The long and winding road
This is a slightly edited transcript of a sermon I gave on 5th December 2021. I was asked to preach on two long journeys that are referred to in Luke chapters 1 and 2. The first is Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem. The second is Elizabeth and Zechariah's journey to becoming the parents of John the Baptist. The Bible tells us that Elizabeth and Zechariah had no children and were so old that they were past the point of hope. Then Elizabeth became pregnant.
But [Zechariah and Elizabeth] had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Luke 2.4-5 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
I discovered advent in my late twenties. As a child, my teacher mother was so busy right up until schools broke up around the 20th December that we had a very short run-in to Christmas. Then, when I became a teacher myself, I fell into the same rhythm. In my late twenties, I started working for a church, where if you were starting the Christmas preparation in September, you were running late. I fell in love with Christmas, and particularly with Advent. The season of Advent is the period covering the four Sundays leading up to Christmas Day, during which time we prepare for the coming of Jesus as a baby born in Bethlehem. Initially, I loved Advent because of the excitement of the coming of Christmas and the fresh and deep meaning it had, now that I was a follower of Jesus. Then life became hard, and I discovered a whole new meaning to Advent. Because Advent is about waiting, and much of the past eight years of my life have been about waiting. I believe Advent can hold all our waiting. The Advent journey to Christmas mirrors all our journeys. Advent is an annual journey that reminds us of all the journeys we are still on.
Today I'm considering two long journeys. Mary and Joseph were on a literal journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a journey which would have taken at least four days, and possibly a fair bit longer. A very difficult journey for a heavily pregnant woman, whether they went on foot or on a donkey. And on a journey to becoming parents: the human parents of God made flesh. And Elizabeth and Zechariah were on such a very, very long journey of prayer. A journey that must have seemed eternal, without end. They were past the point of hope. Some of our journeys have definite ends. Bethlehem. The birth of a child. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s prayers were - eventually - answered. Some people’s prayers are not. Their waiting stretches into eternity, and they perhaps simply look forward to the time when they see God face to face and can ask why. Some journeys just go on and on and on. Sometimes it feels like we must wait forever. When I was reading all I could find about childlessness, I came across these words of Rosemary Morgan, commenting on her experience of infertility. She writes: 'We are not waiting any longer. Now we are fighting, mourning, seeking, longing. Waiting for a baby is what we used to do.' (Rosemary Morgan, Living with Infertility - a Christian Perspective, p. 14).
These words surely would have resonated with Elizabeth and Zechariah, and I suspect they have resonance far beyond people experiencing infertility. Some of our journeys go on and on. Maybe we seem to be going round and round in circles. Nietzsche said: ‘What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’ - except it isn’t true, is it? The things that don't kill us often weaken us, sometimes permanently. Many of you will be plodding along on journeys far more painful than mine, and perhaps without the prospect of a finish line or happy outcome. The Bible tells us that all of creation is groaning in pain (Romans 8.22-23). We are fighting, mourning, seeking, longing. Fighting systems of injustice. Fighting tears. Mourning loved ones. Mourning the way creation could have been, had we looked after it better. Seeking answers. Seeking healing. Longing for relief. Longing for Jesus. Advent holds our waiting. It holds all our fighting, our mourning, our seeking, our longing. The Advent journey to Christmas mirrors all our journeys.
A few Christmases ago, at my home church, we gave out the brilliant little book ‘Four Kinds of Christmas’ by the evangelist Glen Scrivener. Some of us may be excited about Christmas, he writes. Everything is happy and joyful. Life is good. That’s great… but when we fail to see the pain, we don’t get what Christ’s coming is all about.
Some of us are Scrooges, he explains. We see the pain… but we don’t see hope.
The consumer Christmas promises joy now: Buy! Buy! Buy! (and don’t think about the credit card bill coming in January). I don’t know about you, but I am finding myself quite sickened by the Christmas ads this year. They seem really inappropriate in the face of the poverty so many people have fallen into these past 18 months. And in the face of global poverty and vaccine inequality. And in the light of the climate crisis – buying more stuff feels wrong.
No, the promise of Christmas, Scrivener says, is that things are not all right now, but they will be.
If you are struggling this Advent,
if you are weary from the journey and longing to see an end in sight,
if the jollity just gets on your nerves, the TV ads seem inappropriate, and there isn’t much that is bringing you joy,
and maybe you sit in church wishing you were somewhere else,
but, you know, you felt you ought to come to a service.
Or you watch at home because you’re clinically vulnerable,
or understandably scared of the virus,
or just can’t stand to be around happy people…
If that’s you, then here’s the good news: ADVENT IS FOR YOU. You are the ones who really get Advent. You are the reason Jesus came.
Advent reminds us every year that it’s not alright now, but it will be. The annual journey to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem reminds us of the great sweep of salvation history that moves us all - mysteriously, slowly, in ways we can’t see, perhaps, but definitely - toward God’s promised and preferred future: the new heaven and the new earth. Advent reminds us that Jesus came to us, and he will come again. Now we see him through a glass, darkly: one day we will see him face to face.
A few months ago, I was talking with a good friend and colleague about the ways churches might develop resilience in the face of the stresses of the pandemic, and my friend went off into an unexpected rant. “I hate the word resilience,” he said. He went on to explain that resilience is about being able to put up with and get over the rubbish, rather than anyone actually doing anything to make it better. If we are resilient in the face of systems of injustice, he argued, then no one needs to change those unjust systems. The Christian faith is not simply a crutch that helps us put up with the rubbish of this life. Advent reminds us that God is coming and that God will make all things new. We can participate in the work of God - we can and must work for justice and peace for all people and for our planet - but we do this knowing that it is God’s work, which God will bring to completion, and that gives us the strength to join in. We do not simply put up with things, plodding along on the weary journey - it will be all right in the end.
And Advent reminds us that we are not alone on our weary journeys. Jesus came to be with us: Immanuel, God with us. Advent reminds us that our Immanuel keeps us company on the road. Jesus is both on his way, and here already by the Holy Spirit. In the beautiful words of Christina Rosetti: ’Our God, heaven could not hold him’. God could not be contained by heaven. God came to earth in Jesus. God would not leave us to suffer alone. And maybe sometimes we are aware of the presence of God, and at other times we feel like there’s no one out there. And it’s at those times that other people are so important, being Jesus for us and with us.
Last Advent, I was not in a good place. I came home one day and found a beautiful painted pebble on my front window ledge. It was very intricately painted: dark trees against a night sky with shining stars. It cheered me up a little, so I put it in my coat pocket and kept it there. A few days later, I found out who had left it there for me - it was a friend of mine. More days went by, and then I finally turned the stone over and discovered a message on the other side. It read: Don’t quit. And that was exactly what I needed to hear. I have kept the pebble in my coat pocket ever since.
I wonder: who is Jesus for you on your weary journey? For whom could you be Jesus this Advent?