Advent: waiting and preparation

Advent: A Time Of Waiting And Preparation.  A sermon by Rev. David M Bryce

Note: this is the version of the sermon as preached at 9:00 am on December 8, 2013.  A shorter version was preached at the 10:30 am music service on that same date.

Second Note: In preaching this sermon, I attributed the ending quote to Nelson Mandela.  It seems this was incorrect.  The quote appears to have been written by author Marianne Williamson.  I apologize for the mis-attribution.

I extend my thanks this morning to Parrish Dobson who is the Worship Assistant who helped me to develop this service, and ML Landfried who volunteered to play the music.

I want to mention in passing that in some schools of the Buddhist tradition today, December 8, is celebrated as Rohatsu or Bohdi Day, the Day that Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and swore to remain there until he achieved enlightenment, which he did.  That is a grand story, a story of planting one’s self and yet of transcending attachment.  That is a topic for another day.

I begin this morning by reminding you that during the time of the great cycle of midwinter holidays, during Hanukkah and Christmas, Solstice and Yule, I am a believer.  I believe absolutely in miracle and wonder.  I strive to do so during the rest of the year as well, but it is easier in this season.  I believe absolutely in the one day of oil that lasted for eight days, I believe in angels and in talking animals, I believe in stars and sacred births, I believe in bringers of gifts and snow men who come to life; and more importantly, I believe that peace and good will are not only possible but inevitable.  It is from that place of belief that I read the stories of this season.

The music this morning at the 10:30 service will be the Magnificat by Vivaldi.  The Magnificat is the title given to the words of Mary after her relative Elizabeth calls Mary “the mother of my Lord”.  Magnificat is the opening word of the Latin translation of Mary’s words.

Mary’s words begin, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has looked with favor upon his lowly handmaid”.

The story of Advent is in many ways the story of pregnancy.  It is more than that, of course, because it is the story of the world waiting for a change.  But in its simplest and most intimate sense, it is the story of a couple and of the impending birth of their child.  That is part of what is so touching about the story; it is part of what touches the human heart when the story is heard.

Mary is a young woman–twelve, thirteen or fourteen…so we would say she is just a child.

And so Mary, this child, is waiting to be a parent.

There are things one can do when waiting to be a parent, things one can do to prepare for the child.  We can be sure that the needed clothing is ready, that a place for the child to sleep is ready, things of that sort.

But there is also an inner preparation that is needed—and that we may not be capable of ensuring.

I have been watching the coverage of the reaction to the death of Nelson Mandela, and one of the common statements is, “We knew this day was coming, but we were still not prepared for it”.

My father died fourteen years ago on December 5, 1999.  I had known for months that his death was imminent, that he would not survive the winter.  He had an illness in which he was still present: his body was worn and he was tired, but his personality still largely intact.  I had thought that I had prepared myself for his death.  But I had not, because there was no way to do so.  I had to experience the loss in the moment and learn in the moment what such loss was.

The same is true, though in a very different way, for children entering our lives.

I was thirty two years old when my daughter was born (which will be her age in just one week), and truth be told I was not yet ready to be a parent.  If Mary is just thirteen years old or so, is just a child herself, then how can she possibly be ready to be a parent?

Well, she has nine months to prepare, does she not?  And surely that is enough time to learn all one needs to know about parenting.

The truth for many of us—and also for our children—is that we learn to be a parent by doing, and some of us are slower learners than others.

But most of us are not ready to be parents until we have been parents.  We can read books, we can talk with friends, we can talk with people who themselves are parents, we can take parenting courses—and when the time comes we face the truth that is taught so well in the Zen tradition, that when it comes to many things, including parenting, even though acts of preparation may help, it is only in the moment that we truly learn and it is only in the moment that we truly become.  To think that one can read a book on Zen and know Zen is false; to think that one can read a book on parenting and know parenting is just as false.

All of the preparation in the world does not make most of us “ready” to be a parent.

Some are blessed with an innate ability and seem to just flow into the role.  But for many of us it takes a bit of on the job training.

Now this is a bit of an odd thing for me to be saying, because in all of my previous Advent sermons here I have spoken of using Advent as a time of preparation, a time for getting ourselves spiritually ready for the birth of hope, of light in the darkness and of peace both in the world and within our spirits.  And now I am indicating that we fool ourselves if we think we can really prepare for at least certain life events.

That sounds like a contradiction.

I never contradict myself.  I merely expand upon what I have previously said.

I did say that we can prepare things like clothing and a place to sleep.

We can also learn some basics.  How do you hold a baby?  How do you feed it?  How often?  When do you put them to bed for a nap?  When do you give a baby solid food?  If you have clothing for it, how do you put clothing on this tiny little thing?

We can learn all of that kind of thing ahead of time, but even then babies have a way of deciding that none of that will hold true, that they do not like being held the way you are holding them, that they are not on your schedule of feeding them, that they are not ready for a nap right now.

So it is good to have the book knowledge, good to know these things, better to know them than not; but it is also good to know that we will sometimes have to go with whatever it is that presents itself even if that is not in the book we read.

Well that is awfully scary.

It is a matter of living with uncertainty, and living with uncertainty is problematic for some of us.  Tell me that the steps are a, b, c and d and I am fine.  Tell me that sometimes one begins with a, but sometimes one begins with d and sometimes that happens before b but it might happen before h and I am really going to be off kilter.

And so far we are talking about the easy things, how to hold a baby, how to feed a baby, how to dress a baby.

What do I do when my baby gets sick?

What do I do if my baby is now a teenager and is facing social problems in school?

What do I do if my child has an eating disorder or a mental illness?

The truth is that life is more likely to be a jumble than a smooth set of steps.

I have been focusing on raising children because that idea factors into the Christmas story so importantly, but this is not just about pregnancy and child birth.  In our lives thee are times of challenge and preparation, times of standing on the threshold of new beginnings with fear and trepidation, perhaps trepidation mixed with excitement, but trepidation all the same.  And life can sometimes be very scary, we can be deeply nervous and we can doubt our own abilities.

In the books of Matthew and Luke, angels appear to the various people in the story of the birth of Jesus and their message always begins the same way.  In Mathew an angel appears to Joseph and says, “Do not be afraid”; in Luke the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah and later to Mary and say to each of them, “Do not be afraid”.  And an angel appears to shepherds in the field and says, “Do not be afraid”.  The same message, “Do not be afraid”.

One of the important things for us to know in life is that much of what we fear is based in self doubt.  It is healthy to have a sense of one’s genuine abilities and to have an understanding of our own strength and our growing edges.  But it is also important to know that there are some things we will never be prepared for unless and until we take them on, and then we will grow into them.

Whether it is parenting or marrying or taking on a new job or pulling up stakes and moving across the country—or out of the country–to a new town or a new life, there are things we will never be fully prepared for but can and will grow into.

So part of the message of Advent for me is that although I am imperfect, I am enough; I am sufficient.  If I strive, if I do my best, then despite my imperfections, and despite the things that I do wrong—and I will do some wrong–that will still be good enough.

A second part of the message is summed up in the name the angel calls the child, Jesus–Emmanuel: God is with us.

The claim of the story is that God is with his people, that god is with Mary, a self described “lowly handmaid”, and that God is with you as well.

Whatever our personal theology may be, whether we are ardent theist or ardent atheist, the message here is to trust, to have faith, and to believe that there is that in the universe that works for good including for us.  Call it God or fate or the flow of love, if we strive hard and do our best then we can trust that all will be well.

Christmas is about the birth Jesus, that Jesus who is the son of God and for some is God incarnate.  So Advent is also, in part a time of preparation for meeting the divine, for allowing and welcoming the divine into our word and into our lives.  And it is right to prepare as we can for that great event.  But for those of us who are preparing to enter into relationship with the divine—whatever that word may mean for you–it is best to know that we can prepare all we want to, but that the reports of those who have encountered the divine previously are that it is vastly different than they expected or could have known.

There is no book–not the Torah, not the Bible, not the Qur’an, not the Upanishads, not any other–which can fully prepare us for the encounter with the divine because there are some things which we only learn by experiencing them.  In the Bible story of Jesus, none were truly prepared for who Jesus was or what his message would be.  Not Herod and the leaders of Israel; not the people of Israel; not even the disciples themselves.  Throughout the ministry of Jesus they experienced an ongoing unfolding of his message and his meaning.

But an important part of the message of the story is that though we may never be fully prepared for that encounter, if we strive and do our best, then that will be enough.  Because the Christian message is that God loves us.  We are enough, I am enough, you are enough and whatever happens, God is with us and God loves us.

I close this morning with a quote from Nelson Mandela which speaks to that sense of fear we often experience in life:  (Again, this quote appers to actually be by author Marianne Williamson.)

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us: it’s in everyone.

And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”  Nelson Mandela