What is the Advent Dream?

December 16, 2018
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Zephania 3:14-20; Luke 1:39-56

These days before Christmas have us in a peculiar place. We’re in the time of not yet, but almost. For people of faith that can be a spiritually fruitful time, a liminal period in which we learn the value of waiting.

Among the traditional seven virtues of Christian faith, the one that would most be needed in these weeks of waiting is patience. When that word is used in the biblical languages it’s sometimes rendered as fortitude or endurance. Those terms are good for this season, especially for Mary, who’s about to be a first-time mother.

Having never experienced pregnancy myself, but having observed it close at hand, it seems to have a few things in common with Advent. We know what’s coming, but it’s not here yet. We may wish to expedite the proceedings, but waiting really is our only option. Patience is required – not to mention endurance and fortitude.

Mary shows those strengths again and again – from enduring the public shame that nearly causes Joseph to end their relationship, to having the fortitude to travel in her ninth month from Nazareth to Bethlehem, to suffering through the difficulty of finding a place to give birth to her child.

The patience of Mary is the patience of Advent.

The prophets of old were stuck in a kind of perpetual Advent of their own. They were forced to be patient. They knew one day the world would turn toward the future intended by God, but they had no control over the timing. That did not mean, however, they were passive in their waiting. They used the time fruitfully. They used it to dream, to dream of the dawn that would “break forth from on high.”

This is the prophet Zephaniah’s Advent dream: “On that day,” God says through the prophet,

“I will remove disaster from you, I will deal with all your oppressors at that time, and I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise. At that time I will bring you home.” (Zephaniah 3:19-20)

At that time I will bring you home.

Surely that same dream is shared in our time by the vast numbers of people on the move across the planet. There are more than 60 million of them, displaced by violence and war and ecological disaster. If they were all in one place they’d be the 21st most populous nation on earth. It’s as if they’ve all stepped into a continuous Advent journey, suspended in the time that is not yet, not sure where the future will take them.

We forget that the first place refugees and asylum seekers and displaced people want to go is not across a border to an unknown land, but, rather, to go home – if they could only live in peace.

“How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” the Hebrew people ask during their Advent exile in Babylon, as they waited to go home.

At that time, God says, I will gather the outcast and change their shame into praise.

The patience of Advent fuels the imagination of our hearts, and Mary’s, as well. She sounds like an ancient prophet herself, fully embracing the waiting season, the dreaming time into which she moves.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” she says, and then she dreams aloud of what the fullness of time will bring…

“God will scatter the proud…
God will bring down the powerful from their thrones,
and lift up the lowly;
God will fill the hungry with good things,
and send the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51a-53)

Her Advent dream is of a great reversal, a turning of history from the distortions of injustice and inequity to a world in balance. Her dream, like the prophet’s, is an Advent dream for our time, as well…when the human family would no longer be divided into those who have and those who do not; when all children would be cared for; when strangers would be welcomed.

At that time, God declares, I will bring you home.

Of course, not everyone wants to go home. Some homes are places to be avoided. Some families are wracked with fear and anger. Love is absent from some homes, and there’s been no joy in them for a long time.

That’s why we need the prophet’s dream, Mary’s dream, the Advent dream: to help us look beyond the pain of the present. All that’s wrong in the world will not suddenly be resolved on Christmas, but the dream of this season moves us beyond the world as it is, and beyond our lives, as they are, and invites us to imagine what God intends for us. Our task is to keep the Advent dream alive.

Like the prophets, the Church also lives in a perpetual Advent – in the waiting time, the dreaming time, in which we refuse to be defeated by that which presses in on us, whatever that might be.

In its first centuries, the Church faced enormous obstacles. Those who followed Jesus were persecuted. People often had to worship in secret. In some places, they risked being killed for living their faith.

Against those enormous odds, however, somehow the Church grew. Why Christian faith spread in its earliest days has confounded scholars

I’ve been reading Alan Kreider’s book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. The author analyzes “the improbable rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire.”

I’m not reading merely to satisfy historical curiosity; mostly I’m looking for hints about the church in our time. We also face obstacles. Widespread cultural indifference and skepticism toward religion –sometimes even outright hostility – threaten the vitality of communities of faith. Westminster is not immune to these realities. The front page of the Star Tribune this morning features the serious challenges facing Christianity today. Many of you know that we just spent six years expanding our space. But as I’ve said to our staff team and lay leaders many times, nor the really difficult work begins: living into the vision God has for this community for years to come.

Kreider concludes that the spiritual habit of patience cultivated by the followers of Jesus made for a slow ferment in the ancient Mediterranean world. It might help us, too. They quietly practiced their faith and pursued the teachings of Jesus. By their patient, counter-cultural witness the church took root.

It’s as if they understood themselves always to be walking with Mary and the prophets of old through Advent, humming a song of hope under their breath. Never letting go of the promise. Never giving up their trust that they were not walking alone. Never forgetting their dream of a world where the light of God would shine unhindered.

Maybe we have something to learn from them. They quietly lived in the way of Jesus, steadfastly counting on God to bring them home.

These days before Christmas – and in this age, in general – we find ourselves in a peculiar place. We’re in the time of not yet, but we are on the way. That may be true for a long, long stretch, perhaps even for ages to come.

This morning we will baptize two children into the time of not yet, into the possibilities of this moment when the glory of the Lord is about to be revealed.

In the meantime, what is our Advent dream?

Can it be that the patient ferment of God’s love and justice might live in us and through us, as they did in Mary?

If we wait long enough, as she did, that dream itself will become the Christmas story, and the great turning of history will happen.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Pastoral Prayer ~10:30 am Worship

David Shinn

Please join your hearts with mine as we pray together…

O Mighty God, our souls echo with Mary to magnify you, and our spirits rejoice for your saving acts. You chose Mary to be your vessel to bring forth your love incarnate in Jesus the Christ child for the world. With a young and unknown woman, you brought down the proud and mighty, and you lift up all in need with your mercy and grace.

God of dream and vision, we pray, through your angels and prophets, mother beyond childbearing age and young mother just starting a new beginning, you speak and transform all hearts to your vision of peace, and dream of goodwill for all people. We come this day in worship to offer our thanksgiving and praise to you O God for reshaping us to your way.

With the candle of Joy that we light this day, we are one step closer to your birth, and the brightness of your light is getting stronger. We thank you for the hope and peace we hold in our hearts. We thank you for your dream and vision that form, reform, and transform us.

As we draw near to you O God, we pray you will incline your ears to us. We pray and seek for you to move in our midst and intercede for us with sighs too deep for words. Your love will remove all hate, you strength will fill us up, and your hope conquer despair.

O Lord, be with all in our community this day whose hearts are grieving for the death of their loved ones. Especially in this season of cheers and feasts, our hearts ache for our loved ones who are not with us.

For all who are seeking health and restoration of their bodies and spirits, we pray for your healing presence.

For all in our community who are receiving chemo and cancer-related treatments, we pray for your strength to sustain all who are facing treatment and their family who are support them.

We rejoice O God with new families in our community.

O Lord, let your dream of a world without enmity and strife be our vision. Until that day comes, lead us to be patient in our faith and serve you and your people. We pray this day for migrants, refugees and victims of violence. May we see our common humanity in them and be kind and gentle to serve them.

God, fill us with your joy. Guide our faith to be patient in fermenting as we serve to turn the world’s order to God’s order of harmony and peace.

And now, let us join our voices together as we pray the prayer Jesus taught us all to pray…Our Father…

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