Indeed, at this table we remember Jesus's death for us.

     But Communion is also an Advent sacrament. Remember what Jesus said at the Last Supper: "I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom" (Matt 26:29). At this table we look back to Jesus's death for us. But we also look forward to that time when we will share this meal with him. Thus as we sup together, we also wait together. Yet we wait in hope, knowing that in the Cross Christ defeated the power of sin and death. The time will come when we will be with him and with his people forever in the renewed creation. For this we wait hopefully. And because of this hope we are empowered to live more fully each and every day.