When I retired from active ministry in 2004, I recall thinking, “I’ll never preach an Easter or a Christmas sermon ever again.” And I wondered about Advent, which is my favorite season of the church year. Would I ever preach another Advent sermon? Turns out this year I’m preaching two. One today, and my pastor in Stockbridge has asked me to fill in for him on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. So, I’ll will bookend this lovely season with my preaching, which makes me glad.
Still, Advent presents some challenges to the preacher. The world around us is already putting up Christmas trees and lighting up their homes with lights. I do those things myself.
But the church in its wisdom knows that there is still work to be done, before we get to that celebration. Our readings and our hymns in Advent remind us that before we celebrate the light that came into the world, we must take stock of the darkness that surrounds us in our world, and the darkness in our own lives. Before we get to the light, we must fearlessly measure the darkness, both without and within.
Think of the Advent hymns: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”; “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”; “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night”; “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending.” There is a sense of yearning in Advent. A sense of anticipation. It is a portentious time of watching and waiting. A time to be alert and alive to what God might be doing around us and within us. A time to remind ourselves that there are forces at work beyond our control.
Advent begins in the dark. So, why then is it my favorite season? Because it has a different feel to it than the other seasons. There is something honest about it. It recognizes that though Christ has come, his work remains unfinished. It acknowledges the brokenness and tragedy of our world, and still has hope for God’s coming future.
Our theme for this First Sunday of Advent is hope. Amid the literal darkness for those living in the Northern Hemisphere and the metaphorical darkness of the bad news that fills our newspapers the church still hopes. ( I once published an Advent sermon in which I mentioned the darkness of the season and my friend in Melbourne reminded me that “not everyone is in the literal dark in Advent.”)
That hope is not because of something we are, or can accomplish, but only because of who God is and what God has done and can and will do.
Hope looks, then, to the future. Something (or Someone) is coming. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who was executed by the Nazis for his resistance to Adolph Hitler, wrote a famous letter in 1943 from prison. He wrote: “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other-—things that are of no real consequence-—the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.” (Letters from Prison, November 21, 1943)
So, Advent begins in the dark with an honest look at our world. We see great wrongs, even evil, a word I use sparingly, but the only word that can account for what is happening in Ukraine. We have a horrific 20th century European land war there, something I never imagined I’d see again in my lifetime. Three years ago, I stood in this pulpit with these same texts and imagined with you if Isaiah’s prophecy could come true, a world where weapons are turned into farm implements. That dream seems farther away than ever. I read an article in the Washington Post about the munition shortage facing the Ukrainians. After World War 2, and generations of relative peace, many countries scaled down their munitions, mothballing factories. Now they are opening old factories and ramping up production. Isaiah’s vision seems farther away than ever.
There have been seven mass shootings in the past seven days. A mass shooting hardly makes the news anymore. And the violent rhetoric and conspiracy theories that feed and fuel this violence are getting worse, not better.
A year ago, Brian Williams ended his long association with NBC News. His last night as host of MSNBC’s “The Eleventh Hour” he quoted the title of a Bruce Springsteen song, “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Reflecting on the American political landscape he commented that “the darkness on the edge of town has come into the public square.”
And what about the darkness within? What about our personal griefs and wounds. There are many among us, perhaps you are one of them, who don’t feel that this is “the most wonderful time of the year.” Perhaps you have lost someone you love. When I was an active pastor, many people told me how hard the holidays were for them. Some stayed away from church because it made them too sad. I have shared with you in the past my own struggles with disability and depression. It is hard to be of good cheer when life seems devoid of meaning and purpose; when darkness has overtaken your life.
And then there are all the ways we have let ourselves and others down, all the ways we have failed at being Christians, at being neighbors to those not like us, at being church.
It is into this dark world, dark without and dark within, that our readings come to us as a word of God.
Our first reading is the prophecy from Isaiah that I mentioned. There are a lot of moving parts to this prophecy, but one thing for us to especially note is that in Isaiah’s theology it is the Kings in the Davidic line who are God’s vice-regents on earth. And in time, hope for the fulfillment of the Divine Promises rested on a figure from the “House and linage of David” (Sound familiar?) who would come in God’s future and be the Anointed of God, the Messiah.
I need to say a word about anointing. Anointing was the rite sanctifying or setting apart a person or object for holy use. Good olive oil, extra virgin olive oil, firs press, was poured over the head of the person to be anointed. And who was anointed in the Old Testament? Prophets.priest, and, especially, kings.
And do you know what the word in Hebrew for anointed is? I bet you do. It is Messiah. And do you know the word for anointed is in New Testament Greek? I bet you do. It is Christos. So, when we call Jesus “Christ,” we are calling him the anointed One. Christ is not his last name.
So, the earliest church recognized Jesus as this anointed one. The church saw in Jesus the inauguration of the long-expected kingdom of God. But they looked around at their world, as we do at ours, and saw that this kingdom, though begun by Jesus, was not finished. The lion didn’t dwell with the lamb. The weapons of war had not been beaten into farm implements. There was still injustice and hatred and wars. The rich still oppressed the poor, the strong abused the weak.
But still, they believed in the Word of God as told through the words of the prophets, and they yearned for the fulfillment of the prophecies. And they came to believe that they lived “between the times,” between the first coming of Christ and the second coming of Christ when God would bring the promises to completion.
When will God come to us? In our reading today from Matthew Jesus says, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. . . Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
Now, there are religious folks around who believe they have unlocked the secrets of the Bible and can tell you what will happen at certain times and places, but pay them no mind, for these are false prophets.
Because faith isn’t about timetables. Faith is trust in the one who promises. When someone says “I have faith,” we must ask faith in what? Faith in whom? Faith means trust. And faith is not a good thing if the object of faith it’s not trustworthy.
Isaiah can see beyond the competing nationalisms of his day, the corrupt governments, the lax religion to see new possibilities that God will bring about: “It shall come to pass in the latter days” he says. Things are changing. Things you never dreamed of will come about. When? In the latter days? When are the latter days? Who knows? I don’t. You don’t. We don’t.
Still, every Sunday we pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” And we not only pray it, we work for it. And that is an important part of the mission of the church, to bridge the gap between our present dark broken world and the kingdom of God that Jesus both preached and embodied.
But no matter how hard we work and strive to bring about the kingdom it eludes us. It is not something we can make happen. Only God can. As Bonhoeffer wrote: “the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.”
And so, we begin the church year in Advent with “wait and watch.” We are reminded to be on the lookout for the new things that God will do; new possibilities that can only come about because God is in the mix.
It would be easy to be fearful about the future in times such as these. We live on a small planet. Our destinies are as interconnected as the air we breathe and the water we drink. There is fear in the air. Fear of violence. Fear for our democracy, fear for the natural world, fear of the Other who is not like us, fear of the unknown.
There is plenty to fear about, as much as I’ve known in my long lifetime, and when I was in elementary school we hid under our desks for drills in anticipation of being nuked by the Russians. But the fear this time isn’t so much “out there” from an external enemy or foreign terrorists but from our fellow citizens. So much hate and fear and so many guns.
In her essay “Fear,” author Marilynne Robinson writes of America as a Christian country having lost its way. “My thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind,” she writes.
The opposite of fear is faith, faith in the One who came into our world in the incognito of a new-born child, and “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” as the Creed says.
Do we dare believe it? Or have our fears so overtaken our faith that we have lost our way. That is an Advent question.
Have you ever noticed that every time an angel brings a message from God, they begin by saying what?,
That’s right, they always say: “Fear not!”
Advent begins in the dark, but it moves toward the light. Fear not!
“Come, Lord Jesus!” Amen.
(I preached this sermon at the United Congregational Church of Little Compton, RI on November 27, 2022. To see the service on YouTube:
Merry Christmas and thank you for helping us to let in the light.
A belated thank you.