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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The great American author and humorist Mark Twain once said, “There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist, except an old optimist.” We are entering this new church year, this Advent season with the eyes of young pessimists and old optimists, collectively wondering what the future will bring. What more can the year 2020 bring? I wish they would listen to our familiar gospel reading again.
The story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday often takes listeners by surprise when they hear it read on the First Sunday of Advent. There is something strange about the waving of palm branches in late autumn, and the shouting of hosannas in a cold winter breeze, which seems out of step with our expectations for the birth of Christ child in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. But perhaps that is the image the young pessimists and old optimists need to see more than any other in the midst of the global pandemic, amid surging cases and staggering losses. Perhaps that is the image you need to see as well.
Today, we began our worship by lighting the first candle of the Advent wreath, and beginning the countdown for Christmas. Marking the days of Advent in anticipation of Christmas is an old tradition. but lighting a candle on the Sundays of Advent is relatively new. And like so many Christmas traditions in the English-speaking world, its origins are to be found in Germany. In 1839, a Lutheran pastor in Hamburg, Johann Hinrich Wichern, was pioneer ministry among the city’s poor created the first Advent wreath. He was so tired of the children in his mission school asking whether Christmas had arrived, that he constructed a large wooden ring made out of an old cartwheel with 20 small red and 4 large white candles. A small candle was lit successively every weekday and Saturday during Advent. On Sundays, a large white candle was lit. The custom gained popularity among Lutheran churches in Germany and soon evolved into smaller wreath with four or five candles that could be used in the home.
Well, it wasn’t just orderly German children who needed this Advent ritual. I discovered in the early years of fatherhood my two Russian-born sons were keen to count down the days to Christmas. An Advent calendar with hidden chocolates behind closed doors, mind you, another German invention, was a perfection distraction. It helped them in their waiting for Christmas. The daily chocolate surprises allowed them to experience a little wonder every morning. Adults seem to enjoy these calendars as well- or variations on them. As I have discovered of late, there are many people this year who are waiting just as impatiently as children for Christmas to come.
Never has this longing for a bright and merry Christmas been so palpable than this year in the midst of this pandemic. It is shared by young pessimist and old optimists alike. We seem to be counting down days to Christmas, to the New Year, to the introduction of a vaccination- all with the hope that something better is coming. We are waiting for something new to happen. Anything. Yes, we want some triumph, some little victory to help us end this year well. We can see the Advent light at the end of the tunnel, we just don’t know how long it will be. Of course, we know that there will be dark days ahead, but we are confident that any victory now can make all the difference for the future. That is the power of Christian hope. It is what a pessimist Christian needs to meditate on the gospel a little longer. But even an old optimist needs to be careful as well. The challenges ahead are great and the potential of death and sorrow is staggering. One cannot be Pollyannish with the notion that all soon will be well.
I am convinced that this fundamental human need for victory, anywhere, and the sound of triumph, even far away, has the possibility of making us brave and strengthens us for the future- even an unknown future. That is why this Advent season, and story of Jesus entering into our human story is so important. It bring about the possibility of joy and life.
My seminary professor Michael Rogness often told the story of an English military chaplain, named Murdo MacDonald who had been imprisoned in prisoner of war camp in Germany during World War II.
“The Germans kept the Americans and British in separate compounds, separated by an empty strip of land marked by barbed wire. They were strictly forbidden to communicate with each other across the space. The Germans knew enough English so they could detect any communication. The Americans had no chaplain on their side, so the Germans conscripted the Englishman Murdo MacDonald to the American side to ‘bring religion to the Americans.’ In time he discovered that he could speak Gaelic at the fence to someone on the other side, a language none of the Germans understood, so they paid no attention to the gibberish.
In spring of 1944 rumors flew through the camp that the Germans were expecting some kind of invasion. Then early one morning in early June, MacDonald was awakened and told that the Welshman on the other side was calling for him. He hurried to the fence, and heard the message yelled at him, ‘Thanig iad!’ MacDonald turned to the Americans clustered around him and translated, ‘They’ve come!’ Just the two short words, reporting the Normandy invasion, which changed the whole course of the war and determined its eventual outcome. When the Americans heard the news pandemonium broke out among the prisoners. They knew what it meant. It might not happen tomorrow, or even next week, but they knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel. In the days that followed, the camp would still be a prison; guards be stationed all around, them. But everything had changed.” No matter how they were still bound, they were now free.
My friends, there is no more powerful word for Advent in the midst of this pandemic, than simple words, “He has come. Our king has come. Our champion is drawing near. Victory is ours!
Advent comes to us again this year as a gift in 2020. For young pessimist and for old optimists, Jesus comes again and bring the possibility of change for the better. Yes, Christ comes that you should be changed and to bring you joy and hope and life in uncertain times.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.