This morning I want to pick up on a point Deacon Terry made in his sermon last week. As Terry said, deacons are supposed to serve everyone, and especially to serve their rectors.
That’s a joke. The point I actually want to pick up from Terry’s sermon is his contrast between the literal hunger of people who don’t have enough food and the spiritual hunger that all of us experience at least some of the time.
At no time of year do I experience that contrast between literal and spiritual hunger more dramatically than in these weeks leading up to Christmas.
In the next four weeks, I am not likely to feel a single moment of literal hunger. Quite the contrary. For most of the next four weeks, I will be stuffed with food. If past patterns hold, I will gain five or more pounds by New Years. For those who are counting, that’s a pound or more each week.
But alongside that entire absence of literal hunger in December, I will have moments of deep spiritual hunger.
As is true for many of us, my next few weeks are going to be busy. Most of my normal responsibilities continue. I will spend more time with my family, especially out of town family, and probably with friends in the most socially active weeks of the entire year. Lots of Christmas-specific stuff will happen, both at Church and in the world. More shopping and cooking. Christmas cards. Decorating. And so on.
Balancing the competing demands on my time is harder in these weeks than at any other time of year. What usually gives is sleep and exercise. That is not a recipe for spiritual well-being. It is a recipe for spiritual hunger.
Still, these weeks will be easier for me than for many. I think especially about people in real financial distress at a time when we are bombarded with messages about things to buy. I think even more about people who have lost people important to them, and who have to wrestle with grief and regret and loneliness at a time when we are surrounded by messages of merriment.
For many of us, beneath all the excess of this season lurks a nagging spiritual hunger, a sense of emptiness that more food and fun cannot fill, indeed an emptiness that all the food and fun can make much worse.
Here is an analogy. My energy always dips in the mid-afternoon, so most days I head to the kitchen for a pick-me-up about 3:00. The question is, what will, in fact, pick me up? By mid-afternoon, I am usually a little dehydrated, so the correct answer is, a glass of water. But what I actually get, including on the day I wrote this sermon(!), is a coke.
At first, my afternoon coke feels great. It’s cool and refreshing, with an attractive combination of sweetness and caffeine. But, as you probably know, soda actually dehydrates us. By the time I finish my coke, I am often thirstier than I was when I started. The coke, which seems while I’m drinking it to meet my need for a pick-me-up, in fact increases my need.
Christmas bustle can be like my afternoon cokes. When we feel empty, the bustle may come as a welcome distraction. But distraction only works temporarily. After whatever we are doing ends, we are sometimes left feeling more empty and more spiritually hungry than when we started.
When we feel that spiritual hunger, that longing for God, what we really need is not another fun activity. What we really need is time for quiet, time to rest and reflect, time with God, who is, after all, the reason for this season.
Advent is the Church’s answer to our spiritual hunger.
During the four weeks of Advent, which begins today, the Church invites us to prepare ourselves to celebrate Christ’s birth on Christmas. The task of Advent is to wait patiently. The mood of Advent is quiet hope and sober joy. As such, Advent can seem weirdly out of step with all the Christmas bustle. And that is good news when we are spiritually hungry.
Listen again to our readings, which all speak in their different ways to our spiritual hunger, to a painful sense of separation from God and a longing for God’s presence.
Isaiah laments that God seems to “have hidden your face from us.” The Psalmist says God has fed the people “with the bread of tears” and “given them bowls of tears to drink.” Paul encourages the Christians in Corinth to “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And immediately before our Gospel reading, Jesus warns his disciples at some length about a time of suffering that will come upon them when they look for Christ and see only false substitutes (13:5-23).
So far, our readings express our longing and our need for God. Thankfully, there is more. Thankfully they also offer hope.
After lamenting that God seems hidden, Isaiah prays that God will “come down… to make your name known.”
Three times, the Psalmist prays, “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.”
Paul reminds his readers that God has “called [them] into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,” and “will…strengthen [them] to the end.”
And Jesus promises that we will eventually “see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”
Our readings share an acknowledgment of our struggles, of our spiritual hunger, of our longing for a deeper and more intimate relationship with God.
And our readings all promise that our hunger will be satisfied, that God comes to meet us where we are, in the midst of our struggles and our failures, that we are destined for union with God in Christ. That’s the Advent message, the good news of this season.
As we begin this Advent season, I encourage you to pay attention to your spiritual hunger. I encourage you to seek ways and make time to truly satisfy that hunger. I encourage you consciously to wait, in faith and hope, for the God who comes to us, on Christmas morning, and indeed on every day.
And now, I invite you to stand and commit yourselves to a holy Advent season…..
Dear People of God,
I invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Advent. May you prepare the way of the Lord coming to us in the baby Jesus by turning away from cynicism and embracing hope. May your generosity in this season extend to those in need throughout the whole year. May you know God’s presence no matter how busy you are. Listen to the prophets around us who call for swords to be turned into plowshares and who invite us to honor the earth and the whole web of life. And, in the words of Saint Paul, may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan