Advent and the Swelling of the Waveby The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund on November 29, 2018
Hi friends, on Sunday we begin our Advent observance. (Don’t forget: we’re making Advent wreaths after worship this Sunday!) We’ll put our Advent wreath up in the church, our altar hangings will change to blue, and we’ll begin a new year in our Sunday morning lectionary. This Advent, we begin reading Luke’s Gospel. I want to draw our attention to something I noticed recently about how Luke tells the story.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to go on a preaching retreat with Bishop Jennifer and some clergy colleagues at Mustang Island on the coast. Forty-eight hours of stillness and the sea, reading Luke’s Gospel and feeling for the deep currents of the Word in preparation for Advent and our new lectionary year. One morning I sat down and read the first few chapters of Luke, and I was struck by just how much activity there is before Jesus is even born (let alone before he starts ministering to people). Angels dropping to earth, rumors spreading, women getting pregnant, men losing the ability to speak, folks travelling. The whole Advent experience in Luke’s Gospel has the feel of a wave swelling towards shore.
If you’ve never done it, try sitting down with your bible and reading the Gospel of Luke up until Jesus’ birth. We’re told that Jesus is born in Luke 2:6-7, so it’s not much more than one chapter until we come to it. But there’s an incredibly busy eighty-five verses before Jesus is born. Here’s a breakdown:
An angel visits Zechariah in the Temple of Jerusalem, foretelling the birth of John the Baptist despite Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s barrenness (1:8-20); the folks outside the Temple realize Zechariah has seen a vision (1:22); and Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth conceives but remained in seclusion for months because of all the hubbub (1:24)—and all that’s just in Jerusalem! Word is beginning to spread about something strange and perhaps miraculous, and it’s spreading from the Temple and into Zechariah’s family.
Meanwhile, seventy miles to the north, Gabriel has gone to Nazareth and told a young woman named Mary that she will bear a son named Jesus who will be called “Son of the Most High” (1:31). This same angel tells her that her elderly cousin Elizabeth has also miraculously conceived a child (1:36), so Mary travels the seventy miles, likely on foot, from Nazareth to the Judean hill country to visit her cousin (1:39).
As soon as Mary and Elizabeth greet each other, Elizabeth’s unborn child leaps in her womb (1:41), Mary bursts into song (1:46-55), and they hang out together for three months (1:56). If there’s never been a movie about these two pregnant cousins’ three months together, that’s a missed opportunity. Sisterhood of the Traveling Miraculous Maternity Pants.
John the Baptist is born, everybody is pumped because they thought Elizabeth and Zechariah couldn’t have kids, and everyone is confused why they don’t name him after his dad (1:57-59). John is circumcised, his dad regains the ability to speak, and then he bursts into song like Mary did (1:59-79) because apparently, Luke’s Gospel is a musical.
That’s in Jerusalem and Galilee, but there’s activity in the bigger historical backdrop of the Roman Empire, too. Emperor Augustus decrees that a census be taken, so Joseph has to leave Nazareth with his suspiciously pregnant fiancée and travel south again, this time to his hometown of Bethlehem (2:1-5).
Can you feel all the activity brewing beneath the surface of the narrative? The tension? The rising of this long-expected tide? Angelic visitations in both the Temple and in small-town Galilee two or three days’ walk north of there. Children of miraculous origin swelling from nonexistence into their mothers’ wombs. An older woman and a younger woman, both scandalously pregnant, brought together by a shared mystery. Zechariah falling mute, then singing. Even the vast political bulk of the Roman Empire seems to tip and tilt a little with unseen impact.
When we read the opening of Luke’s Gospel, those first eighty-five or so verses, we can feel something beneath the surface begin to stir. There’s a swelling in the plot, and like the unborn John the Baptist in his mother’s womb, our souls rise to meet it. It’s as though we’re standing on the shore, feet buried in the sand, looking expectantly out to sea. We watch as a wave grows in the distance, the slow tide of history rising in response to heaven’s unseen gravity. It’s still far off, just a ripple on the horizon now, but it’s there, a turning in the deep unsettling the surface.
Our Gospel passage for this Sunday includes this: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” (Luke 21:25).
The roaring of the sea and the waves. Will we be there when the wave breaks? Perhaps God will speak to us out of the roar of the gale. Perhaps the sea will reach forth her foam-white hands and wash our feet. Who knows?
Welcome, friends, to Advent, this wide expectant shore.