Sixteen years ago this coming New Year’s Eve my partner Brenda finally went into labour in preparation for the delivery of our firstborn son. She laboured all weekend long and I started to get worried that she was going to be too exhausted to actually deliver the baby when the time came. Late in the evening of January 1st our doula looked at me and said “You’d better go to bed and get some sleep. You’re going to need your rest for tomorrow night.” “Tomorrow night?” I asked “ You think she’s still going to be in labour tomorrow night?” “No” she calmly replied “I think the baby will be here by tomorrow night and you are going to need your energy to take care of him.”
The season of Advent, which is made up of the four Sundays that lead into the celebration of Jesus’ birth, is a time the church in its wisdom has set aside for us to prepare not only to observe an event that took place over two thousand years ago, it’s time for us to prepare to receive the new life God is bringing about in us and in our world in the here and now. It may seem there’s nothing new God is doing in this season because we celebrate the birth of the infant Jesus, like clockwork, every year at this time but it is a new thing because you and I are not the same people we were a year ago and heaven knows our world is not the same as it was a year ago this time (even if there are some aspects of Christmas 2021 that look a whole lot like Christmas 2020.) But God is doing a new thing because that is the nature of God. God is always bringing to birth new life in our world. God is always incarnating, Spirit becoming flesh and God is often doing that in the most unlikely places and in the most unlikely ways.
But part of me is wondering this year if we actually have the energy to welcome and receive this new life because I look around me and mostly what I see and feel is exhaustion.
I can’t tell you how many people have said to me in the last week or so “how can it possibly be time for Advent already? Compare this to last year when we were in lock down and we were so desperate for a little comfort and joy we were ready to deck the halls as soon as we turned back the clocks at the beginning of November.
So what’s so different this year? In general, I think we are just plain worn out not only by the pandemic but by the way that global warming is impacting our province. We’re weary of the what we know is the long road ahead when it comes to righting systemic wrongs. Some of us have been labouring a long time to bring about meaningful change in our world and sometimes it feels like our dreams just keep getting stuck in the birth canal. Many of us are worn out because even though we told ourselves we weren’t going to do this in a post-pandemic world, we have over extended ourselves and filled our calendars with too many things yet again this fall. Some of us are bone tired because we have sustained losses that have not been able to fully grieve or because in addition to everything else impacting us, we or our loved ones are experiencing health challenges.
I am both seeing and sensing a collective exhaustion in this time. So it’s possible that as we arrive at this first Sunday in Advent, many of us aren’t feeling the anticipation of new life yet to come, as much as we are dreading another new situation to address or a new thing to worry about. Some of us may be just plain doubtful that anything new is going to emerge in us or in our world anytime soon because it seems like we are still in an extended period of dismantling.
This is where the voice of the prophets of ancient Israel are helpful because prophets are people who stand in our midst when there is little hope to be found and they say to us, in no uncertain terms, a new thing is coming. In the words of the prophet Jeremiah that we heard today they say the time is coming when God’s gracious promise is going to be fulfilled. Prophets are people who have eyes to see what we cannot always see and part of what they can see is that former things are coming to an end. They are the ones who say that the old stories we have been telling and living need to make way, to make room for a new story. If ever our world was in need a new story, surely this is one of those times.
As much as it is anything, the season of advent is a time for making room for new stories. I wonder on this first Sunday of Advent, if we don’t feel like we have the energy to embrace or to welcome the new or if we are feeling doubtful that a new day is coming, if we might have the energy to clear out a little room to make way for the possibility of a new thing or a new story.
This literally happens in my own home every year at this time. Before we haul out the Christmas and Advent decorations and haul in the Christmas tree, we clear out the things that have crept into our living space in the time since we last did a major clear out. We pause to ask ourselves do we still need this? Is this still serving us?
I wonder if there are things that have crept into your life that no longer serve you or if there are ways of being, attitudes and activities that are taking up so much space in your life that they are choking the very life out of you, draining you of your energy. I wonder what we might need to clear out in our world to make room for a new story?
One of the interesting things about the new life the prophet Jeremiah points to in our scripture reading is that the branch from David’s line that is about to be raised up, this new life he speaks of, is associated with righteousness, with what is right and just. There’s a sense in this passage that when we align our lives with the ways of justice and fairness, when we make room for these things in our lives and in our world, growth happens, energy rises up.
Theologian John Berquist says that we tend think of righteousness as feeling like we’re better than someone else or that we are justified in what we do. He says it has nothing to do with that. He says that righteousness is what it feels like to come alive again. It’s the process of lifting others up. It’s the process of finding where people’s needs are and addressing our energies to those places. It’s not about making people fit into the boxes we think people should fit into. He says it’s about meeting them where they are at, in the same place that God meets us, which is often in our lowly, vulnerable, humble places.
I think that’s why what’s given us hope these last couple weeks in the midst of so much devastation in our province is watching people come together and going to extraordinary lengths to help each other out. It’s why there was so much energy here at the church last week when Carmen Lansdowne spoke to us about the redevelopment of First United and the possibility we have to be involved with that. Somewhere deep in our being, life gets stirred up within us when we remember that our greatest calling is to be there for one another and to seek justice and fairness for one another.
It’s in our nature to be righteous as John Berquist defines it, to be good neighbours with one another and yet it’s not always obvious to us how to do that. Sometimes what we have to make room for is remembering how to live in good and right relationship with one another. Sometimes we have to go back and start again to relearn a new story for ourselves and for our world. In the words of the psalmist we need God/Spirit to teach us the paths that lead to new life. We need to attend to those paths. Sometimes we need to make room, to open ourselves to that teaching.
The spiritual practice called the daily examen invites us to ask ourselves at the end of every day when did I feel most alive today. Then we take a moment to feel that aliveness again. If we were to make room every day during this season of Advent to pay attention to that moment when we felt most alive. I wonder if we might notice that those moments when we do feel most alive, often come when we have offered ourselves in some way to another or when we have given ourselves over to hoping and trusting that God is doing a new thing in our world and that we are a part of it. I wonder if this day by day practice might even give us enough energy when we actually do arrive at the manger on Christmas Eve, to swing open the doors of our hearts to welcome in new life once again because if God is writing a new story for our world and we are part of it, we are going to need that energy to tend and take care of this new life.