Genesis 1:1-5+Psalm 8+Romans 8:18-25+Matthew 24:32-44
It is hard, if not impossible, to accurately describe giving birth if you have not experienced it. This is not a knock on those who have not borne children, but it is one of those things that, because it is so difficult to tell someone what it feels like, we have to resort to metaphor or poetry or images. Sometimes people will talk about giving birth to a novel or a dissertation or a project, but that isn’t quite the physical experience, the messiness and pain and labor of pushing a tiny human being out into the world.
Our texts here at the beginning of Advent are filled with references to labor and birth, using a metaphor for something indescribable to convey something else equally indescribable. St. Paul writes to the church in Rome with longing and expectation of things promised but yet to be, a fulfillment of God’s revelation awaited with “eager longing,” the groaning of labor pains that will lead to something glorious, the birth of the new creation.
Similarly, Matthew speaks of the portents of the end times. This 24th chapter of Matthew’s gospel lies between Jesus’s triumphal entry in Jerusalem and his arrest. Jesus has been sparring with the religious leaders and trying to convince his followers to read the signs of the times. Things are going to get worse before they get better. The waiting for the Redeemer to come requires watchfulness and vigilance, no matter how trying or how hard that might be.
In our secular observance of this season, we tend to jump straight from Thanksgiving to Christmas and see Advent as a celebratory time of preparation. I hope that our readings for today disabuse you of that notion. Now, I am not going to be a scold and a killjoy and tell you that you are sinners in the hands of an angry God because you put up your tree and are already watching Hallmark Christmas movies. But remember, we are in this world but, as followers of Jesus, we are not fully part of it. Liturgical time is outside of chronological time, and part of our work is to straddle those two measures of time. We are in the present but not yet. We are part of God’s reign that has not yet been fulfilled. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. We say this every week.
If you think I am being all gloom and doom this morning, be glad that we aren’t following the traditional themes for Advent when our candles would not be about peace, hope, joy, and love, but would instead be death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Preparing for the Second Coming is not for the faint of heart. “Lo, he comes with clouds descending” wrote Charles Wesley, and I can’t imagine that would not strike terror into the hearts of those who are not prepared.
And so, we prepare. “Let every heart prepare him room” as the carol goes, but not just to welcome the child but the one who comes in glory to set us all free, to finally end our long labor, and to give birth to that new creation we have long awaited.
I once heard this season, this labor, described as if we are sitting in a theater and the house lights dim, and we hold our breath in anticipation of the first strains of an overture or the rising of the curtain. We are filled with longing for that, whatever that is, to begin.
The former poet laureate of the United Kingdom, Sir John Betjeman, wrote a poem called Advent 1955 that is filled with this kind of imagery. He writes
The Advent wind begins to stir
with sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
it’s dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
and in between we only see
clouds hurrying across the sky
and rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
and branches bending to the gale
against great skies all silver-pale.
The world seems traveling into space,
and traveling at a faster pace
than in the leisured summer weather
when we and it sit out together,
for now we feel the world spin round
on some momentous journey bound —
journey to what? to whom? to where?
The Advent bells call out ‘Prepare,
your world is journeying to the birth
Of God made Man for us on earth.’
Sometimes the only words we have for a mystery such as God coming into the world through the long, painful labor of a young woman, God born in human flesh or God coming on clouds of glory – perhaps metaphor and poetry are all we are left with to describe the indescribable.
In whatever way your Advent unfolds over these next weeks, I pray that you will find time to listen, to bring a holy imagination to the waiting as you prepare to receive this unmerited and indescribable gift.
 John Betjeman, from Collected Poems (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1958)