a sermon for Advent I, by the Reverend Paul Oakley
10:30 AM, Sunday, December 1, 2019
At this time of year in 2008, Walter and I took a trip to Germany. It had been 22 years since Marco Bergandi and Thomas Köhn had gone back to Germany after living in Walter’s apartment during their graduate exchange year in Charleston, Illinois. It was 20 years since I had been an exchange student in Frankfurt am Main, living on the 14th floor of a dormitory in the Ginheimerlandstraße. And it was already a year and a half since Friedrich Nette, the German high school student who lived with us for a year in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, had returned home. So, though we did some sightseeing, the purpose of the trip was mostly a family visit, catching up with close friends who had become family during these educational exchange years.
Our time was spread between various cities in what had been East and West Germany, separated by the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall when Walter and I had been there last. Everyone was happy to see us, but they asked us why we’d come at that time of year. Days were short, cloudy, and rainy, except for the places where it was already snowing. In Freudenstadt, a city in the Black Forest, it was already snowing as we parked our car in front of the home of Matthias Lindenkreuz, my best friend from the dormitory in Frankfurt, and his wife Dorothee and their preschool children Hanne and Lotte. The next morning when we stepped out, there was about two feet of fresh snow blanketing everything. It had to be shoveled and brushed away before we could do anything. But we started the day sledding with the kids through the neighborhood.
As we left a few days later, we drove through relatively remote areas of the Black Forest. The roads had been plowed, but the deep snow covered the trees. Even with the reflectiveness of the snow, not much light got through. It was cold. Yes, it was beautiful. But it was dark. And suddenly, driving through the dense forest, it struck me how important geography was in developing many traditions that are part of December across the northernmost reaches of this hemisphere. In a land of snow and darkness, of gray days and rain, traditions of light and Gemütlichkeit, that quintessential German concept of warmth and fireside coziness were necessary – life savers, in fact. Advent, German style finally meant something other than a theological effort at engaging the Church through the liturgical seasons.
In every city where we visited, the Weihnachtsmarkt, the Christmas market, was being set up. And as we came into Frankfurt and settled into our hotel, we found we had arrived the day before the market opened. That next evening, out in the market, we enjoyed familiar smells and flavors of Glühwein – hot sweet spiced red wine – and Lebkuchen – gingerbread cookies.
We stepped into my favorite church in Frankfurt, the Alte Nikolaikirche, Old St. Nicholas Church, right next to the Christmas market. It is a small medieval gothic church about the right size for our congregation – only it doesn’t have a Chalice House and must house its offices, classrooms, and work space elsewhere. I’ve never once been to services there but only to concerts, even though it is the home of a worshiping congregation with a long history. The carillon in its high tower played Advent hymns every hour on the hour. Not Christmas carols, religious or secular, but Advent hymns, the ones that looked forward to the arrival of Jesus, rather than telling the story of his nativity.
I didn’t grow up with Advent. I’d first encountered Advent, briefly, as a young adult in a Community Church with a Lutheran minister. So the German experience was the Advent that seeped into my pores when I was an exchange student. And it was mostly about Gemütlichkeit and getting through the dark days, with a little nod to religion – mostly in the form of music – concerts in churches and seasonal religious music in concert halls, along with The Nutcracker and other secular favorites of the season. Its big theme was hope. Hope for brighter, longer days with more light. Hope for escape from cruel winter weather and more comfortable outdoor time. And, long before industrial production and post-industrial importation brought mounds of disposable Christmas goods into the marketplace with the expectation that people buy at least a little more than they can afford, Advent brought hope for a sparkle of joy in a child’s eyes when bright days of birds and butterflies and flowers were absent. Even with just the briefest of nods to religion, Advent offers hope to child and adult alike.
But Advent began and gathered its primary themes in sunnier Mediterranean climes, not in the December darkness of Germany. Penitence and fasting were the original practices of the season. Preparation and readiness were the intention. In the Fifth Century in the brighter climes of the Mediterranean, the original Advent intention was not getting ready for the Christ Child to be born and celebrated, as had been done every year for a long time already. It was not about the lead up to the grand mythic stories of stars and angels and shepherds, or gifts and Magi and escaping a king’s wrath as refugees in another country. Original Advent was about preparing for the Second Coming, the singular arrival of the one who would clean up the mess of the world, the personal messes, sure, but that was small potatoes. The expectation and desire was for the Chosen One to come and wipe away injustice big and small, for everything to be made right, for the establishment of a new way of organizing humanity that eliminated the power of empire that had dominated, controlled, and oppressed the colonized and the enslaved.
For people who believed that the historical Jesus had done miracles of literal healing and raising the dead, that he had fed multitudes by literally replicating loaves and fishes until everyone was full, for people who believed in the miraculous presence of God in the real world, doing small favors in the small lives of small individuals, the Second Coming was the ultimate. The power of good in the cosmos gains the upper hand, once and for all, and restructures the culture and governance of the entire world. Rome is expelled and vanquished, and Jerusalem, the holy City of Peace, is established. For the first time in human reality. It heralded a time when every injustice will overthrown, every person has enough, all of life overcomes its challenges and thrives and personal and world peace abound.
Through much of Christian history, most people were taught to assume that the Second Coming and the Reign of the Anointed One was a supernatural break with history. It would be, they thought, the very end of history, the end of time itself. Only supernatural intervention could bring the world they yearned for. Everyone knew how little chance ordinary people had of influencing the ways of the power holders – the kings and lords, the wealthy industrialists, the war machine, the Roman Empire, the English and French and Spanish and German and Russian and Chinese and other world empires… the American Empire. All these operated only for their own benefit at any and every cost to ordinary people caught in the gears of power politics and war and wealth gone wild. And if ordinary people had no way of influencing the big picture, then the way out that was a necessary foundation for hope had to be supernatural.
And the necessity of a supernatural origin for justice led people to believe that the evils of the world we know were unavoidable, like breath and pain and death. Human society relieved itself of responsibility for true justice because it was simply too hard a struggle to make it so. In the night sky over Bethlehem and its surrounding mountain pastures, angels would appear saying, “Glory to the most ultimate! On earth, peace, goodwill, and justice for all!” But that was only intended as a place holder. The wish and blessing comes before the system that would actually bring it about. The Second Coming and the new way of ordering human society, a new system of making sure everyone would achieve their potential and humanity would no longer depend on war and destruction to build the well-being of the few at the expense of the many. The end of a history written in human disasters is what Advent is all about.
In the mid-1960s, Gene Roddenberry created a fictional future for humanity, in which, after devastating wars that nearly destroyed the earth, wars over technology and power and control, a miraculous alternative struggled to the surface. This new world offered the possibility of well-being for everyone. It offered leisure or fulfilling work that gave everyone personal security and the possibility of doing what they found meaningful. It meant that nations became unimportant because humanity finally recognized that all of humanity would either rise or fall, be damned or saved together, not in opposition to each other.
The original three-season Star Trek series imagined a world in which superstition and religion – as most had known it with it – were vanquished, and human and scientific potential could be achieved. Where the Peace Dividend was not just a propagandistic slogan of President George HW Bush and Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher in the wake of the downfall and dismantling of the biggest enemy of the American and British capitalist empires. The real peace dividend, though, required not just the defeat of a powerful enemy but the dismantling of the entire enterprise of control and domination, the destruction of the system of empire following empire for the benefit of the few, at the expense of the many.
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
But imagining the Messianic Age alone has not yet brought it into being. It takes human action. With the Rambam, Moses Maimonides, the great rationalist medieval Jewish philosopher, I believe in the coming of the Messiah. I believe that that time is coming. That time when justice is possible, rather than domination. But I believe it is our action that makes it possible and moves us toward it. Without our actions it will remain a supernaturalistic dream.
I believe that the Peace foretold in Bethlehem and yearned for during the Advent season will come through changing the use of resources, changing policies and laws, breaking down the mechanisms through which wealth takes what it will and harms whom it thinks it must to take it.
Under the domination of empires, people who hoped for a supernatural Second Coming kept their hope alive – especially at this time of year – by acts of charity, a determination that the coldness of the weather and of the human heart and of the imperial demand for capitulation do not have the power to determine the survival of humanity. And so at this time of year more than any other, people realize the importance of giving back, of helping the poor and the oppressed survive the system of oppression in which they are stuck, in which our whole society is stuck. It is part of the joy of the season to give coats and scarves and gloves to the homeless, food to the hungry, warmth to those who experience the harshness of humanity. It is a joy. And it is good.
And it is not enough. We must tear down every structure that holds some to be worth more than others. It is a daunting task, but it is the justification for human cultures to survive. Can we do it? The question is more, will we do it? Will we play a part in bringing it into being? The reassurance from the book of Deuteronomy comes to us:
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
The theme of the season is the nearness of a reason for hope. The human potential to bring a Messianic Age nearer than it has ever been. It is so different from what humanity has known that it will feel like the end of time.
Amen and Blessed Be.
 From: “Imagine” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono (1971)
 Deuteronomy 30:11-14 (NRSV) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy+30%3A11-19&version=NRSV