Advent 1 (B)
A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First and Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
First Sunday in Advent – November 27, 2005
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In every good story there comes a moment, just before the climax, when everything seems to slow down, to take things back a notch or two. It’s a chance for us to reflect, along with the characters of the story, on what’s about to happen. Everything’s been set in place, and things are rapidly coming to their fulfillment now – but before that one last sprint to story’s end, there’s this moment of clarity, full of knowledge and insight as to what is to come. The air seems heavy with the possibilities about to unfold. They call a moment like this a “pregnant pause.”
It’s a fine name for it. It draws on the shade of meaning in “pregnant” that suggests fullness, being filled up. At the same time, it conjures up images of the time between conception and birth, when we naturally look ahead to all of the things still just out of our sight. Pregnancy is a time of fullness, not just in the mother’s belly, but in the weight of mother and father’s hopes and fears for what will soon come. At the same time as everything in life is whirling ahead at breakneck speed for the soon-to-be parents, though, pregnancy is also a time of pause. There’s no way around it – a pregnancy must be waited out. There’s much to be done and much to be looked forward to, but the birthday will come only in the fullness of time, when everything is ready. It can’t be rushed. That’s the nature of the pregnant pause – it takes time.
This time of the church year is all about pregnant pauses. Of course we have pregnant Mary on our minds, and her cousin Elizabeth, too – but Advent itself is a pregnant time, full of the promise of a coming King. It causes us to slow down, to watch for the signs of his coming, to count the passing of time in the lighting of candles, and to realize that it is not so much Christmas we’re waiting for, but Jesus himself, coming to us once again at the end of time. In the busyness of a festive season, the pregnant pause of Advent allows us to slow down and consider all of the things yet to come. It gives us a chance to prepare. And it points us toward the climax of our story – Jesus our Lord, who came once and will come again.
One thing about pregnancy is that it is a time full of signs. Some sign first tips us off to the new life that’s begun – a circled day come and gone, perhaps, or an indicator strip that turned color. After that first clue, parents-to-be watch carefully for each little hint about the progress of their pregnancy.
Some signs are obvious – who can miss morning sickness, or the dramatic change in Mom’s figure? – but many are much smaller, more intimate, less public. A kick, maybe, from a tiny, wiggly foot. Or a first portrait, painted in ultrasound. A belly button turned inside out. Different appetites, different sleep patterns – everything that happens is scanned for meaning, in order to catch the signs.
Of course, by the time Mom and Dad notice any signs, the pregnancy is already well underway. For all of the clues it gives later on as to its progress, new life always begins silently, in mystery, before you or I ever know it’s there. The signs point us to a future that’s already been set in motion – it’s coming, and we better prepare!
And so the nine months or so of pregnancy are maybe best described as watchful waiting. They can’t be hurried – they must simply be lived. The months of pregnant pause provide time to a mother and father to make preparations for the inevitable birth. Showers are had, rooms are prepared, leave is taken from work. The expecting couple is in a way living into their future at the same time as they are waiting out the present. And despite the never-ending list of preparations to be seen to, there must be time for quiet and for reflection – there must be time for watching, or an important sign might be missed.
Right up until the birth, young fathers- and mothers-to be experience an odd mix of emotions: hope tinged with fear. Hope – of course, hope. All parents have limitless hopes for their children. But in amidst all these hopes, a hint of fear slips in. There is fear, perhaps, at the pain of labor. Or of the small but very real danger to mother and child in the process of birth. It could well be that the fear that sneaks in has more to do with the forever-changes this new life will bring to husband and wife’s life together. Most days the hope of life far outweighs the fears that nag, but those fears are real and grounded in the soil of the possible. They’ll need to be lived through and faced.
Do you see how much our Advent season – in fact, our whole Christian faith – is a great, pregnant pause? Like a newly-pregnant couple, we keep our eyes open for signs great and small. Our Lord Jesus gave us wise advice here: “From the fig tree learn its lesson,” he teaches. “As soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” Jesus’ coming is never without clues and signs for the watchful. Yes, there will be the great and public signs – sun and moon turned dark, stars streaking from the sky – but we would do well to watch for the belly buttons and toe-jabs that announce his return, as well. Every little sign, every little hint that he is near, is as precious to us as the marks of pregnancy are to new parents.
And, just as in pregnancy, the thing that God is doing here will surely go unnoticed for some time. By the time the signs of Christ’s return become clear to us, the great day will already be on its way. What will end with a glorious appearance begins as silently as does a human conception, hidden away in the womb of God’s design. By the time any of these signs give us a hint of what is about to happen, our Lord’s return will be just as sure as a pregnancy – surer, even, since it depends on nothing but God’s will, and no frail biology can hinder it.
So the Christian life is one of watchful waiting. Just like an expectant couple, we keep our eyes and our eyes open for any faint whiff of a sign. Like those new parents, we’re all at once living into our future while at the same time waiting out this present age. We know at least a little of what is to come – that our Lord will return in glory, and that his angels will gather us to him – but what that will be like is as foggy to us as what life as Mom and Dad will be like is to those who are still waiting in pregnancy. What we know is that we can’t rush it, and we can’t delay it; our Lord will come when he comes, and only the Father knows what day that will be. In the meanwhile, there is so much preparation to do, and so many signs that can only be noticed in the quiet watchfulness of prayer and worship.
And all wrapped up in this pregnant pause, as we wait for the signs to unfold and our Lord to come, there is both hope in us and fear. Like generations of saints before us, we wait in hope for our Lord’s coming, because on that day death will cease. We will be with him, and we will be his, and it will not be too much to call that day a birthday – in fact, it will be The Birthday, the day when a new heaven and a new earth are born, when the new birth we were given in baptism puts on flesh and blood to live with Jesus in this shining new creation of his. Hope, of course! Yet we would lie to say that there is no fear. The Bible often compares our Lord’s coming to the process of giving birth, and we fear those labor pains just as much as any mother might. There’s a bit of danger in our Lord’s return, too, a risk to life and limb in the travails to come that scares us. But perhaps more than anything, we worry that everything will change – in the presence of the Lord, everything will be different, and that makes us uneasy. These fears are real, but our hope is just as real. It will give us the strength we need to live through and face those fears, and to enter the joy at the end of the pause.
Make no mistake, we are in the middle of a pregnant pause, when all the earth holds its breath and watches carefully for the signs of Christ’s coming. What was set in motion in Bethlehem will surely come to pass – it is for us to wait for it watchfully, making what preparations we can, and treasuring this long pregnancy as any expecting family might.
In the midst of a busy season, Advent calls us here to wait…to wait for Jesus. And so in this sanctuary we pause once again, and watch, and wait. He is coming.
He is coming. Amen.