Oh, the weather outside is frightful,
But the fire is so delightful;
And since we’ve no place to go,
Let is snow, let it snow, let it snow.
But it doesn’t snow in Yuma. Ever. Except once, in December, 1932. So, we change the lyrics:
Oh, the weather outside is frightful,
But your lips are so delightful;
And since marriage is such bliss,
Let us kiss, let us kiss, let us kiss.
Whatever the case—whether we’re carefree in front of a fire or sharing a blissful moment with a loved one—’tis the season, yeah?
Shiny toys line the aisles of local stores; seasonal specials advertise themselves from flashy, attention-grabbing signs; and catchy tunes piped through unseen speakers get us tapping our feet and daydreaming of sugar plums.
Holiday cheer envelopes us. We lose ourselves in the carefree, blissful nature of it all.
But then we come to church. And we hear today’s Gospel.
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And we scratch our heads.
Why, we wonder, is the holiday cheer all around us so carefree and blissful; yet the Church’s message of Advent is so doomy and gloomy? I mean—I don’t know about you, but—if I had the choice I think I’d rather be out with the carefree and blissful bunch than in here.
Many of you know that as a boy my parents divorced.
I was on the cusp of thirteen years old, just about to finish seventh grade, when I heard my older brother upstairs crying. He wasn’t one to cry typically, so I ran up to see what was the matter. And there he stood with my mom, who had just told him—I was about to learn—that she and my dad were separating. They got along fine, sure; they just didn’t have much in common anymore.
For the next few years, all became doom and gloom for me. I stopped running with the track team. I stopped taking piano lessons. I started listening to Pink Floyd. A lot of Pink Floyd! Life seemed desperate.
Then I learned of a group meeting on my high school campus for Bible study. Maybe I’d find some answers here, I thought. So I began attending. And, yes, here were some answers. In fact—the leaders encouraged me—here were all the answers I needed. The Bible, they said, the B-I-B-L-E: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.
Now all became clear. It was all black and white, right here before my eyes. And whatever questions the Bible didn’t address—well, if they weren’t good enough for Jesus then they weren’t good enough for me.
Life might be messy, but here I’d found my holiday cheer. I could walk down the aisles of life tapping my feet to piped in music and otherwise telling myself that all was carefree bliss.
But as I grew in my faith I began to understand that the Christian life isn’t all carefree bliss. Marriage isn’t all about sitting on the couch and losing oneself in the kisses of another. Relationships aren’t all shiny and catchy and sugar plums and holiday cheer. Sometimes disagreements surface. Sometimes disagreements and differences become irreconcilable. Differences between Christians! Christians, who both love and serve God and desire to glorify Christ in all they do!
Was it all therefore a sham, I wondered, some sophisticated Santa story to dupe the world into believing an unrealistic ideal; when really, deep down, we all knew—all the grownups knew at any rate—that really there is no such ideal? Not in this life, anyway? That the world is all just going to burn up someday? That it’s all just gloom and doom, so what’s the use?
So: Good grief! What’s the real Advent story? Is it carefree bliss or doom and gloom?
The Advent story—especially in this first week of Advent, when Christ the King Sunday is still fresh in our memories—looks to Christ’s comings. Yes, comings, I said: in the plural. Meaning both of them. During Advent, we look back to his birth; but also ahead to his second coming. And thus we live in a tense contrast between cheer and gloom.
Cheer: so we shop and laugh and tap our feet to catchy tunes and sip hot chocolate with friends and decorate our homes.
And gloom: we go to church and hear of apocalyptic portents that will come upon the world and all creation: no one—not a star, planet, person, tree, or insect—will escape.
Advent is a time of tension.
By the way, we see just this contrast in various Christian churches and denominations.
Some churches focus almost exclusively on Christ’s first coming, his birth, his Incarnation. These churches are generally optimistic in their overall outlook. They see their calling as making the present world a better place. And so they go out into the world—whether through outreach or evangelism—with ready answers. Jesus is all the world really needs, they reason; and so, like Bob the Builder, they ask, “Can we fix it?” and they answer themselves, “Yes, we can!”
Other churches focus excessively on Christ’s second coming, when this age we know will come to an end. It’s going to end, they say; and there’s not much we can do about it. What we can do is make sure our individual walks with Christ are up to par. And so these churches tend to focus more on individual discipleship. Instead of going out into the world, the church becomes a haven of rest, or shelter, from the world. These churches are generally pessimistic in their overall outlook.
But—hold the phone!—it’s not so clear as all that. It’s not so black and white. It’s not either holiday cheer or doom and gloom. Advent reminds us of this. In Advent, we are living in a very real tension between the two.
When we look at the Advent story closely, we see that Jesus’ comings are not so much about either cheer or gloom as they are, collectively, about hope.
As followers of Jesus Christ, hope is our reason to rejoice despite the truth that we live in a world that’s falling apart.
No one said the Christian life would be easy.
That was my mistake. As a recent convert, I thought everything was crystal clear. Jesus gave me all the answers I needed, right? The other questions weren’t worth asking. I had the Bible. What else did I need?
And so I set out with my church to change the world. We had all the answers we needed; so should the world. We were determined to fix everything.
But as time went on this thinking discouraged the dickens out of me. I was confronted by some of life’s messy realities. Answers weren’t easy to come by. Sometimes, no answers were available at all.
So I flip-flopped: I lost all idealism in the present and placed it only in the future and joined a church which believed and taught the same. This world would all burn someday and Jesus would return to rapture all his faithful followers away with a trumpet blast. And the sooner the better, as far as we were concerned! We were walking with Jesus. That was all that mattered.
But there is a middle way—a way between the first and second advents of Jesus Christ, a way between idealistic cheer and excessive gloom. That middle way is hope.
Hope is about addressing fears and ideals in context, without focusing too much on one or the other. Hope looks both ways—both going out into the world to share the good news and deeds of Jesus Christ; and engaging in personal spiritual disciplines, in growth as disciples. Unlike idealistic cheer and excessive gloom, hope is authentic.
But it is all rather grayer than black and white.
Life is messy. Following Christ doesn’t give us all the answers. But we do have hope.
That’s what Advent shows us.