I’ve always wanted to preach an Advent series on “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Before moving to the area, I had never seen the movie, nor did I know that the Indiana area was once home to Jimmy Stewart. This American classic is very much a part of our local culture, and even though this film isn’t part of the Christian subculture, there are Advent lessons we can glean from this historical movie. So the next time you see this movie, I pray that it draws you deeper into the heart of Advent. So let’s begin.
Endurance doesn’t immediately strike us as an Advent theme, does it? But yet, that’s exactly the type of life George Bailey’s father invited him to embrace. Sitting around the dining room table, ready to conquer the big, exciting world in front of him, George’s dad asked him if he’d consider just coming home and working at the old Building and Loan. Not the type of wonderful life George was anticipating. Like Geoargy, we usually hope for something different in our lives- especially this season. Which is why we are so used to seeing words that inspire a different type of emotion during Advent, words like hope, peace, joy and love. Every year we look forward to these themes, these words that keep popping up. Isn’t it interesting that we keep on coming back to those four words during this season? Maybe that’s because these words aren’t as natural as we’d like them to be. If we’re honest, they are words that easily slip from our vocabulary, and, sometimes dangerously, our hearts.
Just a month after last year’s Christmas celebrations, I ran into an old friend who was struggling with his mind and his emotions. The joy-inspired days of Christmas and New Year’s had dissipated into the cold and dreary January darkness, and it was affecting this man’s soul. I think he was battling some type of seasonal depression. He’s a man who yearns to be outdoors and remaining bottled up inside a “shabby existence” is a frightening existence for him. On his best days, he’s filled with nervous energy, always getting something done. On his worst days, you have to pull him from the house, because he’s not quite certain he wants to do anything. He’s not even sure he wants to go on living. He just wants the darkness to be over.
We might not have the same struggles (or maybe you do), but I think we all have the same sentiment. We just want the darkness to be over. We just want the Kingdom of God to come the way Jesus says it will come. And our proclamation is that one day, it will. One day, the Kingdom will come, just as Jesus has said, and everything will be the way it should be. No more death or mourning or crying or pain. No more war and division; no more hatred and senseless acts of violence. No more evil in this shabby world gone wild. One day, God will make all things new. But until then, we have to learn the discipline of endurance.
Endurance is a tough concept in our culture. For a people so used to having everything and anything at the click of a button, endurance is almost incomprehensible. The idea of waiting for something we yearn for seems unjust and unfair. We want hope, peace, joy and love to be our reality, and we want those promised gifts now! Just like we want Christmas to appear as soon as possible! But while we get glimpses of those gifts, they’re often overshadowed by other realities that take the life out of us. Realities like the recent shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill and raging wildfires in California. And that’s what makes endurace, just like hope, peace, joy and love, such an important theme for Advent.
It’s safe to say that we’re not the only ones who struggle with endurance. So did the early disciples. Like the kids in the backseat asking “When are we going to get there,” the disciples were constantly asking Jesus, “When will the Kingdom of God come?” It was a popular question for Jesus, and understandably so. The Jewish people were tired of the status quo- tired of other governments controlling them, tired of feeling like they were second-class citizens, tired of feeling powerless to change their social situation. And they had been at it for quite some time. Their history was one of oppression. Whether it was Egypt or Babylon or Assyria or Rome, they just wanted the promises of God to become their reality. And every time they asked when their shabby existence would transform into the beautiful Kingdom, the answer always seemed to be the same: “Not yet. It is surely coming, but not yet.”
“Not yet” isn’t the answer anyone wants to hear, but it’s the answer God gives more often than not. And knowing that we’d like God to reveal more than a “not yet,” Jesus teaches us the way of endurance, the way of faithfully moving forward, undeterred in the faith, especially when moments of hope, peace, joy and love seem fleeting. And who better to teach us than the one who Hebrews says, “endured the cross for the joy set before him, scorning its shame.” Endurance is the way of Christ, and it’s the way of Christ’s followers who must learn to fix their eyes when they cannot fix their world. In these in-between times, the threshold between what is and what will be, our souls must be shaped by the discipline of endurance. And endurance requires a great deal of courage. That’s what we’re invited into this Advent season. We’re invited into a courageous faith.
Without courage, it would be easy to discover, like my friend in mid-January, that our hearts can easily grow discouraged, disappointed or even listless. Enduring the struggles of this world while awaiting the joy that is to come is not for the faint of heart. This is the point Jesus is trying to make to his disciples. Having faith requires courage! It takes courage to get up every morning and proclaim love in a broken world. It takes courage to await joy in the face of suffering. It takes courage to believe in resurrection when everything around screams death. It takes courage to keep on believing that whatever chapters are currently being written cannot and will not undo the ending of a story we know to be true. So we must endure. Not simply exist. We must endure! And that requires courage. But here’s the thing about courage: it’s not found by digging deep within; courage is found when we’re awakened to the activity of God.
Jesus has said that heaven and earth will pass away, but his words never will. His words, which flow out of his heart to strengthen our weak spirits, will never be shaken. Nothing in our world can undo the story God is writing, which is why Jesus tells us to look at pay attention to the signs all around. “There will be signs,” says Jesus, and those signs will remind us that our redemption is drawing near. And those signs remind us that God is not done! Right after Halloween, the girls and I made a trip to Lowe’s. The shelves were still stocked with marked-down spooky decorations, but just a few aisles down, we began to see Christmas decorations. And even though it wasn’t Christmas, the sight of the lights and the trees was enough to make me start humming, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…” at the end of October. It looked nothing like Christmas, but there were signs that Christmas was coming, and my spirit endured.
Paying attention to signs of God’s Kingdom among us can do a world of good for a disciple. They can change our tunes, help us see our situations differently. For Joseph and Mary, the sign was a baby in a manger. For the Magi from the East, it was a star in the sky. For us? Well, it could be anything, really. A word of comfort when we we’re at our loneliest hour...a relationship reconciled when we thought it was all over...an opportunity to right a wrong when someone gives us a chance we never deserved. And sometimes, it’s just an unexpected act of kindness that gives us reason to pause and reconsider our worldviews. But the thing about signs is this: they always point us to Christ, who gives us the desire and strenghth to endure.
As it so happens, I took a break from writing my sermon to scroll through Facebook, and I saw a sign that caused my heart to sing a different song. A friend, who gave me permission to share this story, posted that she sent her young daughter with $20 to Santa’s Workshop, a fun event for our local students to buy small gifts for their loved ones, and her daughter came home with $13. When asked why she didn’t spend it all, the young girl said, “Well, I bought a gift for everyone, but I know we don’t have a lot of money, so I didn’t want to buy too much.” That’s a story, friends, about a young girl choosing wisdom over greed and kindness over temptation. It’s also a sign, a reminder from God, that even though it feels at times as if all hell is breaking loose, the Kingdom IS drawing near. Believing that takes courage. Believing that the God of heaven is stronger than the chains of hell is what Advent is all about. Believing that Christ is still reigning despite the darkness that lingers much longer than we’d like is our calling this season. So as we wait for that glorious day to appear, let’s look to Christ – the sign of the season- and take courage, and press on. Amen.