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On the Way to the Holy Night: A Thrill of Hope

(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

 
 

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A Yearning for Comfort

comforting embrace

“Comforting Embrace” — Koro Arandia

“’Comfort, O comfort my people,’ says your God.” – Isaiah 40:1 (NRSV)

Recently, I was asked if I might step in and lead a brief memorial service for a young couple in our community whose infant son had unexpectedly died at birth.  Given that this family was quite literally aching with grief and had no strong church affiliation, I was glad to be able to offer them some measure of pastoral support; though I have to confess that these kinds of services are perhaps the most difficult of all to prepare and to lead. After all, how does one even begin to console that which is inconsolable; what words of healing and hope can possibly be spoken in a few brief moments that won’t end up ringing hollow in the midst of such deep sadness?

And yet, there is a strong need for us to come together in moments such as these; a yearning, as the liturgy in our United Church of Christ Book of Worship expresses it, to “pour out our grief, release our anger, face our emptiness, and know that God cares.”  This truth was brought home to me in profound fashion as I arrived at the funeral home that evening; for what was expected to be a relatively small gathering of extended family members and a few close friends had become a huge outpouring of love and support for the bereaved parents.  There was a long line of people winding out the door of the very crowded funeral chapel, each one awaiting an opportunity to express their condolences; so many, in fact, that the memorial service itself had to be delayed by nearly a half an hour. And when finally the time came for me to begin, I was immediately struck by how swiftly the room had fallen silent, and how strongly the eyes of all those present were now looking to me to offer some assurance of comfort in the midst of this great loss and, indeed, “the frailty of our own existence on earth;” the kind of comfort that ultimately is not mine, nor the world’s, to give, but which is as real and as true as God’s own word of unending hope.

And it was in that fleeting moment that I was reminded of what this season of Advent is all about.

Each year during these weeks of December, we remember how the people of God, dwelling in a time of exile, despair and seeming hopelessness, nonetheless awaited with great anticipation the promised coming of the Messiah, who is the Christ; and likewise, how you and I are also to be waiting, watching and perhaps above all, preparing for that time when Christ shall return, bringing with him the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom on earth. We sing songs of hope and joy; we pray for peace and renew ourselves to the work of love; and we light candles symbolizing all of these things and more, so that we might be reminded of God’s light forever piercing the darkness even as the tragic events in places like Paris and San Bernardino make us painfully aware of the many ways that darkness seeks to prevail in this world.  Truly, as the song (and Longfellow’s poetry) so poignantly puts it, “for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men,” and we are left yearning for that which will give us true comfort.

And yet, even now, even in the wake of such rampant violence and our own human propensity to respond with anger and retribution, God is there for us with a word of hope; “speaking tenderly” to us with the sure and certain promise of a peace that the world can neither give nor take away, made real to us in the gift of a child who was born – in a manger (!) – to be our Savior, our Teacher, our Friend.. and our Example… as persons and as a people.

Perhaps my favorite quote from the works of Frederick Beuchner comes from an essay in which he 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.” – from “Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized” by Frederick Beuchner

I like to think that that even amidst the inevitable noise and chaos that always seems to follow the ever-shifting and often earth-shaking events of this present age, there will always be those who will be looking past the darkness and toward the growing light dawn; standing on tiptoes, as it were, so that they might be able to peek just past the next horizon to see what amazing thing God will be doing in the world.  Peace on Earth and goodwill amongst all people?  An end to poverty, hunger and injustice?  Love truly made manifest from person to person, nation to nation?  “God and sinners reconciled?”  It’s all there… all given to us in the sure and certain promises of a mighty and infinitely loving God, and it’s all just about to happen… just wait for it, and be ready when it does!

Indeed, my prayer in this particular season and always is that we will find comfort in what, by God’s grace, is “just about to happen;” and that each one of us will be actively awaiting that advent with prayerful anticipation, with hearts devoted to making it real in the world and in our lives until that moment comes in its fullness.

O Come, o come… Emmanuel.

c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2015 in Advent, Current Events, Jesus, Ministry, Reflections

 

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The Waiting Place

Advent candle 2(a sermon for December 1, 2013, the 1st Sunday of Advent, based on Isaiah 2:1-5 and  Romans 13:11-14)

And so this is Advent… and once again the blessed season of waiting begins…

Actually, having said that I also have to wonder just how “blessed” this waiting thing really is!  It’s a thought that first occurred to me one day earlier this week while in the midst of my third hour on the phone with a technical support person who was trying to help me resolve some issues on my laptop computer; what I’d naïvely thought would be a quick fix turned into a two-day odyssey of waiting for lengthy software downloads interspersed with being put on hold for inordinate periods of times while the “specialists” tried to get to the bottom of things!  And though the temptation was always to just hang up the phone and forget the whole thing, I hung in there for fear that giving up would make me have to wait all the longer for someone to actually fix the computer!

Is it not true that so much of life, one way or another, is spent waiting: waiting in long lines at Market Basket or at the Division of Motor Vehicles; waiting in crawling traffic while driving I-93 South to Boston; or for that matter, spending our time wondering when things are ever going to get better for us in our lives; if all the effort and patience that we’ve put into that job, or that plan, or that relationship will eventually pay off; or, waiting to see if, against all odds, the world itself will ever change!  Life just seems to be this never-ending  cycle of anticipation both hopeful and anxious; we just seem to spend our days dwelling in what Dr. Seuss, in his wonderful book Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, refers to as “The Waiting Place.”  You know…

“The Waiting Place…
for people just waiting. 
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or the waiting around for a Yes or No…
 
…or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants,
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
 
Everyone is just waiting.”
 

Dr. Seuss understood, and so do we: in this life we’re all “just waiting,” but the truth is that nobody really wants to wait; we’d all just rather get to those places we’re going!  And so here it is, the season of Advent in the church, a time which by its very definition – the word Advent comes from the Latin adventus, which means “coming,” – we’re called to be waiting yet again; specifically, to watch and to prepare for the day of the Lord’s coming in the birth of the Christ child!  For us, Advent is the season of the “soon but not yet,” and as such it is our “waiting place.”  And that’s particularly difficult for us as faithful Christians, especially considering that all around us the holiday  season has long since come in earnest; I mean, why should we have to hold off on the celebrating for four more weeks when the rest of the world is already caught up in carols and presents and the golden glow of Christmas?  For us, who are supposed to be the people of what Christmas is all about, to have to sit and wait for it is just not practical given the world as we know it; and frankly, it’s not fair!

And yet…

…as this particular season of Advent begins and Christmas does indeed come like a juggernaut into the world around us, perhaps it’s precisely this “Waiting Place” where you and I need to be the most.

In our reading this morning from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah we’re given those wonderful and familiar words of the days when God’s ways will become the ways of the world; a time when swords will be beaten into plowshares, spears will become pruning hooks and “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, [and] neither shall they learn war any more.”  And, to be sure, it’s a vision… God’s promise to his people Israel that as of yet hadn’t come to pass in its fullness; in fact, in those days of exile the very idea of “the mountain of the LORD’S house” being “established as the highest of mountains” must have seemed to them a beautiful yet utterly distant dream, not unlike our own deep yearnings for peace on earth and goodwill amongst all people.  And yet if you look closely at this passage, the fact that this promise is still “not yet” is almost beside the point.

The NRSV translation we read this morning begins by telling us that these things will be “in days to come;” the NIV gets a bit more time-specific by saying that it’ll happen “in the last days.”  But if you go back to the original Hebrew text, you’ll find that it literally translates as “in the back of the days,” or “in the midst of the present.”  In other words, it’s present perfect tense; it’s how you and I might refer to something when the moment is ripe for its happening; when God’s promises are so sure and so certain it is as though they’ve already come to pass!  It’s the hush in the theater just before the curtain rises, or that instant as the conductor raises his baton for the orchestra to begin to play; it’s that tiniest of sounds you hear off in the distant forest, the wisp of wind or the snap of a twig that you have to lean into the silence in order to simply hear; it’s the hazy ring around the winter moon that means that snow is coming. As Frederick Beuchner has so beautifully put it (one of my absolute favorite quotes from Beuchner!), “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.”

What Isaiah proclaims unto Israel and unto us is that God will act; that the cycles of violence and injustice that run rampant in this world will soon come to an end, and in fact “in the back of these days” all of the things that God has proclaimed are coming to pass: its coming, its Advent is nearer than we can even imagine!  And so our task in this extraordinary moment “just before” is to wait; to wait on God’s sure and certain promise to be fulfilled.

Understand, however, that we’re not talking here about passive waiting; this is not God putting us a cosmic version of “on hold” forever.  This “waiting place” has to do with readying ourselves for the time that is coming.  Did you happen to notice that in our passage from Isaiah today that the prophet’s words begin and end not with what God is just about to do, but what you and I are to be doing in anticipation of what God is doing! “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”   And then, upon receiving that vision, it’s “come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”

Advent is about us getting ourselves ready for that which the world continually informs us can never, ever happen, and yet God is doing even now in the world: that hatred can be changed into love and war might be displaced by shalom; that quarrelling yields to listening, rejection to acceptance, apathy to service, selfishness to sacrifice and greed to generosity.  What we’re talking about here is no less than fitting our lives and our hearts to the new reality of God’s kingdom that is “nearer to us now than when we became believers,” as Paul says it in the reading from Romans, “lay[ing] aside the works of darkness and put[ting] on the armor of light,” living unto the fullness of God’s promises in the here and now so that our hearts might be truly ready for that long-expected and extraordinary experience of  an angels’ chorus singing praises for “God in flesh appearing.”

Of course, for us in the church this Advent season holds a dual meaning; and so in one sense, at least, our time in this “waiting place” will be relatively brief: I can tell you with reasonable certainty that 24 days from now we will gather in this place to light candles and rejoice at the birth of a Savior!  But in a larger sense, friends, our waiting will continue far beyond December 25 and this season of celebration; our preparation goes on until that promised moment when God’s amazing vision for his creation comes to full fruition; when the Son of Man returns in glory and all that we have yearned for in faith and hope becomes a reality in the world and in our lives.  This is the promise inherent in the mystery and wonder of our Christian faith, the glory that that we will proclaim again this morning at the communion table:  that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, and that Christ will come again.”

And so, this is Advent, and once again the blessed season of waiting begins; and this, beloved, is our waiting place as God’s people:  waiting and watching calmly for signs of his coming, displacing the darkness of this season and these days one candle at a time, waiting for God’s plan to come to full fruition. As the waiting goes on, yes, we’ll join the world in wrapping ourselves up in all the trimmings of the rest of the season: we’ll sing the songs, we’ll deck the halls (and the sanctuary!), and we’ll dress the children up in shepherd costumes and retell the familiar old story of a baby born in a manger in Bethlehem. But first and foremost, we’ll wait by preparing the way for his coming: living out the hope, the peace, the joy and the love that is promised the world in the Christ Child.  By Word, by Deed and, today, by Sacrament, we will wait; wait for that glorious day when light comes into the world, even as we walk in that very light ourselves!

Let our waiting begin; and as it does, may our very lives be that sign of both the promise and its fulfillment.  And may this be our prayer: “Come, thou long expected Jesus… born to set thy people free.  From our fears and sins release us… let us find our rest in thee.”

Thanks be to God.

Amen, and AMEN!

c. 2013  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 1, 2013 in Advent, Christmas, Old Testament, Sermon

 

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