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The Coming of the Hollow Days

Thomas J Parlette

“The Coming of the Hollow Days”

1st Thessalonians 3: 9-13

11/29/15, 1st Advent

These first couple days after Thanksgiving are always a strange time. The turkey is almost gone, I’m sore from a couple extra workouts to work off the pumpkin pie, and the Christmas decorations are up. At least the tree is already decorated – because as you know, we never took ours down from last year, so that’s good. The holidays are suddenly upon us, and there is so much to do. But despite all the coupons from department stores and holiday specials on T.V. – it just doesn’t feel like the Christmas season yet. I don’t feel ready for the holidays. We’ve had such a warm fall maybe that’s why it seems difficult to kick in the holiday spirit.

My mood this week kind of reminded me of the story about a minister who got a Christmas card from his granddaughter. The card had a cheery picture of a sleigh ride on the front and when you opened the card it read, “Got lots of happiness to share this Christmas.” But then underneath the greeting was scrawled, “Sending love and prayers for the hollowdays.”(1)

A rather profound misspelling, don’t you think? But there’s a lot of truth in that phrase. That’s how a great many people feel during the holidays – they feel hollow. Like something is missing. Maybe it’s because of the weather, maybe it’s because you just have too many things to do, maybe it’s because your life has changed drastically since last Christmas – loved ones departed, moved away or simply unable to be here this holiday season. Could be lots of reasons, but many of us have at least a few hollow days during the holidays.

That’s the way I was feeling this past week, a little hollow, at least after the turkey ran out – until Friday. On Friday I got our first Christmas card of the season. It was from my cousin in Bloomington, Illinois. They are always on top of things – the weekend of Thanksgiving and their Christmas cards are already out. Sometimes I don’t get Christmas cards out until February – I change them to “Merry February” cards instead of Christmas cards.

On the front was a scene of a family decorating a tree outside in a pasture with just enough snow to cover the ground. Inside, it said “May happy times decorate your Christmas.” But the best part was the Christmas letter and the pictures that fell out. I have a few relatives that write a Christmas letter each year. It’s a nice tradition. Just a few words about what everyone is doing, what sort of school activities they are involved in, interesting vacations they went on, a medical problem discovered and overcome – that sort of thing. And they always close with best wishes, hope all is well and let’s try to see each other this next year. When I get a Christmas card with a Christmas letter in it, somehow the season feels a little less hollow. Suddenly it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

I wonder if that’s what is happening in Thessalonica. The Thessalonians were going through some hollow days of their own. As a church, they were struggling with how to live in the surrounding culture, a culture dominated by materialism and consumerism. A culture in which they were facing persecution as a result of their faith in Christ. As a result, many in the church had given in and made concessions to the secular culture in Thessalonica. Sound familiar to anyone? Not that much different than today.

In addition, there were many in the church who were growing increasingly despondent because they had been expecting Jesus to return with their life-times – and now it didn’t seem like that was going to happen. Some of their original number were passing away, and still no second coming of Christ in power and glory.

And then there was the group within the church who had decided to quit their jobs and simply live off of everyone else – because if Jesus was coming back again soon, and the world was going to end – why work? They figured, “Let’s just sit back and wait for the end to come.”

Yes, the church in Thessalonica was struggling through some hollow, disorienting days of their own to be sure.

But then Paul sends a little Christmas card of his own, so to speak. On the front is written, “Now we can give thanks to our God for you.”

When you open it up it says, “We thank him for the joy we have in his presence in your faith.”

And then a personal Christmas letter falls out, expressing Paul’s desire to stay in touch and possibly get together for a visit, as he writes: “May our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus prepare the way for us to come to you! May the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow more and more and become as great as our love for you. In this way he will strengthen you, and you will be perfect and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all who belong to him.”

As we enter this advent season, these are good words to start our journey. These are words of hope expressing complete confidence in God’s promises. These are words of encouragement to a group of Christians, not unlike ourselves, struggling with feelings of emptiness. These are words of guidance as to how we can live our advent days as holy days instead of hollow days.

First, Paul reminds us what we are waiting for. After all, in these days before Christmas, everybody is waiting for something, right? Maybe it’s whatever new gadget is hitting the market this year, or a new X-Box or Playstation, a new leather jacket or a gift certificate to the spa. Or maybe it’s just a visit from the grand kids or a phone call from a loved one. Everybody’s waiting for something. But Paul reminds us that we church folk wait for something else; something more extravagant than anything on anyone’s wish list. We wait for God’s most extravagant gift of all – the gift of Jesus Christ to the world. That is what we wait for. That is what is on our wish list.

Second, Paul reminds us that the waiting itself, is only half of the story. How we wait is also important. How do we go about waiting for the final arrival of Christ – how do we await the second coming?

Well, how do we await a gathering of friends coming over to celebrate the season? Do we sit around and hope that when they show up they will entertain themselves? No, we get ready. We clean up, we put up the decorations, we vacuum, we dust, we pile the toys in only one corner of the living room, and we shove everything we can into the least-used closet or spare bedroom upstairs. We put out little dishes of nuts, and plates of Christmas cookies, whip up a batch of eggnog and put on the Perry Como Christmas album. We do a lot more than simply wait. We prepare while we wait.

That’s the way the church has been waiting for 2000 years. Not simply by sitting on our hands doing nothing, waiting for Christ to come – but by going into the world and trying to make it a better place. We create missions to feed the hungry, comfort the prisoners and bring hope to the helpless and the hopeless. We church folk are busy while we wait for the coming of Christ. While we wait in this season of Advent, we fill our hollow days by offering the world a word of hope.

Rev Carol Hosler once wrote about her advent wait. She said, “My mother died on December 11th, and I flew to Seattle for the funeral, returning hone a week later. There was a huge stack of mail brought into the house by our dog-sitter and placed on the dining room table. Obviously there were many Christmas cards. So I began opening them. The images were familiar – glowing Christmas trees, the star of Bethlehem, the light of a candle, light streaming from a stable. But one card took me by surprise. It was a sympathy card. Then a few more, sprinkled in with the Christmas cards. At first, I divided them into two separate piles – Christmas here, sympathy there. But then the message inside the next sympathy card caught my attention – “Death is not the extinguishing of the light; it is putting out the lamp because the dawn has come!”

Suddenly all the cards merged in my mind. “The light has come!” Impulsively, I merged the two piles of cards into one – and my husband asked, “What are you doing?”

And I said, “Oh, they all say the same thing!”(2)

Indeed they do, indeed they do. Into our hollow days comes this Christmas card from Paul. A few words to set the tone for our advent season. A little reminder of what we wait for, and how we should go about our waiting. For Paul’s Christmas card says what all Christmas cards say – “The light of the World has come, and it is coming once again. So, let’s get ready.”

In a world that seems to get darker everyday, as the threat of terrorism and violence grows; as our nation confronts the reality that racism is still a major problem; as we wrestle with the problem of guns and violence and whether we should close our borders or continue to welcome immigrants from other lands; as we as a denomination continue to grapple with congregations that wish to leave and even as we as a congregation in Rochester fret over decreased attendance and lagging participation – we can identify with Luke he writes “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. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken.”

In a world like ours, it’s easy to feel not only hollow but also a bit panicked as we wonder, are we seeing signs of the end. Into this foreboding sense of dread enters Luke’s words of hope that match up well with Paul’s Christmas card. When times look the darkest, when we feel like we are in the bottom of a deep, dark, pit – that is when the light will come. As Luke says, “They will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

The light is coming my friends. The light is coming. Let us stand up, let us raise our heads. Redemption and renewal is on the way. Welcome to Advent.

May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Homiletics, Vol. 18, No. 6.

2.    Ibid…