My friend spent a semester at Cambridge University in England. During his time there, he received an invitation to a “fancy dress” party. Wanting to make a good impression, he went out and rented a tuxedo for the evening. Imagine his surprise when he arrived and was greeted at the door by Chewbacca from Star Wars, accompanied by what looked like either Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. Turns out that in British English, “fancy dress” equals “costume party” in American English. A fast thinker, he proclaimed himself “The Great Gatsby,” and all was well.
Those of us who follow the lectionary texts in our observation of Advent can sometimes feel like my friend. We look around at everyone else dressed in cheerful green and red, reveling in yuletide joy; then we look at ourselves, clad in solemn Advent blue or purple, meditating upon sin, death, the devil and the end of the world. And we wonder, “Am I in the right place?”
Well, yes—yes, we are. Too often we forget the why of Christ’s coming. We talk about a savior being born, but we forget to ask, “Hmm, what exactly is it we’re being saved from?” We proclaim that “peace on Earth” has come without reflecting too deeply on the fact that it was the war in our hearts, the war in our families, the war in our communities, the war in our country, the war in our world that created the need for the Prince of Peace to be born among us.
For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, the Nicene Creed says. Today’s lessons remind us of the reasons why. Jeremiah’s promises of a righteous branch from David, who will spring up bringing justice, righteousness and safety to Israel, Judah and Jerusalem, indicate that there was much injustice, evil and danger that needed divine intervention to be overcome. In Thessalonians, Paul feels it necessary to remind the early Christians that it is important to stay strong and strive for holiness while waiting for Christ. The most likely reason is there were, and are, many temptations and evils leading God’s people astray.
Our Gospel lesson is startling in its imagery of death and destruction. Sometimes such visions are merely metaphorical. At other times they can become frighteningly literal—as the people in eastern North Carolina, the Gulf Coast, Indonesia and California can attest after this year’s series of hurricanes, tsunamis and wildfires. At all times these visions remind us that life is tenuous and occasionally brutal amid all its beauty and joy. The promise of the gospel, the promise of a savior, the promise of Advent, is that no matter the circumstances we face, God has not forgotten us; God is not far off from us; God is Emmanuel, “God with us.”
Amen and amen.