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Bible readings:



Advent I Year C (November 29, 2015)                           St James', Peace River


“What do you want?” That's a question we're going to be hearing a lot this month, isn't it – if you haven't already started asking or being asked. What do you want for Christmas? Perhaps at this point in time we're more likely bringing a third party in on it – what does he want, what do you think she wants – as we try to get the right ideas for our gift lists. And the wanting is reinforced everywhere we look. Letters to Santa. TV advertising. Contests and draws to encourage us to buy more, because it's not just about what the recipients want – I want to win too!

There's a funny quirk in the English language when it comes to that word “want”. It used to mean something quite different, until it evolved – or, should I say, mutated. It used to be that when you talked about wanting something, that meant you lacked it. It was something you needed and were missing. It's still there in a few old stock phrases: waste not want not.... tried and found wanting... all for the want of a horseshoe nail. There's even an old hymn that goes “He wants not friends that hath thy love.” Which wasn't a reference to being antisocial – it meant that with God's love, we don't need anything more, even though having some other people around might be nice!


Lately though, the word “want” has meant something quite different – to desire, or wish for something. In fact you can't really want something you need, any more. You need it, you don't want it! The things we want are the things we don't have, but have been managing OK without. The extras in life – the indulgences, the luxuries. I want to go to Disneyland. I want a new car. I want a little peace and quiet!


Only, of course, that last one doesn't quite fit with all the rest, because it's not something you can buy. And that's the challenge in the culture we live in now, where so often the line gets blurred between what we want and what someone wants to sell us – to the point where marketing is about trying to persuade people like us that we want what is on offer. No, not want it – need it – so in an odd way we come full circle and the very word “want” starts to mean “need” again, but in a false way.


One of the conundrums of this season leading up to Christmas, is that there are two kinds of wanting which always seem to create interference patterns with each other. There's that marketing kind of want that I was just talking about, which generates a new fad gift every year and a whole host of things that everyone thinks everyone wants, but no one actually does. But the season also seems to expose a much deeper and much more real kind of wanting, one that is perhaps closer to that older meaning of feeling a deep lack of something essential. A season of celebration, caring, and connection exposes some holes in all of our lives. We realize what we're missing. We want to not be lonely. We want to feel safe. We want to find the fulfilment that we're not getting in our day-to-day lives. We want our loved ones beside us – maybe we want them back, even though we know they're gone.


As I said, there is a kind of interference pattern between those two types of wanting. The advertisers pushing the indulgent wants, often start by evoking the real wants that are a deeper part of our lives – they show us pictures of happy families, scenes of peace and safety, glimpses of an ideal world. Sometimes I figure that's just a trick, to put us in the mood to say yes to their product. But then again, maybe there's some implied honesty there too. “You know you can't have what you really want,” the marketers say, “so try what we're offering instead. It'll take your mind off what you're missing.” The economic extravaganza known as Christmas relies on that contrast, or bait-and-switch, or whatever it is. We put a lot of energy and money into wanting things, in order to avoid thinking about what we really want.


And that's where the contrast with the Christian practice of Advent becomes most clear. Advent means the opposite. It means fending off, for a while at least, the clamour of wanting, in order to remember and focus on what we really want; what is really missing from our lives, what is really missing from our world. It means not shrugging off those deep real wants with a cynical, “Well, that's never going to happen, so let's party.” Advent is a remembering that our most fundamental desires, our deepest yearnings, actually had and have and will have a fulfilment. “Come thou long expected Jesus... dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.... O come, Key of David... make safe the way that leads on high... bind in one the hearts of humankind.... be for us our Prince of Peace.”


God doesn't ask us to just take it on faith – to believe, as a matter of principle, that our deep wants point us beyond ourselves to God. We actually get to experience that too. Think about times when you actually have felt satisfied, or fulfilled, or safe, or at peace. Again, this is a counter-cultural practice – it's not in the interest of advertisers to remind us that we've ever had experiences like that. But there are moments in most human lives where there is an opportunity to rest in God – to say, as we said in the psalm, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you.” And not just because we know that's the right thing to say, but because in that moment we really know it's true – that God is giving us what we want, because ultimately what we want is God.


Some of those experiences of fulfilment come in the church setting – when you receive a welcome you never expected, and find yourself at home; or just as often the flip side of that experience, when you get to offer that welcome and that home to someone, and discover how doing so makes sense of who you are. But God isn't limited to the church, and is everywhere in that experience of human beings learning what their wants are really about. We want to mean something in someone else's life; we want to create, to make something that lasts; we want to be generous; we want to love as much as we want to be loved. And those wants come true, at least sometimes – and when they do, God is present and at work, carrying out a promise he made when he created this world and renewed when he sent his Son to us.


As we prepare to celebrate that gift once again, I invite you to take the opportunities that Advent gives us. The opportunity to experience our longing, instead of anaesthetizing it. The opportunity to pray for what is missing in your own life and mine, and in the life we share together with billions of other people like us in this world. The opportunity to grow in trust, as we live out that longing together with the hope that God has planted in us – the hope that there is a reason we yearn for a better life and a better world. The opportunity to wait and watch for the signs that our hope is coming true. And the opportunity to participate, to be part of God's purpose in fulfilling the hopes and yearnings of our neighbours, whether they live in our own household or continents away. Pray in words, but pray in your life too, the Advent hope: Come, Lord Jesus.