1st Sunday in Advent
November 27, 2011
This week has been a little impossible when it comes to sermon writing. Instead of having writer’s block, I have had sermon block. And, unlike other weeks, I started early, reading the scripture verses and looking over the commentaries. But, no matter what I have done to prepare for this Sunday, nothing seems right. It hasn’t helped that I have had, you know, other work to do. Between counseling sessions and dressing up like a turkey to help celebrate Thanksgiving, this sermon has been a real thorn in my side.
I think part of my problem is that its hard to prepare for the first sunday of Advent when it doesn’t feel like Advent. It’s not quite cold enough, not that I am complaining about THAT. But there are other things that seem “off.” Yes, we had our turkey and some of us stayed up all night to football. But, besides the hour meal that we shared on thanksgiving, this holiday weekend has been no different than all the other days and weeks we have spent here. The mission comes first which means that there really is no break, no time to pause and prepare for this season which is now upon us.
In a way, though, our Advent here must be pretty similar to the very first Advent. Our text from Isaiah tells us that the world was holding its breath, waiting for God to make a move. In some ways the world in which Isaiah preached in wasn’t that different from the world that we know here. Mostly, it was dark. There wasn’t a lot of good news. In fact, more often than not the news was bad. It was a world where a leader, out of fear of one day being overthrown, would slay all of the baby boys under two. It was a world where corruption had spread like disease, so much so that the temple had toppled and no leadership could be trusted to keep true to their word. It was a world where people relied on themselves and their own devices and only after they found themselves in an impossible position, turned and remembered God. Does this world sound familiar to you?
Now, I have always loved Advent, even when I was very small. It is possible, back then, my love of Advent had something to do with the fact that I got a piece of chocolate from the Advent calendar every day or that I was making my Christmas list and checking it twice, to make sure I had included all of my toys and dolls so that Santa would not forget anything. As I have grown older, though, I have learned to appreciate a different gift present in Advent. Unlike any other part of the church calendar, Advent is the time where we specifically acknowledge that we are in a world covered in darkness. It is in these weeks that we do what we should be doing all the time, that is actively waiting and watching for the coming of our Lord. It is now that we cry out, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and we really mean it or at least try to mean it.
I have a friend who once told me that she used to pray for some kind of tragedy to happen in her life. It’s not that she was a masochist, but she felt like everything had always worked out for her so easily. She never knew suffering or what it meant to cry out to God from a place of utter desperation. She was studying to be a pastor and through her studies, she had traveled to many countries in the developing world. In those places she had worshiped God with people who had lost family members to war and violence. She had shared meals with children who were orphaned from HIV and AIDS. She had celebrated communion with pastors who had buried many more people because of illness and poverty than they had ever married. She had visited some very dark places in the world, and she realized that where it was darkest, the light of Christ could shine brighter than anywhere else. This friend admitted that she didn’t really want something bad to happen. But, she experienced something almost remarkable when she worshiped God in the darkness.
This is the kind of fractured world from which Isaiah called out to God. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” Isaiah is not singing a sweet Christmas carol, but he is demanding an audience with God. Because where Isaiah was, in exile, it was really dark. The temple was in ruins. The Israelites had been forced to walk through the desert in chains to a place of captivity. They had been defeated, and I am willing to bet that many them felt that God was no longer there with them. And, even worse to admit, they deserved it. After all God had done, freeing them from Egypt and setting them up in the land of milk and honey, the least they could have done was worship God alone and remember that it was because of God alone that they had their very lives. But, I think we understand how easy it is to forget about God when we have everything the we need. And this is just what my friend was getting at. It’s not the tragedy that she longed for. She just recognized that she needed help remembering how much she needed God.
In a way, this Advent is a unique experience for us. We are not ACTUALLY in exile, but we can’t leave either. Day after day, whether we are part of the guard force dealing with detainees, interrogators, working to garner information which could save lives from a terrible end or medical personnel, walking alongside of those who have deep wounds and trying to offer a salve which may bring relief, no matter where we are while in this place, we face an overwhelming darkness. There really is no escaping it. Yesterday, I went on a tour of the new Justice Center for Parwan and the new housing units that will be used by the Afghan Army to hold more detainees. We are in the process of building even more of these units which is enough to make even a hopeful person feel a little hopeless. Is this ever going to end? Even the good things that we think we can celebrate, new schools for kids to learn and true partnership being forged between all of us, seems to fade into the background with news of more IEDs and setbacks.
We know what Isaiah felt like when he said “You have hidden your face from us.” In other times and places, God moved mightily, with such power that mountains quaked and nations trembled. So, why isn’t God doing that now? Isaiah is asking and so are we. Some days we are at the end of our rope. Some days it is so dark that we can’t even see a hand reaching out to us. Yet, sometimes we need the darkness because it helps us remember the true meaning of hope. Someone once said, “Hope is what is left when your worst fears have been realized and you are no longer optimistic about the future. Hope is what comes with a broken heart willing to be mended(De Jong, Patricia. “Isaiah 64:1-9.” Feasting on the Word p. 4.)”
I often forget just how painful hope can be. In place like this hope is calling us to keep a space open for the impossible to become possible, for good to grow out of the ashes of war. On most days, I am just not interested in putting myself out there again, in risking the hurt and disappointment that hovers. But where we are afraid, God is there. Where we lack courage to believe, God is there. When we doubt that light, even the light of Christ, can make a difference, God is there too.
Into the mire and mess of our world, a child is born-- God with us. This is not really what Isaiah may have hoped for when he begged for God to show up and make a difference in the world. But, God is a God who continues to defy our expectations. God’s answer to the darkness is a child. It is not power and might, not quaking mountains and trembling nations, but a child. The light which cannot be overcome by the darkest, most terrible night is a new life. It didn’t make sense then and nor does it now, at least by the world’s logic. Yet, maybe this is the point. As dark as it feels, we still go on, stumbling along the way, and it doesn’t always make sense.
At the new Justice Center, a team of teachers are waiting for their pupils to arrive, the very first class of Afghan Forensic Scientists. On Thursday, a group of US service members are preparing to bring school supplies to over three hundred children who will be treated at the Egyptian hospital this week. Yes, it is a drop in the bucket, but the ocean is made up of many drops. We aren’t doing this on our own, but we are called and sent to be the hands and feet of Christ. “Yet O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” These are Isaiah’s words to us, reminding us that we are held and fashioned by God and alone. From God’s fount, we find our strength and our hope.
Today we light the first candle of our unconventional Advent wreath. Honestly, I waited to the end of the service to do this because if it is combustible and we need to get the fire department involved, at least the service will be almost over! The candle we light does not represent our own light, but God’s light--the light of the world. When we dare to hope, when we share God’s love one drop at a time, when we wait and watch for the coming of our Lord, we reflect the light of Christ and witness to the world that in Him there is no darkness at all. Amen.