Advent is a challenging season. While the culture around us has already jumped into the stream of Christmas celebrations, we are called on this first Sunday of Advent to wait, to watch, to stay alert, to be spiritually prepared. As a mentor of mine once said, “If the season of Advent doesn’t make you feel like we are swimming upstream, then you probably aren’t doing it right!” We are called to push against the strong cultural currents of consumerism and secularization. For example, during the 48 hours of Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday, Americans spent a record breaking 11.6 billion dollars in online sales alone. And yet, the season of Advent challenges us to be still, to be quiet, to actually slow down, rather than speed up.
But I think there is an even deeper challenge that we face during the season of Advent and it is that deeper challenge that would like us to explore this morning. This deeper challenge can be summarized by two words. These two words represent two actions that consume a great deal of our time and energy. And these two actions represent one of the primary ways we organize and understand our lives.
The first action is ANTICIPATION – Anticipation is an emotional response involving excitement or, at times, anxiety regarding some expected or longed-for event. We spend a lot of time and energy engaged in the process of anticipation, the process of planning, preparing, and dealing with expectations about the future.
The second action is REFLECTION – Reflection is the emotional processing that takes place after the expected or longed for event. Sometimes reflection is a formal process that includes things like journaling, meditation, or counseling. But more often reflection is simply the soundtrack of our brains. We have a tendency to analyze certain events or experiences over and over and over again.
It has been said that life is primarily a cycle of anticipation and reflection. If you think about it, almost every day of our lives, we experience this cycle in some form or another. There are days when I wake up in the morning, before I am even fully conscious, a flood of events and meetings and items on my to-do list seems to come crashing into my brain. And so, from the moment I wake up I am already engaged in this cycle of anticipation, planning, preparation, I am full of expectations.
When the day is done, we typically spend at least some time reflecting on the day that has passed. We talk things over with a friend or a spouse. Or many people today engage in the process of reflection by updating their Facebook status. Social media has become a virtual world of mutual reflection. As we spend time reflecting, sometimes we feel good about what has happened and sometimes we don’t!
We see this cycle most clearly play out when it comes to significant events in our lives, such as going to college, preparing for a career, getting married, or having children. But we also see this cycle play out in the mundane, everyday activities of our lives, such as going to the grocery store. Working on a school project with our kids.Planning a party. Remodeling your house. Going on a vacation.
ANTICIPATION and REFLECTION. These two basic actions consume a great deal of our time and energy and they represent one of the primary ways we organize and understand our lives.
But here is the great irony with this cycle of anticipation and reflection. The irony is that more often than not, when we engage in the process of reflection, when we look back over the events and circumstances of our lives we end up saying to ourselves, “That’s not what I anticipated, that’s not what I planned and prepared for, that’s not what I expected!”
There is this gap in-between ANTICIPATION and REFLECTION. And this space in-between is the present moment. This is where life actually happens. We spend a lot of time over here. We spend a lot of time over here, and yet the space in-between represents the reality of our lives, and what we discover in this in-between space, in the reality of our lives, is that things don’t always go as planned, we discover that more often than not life is full of the UNEXPECTED. We plan, we prepare, we anticipate, and yet our lives are often dramatically different than what we planned for, what we anticipated.
Sometimes this space is filled unexpected blessings. Perhaps a dreaded meeting at work becomes an unexpected opportunity for growth and healing and reconciliation. Perhaps a financial burden is unexpectedly lifted, or a healthissue resolved. Or maybe it’s just a thank you note or a word of encouragement or some other unexpected acts of generosity. There are times when this in-between space is filled with blessings.
But often this space is filled with unexpected trials and unexpected pain. Perhaps it’s the remembrance of someone close to you that is no longer there. Perhaps it’s a financial crisis that just won’t go away. Perhaps it’s the report from your doctor that’s not very encouraging. Or perhaps there are unhealed hurts from your past that are still a source of pain in your own heart and mind.
Those are times when you reflect upon your life and say, ”That’s not what I anticipated, that’s not what I expected, that’s not what I planned for!” But my friends, the challenge of ADVENT is truly live into this in-between space, to live in the present moment, to embrace the reality of our lives. This is the challenge of Advent.
Because in just a few weeks we are going to celebrate once again that we have a Savior who has come and has entered into this in-between space. Jesus came to enter into the reality of our lives. Jesus came to enter into the midst of our greatest joy and deepest pain. This is the space of true waiting. This is the space where we learn to trust God. This is the space where we discover our own need for grace. This is the space of total surrender. This the space where we are most fully alive.
Did you notice that all of our readings this morning use the language of everyday life, the language of the present moment, to describe our spiritual journey? The prophet Isaiah calls us to go for a walk in the light of God’s presence.Paul reminds us that it is time to set our spiritual alarm clocks, to wake up and pay attention because salvation is nearer than when we first believed. Jesus challenges us to stay awake because he will return at an unexpected hour.
We spend so much time over here anticipating, planning, preparing, and so much time reflecting, evaluating, and critiquing. Yet God challenges us to live in this in-between space, the space where life happens. And so, during this Advent season, what would it look like for you and me to enter into this space? What would it look like in the midst of the frenzied activity of the world around us for you and me to just be? To wait. To watch. To wake up. To enter into the unexpectedness of the present moment. And to catch a glimpse of the very glory of God.