This is the season for Christmas shopping—buying gifts for family and friends, saying thank you to teachers and delivery persons and service workers. For some folks, gift-giving is their love-language—they give gifts to show their love and their appreciation.
Now when I say the word “gift,” what do you see in your mind? Probably a box, wrapped in some colorful paper, with a ribbon tied in a bow? That’s what we imagine giving to others: something tangible, an item that can be touched and placed in a box and wrapped and given. We probably imagine that the bigger the box is, that means the bigger the gift is. Or we imagine that a person with more gift boxes is more loved.
So tell me: how do you wrap up a spiritual gift? Oh wait, no: we were talking about Christmas gifts, the kind you unwrap and say thank you or write a thank you note to put in the mail.
What would it feel like to unwrap a spiritual gift? What would that even look like? What does hope look like? If you pick up peace, how heavy is it in your hand? When you shake the package, what does it sound like when joy is inside it? When you take a deep breath to inhale the aroma of love, what does that smell like?
These are the gifts of Advent—along with waiting and patience. You know, the worst kind of gifts. They’re hard to wrap, difficult to transfer, they don’t keep well if they’re left unattended for too long.
But don’t we say these things matter to us? Isn’t it important to live with hope? Where do you get hope when you run out? Or is the supply chain still broken?
Luke Powery, a professor at Duke Divinity School, wrote a book of Advent reflections based on African-American spirituals. Noticing the fragmentation in our society, Powery writes,
“These societal splinters can create a sense of hopelessness and despair with no end in sight. This is where the Spirituals come in, those songs sung by weary throats, created in a brutal historical setting of slavery by the enslaved, yet resonating with hope through all the sinister splinters of social sin. They are musical memorabilia of hope in seemingly helpless situations. These songs, these musical lifelines, reveal the possibility of hope in hellish circumstances, light in the midst of darkness, love in the face of hate.
…Bringing the Spirituals and Advent together is a way to pray for a double blessing of hope. Like with an espresso, sometimes one shot is not enough; you need a double or triple shot to lift you from the malaise of the day.”
I love that idea—strong hope like strong coffee, maybe even hope can come in a concentrated form. Do you ever need that kind of hope, the strong kind, which you cannot manufacture but arises from somewhere beyond yourself? Where’s a good place to look for hope? How about from the people who have lived by it, as Powery names “the voices of the enslaved, the unlettered, the forgotten, the illiterate…those whose voices are not often heard in society, church, or academy.” Powery writes, “…It is critical to learn from these marginalized voices in a liturgical season where hope is found in a humble baby Jesus born in poverty.”
We’re exploring where we’ve come from, naming our belonging to a God who works in the most dire circumstances, a God who desires so much to be near humanity that God became human in a baby with the whole messy and humbling ordeal of birth. A God who, in Jesus Christ, was not defeated by death but was resurrected to new life to show us the way to new life. A God who, through the Holy Spirit, unites believers as the body of Christ on earth, working across centuries and different languages and cultures and traditions—there’s nothing God won’t do to bring us together, to be in union with God.
In every week of Advent, during worship, you’ll hear or even sing at least one African-American spiritual. You’ll notice it set apart by the green colors on the hymn board here in the sanctuary, or you’ll see some extra language in the bulletin to let you know where the song comes from—sometimes we know the name of the song’s composer, sometimes that name has been lost to history.
But we carry on the song because this is our song, borne of the people brought to this land where we live, part of the history of our nation, even if we’re not particularly proud of the history of chattel slavery. We can’t afford to lose the songs or the voices of our ancestors who heard the Word of God, and who deeply understood and lived the stories of God’s people. As Isaiah said it, God works for those who wait.
Embrace humility, and let the songs of the enslaved stir your own soul. If an enslaved person can cry out to God, so can you. If a spiritual can inspire an enslaved person to live in hope, it might just work for you too.
Because honestly, what gift can you even unwrap that will make you fully content? Or what amount of money is enough to satisfy your needs and your wants? What size of house is big enough to announce your presence? What prestige is enough for you, or what awards or achievements do you need to earn before you’ll finally be at peace?
At some point, hope is a decision you make, a choice repeated over and over again, to trust in God’s goodness, God’s eternal power. Jesus doesn’t promise a smooth journey or warm fuzzy feelings—he’s honest about the difficulties of life, reading the signs of the end. Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Blessings will come for those who persist in faith, who “keep awake” or who “stay woke.” Life may be challenging, but you don’t want to miss what God is up to. You too will be a witness. You will know the songs of hope, and you will sing them too—a gift of love from our ancestors.
Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved.