What is Advent? The question sat alone at the top of a blank white square on my laptop screen. It had been staring at me for fifteen minutes. It was hard for me to keep focus—cheating away every few minutes to check-in with my little family nestled into the three seats across the aisle of the plane. We were leaving Orlando from a Thanksgiving vacation at Disney World, flying north, back home to Long Island—where my return would herald an Advent I sermon from Isaiah 64:1-9. I had written my introduction weeks before, and my study of the text was already completed—collated into three alliterated points on an outline, but I needed a good ending. I wanted to convince my dear congregation that the earnest practice of Advent was worthwhile.
What is Advent? I was looking for more than a textbook definition. Advent I sermons are much more than a homiletic introduction of the Christmas season—they are invitations—persuasive appeals—extended to the remnant, urging participation in the remarkably unique spiritual journey of Advent. I love Advent. I need Advent. I grew up celebrating Advent, and have long cherished its rhythm in my spiritual itinerary. It was starting to feel to me like Advent was disappearing. While congregations continue to celebrate it on the Sundays leading up to Christmas, light colored candles in horizontal wreaths, read odd Old Testament passages and even encourage special devotions during the weeks observed, it didn’t seem to me that these things were truly changing the way Christians experienced this time. Instead, we rush and rush into Christmas, merely helping Advent “across the road like a little, old lady.” We lost our Advent hymns long ago—save the familiar E minor antiphon, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and Charles Wesley’s classic, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” We complain every year about how much earlier Christmas is released—pointing our fingers at the retailers and marketers we, in turn, indulge. “If only I could find the right metaphor,” I thought, “maybe my hearers would consider the need for Advent anew in their holiday routines.”
After another fruitless twenty minutes, I surrendered my brainstorm and returned to the Isaiah text—searching for breadcrumbs. O that you tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence. That’s when the first bump hit. “I’m going to need you to put that computer away,” said the flight attendant as she hurriedly made her way to the front of the airplane. Her ascent preceded the voice of the captain, sternly warning us that we were heading into significant turbulence. I cinched the buckle tight on my seatbelt and gave my children a reassuring smile. “This is normal. Don’t be afraid,” I lied, rocking back in my seat from the three successive jolts. My wife fake-smiled and grabbed my hand across the aisle. Hard. The plane rocked side-to-side and then dropped a few feet.
This significant turbulence continued for more than a half an hour. It was the worst I had ever experienced. The turbulence was impossible to ignore—unnatural to dismiss. Not even the obviously seasoned flyers could override its discomfort. Every bounce plotted against reassurance. Persistent, it didn’t end until the wheels of the plane touched down. And the uneasy flight produced quite a momentous landing. The joggle of the wheels settling into concrete elicited loud cheers and applause. I heard God praised in many names and tongues. The celebration was electric. Strangers hugged. “We made it!” I exclaimed to the man sitting behind me. He gave me a condescending look out of his raised eye—deriding my joy with every physical feature—as he removed the headphones from his ears and pulled a neck pillow down into his lap. “What’s the big deal?” The scorn in his tone was sobering. “We made it,” I stammered, “because the flight was very turbulent.” My voice trailed off. “That’s normal on this flight path,” he lectured with an eye roll. He stretched out his arms, twisting his back within the seat. “I was asleep anyway.” I was immediately sad for him. He couldn’t experience our joy because he had missed the turmoil that preceded it. That’s when I got my answer. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.
What is Advent? Advent is embracing the turbulence. It’s actively waiting upon the wheels of justice to touch down in our spheres. It’s not merely hope deferred, rather, hope in the midst of chaos. It’s opening ourselves up to sanctification through the raw, eschatological realities of living in the in-between. Advent is allowing ourselves to long again for things to be made right and new. And the turbulence we encounter is simply a reminder that the plane actually wants—needs—to land. It should be no surprise that the world around us wants to bypass the waiting, the mess, the bumps—numbing us to sleep with another Christmas movie and shopping spree. The liturgical calendar is no farce—it invites us to discipline our souls towards authentic, meaningful celebration. Don’t fall asleep. There's a magnificent landing on its way.