(Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14)
Before the big wedding or anniversary party or whatever other big life event is set to take place, you get an invitation. These days it’s likely to come in an email, but if you’re being all proper about it, it comes in the mail, in the finest of envelopes, fancy calligraphy on the front. You open it and there’s all the information you need; the who, what, when and where of things, also in fancy calligraphy; all of it checking every box of proper invitation etiquette and protocol. There’s usually an RSVP request included – a card with pre-stamped envelope or at least an email address, because those with planning responsibilities need to know: will you or will you be there? And if you’re like me, you let that RSVP card sit unattended on your dresser for months until your wife calls you out, but that’s for another sermon.
The invitation has always been a thing. What has been a more recent development in proper party protocol is the Save-The-Date. This precedes the invitation, usually in the form of a fancy postcard. And its sole purpose is to let you know a big life event is coming so you can block it out on your calendar. So you won’t schedule anything else. So you can “save the date.”
Now invitation purists will vehemently declare: the Save-The-Date is not an invitation. The two are not the same thing. Which begs the question: if you send someone a Save-The-Date, are you obligated to send them an invitation later? Probably so. Or if you receive a Save-The-Date but for whatever reason never receive an invitation, are you actually invited? This question, along the lines of “if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound,” they too are also for another sermon.
For me, at least, I like Save-the-Dates. As one whose calendar can fill up fast, a heads-up is always a good thing. And besides, it’s kind of fun to get a sneak-peak at what’s coming, even if it’s not official yet. Even if it’s not the actual invitation.
Now there is, of course, an element of faith in all of this – a belief that the invite will at some point arrive; that the spot so dutifully reserved on your calendar will not go unutilized, that you won’t be left in limbo. Which means that, one way or another, it all boils down to faith. As do most things.
Today marks the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of our liturgical year and, more notably, the beginning of our Advent journey. There are a few things that tip us off to this – the large advent wreath hanging in our sanctuary is the obvious one. The colors changing to purple are another – delayed this week due to communion but set to happen next Sunday. Other parts of worship are switched up a bit – Advent readers and new musical elements.
Advent is here, my friends. Like a big “Save The Date,” it is here.
And there’s a deliberateness to Advent, is there not? Advent is designed to force us to move at a slower pace than the world around us, the world that’s making a mad dash to get to Christmas as fast as it can. And we feel the friction of that. We feel it in the hacked trees displayed in corner tree lots, we hear it in the Christmas carols that some radio stations started playing back in September, we experience it in Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays and Black Friday sales that started long before Black Friday. We feel the friction.
Advent has the unenviable task of reminding us that Christmas is not here yet and there’s nothing we can do about it. Not a thing. We can’t order Christmas up with a few clicks of the remote like an on-demand movie, we can’t grab a little Christmas at the drive-thru window. We have to go through Advent first. And Advent could care less about our impatience, our restlessness, our inclination to “just hurry up already!” Advent does what Advent does, and we have to live with that.
All of which means very few people get excited about Advent. There’s excitement about where Advent is leading, for sure. But not so much for Advent itself. It’s the waiting, don’t you think? It’s probably the waiting. Waiting for something we know is coming because we got the “Save The Date” but haven’t yet received an invitation. We check our mailbox every day; we comb through our emails, we scroll through our phone texts. Nothing. Not yet, at least. It’s coming! We know that much. But it’s not here, not yet. Tell me, where is the excitement in that?
In our Old Testament passage, we encounter the voice of the prophet Isaiah; a prophet who, like us, was smack dab in the middle of waiting. He and an entire nation, waiting for the long-promised messiah; a messiah who’d set the world right and bring about God’s kingdom on earth. Now that’s something to get excited about! But it hadn’t happened yet. And they’d been waiting for it for a very, very long time.
And into that non-exciting waiting, the prophet drops a Save-The-Date: Come, let’s climb God’s Mountain, to the House of the God of Jacob, he tells us. And we know this house. Everyone knows this house. This is not some retreat cabin tucked away in the rolling hills, nor is it some home down an embankment at the end of a winding driveway. This house is on top of the highest mountain, God’s mountain. And everyone can see this house. Everyone.
And we know we’re not the only ones getting the Save-The-Date. No, this thing is going out far and wide; to all nations of the earth. All of them! That’s a lot of people, y’all. I don’t know how one prepares for a gathering of that magnitude, but apparently God’s got it figured out. This thing is nothing more and nothing less than one humongous house party we’re being asked to hold a spot for on our calendar.
And what’s the occasion, you ask? Well….. It’s not a wedding or an anniversary or a baptism or anything like that. The reason for this every-nation gathering, when it happens, will be to mark the absolute end of strife and conflict and war, and the “advent” of a new era of peace. Now that’s something worthy of a house party, isn’t it? In fact, this shift from war to peace is so pronounced that swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Think about that – weapons of war and implements of destruction, every last one of them, not thrown away or discarded but transformed, repurposed into tools for the harvest and gadgets for growth. Rather than bringing about the end of life, they’ll now be used to further it.
And talk about good timing – this Save-The-Date comes to God’s people in the midst of existential uncertainty. The Israelite nation, at this moment in their history, was on the brink of destruction; their neighbors to the north recently wiped out by an enemy army who was now set to do the same to them. The threat to God’s people was severe. And so this existential, lingering fear lived with them constantly; they knew any moment could be their last.
And into this ever-present threat, the prophet drops a Save-The-Date. And it reads: Come to the house of the Lord for an all-nation house party. You know the house; it’s the one everyone knows. Come and bring your swords and spears so we can beat them into plowshares and pruning hooks; bring your hate and fear, which we’ll transform into grace and love; bring a world crying out for justice and we’ll help you learn a new song to sing; bring death and we’ll give you new life.
What a great day that will be, right? But – it’s not here yet. The invitation hasn’t even arrived. All we have right now is a Save-The-Date.
So what do we do with this Save-The-Date in this in-between time? What does it look like to sit in this “not yet”, where God’s goodness is most assuredly coming but is not quite here? How do you and I wait faithfully when all we have is just a Save-The-Date?
Our passage from Romans offers what might be some helpful words. I actually prefer how The Message unpacks it:
Get out of bed and get dressed.
Dress yourselves in Christ and be up and about.
In other words, live expectantly. Don’t just sit around, doing nothing. At the same time, don’t get so caught up in what the world is doing that you lose sight of what is on its way. Stay engaged in the life God has called you to live, even as you are busy waiting, even as you’re looking toward what you know is coming. Live each day as the day it is. And do what you need to do to get ready.
I love the story a pastor tells of a conversation she has with a young gentleman at a church dinner. It is February in Iowa, bitterly cold that time of year. She meets this man at this church dinner; she is there as a guest preacher for a speaker series much like our Gilchrist Sunday. This man winds up at her table and they launch into a conversation, sharing each other’s lives over a meal together. She tells him about her family; he tells her about his. He tells her about his wife at home who was unable to make it that Sunday because she is pregnant; 39 weeks, in fact. The baby could literally come any moment now.
The pastor congratulates him and asks how he and his wife are preparing for the baby’s imminent arrival. Oh, the usual, he says – nursery is all ready, baby clothes and diapers in the dresser, hospital suitcase all packed. Oh and I keep the battery warm, too.
Keep the battery warm, she inquires.
Yes, the car battery, he replies. Every night when I get home from work, when temperatures have already plunged well below freezing, before I go in the house I pop open the hood and remove the car battery and take it inside with me. That way I know it’ll be warm and ready to go if we have to make a mad dash to the hospital in the middle of the night.
Such a small little detail. Almost more trouble than it’s worth. And yet this is Advent, friends. This is the moment we find ourselves in. And in Advent, it’s the small things we do while we’re waiting for what we know is coming that end up making all the difference.
You know how someone once described this journey of faith every December? They called it an “Advent dare.” Our Advent dare – I love that! The minute we get that Save-The-Date, it is as if God God’s self is saying to us, I dare you to do Advent. I dare you to live expectantly, even as you reside deep in the valley. I dare you to transform your weapons of war into tools for the harvest, even as the world around you rages on in never-ending conflict. I dare you to make the trip up the mountain to my house, even as you know a world of nations will be joining you there. I dare you to believe in the invitation, even though it hasn’t fully come yet, even though the Promise is still only a promise.
Friends, on this first Sunday of Advent, you and I have received our Save-The-Date. We know what’s coming, even if it’s not here yet. God is daring us to take on this Advent journey.
So – you up for the dare?
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 From These Will Preach! Stories and Metaphors for the Pulpit by Jerry Schmalenberger, CSS Publishing Company, 1999, pg. 13.