Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
A new year in our worship calendar starts today on this first Sunday of Advent. It begins, not with the pop of a champagne cork, but with lament at the hiddenness of God. ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, Isaiah pleads (Isaiah 64:1). The psalmist cries, “Restore us, O Lord of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80:3). Jesus warns the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken on the day of the Lord,’ (Mark 13:24). Hope and dread are interwoven. Advent teaches to us look for God’s light even when we are covered in darkness. When I seem hidden know that I am near, says the Lord. Remember, creation itself began in the dark.
“In the beginning…darkness covered the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:1-2). God poured out love and brought all things into being… Creation is God’s work done in Holy Darkness… Later, Jacob wrestled all night with God and was changed forever… The beginning of the many nations and peoples of the Lord is the work of God’s beautiful darkness… At midnight, the Lord passed over Egypt and set the people free… Samuel heard a small voice calling to him in the dark and became a mighty prophet… The disciples gathered with Jesus for the Holy Supper as the day turned to night… When Jesus died on the cross, the day went black from noon to three… Creation began in holy darkness, and our new lives as free people in Christ began in the darkness of the sky that day… God saved all creation, and it was the work of God’s beautiful, good, and holy darkness” (Sharei Green and Beckah Selnick, “God’s Holy Darkness,” Beaming Books, 2022).
As much as we want each day to be happy and filled with sunshine, the season of Advent helpfully equips us to withstand the bewildering pain of loss, self-doubt, and longing. It may feel better to string a bunch of Christmas lights, or to set out electric candles on our windowsills. I understand the temptation to rush through times tinged with blue; or to find electricity-fueled distractions to hold back the dark. It’s easy to be impatient with Advent. But if we rush through this season, jumping from Thanksgiving to Christmas like nearly everyone else does, we miss learning its lessons. Each of us is a flicker of a larger flame. The darkness is luminous, full of wisdom and insight. It is holy ground to rekindle hope and enter the presence of God. It offers grace to conquer even our darkest dread fears.
The first gift of Advent, then, is permission to tell the truth, even if that truth is laced with sorrow. We become better able to see life as it is rather than life as we wish it to be. Advent declares, in stark terms that our world is not okay. Repairing the world is not a quick fix. Advent is honest about the mistakes we have made both personally and corporately. Advent acknowledges we are surrounded by evil and suffering, and we’re not sure our faith can endure what our eyes reluctantly witness each day.
The second gift and discipline of Advent is learning to wait. Advent instructs us how to live with quiet anticipation in the “not yet.” We stop rushing and learn to call sacred what is yet in-process and unformed just as God does. As we heard St. Paul say to the church in Corinth, we “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:7).
In her book, Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris writes that “In worship, we let loose with music, and the words of hymns, the psalms, canticles, and prayers. We cast the Word of God out into the world, into each human heart, where, to paraphrase the prophet Isaiah, it needs to go to fulfill God’s purpose. Isaiah uses the metaphor of rain to convey this –rain that disappears into the ground for a time, so that we can’t see it working. And then, it bears abundantly.” We are witnesses to this. The Kingdom will come, yes. But it is also coming.
In these dark days of December, after the leaves have fallen and the flowers have dried up, it may seem most improbable to keep watch for signs of new life, yet we who serve the God of steadfast love can be confident they are there. Advent faith isn’t valued in the modern world, which applauds arrivals, finish lines, shortcuts, and end products, far more than it does the meandering journey or odd way station. If the secular world speeds past darkness to the safe certainty of light, then Advent reminds us that the most necessary things — things worth waiting for — are wrapped in darkness. We can’t get more counter-cultural than that. The seeds of spring flowers break open in dark winter soil. God’s Spirit hovers over dark water, preparing to create worlds. The child we yearn for grows in the deep darkness of the womb. “Our food is expectation,” writes Nora Gallagher about Advent. In this season, we strive to find, “not perfection, but possibility.”(Debie Thomas, The Journey with Jesus, 11/24/14) Wait for God amid the world’s messed-upedness. Learn again what motivates our yearning for Messiah.
We call him Messiah and Lord, but Jesus most often called himself the “Son of Man.” We read this odd title thirty times in Matthew, fourteen in Mark; and twenty-five times in Luke. Jesus’ self-proclaimed title comes from the Book of Daniel, 7:13. Jesus declared himself to represent the coming of God’s way to reign in the world, a way that is truly human, a way that God the Creator designed for us from the beginning. Jesus is the new Adam. The first born of a new humanity. We also have been again as God’s children by baptism into Christ. Jesus’ mission was his prayer, that God’s kingdom come, and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven.
When we feel God is absent, I wonder, is it because God is truly hidden, or does God appear so because we are looking for the wrong God? We are looking for God in the wrong places, from the wrong perspectives, from the darkness of our minds and hearts. The Advent of the new Human Being in us begins by walking the way of Jesus and his cross. This is the path of resurrection and new life.
If we are waiting for a Second Coming of Christ who will wage violence, exact revenge, and liberate us from our enemies, and snatch us from this world, then, yes, that God is absent. But if by faith we keep watch and wait for the God who shows up among victims, then that God has been with us all the time; one simply must look in the right place. (Paul Nuechterlein, Girardian Lectionary.net, Notes on Advent 1B)
Author and Nazi camp survivor, Elie Wiesel, captured this hard-won insight in his famous memoir, simply called, Night. He writes, “A child hangs from an SS gallows and the question goes up, ‘Where is God?’” God would seem utterly absent in such tragic injustice. But Wiesel notices something different. He writes: “And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is . . . He is hanging here on this gallows.’” (Night, Bantam Books, 1982, pp. 61-62.) Jesus wasn’t wrong about a Second Coming. “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (Mark 13:30). Nations that don’t follow King Jesus on God’s path to peace walk themselves into destruction. Here comes the nonviolent Son of Man again to rescue us human beings from our own violence. As our eyes slowly adjust to God’s luminous darkness, we are called into serving Christ by welcoming one another as Christ. Christ coming again and again is the advent worth waiting for, preparing for, watching for. Let the stars begin to fall and the earth tremble.