November 29, 2014
I used to work right in the very middle of Washington, DC’s Chinatown. Every year, toward the end of January on a Sunday, then, there was a huge Chinese New Year celebration. Perhaps you’ve attended one: streets closed down for parades, food stands crowd the sidewalks, fireworks and drumming punctuate the air, children sitting on their parents’ shoulders struggle to get a glimpse of the dragon parading through the streets. It’s quite a celebration to usher in a new year. Well, today begins the season of Advent, the first day of the new church year, and you may have noticed we don’t have dragons or parades to usher in this new year. Instead, it begins in a rather austere way, with one little candle lit in the darkness.
Our new year is narrated by themes like darkness, absence, penitence and waiting—welcome to Advent. Not what you’d expect for a new year, right? In fact, some of us Protestant Christians have been so annoyed over the years about the incongruous somberness of the season of Advent that we’ve watered it down and, in some cases, eliminated it altogether.
It does seem a little strange, I’ll admit, that after several days of celebration, consumption of copious amounts of food, reflections on gratitude and warm feelings of fullness and satisfaction, that we’d come here to church this morning to worship and be drawn back to the stark reality of the human experience—that our lives are not made up of perfect families who always have too much to eat and warm places in which to feel satisfied and happy. In fact, we know maybe more than ever that there are cold and dark and broken places in our world. This week we have watched with disbelief the decision of the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, and we—especially as people of faith—are confounded. What is the future? What kind of hope can we claim in the middle of such pain and brokenness?
And so here we are, on the first Sunday of the church year, the first Sunday of Advent, and we light the very first candle on our Advent wreath, the candle of hope. We are looking around for something—anything—to lift our hearts, to carry our spirits, to reassure us that what we see when we look all around is not the final word . . . that there’s something on the horizon that’s on its way, something that won’t allow us to remain in the pain we’ve created for ourselves but instead offers us the opportunity of something more.
We’re waiting . . . waiting for the light of Christ to remind us that there’s some hope for us after all.
To guide us in reflection this morning we hear the words of an Israelite prophet, Isaiah. As you know, there is a book in our Bibles called Isaiah, but it is inaccurate to take the whole book as the composition of one person at one time. Scholars disagree, of course, about the details, but most would say that there are three distinct parts of the book of Isaiah, different prophetic takes on three parts of Israelite history: before the people are taken into Babylonian exile, while they are living in exile, and after they return home from exile to Jerusalem.
Our passage today comes from the third portion of Isaiah, the part written after the Israelites finally returned home to Jerusalem. And you’d think the perspective of the prophet would be one of joy and exhilaration, of people stuffed full with Thanksgiving dinner, happy to be back in the land that was promised them and looking forward to a merry holiday season ahead.
The problem is that, like our reality, theirs was something a little different than what they’d imagined. After years of living in exile, finally, they were released from the unjust domination of the Babylonian empire and returned to their beloved Jerusalem to resume life as they had known it. All of the sudden that day had come, but things just were not exactly like the memories that had sustained them through years of exile.
And it is from this perspective that Third Isaiah is writing—from the perspective of what should have been happiness and fulfillment, dreams realized and Promised Land recreated.
But it wasn’t.
And in the darkness of this new reality, hope seemed absent.
Things were pretty normal in the West family of Eugene, Oregon, a middle class family with three children quickly approaching adulthood. The West’s worked hard, put kids through college, cut coupons ad corners to make ends meet, took out a second mortgage on their home to pay the bills—until October 19, when everything changed.
That day Steve West happened to notice that the Powerball was up to 340 million dollars and decided on a whim to buy a lottery ticket. You guessed it: 7, 21, 43, 44, 49, 29—the numbers on their ticket—matched the winning numbers of the largest single-ticket prize in Powerball history.
It’s mind-boggling, really. Can you imagine how that family’s life changed? No more struggling to pay for college tuition. No more putting in time at a job you hate just until you can scrape together enough to retire. No more repairing the 15-year-old car just one more time to see how long it might possibly last. No more second mortgage; no more first mortgage. All those times they sat around musing over the what-ifs of their lives . . . if only we could win the lottery, everything would be taken care of.
I don’t know how the Wests are going to fare in their new adventure as millionaires, but my guess is that all their problems may not be solved by the acquisition of a whole lot of money.
It seems that what happens is that the utopia of suddenly coming into 340 million dollars is not really as wonderfully fabulous as it might seem. Upon getting the news that you’ve won, everything about your life changes. The moorings you had come to depend upon to provide perspective and structure are suddenly blown out of the water; you are now the focus of intense interest from almost every corner of society; your perspective becomes skewed into something you cannot even recognize.
In fact, I did see a recent survey of lottery winners 20 years or more after winning the lottery. Surprisingly, almost every one of those folks said their lives had become more difficult, filled with problems they’d never imagined, and that if they could go back and redo their lives they would have preferred NOT to win the lottery.
How many of us are people who have more than we could ever imagine we might need but still feel a sense of emptiness, of longing, of the absence of God this first Sunday in Advent?
We might have a lot of stuff but anyone with even a bit of sense will not be fooled for more than a minute by the shiny glitter and curling bows of our society. This year in particular our television screens have flashed with the real-life suffering of people—this time, NOT halfway around the world, but in our own backyards, and in the streets and courtrooms of our country, and everywhere we turn.
And this raw human suffering, despite the fact that our televisions blare from stations in the richest country in the world, is only indicative of piles and piles of deeper pain carried like unbearable weights through this human existence we live. It turns out that even with all that we have, darkness crowds in when we realize we cannot create communities that reflect God’s justice and hope, when we cannot for the life of us even feel the presence of God some days.
Spanning thousands of years of human history from their lives to ours, we find that such was the case for Isaiah’s contemporaries in the newly resettled city of Jerusalem. While they’d finally gotten what they’d wished for, they had everything they’d hoped for, but something was wrong. Hope seemed absent. GOD seemed absent.
Here was the reality of their realized dream:
Jerusalem was devastated . . . a veritable wasteland of a city, still rubble compared to its former glory.
They’d returned to a society made up of former outcasts, the riffraff left behind when the upper class had been exiled, people sharing their neighborhoods whom they’d never wanted to share neighborhoods with before.
And the exiles were back, with different cultural customs, food, clothing, music, even modifications of religion.
Everything was strange and strained, and all the dreams of recreating what they had lost had turned quickly into a nightmare of readjustment where nothing seemed to fit anymore, where the utopia of cultural existence that kept their hopes alive over all those years seemed to be evaporating.
And as he looked around at the situation in which the Israelites found themselves, even Isaiah, the messenger of the Lord, was beginning to feel desperate. All he could feel was God’s absence, and he wailed: “Oh, that you might tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains would tremble before you!”
While he cried out to the heavens, shaking his fist and pleading for God to do something, anything, Isaiah the prophet was asking the people to join him in living their lives in anticipation. He wanted them to scan the darkness while they waited and to look, look hard for a sign . . . for any sign . . . that hope, that God, was on the way.
Like the prophet Isaiah, we long in the deepest part of our souls to be delivered from this broken and hurting world we’ve created. Isaiah said, “We have been in our sins such a long time . . . when shall we be saved?”
We do not long for more of the same, for more running around aimlessly, constructing and reconstructing unjust societies, accumulating things, wishing for a world totally different than the one we’ve created, lamenting the injustices of Ferguson and Cleveland and Ann Arbor, and Chicago, and Sarasota Springs, and Victorville, and Brooklyn, and Los Angeles and so many other cities.
We don’t want that.
What we want is to squint through the darkness and see just a little bit of hope.
Like Isaiah we want God to tear open the heavens and come down, to answer our silence and penitence, to come into our darkness with the defiance of light, to come and save us.
Today we can see the darkness around us. For a people who have so much—maybe all the material things we’ve always wanted—we can tell our world is not as it should be. The people around the prophet Isaiah cried our cry of panic. And the people with whom Jesus lived panicked, too. All around him was a world of individual and systemic brokenness, people living as exiles, without voices in the systems that oppressed them, targets of violation, injustice, brutality, even, by the authorities, so beleaguered that hardly any dared to hope for a new world, for the coming of the light they longed for.
We hear the words of the prophet, we recall the world into which Jesus was born, we look around at 9/11, Sandy Hook, ISIS, Ferguson and we know: nothing we manufacture can save us from this mess we’ve created. No government, no relationship, no substance, no acquisition. We want to voice a cry of panic.
Instead, we recall that we are people of hope. So we cry with the prophet: “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
And, we light a candle in defiance of the darkness today.
But what about tomorrow?
If we barrel toward Christmas oblivious to the reality of our lives, bolstered by too much eggnog and running on adrenaline after late night shopping sprees, senses overwhelmed by too much sugar and too many jingle bells, well, then we will never really stop long enough to remember how much we need a Savior.
We have to pause and wait. Advent invites us to sit in the darkness with only the flickering light of a candle, even for just a little while, to take stock of our reality and to remember . . . to remember that we really need a Savior.
Today is the Advent Sunday of hope, lit by the light of just one candle. But we begin this journey toward Christmas waiting for a sign, just a little sign, that what we see all around us is not the final word.
The only thing we can hang onto in the darkness is the hope . . . yes, hope . . . that God is on his way, ready to be born in us again, to shape the reality in which we live into something promising and beautiful, something full and meaningful.
Sit now in the darkness and look for the light, people of hope.
For Christ IS our light, and he will surely come.