Advent in an Old Brown Station Wagon

Advent 5 / 3A - Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church

Advent is like a family road trip before Christmas.  The kind that was popular in the 70s – where you loaded up the back of the old brown station wagon with luggage and presents that you’d be opening at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, trying to remember to leave room to see out the back window.  Where you got the dog bed set up, along with bowls for water and food, in the way back – next to the piled-high luggage.  Then you’d cram three kids into the back seat, Mom into the passenger seat and Dad behind the wheel (remember, this is the 70s).  And off you’d go – no faster than 55 mph because of the 1974 Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act.  Yes, off you’d go and at least three of the five people in the car would be as excited as could be that just a scant 27 hours later you’d arrive at the grand parents house in Florida in time for Christmas Eve.  And, how long is 27 hours when you are a child – it’s only a bit longer than a day. . . and a day always goes by so quickly when you’re having fun.  And, we’ll get to stop at that cool Belvidere Oasis near Chicago – we don’t have one of those in Wausau! And, maybe we can go to the Cracker Barrel near Chattanooga where that triangle-shaped board with the pegs are on every table – maybe Mom and Dad will finally let us buy one!  And, so car full, minds filled with excitement and anticipation and we were off and going!
Maybe this is not how you remember the 1970s family road trip; but it is how the Bullock Family trip began. And Advent is like that family road trip.  In not too long - and even though you KNOW it’s going to happen, the first time it is always a bit of a surprise - in not too long, a small head will poke forward from the backseat to speak to the grownups in the front.   That small head from the center in the back pokes forward and says innocently enough - “are we there yet?” Now, the first time it is cute and even a bit endearing – after all, you’ve only been on the road for 2 hours, you’re not even out of Wisconsin yet, and sweet little Debbie in the back just doesn’t have a sense of how FAR Florida is and has no way to know that we’ve not been driving for 27 hours even though it feels like 100.  But then the voice continues, every 45 minutes or so, and is soon joined in stereo by a brother and a sister – “how much longer?” “now are we there?” “. . .but when?”  “how far from here?” – the cute and endearing is all spent and what is left is annoyance and mounting frustration as Mom and Dad begin bickering with one another about who’s idea was this in the first place and why couldn’t Grandma and Grandpa just have come to us – after all, they don’t have to travel with three kids!  Ah yes, the family road trip – the never-ending highway.  And, Advent – with its equivalent cries of “how many days until Christmas” and “why do we have to wait to open presents?” and the bickering . . . yes, Advent – the highway to Christmas.
The prophet Isaiah knows something about this highway.  He tells the Israelites that “it shall be called the Holy Way,” a passage “for God’s people” where “no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.”[1]  And James, writing his letter as if he has too often been in the front seat of this ride on God’s Holy Way, reminds his listeners then and now to “be patient” and to “be patient.”[2]   He says it twice.  And, perhaps most apt to our family road trip analogy, James says, “do not grumble against one another.”[3]  “Don’t make me stop this car!”  And so this perhaps is where the family traditions of car BINGO and singing songs together arose – they were exercises in Highway patience.  Because nothing passes time more quickly than:
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
To see what he could see.
And all that he could see,
And all that he could see,
the other side of the mountain . . . 
And the bear went over the hill. . . and over the road. . . and over the train tracks. . . and. . . you get the idea.
Yes, James reminds us to be patient and to use the prophets as an example of that patience – and the suffering it sometimes entails.  For the prophets did not just sit quietly and wait, they spoke out from the back seat – loudly at times – urging the people to get ready, to start changing their lives, to live as if God’s judgment is right around the corner, to get on the Highway – the Holy Way!  The Holy Way that is filled with exuberance and activity.  But, a Holy Way that is also filled with many of the same features of the other highways we travel in life.  The Holy Way is the highway of Advent, the highway that leads us ultimately back to Bethlehem and forward to God’s intended destination – deeper and deeper into God’s love.
Along the way, there are liable to be traffic jams – times when our faith seems stagnant, dark nights of the soul, unanswered prayers, nameless unease, feelings of loneliness amidst the crowd, grief that creeps in and surprises us.  And yet, this is still God’s Holy Way.  Along the way, there will be road construction – times when our deepest convictions are disrupted by new realities, times when alternative pathways must be created and many of those over bumpy, unfamiliar roads at speeds far less than the posted maximum.  Fines double in construction zones.  And yet, this is still God’s Holy Way.  Along the way, there are wayside stops for nourishment and refueling – times set apart for us to feed our souls, to tend to our most important relationships, to share secrets and dreams with a friend.  This too is still God’s Holy Way.  Along the way, we might even get lost – but on this Holy Way, God never loses us and will always reroute us so that we reach the final destination – God’s loving embrace for all humanity.
And so in this season of Advent, whether you find yourself in the spiritual backseat of an old brown station wagon wondering if we’ve arrived yet and singing along with Alvin and the Chipmunks:
I want a plane that loops the loop
Me, I want a Hula-Hoop
We can hardly stand the wait
Please Christmas don't be late[4]
OR, if you are in the front seat – slightly annoyed now, experiencing loss or disappointment, or just not sure where you’re headed any more - know that you too are on the right highway, the Holy Way of God - and that the destination is there for each of us, God’s promise is for all humanity. We will come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon our heads and we shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.[5]  But, for now, we must wait – with patience and with singing.

[1] Isaiah 35:8.
[2] James 5:7, 8.
[3] James 5:9.
[4] Ross Bagdasarian, “The Chipmunk Song,” 1958. Full lyrics here, accessed December 9, 2016.
[5] Isaiah 35:10.