Karl Barth asks the rhetorical question, “What other time or season can or will the church ever have but that of Advent?”
I mentioned last week that Bonhoeffer likens this season to spending four Sundays trapped at the dead end of a collapsed mine, awaiting rescue. It’s a little dark, yes, but that’s the point. Advent begins in the dark.
Some of you are looking for the exits now. This isn’t what you thought you were bringing your out of town relatives to church for today. You were expecting a holly, jolly Christmas, and Joy to the World. Well, that will come, but before we sing Joy to the World we have to take a good hard look at the world as it is. Advent begins in the dark.
Don’t worry, I’m no scrooge! I love all things commercial Christmas. As soon as the knife hit the pumpkin pie on Thursday the needle dropped on Nat Cole’s Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire. Tinsel, lights, peppermint spice? I’m here for it.
But in the church, things are different. In the church, before we hang the stockings, we hang the purple paraments, the color, in the church, of prayer and penitence, the same color as Lent. But where Lent leads us into self-examination, Advent leads us into the depths examining the world as it is, stepping into the dark night of the whole world’s longing not just for a baby in a manger, but for a savior who will come and not just judge, but save, the world. Advent begins in the dark.
The church in Advent acknowledges that while we have been given a savior, thanks be to God, not all the world is yet saved. As the news reminds us this week, not only is it not saved, it’s not even safe.
It happens almost every year, right before the holidays some tragedy strikes to bring into stark relief the difference between the world as it should be and the world as it is. This year it was another rash of gun violence, two at universities, one at a Gay Bar, and the latest at a Walmart in Chesapeake.
Today’s reading from Isaiah 2 brings comfort and joy with its words of peace, and hope, of nations streaming to the Lord’s house, of swords beaten into plowshares. But let us not miss that this message of light comes in the shadow of Isaiah 1 which reads,
Woe to you, sinful nation,
laden with iniquity,
offspring who do evil,
children who act corruptly,
who have forsaken the Lord,
who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
who are utterly estranged!
From the sole of the foot to the head,
there is no soundness in you.
“Let us walk in the light of the Lord,” Isaiah says; but first, let’s be real. Advent begins in the dark.
At the Youth for Jesus house in L’viv Ukraine Advent is literally beginning in the dark. Russia’s latest strategy in the war appears to include what one news bulletin called “weaponizing the winter” by taking out the Ukrainian power grid.
Pastor Volodya, pastor of the sister church we support in Ukraine which runs the Youth for Jesus house, posted a video just this week. “This is the reality of war,” he wrote, “Russia is again shelling our city. So here we are, without light, sitting in the dark.”
But they weren’t just sitting in the dark. In the video you can hear them. They’re laughing. Young people, crowded in this apartment, with a war going on outside, they’re laughing, and eating. They’re in the dark, but it’s not all dark. They’ve started lighting a few candles. By candlelight, even though it’s dark, you can see the glow of their faces. “We’re sitting in the dark,” Pastor Volodya writes, “but we’re still serving each other, and praying together, eating together, and studying [not war, but] the Bible.”
Amid war and woe, Isaiah writes, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord,” and here on Facebook these Youth for Jesus are doing just that, even in the dark. They are choosing to study war no more, opting for Bibles and borscht instead. They do so in the name of Jesus, the One who Isaiah said would come and teach us his ways.
This is what the church tries to point to this time of year, the gospel illuminated by candlelight, of a Peace that passes understanding. With God’s help we try to embody the good news that Christ the Lord has already come, and in his name all oppression shall cease, that Christs’ death is the last necessary death in history. Not one more person needs to die. In his name, the church proclaims, what Isaiah foretold has come to pass. We have been freed to study war no more. His resurrection only proves this point. Look, says the gospel in Advent, this light shines, even in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.
I spoke to one of you this week who was anxious to show me an early Christmas present you received. A pair of earrings. You told me of a philanthropist who lost a child to gun violence, and in her honor established a fund to promote gun safety, literally giving away gun safes to lower the risk of gun accidents, and… establishing a gun buyback program where people can come and lay down their weapons, be paid for them, and then watch as their weapons are heated, and then beaten, melted and remolded, converted into garden tools, like little trowels, and other trinkets, like earrings.
I had to wonder if those three guys from UVA were like the football players I knew back in high school and college, the kind of guys who liked to wear a big (likely artificial) diamond earring in one ear. I wonder if some of the folks at Club Q were there because it was one place they could wear earrings without fear of judgment. I wonder if anybody at that Walmart in Chesapeake was shopping for affordable earrings for their mom like I did when I was ten or twelve. For them in the world as it is, instead of advent starting with chestnuts roasting on an open fire they got gunfire.
Advent begins in the dark. But, says the gospel, that is where we are to go to expectantly wait for our Light to come.
Our job in Advent and all year long is to, in faith, sit in the dark and in the name of Christ promise the world that their light is coming, has come, will come again. In the midst of war and violence our duty and great joy is to be the people who faithfully gather, in churches and around tables, and start lighting candles, and opening Bibles, asking the Lord to teach us his ways, expecting the Risen Christ to come and reveal to us how to make less war and more earrings.
Because, in the words of Isaiah chapter 9, even though we are still a people that walk in darkness, we have seen a great light. On us, living in a land of deep darkness, the world as it is, on us, light has shined. So come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.
Come Lord Jesus, O come O come Emmanuel. Free us from our bent to sinning, beat our swords into plowshares, our guns into gardening tools. Liberate us, Lord, from the study of wars, material and metaphorical. Fit us for the armor of your light, and fashion us into a people who walk in your light, illuminating your candle-lit resistance against the forces of darkness, the powers of sin and death.
This Advent as much as any, begins in the dark; but take heart my friends. Really, take heart. Be of good courage. Light the candles. A dawn is coming when night shall be no more. We shall need no weapons, nor light, nor lamp, nor sun, for Christ shall be our all.