“Preparing for the Visit”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (NRSV)
For many of us, this passage feels out of place during Advent. Indeed, most of us are used to hearing it during Holy Week, the final days of Lent. Let’s remember, though, that Advent and Lent have much in common. Cosmetically, they share purple or blue as the liturgical color. More significantly, they’re both seasons of reflection and preparation, times to look deep within our individual selves and our corporate self to imagine how we might receive and enter the mysteries of Incarnation and Resurrection so that they restore and reorient the totality of our hearts, minds, bodies, and relationships.
During Lent, we tend to focus on our brokenness and our need for repentance. During Advent, in our culture anyway, we tend to focus less on “spiritual things” and more on getting stuff, eating food, wearing bright clothes, and singing happy and familiar songs. While Christians are as guilty as anyone else in helping to secularize Christmas into a shallow-water frenzy of consumption and indulgence, all those happy songs, bright lights, and the artificial smiles of advertisement actors receiving lottery cards as the most treasured of all gifts, push the idea that everyone must feel happy at this time of year. More damaging than the pressure simply to feel happy is the expectation to find fulfillment and satisfaction in receiving things that can only be acquired with money or credit.
I know I’m beating the proverbial dead horse. And while the admonition to celebrate Christmas through less consumeristic means is always warranted, I bring it up today to remind us that the sense of obligation to feel joyful and grateful in the season of joy and gratitude is enough to throw some of us into tailspins of depression, alienation, and cynicism.
Now, I’m not trying to throw a wet blanket on anyone. Far from it. I’m trying to invite us into a posture of readiness to receive and celebrate the peace and the wholeness that God offers through Incarnation and Resurrection. Many of us have been taught that the primary purpose of the Christian faith is personal, individual, and postmortem. It’s about my salvation, about getting to heaven when I die. Christmas and Easter are about so much more than an evacuation plan for anxious sinners. Incarnation and Resurrection call us to new ways of living in community in this world, and that means recognizing the holiness in the Creation as revealed through all that we share and have in common as human beings, through our corporate as well as our individual joys and sorrows, pleasures and pain. And this new way of life includes intentional, purposeful, and ongoing empathy with and compassion for one another.
When pastors visit with parishioners in a home, hospital, rehab center, or nursing home, they spend the bulk of their time simply being present with a person or a family. They chat about the little things. They catch up with everyone there. When appropriate and given permission, they delve into the deep and difficult issues of human frailty and brokenness, of grief, illness, and regret. At the end of these visits, pastors offer prayers for strength, comfort, peace, and wholeness.
Pastoral visits, which are usually made in the midst of some degree of suffering, are meant to be sacred time, even sacramental, so more than the memory of the visit remains. In those face-to-face, incarnate interactions, and through the shared intimacy of prayer, we trust that God is truly, graciously, and immediately present. What lingers, then, is a renewed sense of the Holy Spirit’s abiding and vibrant presence.
When we know that someone is coming to visit us in the midst of some struggle we’re experiencing, don’t we get ready for that visit? If they’re coming to our home, we usually prepare the space in which to meet. We prepare to offer coffee, tea, or water. We prepare ourselves to talk about something in particular—or not to talk about it. We carefully consider the implications of sharing things that may affect that relationship or other relationships. Because those preparations are crucial, I never make cold calls to people’s homes.
Pastors need pastors, too; so, I recently started seeing a spiritual director. Spiritual directors are not therapists—or palm readers. They’re simply people who have prepared themselves to be spiritually present to others. They have been trained in and practiced the art of listening with compassion and responding with honesty and love. I drive over to Mars Hill for these visits, and before I go, I think about what I want to share, what I need to let go of, things on which I need feedback. And when I drive home, I always have more to think about, more to process than when I went. That’s how sacred time works. It doesn’t leave us unchanged. And, ideally, it leaves us feeling reconnected to God, to self, to other human beings, and to the very earth itself. On the way home, I really do look at everything differently—myself, those around me, the traffic, the trees, the mountains, the sky, all of it.
In Advent we prepare ourselves for the Incarnation: God’s pastoral visit to a world that is broken, hurting, angry, suspicious, and in danger each day of becoming ever more hopeless, divided, and violent. Our focus on appearances and parties as preparation can be fun. Just as often, however, those things distract us from the sacred time of Christmas, and we miss its holiness.
In the Gospel of John, as Jesus prepares to leave his disciples, he prepares them to live in the midst of the same kind of peace that pastors want parishioners to feel after a visit. “Peace I leave with you,” he says. “My peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives.” Jesus gives the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift that lingers and continues to bring peace and wholeness to followers who are about to feel more broken and abandoned than they ever imagined when they chose to make the bold claim that they were indeed following God’s long-awaited Christ.
In an ideal world, all Christmas gifts would somehow mirror and proclaim the peace and wholeness promised by God not only in Jesus’ birth, but in his ongoing arrival and return.
For those of us who are hurting today, those of us who do not feel the joy of this season, know that you are not alone. And it’s okay to grieve, to doubt, to weep.
For those of us who feel the energy and joy of the approach of Christmas, may we be as responsive to those who suffer as God in Christ is responsive to a world suffering from fear, loss, alienation, and despair.
May the God of peace and wholeness be with each of you, with all of us, and with this entire broken, suffering, beautiful, resilient, Spirit-marinated Creation.
*This sermon was preached during a “Blue Christmas” service which was held during regular 11:00am worship.