In our culture, holidays—“holy days”—have come to be defined largely by consumption—by what we eat and what we drink and what we spend and what we get. That is true of Thanksgiving. That is even more true of Christmas.
What can get squeezed out, in the midst of all that consumption, is the reason for the season.
This week, I read a bit about the history of Thanksgiving. President Abraham Lincoln created the national holiday in 1863—smack in the middle of the Civil War. In his proclamation creating Thanksgiving, Lincoln did not mention overeating, or football, or shopping. Instead, Lincoln stressed that, even in that difficult time, our nation had received many blessings.
After listing some of the ordinary blessings that we so often take for granted, as well as some of the blessings particular to that year, Lincoln concluded, all of these “are the gracious gifts of the Most High God.” Lincoln therefore called on the American people to give thanks to God, despite the bloody war raging on American soil.
That itself is a lesson to us about the possibility of giving thanks even when times are hard and challenges are real. I hope that all of us paused at some point last week to do that, to reflect on the many blessings we have received and to thank God for them.
But what surprised me in Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday was what else he included, along with giving thanks. This is the final paragraph of Lincoln’s proclamation.
“I recommend to [the American people] that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to [God] … they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it … to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”
That is an amazing way to end a proclamation about Thanksgiving. As a part of Thanksgiving, Lincoln asks us to repent of our sins, to comfort the afflicted, and to pray about the divisions in our country.
Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate our blessings. But Thanksgiving is also a time to acknowledge the reality of our sin, the suffering in our midst, and the challenges facing our community.
Today here at Saint David’s is Commitment Sunday, which is one way we give thanks as a parish. In just a minute, we will dedicate the pledge cards we have received so far this year. Our pledges, our gifts, are our thank you to God. Every gift of money (or time or talent) that any of us offer is our way of thanking God for the blessings we have received. We give back to God a small portion of what God has given to us because we know that we owe God everything we have and everything we are.
I am certainly grateful for the generosity of so many. I say what is obvious: Saint David’s could not exist without that generosity.
But pledges are not just about money to support the Church, important though that is. Pledges are more even than a way of thanking God. Pledges represent our commitment to God’s vision for our world. Pledges represent our commitment to living out that vision in our daily lives as best we can, with God’s help. And living out that vision inevitably includes repentance, and service, and prayer.
Thanksgiving is now behind us. All around us, the Christmas momentum is building. We are being bombarded with messages encouraging us to buy more stuff, to have more fun, to eat and drink more than we should.
But what is true of Thanksgiving is also true of Christmas. In the midst of all the excitement and all the busyness and all the consumption as we gear up for Christmas, we need to pause every once in a while, to remember that Christmas celebrates a child born in a manger to poor parents who had to flee their homeland. Christmas celebrates a child born to serve, to suffer, and to die.
Christ’s birth is good news of great joy, and we are right to make a big deal about it. But that good news begins with an acknowledgement of the sin and suffering that is why Christ became incarnate.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate the good news of Christ’s birth as God calls us to celebrate it, we need to do the very same things that Lincoln encouraged us to do at Thanksgiving. We need to spend some time repenting of our sins. We need to spend some time comforting the afflicted. We need to spend some time in prayer for our world.
THAT is the purpose of Advent, the season that begins today. Advent is a time of repentance, service, and prayer that gets us ready for Christmas.
Our readings for this morning make essentially the same point.
In our gospel reading, Jesus describes the coming of the Son of Man. He means his Second Coming, the day when he will return to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus warns his disciples that no one knows exactly when that day will be. Certainly none of us have any idea when it will be.
But we do know one thing. We know that it will be a glorious day, a day when nations and peoples will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer lift up sword against nation, neither shall any of us learn war any more.
That vision of God’s kingdom, that vision of a kingdom of peace and prosperity and justice, is the heart of the Christian hope. Christ was born to make that vision real. And so we begin the Christian year each Advent by proclaiming Christ’s return as part of our celebration of Christ’s birth.
But along with our joyful anticipation comes the responsibility to get ready. In Jesus’ words, we have to keep awake. In Isaiah’s words, we have to walk in the light of the Lord.
To celebrate Christ’s coming—as a baby in a manger and as the Son of Man coming on clouds of glory—we are obliged to live the Christian life. That means repenting, comforting the afflicted, and praying for our community and our nation and our world.
And so on this first Sunday of Advent, I invite you all to a holy season of preparation. I invite you all to take time out of the Christmas madness to do what you can to prepare to celebrate the first coming of the Son of Man, the birth of our Lord. I invite you to do the hard work of repentance, of service, and of prayer.
And I invite you to this work of preparation in the name of the one who came in humility and will come again in power. Amen.