Live As If You Believe
Theologian Frederick Beuchner writes: “In the silence of a midwinter dusk there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen…. The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment….
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and Advent begins in the dark.
Today is the first Sunday of the new church year, with the light of day waning far too early and all of us huddled inside with glowing lamps, trying to push away the darkness. And the darkness outside mirrors the darkness we carry inside—in these weeks leading to Christmas the two converge: the darkness of winter and the darkness of doubt, of fear, of insecurity—all of the very hardest parts of what it means to be a human being on this earth.
Into this darkness we declare that something new is coming, and so during Advent, we wait. We wait in the darkness, we wait in the absence, we wait in the silence. We wait for what we believe is right up ahead of us, on its way.
Like the shepherds who sat on a Galilean hillside in the darkest, inky black of night, we’re waiting for something. We can’t see it; we can’t hear it, but we’re stubborn in our insistence: it’s on the way. We are people who will look back and remember what happened to the shepherds when, in their darkness and silence, faint notes echoed over the hills, lilting voices carried on the wind, ears perked up in the silence and they heard the sound…of angels singing.
We’re listening for that—something like that. In the meantime, though, we wait. And while we sit here, in the darkness and in the silence, waiting, we do the very hard work—perhaps the hardest work—of living in anticipation of the in-breaking of God.
Each week in Advent we start worship with the lighting of a candle—one new candle, one little light in the darkness, representing something we cling to—desperately, sometimes—as we wait.
This week it’s hope.
And I don’t know about you, but I need a measure of hope today, because sometimes I find it hard to live as if I believe—believe that the kingdom of God is coming to be in this world, believe that love wins in the end, believe that we can learn to do right by each other once and for all.
For me, that hit home hard this week when I spent the Thanksgiving holiday with my sister and her family in Colorado Springs. You’ll know if you watched the news this week that on Friday a gunman shot and killed three and injured nine in a shopping mall, a mile and a half from my sister’s house, at a Planned Parenthood right next to the grocery store where she shops regularly.
How long, O Lord? Will the darkness finally overcome us? How can we live as if we believe the light is coming with so much evil about to overtake us?
On this first Sunday in Advent, the Sunday of hope, the lectionary assigns a little passage from the first book of Thessalonians. At first glance, it doesn’t seem to fit this theme of waiting for something new to be born; instead, it kind of reads like a love letter.
I swear I am not a fan of Nicholas Sparks’. It was just a moment of weakness several years ago—I had a very unusual free afternoon, the weather was dismal, and I decided I’d let go of control, give up making a plan, go to the movie theater by myself, and watch whatever happened to be playing. To my chagrin, the only thing playing in my timeframe was the Nicholas’ Sparks movie The Notebook, but I ducked in anyway. What would it hurt?
Two hours later, red-eyed, my face streaked with tears, I stumbled out of the movie theater, and ran straight into member of my church. At that moment, I acuired a reputation as a hopeless romantic, Nicholas Sparks’ fan.
I’m telling you, this is a charge that is flatly untrue.
Still, you have to admit, there’s something about a love story that gets to most of us in our weaker moments…the perfect gift, the perfect story, the perfect love letter.
So if you’re a hopeless romantic like most of the rest of us, you will love the passage assigned for our reading today from the book of 1 Thessalonians. The passage is about as perfect a love letter as you can imagine, beginning sort of with a “how do I love you? Let me count the ways…” and ending with a pledge to eternal love forever and ever. It is a love letter, from a pastor to his people, the Apostle Paul to the Thessalonian Christians.
You remember that the Apostle Paul set out to plant churches all over Asia Minor, spreading the gospel message into strategic cities, planting little churches that would help advance the message of Jesus. The town where the Thessalonian church took root was a strategic, seaport city with a population of about 60,000 people. Trade was brisk through the city, and there were people there from all over the world.
The worship of idols was the order of the day, and what made the Christians strange was not that they followed Jesus, but that they claimed to be followers of only one God. Because of that strange belief, Paul had been driven out of town and the Thessalonian church pressed in on every side, facing persecution and rejection in their families and in their communities. Paul, who had a special affection for the Christians in that little church, sent his student Timothy to visit them, and Timothy returned to Paul with reports of abiding faith and love within the church there, good news for Paul to hear. These Thessalonian Christians were living as if they believed, creating the kind of community Paul envisioned the church growing into, and he was deeply missing his friends there.
And so Paul sat down to write them a letter, a little piece of which we heard today, Paul’s love letter to the church. Today’s passage is unusual because Paul uses a rare form of Greek called the optative mood, an arrangement of language that communicates wishing, or hoping. His words have almost a wistful tone to them.
Given all that these Christians had been through, Paul is wishing for them that they would increase in love for each other…and for all, he writes. He knew that if these Christians could manage to live believing in the middle of incredible hardship, persecution on every side, and rejection all around them, then their love for each other would increase and abound, and the love they managed to put into action would change the world.
Paul speaks with a wistful longing, because he must have known then what we know now: that it’s hard to live as if you believe that love can change the world. Why? Because black teenagers are shot by police in the middle of the road, and climate change is making the poorest among us poorer, and children don’t have enough to eat, and anyone can pull out a gun a mile and a half from my sister’s house and kill whomever he feels like killing. That’s why.
Violence and death and injustice keep breaking in all around us, interrupting our Thanksgiving holidays and the insulated lives we’ve built to ignore the pain. But today is the first Sunday of Advent and Advent begins in the dark. This is the season where we live as if we believe that the promise of God will be the interruption that surprises us, born again in us, echoing Paul’s deep yearning for love to increase and abound in you and me and all of us so that the world God wishes we would build will actually come to be.
It’s Advent. And Advent begins in the dark.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I probably am a sucker for a good love story. One of my favorites I heard on an episode of Radiolab, the story of Alan Lundgard and Emilie Gassio. Two twenty-one year old art students, they were living the dream in a loft in Brooklyn, studying art and basking in the glow of young love. They’d met at a party only nine months before, and had, as Alan describes, “a moment.” On the program he waxes poetic about Emilie’s “iridescent” eyes, and when the interviewer says, “So you knew in that moment that this was more than just a thing,” Alan breaks in and says, “Oh yes, it was more than a thing…it was THE thing.”
One day on her way to class, Emilie is involved in a traffic accident—she’s on her bike and she’s hit by a huge truck, in ICU, clinging to life. Alan calls Emilie’s parents to hurry to the city, where all three of them keep vigil around Emilie’s bed, her parents splitting the daytime hours and Alan staying every night, all night long.
For weeks they waited for her to recover, with few signs of hope. Finally, the doctors deemed Emilie medically stable but completely unresponsive. Against Alan’s urgent insistence, her parents agreed she was probably not getting better, so they made plans to transport her to a nursing home in their hometown, where she’d likely live the rest of her life.
But Alan thought there was hope—in the middle of what seemed to be complete desolation, he insisted: she’s in there; she just can’t get out. “You have to give her a chance, you have to give her a chance,” he begged. Because Emilie had sustained some hearing loss in childhood and worn hearing aids before the accident, and because the doctors thought she’d lost her vision as a result of the accident, Alan, in a desperate attempt to prove to the doctors and to Emilie’s parents that Emilie could get better, tried something he’d read about in the story of Helen Keller. One night, deep in the darkness, he traced out on her arm the words: “I love you.” She immediately awoke and responded.
Alan had proof that what he’d hoped was true. But the doctors and Emilie’s parents still weren’t sure. So Alan tried putting in her hearing aids and turning them on. When that happened, when she could finally hear, suddenly everything changed. “Just by hearing his voice…,” Emilie said, “I came back.”
Like the Apostle Paul, we should be people who live wishing for the world we know God intends, living as if we believe it can come to be…it is coming to be. We should never become so complacent that we accept a world in which children are starving, where power struggles and harm of neighbor are the order of the day, where we are diminished in our aggressive exploitation of those among us who are weak and vulnerable. This is not the world God imagines for us, but it is the world we’ve come to expect.
Not anymore. We have rested on our laurels long enough; we have risked the balm of complacency for far longer than is healthy or right. But Advent is here, and while Advent begins in the dark, we live these days expecting something to change.
So our invitation today, the first Sunday of Advent, is to live as if we believe. Live with the vigilance of a neighbor who knows the wellbeing of the other is critical to the health of this whole world. Live with the expectation that love, not violence, is about to shatter our status quo. Live believing God’s way is coming.
Advent is here. Our watching and waiting and bringing into being God’s perfect dream of a just world…well, it has now begun. And so, we live in hope:
Come to our trembling,
Come to our littleness,
Be born unto us
Who have kept the faltering vigil.
Be given, be born,
Be ours again.
Come forth from your holy haven,
Come away from your perfect shrine,
Come to our wind-racked souls
From the flawless tent,
Be born, little Child,
In our unholy hearts.
O Little Child of Bethlehem…be born in us today.
 from Whistling in the Dark, p. 2-3.
 Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C. [late Abbess of the Colettine Poor Clare monastery in Roswell, New Mexico]Amen.