(a sermon for December 1, 2019, the 1st Sunday of Advent; first in a series, based on Isaiah 9:2-9 and Romans 13:11-14)
At a time of the year that is so traditionally bathed in all manner of light I’ve always found it interesting, and quite telling, that the season of Advent (and the celebration of Christmas that it anticipates) begins in darkness.
Not that that our modern world leaves a whole lot of room for darkness: being a lover of all things Christmas related, I’ve also taken notice that whereas most people used to wait until at least the day after Thanksgiving to light up their outdoor Christmas displays these days it’s not unusual to see Santa and his reindeer all lit up and “ready to glow” mid-way through November! In fact, when I was in Maine a few weeks back just after Halloween, I was driving down this back country road at just around dusk, came around this corner and by golly (!) there was this house with its yard filled to overflowing with inflatables and twinkling lights! Too early? Yes, probably… and too much? Well, all I’ll say is “to each their own.” Mostly, though, I feel about this the way I do about playing Christmas music “early;” like it’s such a short season to enjoy Christmas lights, so why not? And besides, in these times in which we live who wouldn’t agree with the sentiment expressed in that song of the season, “we need a little Christmas, right this very minute… we may be rushing things but deck the halls again now!” So I say, have at it… and Merry Christmas!
I will have to say, however, that over the years I’ve come to appreciate the notion that where Christmas lights are concerned, less is sometimes more and in the process makes, if you will, an “enlightening” statement of faith. Years ago, back in my student pastor days, I spent more than a few December nights driving back from seminary classes, quite often along those back roads, and it’s funny what things you always remember: there was this farmhouse up toward Grindstone, Maine, set back from the road at the end of a long stretch of woods; where the people who lived there had taken an “understated approach” to their holiday decorating. By that I mean they’d simply strung some colored lights around a waist-high evergreen tree and let it glow in the midst of the winter darkness. Nothing unusual, I know; except that this little Christmas tree stood a long way apart from the house and barn, out in the pasture; at least a couple hundred yards away, if not more. And that, of course, ignited my curiosity: why had they done that? Why wasn’t this Christmas tree standing closer to the farmhouse or out by the barn? Had they actually gone to all the trouble of stringing an extension cord that far out? Was this a Christmas tree intended for this farmer’s herd of dairy cows or had it been set there for the pleasure of passing white tailed deer? I tell you, the possibilities of it staggered the imagination (!), and I was sorely tempted to pull in to this farmhouse, knock on their front door and ask the people who lived there to tell me all about it!
But as I thought further about it, it began to make perfect sense that they’d put their Christmas tree way out there in the middle of a darkened pasture; because this would most certainly be a spot where the brilliance of those lights could shine most prominently, piercing through the winter darkness and unalloyed by any and all distractions of the world surrounding it. Or, maybe the family in that house just wanted to be able to look out their living room window and simply bask in the beauty and wonder of a Christmas tree! All I know is that this little tree immediately became an advent parable for me, the affirmation of a divine promise fulfilled and a reminder that no matter how dark it may have seemed to be, “the people who walked in darkness [had] seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light [had] shined.”
A thrill of hope, and a cause of rejoicing in a dark and weary world.
It’s important, I think, to take note of the fact that the season of Advent which begins this morning is not to be thought of as merely as a “Countdown to Christmas.” This isn’t to say that these four weeks aren’t about waiting and watching for something to happen – after all, our very word “advent” comes from the Latin adventus which means “coming” – but there’s more to these four weeks of the Christian year than simply getting ready for December 25 to come. Moreover, even though Advent is certainly about a symbolic waiting for the coming of the Christ child in the manger of Bethlehem, making room in our hearts for this wondrous gift of God given 2,000 years ago, it’s about even more than that. The season of advent is also about a gift that is yet to come: our waiting for Christ’s return in glory and that moment when God’s amazing vision for his creation comes to full fruition; for that time when all that we have yearned for in faith and hope finally becomes a reality in the world and in our lives. As we regularly proclaim in our times of communion, this is about the “mystery and wonder of our Christian faith” manifest in the sure and certain promise that “Christ will come again.”
Ultimately, you see, it’s this “coming” for which you and I are waiting and watching and preparing. Author and New Testament scholar J.R. Daniel Kirk actually refers to this as seeing “the coming of Christ in double-exposure: looking forward to the second coming Christ in the future even as we look forward to celebrating the first going of Christ that lies in the past.” But just as our “Way to the Holy Night” of Christmas Eve and Day begins not with shepherds, wise men or a heavenly chorus but rather with Isaiah’s promise of great light in a darkened world, so you and I who are dwelling in the midst of our own darkness also await, as the song says, “the breaking of a new and glorious morn.”
But make no mistake… that day is coming soon, and very soon. In the words of our text for this morning, “the night is far gone, the day is near.”
In truth of fact, this relatively brief passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans amounts to what the Rev. Susan Eastman of Duke Divinity School refers to as an affirmation that “as Christians we are all ‘morning people.’” Yes, it’s dark now, but “the time is just before dawn, the sky is brightening, the alarm is ringing, day is at hand. It is time to rouse our minds from slumber, to be alert to what God is doing in the world, and to live in accordance with God’s coming salvation.” “You know what time it is,” writes Paul, “how it is the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” In other words, we know what God has already done in Jesus Christ; we know how the people who walked in darkness saw a great light, and we know that it will be so for us as well and that this light is very, very near to us indeed! We are not people of the night; we are the people on whom light has shined, the ones for whom a child was born, the one who is named “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” We are the ones who have been given salvation and the true light of life through the Lord Jesus Christ, and we are ones who, soon and very soon, will know the full and brilliant light of his glory; so, says Paul, as we await that moment in its fullness “let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices… for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
Now, what’s interesting here about Paul’s advent promise of light is that it immediately connects it to, shall we say, a more ethical and moral stance in life. “Let us live honorably as in the day,” says Paul, or as The Message bluntly translates it, “we can’t afford to waste a minute, must not squander precious daylight hours in frivolity and indulgence, in sleeping around and dissipation, in bickering and grabbing everything in sight.” (One thing can be said for certain, friends: no matter what the translation of scripture happens to be, friends, nobody can ever accuse Paul of sugar-coating its truth!) The point here is that if we are truly people of the light, then we need to live unto the fullness of God’s promises in the here and now so that our hearts might be truly ready for the day of wonder that is coming soon. And the time for this is now; for you see, the darkness is passing into daylight and a new age is dawning. So it behooves us, as believers and as true “advent people,” quoting The Message once again, that we need to “get out of bed and get dressed! Don’t loiter and linger, waiting until the very last minute. Dress yourselves in Christ, and be up and about!”
Seems to me that’s not only a pretty good way to start out on our way to the Holy Night of Bethlehem, but also a clear directive as to living out our Christian faith in this twilight time between the darkness of these days and the “not yet but soon to come” great light of a new day.
There’s so much I love about this sacred season and most especially in the traditions of worship that we share together in this place, beginning with lighting the advent candles of hope, peace, joy, love. I love how from week to week as we light those candles “advent-ually” (!) we have this full circle of light that, with the addition of the light of the Christ Candle on Christmas Eve, becomes the light that gets passed from person to person in thanks and praise for God’s light coming into this world in the guise of a child. It’s one of the most beautiful and powerful times we share as a worshipping congregation, and I have to say that not only is it one of my favorite parts of Christmas, pastorally speaking it’s probably my favorite moment of the entire year, singing “Silent Night” and watching this sanctuary go from relative darkness to one filled with the glow of candlelight. I love it because it’s the culmination of this advent journey we’ve taken to the manger of Bethlehem and the gift that’s been given us there; but I also love it because in the larger sense, it represents the great and holy light that has shone into the deep darkness of life and living, as well as a potent reminder that though even now that darkness can seem overwhelming to us to the point of seeming rather hopeless at times, nonetheless “the night is far gone, the day is near,” and in the advent of Christ there is a thrill of hope as the weary world rejoices… and in the process the pathway toward a new and better and blessed life opens up before us.
This light of HOPE and the thrill it brings is ours, yours and mine, beloved; and so, as our advent journey “on the way to the Holy Night” begins… so “let us [truly] lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
And as we do, may our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN.
© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry