The Deep Darkness of Advent

Advent always begins in the dark.[1]

The world around us is quick to throw up lights, isn’t it?  The day after Halloween, even before Remembrance Day, the artificial glow of Christmas lights began to appear.

As the nights start earlier, the sun rises later, and the cold sets in it’s no surprise that we’re quick to search for something – anything, really – to brighten that darkness.  And if we think back 30 or 50 years ago, without even noticing it, that searching, that yearning for a bit of garland, for the comfort of the warm glow from the tree has become so much more intense, hasn’t it?

For so many people, for centuries, the tree would come into the house just in time for Christmas – often on Christmas Eve! – and brighten the home with cheer for the 12 days of celebration, just as the days begin to lighten and the hope of the New Year is around the corner.  Now – in spite of all the comforts and improvements the modern world was supposed to bring us – it seems we want to wish away the last two months of the year as we string up artificial light in an attempt to drive out the deep darkness that so easily crowds in on our lives.

Now, don’t get me wrong – my own Christmas Tree is up… or seeing as Christmas is still almost 4 weeks away, I suppose you could call it an “Advent Bush”, or as one of my friends said on Facebook, it’s an “Anti-Depression Serotonin Shrub”!

But think about it – is that not how the world operates? 
There’s a real darkness; a real weight; a real longing; perhaps even a real and deep dis-ease with how things are (or appear to be).  But the world’s response, time after time, is to string up artificial lights!  “If December is dark, string up lights, think positive thoughts, try to forget the hear and now, and pretend it’s already Christmas”.  “If November’s dark, string up some lights, and pretend that’s Christmas too”.

I love Christmas lights, but I believe we have to ask: are we preparing our hearts and homes for the coming of our Lord and King?  That’s a good and holy thing – something we should do all year long.  Or… and only you can know the answer to this – is the world around you inviting you, in the face of all the concern, anxiety, and darkness of today, to pretend it isn’t there, string up artificial lights, and instead of living in and working through the here and now, to let our anxiety simmer under that warm artificial glow, and add tomorrow’s worries and anxieties on top of today’s?

The Season of Advent

It’s become popular to think of Advent as a season for preparation for Christmas.  It’s easy to see how we got that idea – after all, this is the secular season of pretending the darkness isn’t real, and focussing, even obsessing over romanticized, unobtainable visions of what Christmas is supposed to be.

But that’s not what Advent has been for the Church.  Yes, Advent is a season of preparation, but Christmas – the Lord’s birth – happened over 2000 years ago.  How can you possibly prepare for something that has already taken place?  That’s insane!  You can’t prepare for something 2000 years ago, can you?

No, Advent is a time of preparation, but not for Christmas.  The word “advent” means “coming”.  And what do we say in the Creed every time we gather?  (What is it?)

On  the third day he rose again… he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father… and he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

The Nicene Creed (the Apostles’ Creed omits “in glory”)

My friends, don’t let the artificial lights in my living room fool you – that right there, that line of the creed, is Advent!  That is the coming from which this season gets it’s name.

And, no matter how many lights we plug in, no matter how many candles we light, no matter how many hours we spend sitting with a happy light, no matter how many Hallmark movies we watch, or how many times we watch The Grinch, or how many times I play Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “Once Upon a Christmas”, it does no good to pretend that the darkness that we feel, and even the deep darkness of a world of guilt and shame and hurt and crushed dreams and oppression is anything less than real.

Advent isn’t about preparing for something long ago in the past.  Advent, this season shrouded by the real darkness of the world around us, is preparation in sure and certain hope that, just as He came once as a helpless babe, bearing the full weight of the world’s oppression and violence, even making himself the willing, innocent victim of death, he will come again, with all the power, and majesty, and awe, and terror of the rightful King who returns to overthrow and finally cast out the powers of death and sin and – though we say this with the humility of those who ourselves will be judged – he comes to call to account both those who heard his voice and worked against the enemy, reflecting his glorious light, keeping those lights burning as beacons on the hills calling lost wanderers in, as well as those who instead chose to follow the propaganda, pretend the darkness isn’t real, and allow their friends and neighbours to stumble, fall, and even be crushed as the weight and shame of yesterday’s failures and tomorrow’s anxiety strip away all hope for today.

That’s Advent.  That’s the Coming.  And this is the season of preparation.

The God who Hides… for our benefit

In Isaiah 64 – like elsewhere in scripture – we read, perhaps surprisingly, of God hiding himself.  Now, of course, we know, fundamentally, that God is active in every time and every place; just think about that – nothing, nothing you’ve done or I’ve done, nothing that has ever taken place is a surprise to God; He’s already seen it all first hand, for nothing exists without him.

Yet, as we know from scripture, God’s desire is to be really present with us in a way that we can recognize; He desires to be present so that we can know him fully and He can know us. 

Yet, He is a holy God.  Before him is a consuming fire.[2] Darkness cannot exist in the presence of light; cold cannot exist in the presence of heat; unholiness cannot exist in the presence of God.

And so, at various times and places, as we read this morning, God has hidden his face.  As we heard today “We all have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth … this is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you, for you hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity” (see Isaiah 64:1-9).  Let’s be clear – it’s not that God abandons us.  It’s the opposite — look at the world around us: if he were to show forth His glory, ‘oh Lord, who could stand?’

So on the one hand, the church cries out in the darkness of Advent, “O Lord, come quickly!”.  Really, you might say that we’ve been in Advent since March this year, crying out for a deliverer, stumbling in the darkness, praying that God would display his power and set things right.

I would say all of us hope for that new tomorrow, all of us yearn for that coming day with the new creation, when we will be reunited with those we love, when sorrow and sighing and death are no more. 

But at the same time, if the Lord came in his glory with his angels, the heavens torn open and the mountains quake as the consuming fire of God comes among us, are we ready?

Yes, “Lord, come quickly”, but as St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “yes, I want to be with the Lord, which will be far better indeed”, but there is still work to be done, it is more necessary that we remain and proclaim the Gospel so that at his coming, Christ will be glorified (Philippians 1:23-28).

Like Abraham pleading for the great city, like the message of Jonah warning Ninevah of the need to repent, like the prophets calling Israel to repent and return to the Lord, we’ve been commissioned to carry that eternal, in-dwelling light out to a world that is content to string up artificial lights and pretend that all is well, pressing down, hiding away the real darkness and pain, and escaping reality with Christmas movies, scrolling stories on Facebook and Instagram, racing home to make invisible online friends based on a carefully-crafted profile, layer after layer offered by the world to avoid actually dealing with the root problems of isolation and shame and inadequacy that crowd in like deep darkness and slowly make us brittle as the life-sapping cold seeps in.

Yes, “Lord, come quickly”, yet, as we sang not long ago, we face a task unfinished that must and should drive us to our knees before the Lord.  When the advent – the coming for which we deeply long – finally appears, at that day and hour that no one knows, but for which we must always be ready, are we, commissioned messengers of that Good News, ready to stand and give an account for our work? 

As one called to carry the light out into the darkness, I eagerly await the dawning of that great and terrible day, but at the same time, Lord have mercy.  The world is a mess.  Good Lord, deliver us.  But our churches, and Christians, have done as much to harm the message of that Good News as we have done to spread it; oppression, violence, segregation, and slothful ease as Christians everywhere rest content while souls around us stumble forth into the night while we’ve hid our lamps under bushel baskets, or put shades up to the window lest the wandering, weary traveller might actually come in, for which we must cry, simply, spare us, good Lord. 

There’s Work to be Done.
Spare us, good Lord!

Yes, the Lord is King.  Yes, the King is Coming.  Yes, we’re the messengers of the good news.  And it’s a message so important precisely because the darkness is real

No amount of happy thoughts, no amount of cheap garland or flashing artificial lights can drive it out, not if we start in November, or put them up at Halloween, not even if we kept them up all year.  The only solution is that sure and certain hope, that deep gift of faith in the core of your being that knows that Christ is King, as you yourself become a beacon of Christ’s light, as we begin to decrease so it’s not about us, but about Christ in me – the hope of glory, as nations stream to that light, and kings to the brightness of that dawning.

My friends, this is a season of preparation… but don’t be fooled.  We’re not preparing for Christmas; we’re preparing for the advent, the coming of Christ among us, when he comes to judge the living and the dead, yet as one who shares our humanity, born humbly, oppressed, becoming victim to death and worldly power, returning to finally conquer those rebellious forces and, as the world is consumed before the fire of God’s presence, it becomes evident if we’ve been clinging to the world’s power as it is cast away, or if, in the face of sin, darkness, despair, and our own weakness, we stand firm in Christ alone, as all the other ground of sinking sand passes away around us.

And, by God’s grace, as we stand in him alone, we will have brought with us family – husbands, wives, children, grandchildren – friends, neighbours stumbling in the world’s darkness, even strangers crushed by the weight of the world.

…but we don’t know when the Lord will come.  We don’t know when each of us will breathe our last. And so, this is a season of preparation. 

O come, O come Emmanuel.  Spare us, good Lord.  Amen.

[1] This is a beloved line and idea borrowed from Fleming Rutledge.

[2] Psalm 97:3, Deuteronomy 4:24 and 9:3, Hebrews 12:29

Who is on the Lord’s side?

For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep; I will seek them out.  Ezekiel 34:11

Today the Church throughout the world is called to remember, celebrate, and live into the fact that, no matter how things may appear in the world around us, Christ is the King.[1]

And, of course, all of us know – we sing or hum along with glorious words that proclaim that Jesus, the one through whom all things were made, is the Lord and King of all creation.  All of us know, and recite each week in the Creed, that Christ will come in his glory, and that he will bring with him the undeniable Kingdom which he taught us to pray would come, “on earth, as it is in heaven”, as every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the Glory of God the Father.

But this celebration is important because it reminds us that our faith is not wishful thinking, or a fairy tale, or a distant hope that Christ will come someday, long after we’re gone.

No, my friends, the reality is that right now, even as we sit here, even as human politicians struggle to win against an invisible germ, even as the best-laid economic plans and financial empires corrode and waste away, even as this world seems to get itself caught up in one struggle after another as kingdoms and philosophies rise and wane, even as the dark and cold join together with the darker and colder experiences of isolation, shame, anxiety, and addiction, yet – yet – even now, as we speak, Christ is on the throne.  Like watchmen on the towers before dawn, we know that the Son of Man and his angels will come in his glory, and as the rightful King comes, the false powers of darkness will scatter before his path, only to be gathered up, convicted of their treason, and condemned, excluded from sharing in the glory of that restored kingdom of mercy, grace, and peace.

That’s what we believe.  Not that Christ will one day be King.  No.  Right here, right now, in spite of how it may look to those who have bought into the rhetoric of the occupying forces, in spite of how it may look when we fail to realize that all our present struggles are the death throes of a world that has rebelliously attempted to rule itself, in spite of the pain, grief, poverty, weakness, death and decay experienced by we who are caught up, and born into this great rebellion against our Creator,it does not change the fact that the Lord is King, God is on the throne right now, and we know that the palaces and headquarters of those clinging to power will simply pass away when He returns in power and declares “it is finished”, as the same voice that spoke the spark of the Big Bang speaks once more, with echoes that reverberate through all of space and time.

That’s what we mean when we say “Christ is King”.  In spite of how it looks to us born and raised in enemy-occupied territory, the rightful king is even now making preparations just across the horizon, and will return to claim the throne.

The Shepherd King

Our readings today speak of this glorious return – but only if we allow ourselves to read them as they were written.  If you look with me to Ezekiel 34 or Matthew 25, we hear of Christ’s return with the familiar imagery of a shepherd and sheep.

But we need to be careful – the comforts of modern life, coupled with stained glass images and the cute images of Christmas pageant shepherds in bathrobes herding cotton-ball sheep actually gets in the way of understanding the great message God is giving us in his word.

There’s more to shepherding than lounging in a field, whistling or playing some nice Celtic tunes on a pennywhistle in the lovely, lush, green countryside.

Shepherding is messy work.  Sheep, left to their own devices, are dirty, smelly animals.  Sheep are led by their bellies – they’ll go where there’s food and, without even lifting their heads, they’ll take step after step in the direction of something to fill their bellies, not even noticing the thorns or mud or pits around them.  And here’s the remarkable thing – as far back as 8000 years ago, with sheep being bred for farming, they were bred – created – to produce wool; wild mountain rams and ewes didn’t need a shepherd to shear them, but once they were moved to the pastures and bred to produce thicker and thicker wool, they needed a shepherd.  Sheep, left to their own devices, will die.  Their fleece will grow and grow and grow until it is so matted together that it cuts off circulation to their legs and they become weak and crippled.  And sheep, if confined to an area, will eat the grass right down to the root, destroying the very thing that they depend on.

Let’s be clear – it’s no compliment when scripture, dozens of times, compares us to sheep!  But it’s accurate: left to our own devices we’ll follow our appetites to our own destruction; we’ll use and abuse the good things meant to sustain us until they’re gone, or our lack of self-control has turned a blessing into a curse; and following our instincts, our fleece – the wool we pull over our own eyes – will grow and grow until it is matted and crusted together to the point that it cuts off our lifeblood and we become weakened and crippled, and there is literally nothing that we, as sheep, can do to shear ourselves, since we were bred – we were created – to have a Shepherd.

If we’re reading the scriptures clearly, we find that we’re sheep locked in a land dispute.  We belong to the Good Shepherd, the one who owns the flocks on a thousand hills, as the Psalms say.  But, because of disobedience, because of treason, the land doesn’t recognize it’s rightful King.  But he’s not one to write us off – He will seek us out, He will rescue us, he will judge between the sheep, fattening the ones who were down-trodden and lean, while casting out the ones who were headstrong and butted their way to the top of the flock.  And, all those who are ready to hear his voice will be welcomed into the good pasture they were created to inherit.  Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24.

Where are we now?

Christ, the Word who spoke at creation, is the rightful King, but we were born into this disputed, rebellious territory.  What does that mean for us?

Well, the other aspect of this day that celebrates the Reign of Christ is that we proclaim our allegiance to the King, not the occupying forces of the world around us.

In Baptism, and again at Confirmation, and again every time we repent and return to the Lord, we take the Oath of Citizenship of the Kingdom of God, as we become dual citizens or, as Paul says, resident aliens, as those living in the world, but not belonging to, not pledging any allegiance to it.

And though we live in the world, we know the rightful King will come over the horizon, and we who have pledged our allegiance are called to be the Resistance, preparing the way, sabotaging worldly powers of greed, injustice, and corruption at every opportunity, and willing to serve – even lay down our lives – to spread the news of the conquering King, so that, when He comes in glory, he finds citizens ready to welcome Him as Lord as the supposed glory of this world is cast out.

Like the French Resistance under the occupying forces of the Hitler’s Third Reich, our task as those who remain loyal to the rightful ruler is to stand firm, to proclaim and broadcast the message of hope and freedom, to sabotage the enemies’ actions, and to make our friends and neighbours ready to join us on that day when the liberating forces come in their glory.

…And we say, “Lord, how do we do that?”  Matthew 25:31-46

And the King answers – if there’s an empty belly, fill it.  If there’s a parched mouth, offer a drink from your overflowing cup, so that loosened tongue can proclaim God’s praise.  If a stranger is lost and bewildered by the ways of the world, welcome them in.  If the world has eaten someone up and spat them out, naked and afraid, clothe them with grace and dignity in my name.  If the sin of the world has weakened a sickened soul, lovingly nurse them back to health and wholeness.  And if the world catches on and oppresses someone in Christ’s name, visit and support them.  And any services rendered to the very least of these will be accounted as service to the King himself.

Who is on the Lord’s side?

Christ is King.  He reigns even now, though the darkness, grief, and sin of this occupied territory are still grasping at illusions of power.  And we, who have pledged allegiance to the King are called to be his messengers, the resistance, earnestly and eagerly making way for his Kingdom to come and his Will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

And so the question is, when he comes, and the rebellious forces of the world are rounded up, where will we be?  Will we stand with the Lord and his angels as those who assisted in the effort, as those who prepared the way, who stood firm, and conquered in the fight?

Or will we be accounted as those who colluded with the enemy, those who profited from the occupying forces of greed, injustice, and the illusion of power?

Those on the Lord’s side are welcomed in as the world against which we struggled is gloriously restored as the dwelling place of God’s presence.

Those on the world’s side will be cast away like the corrupt world which they loved so much.

Christ is the King.  This morning, this week, ask yourself – whose side am I on?  If our lives profit from worldly power, we betray ourselves as those who claimed Christ in Baptism.  No, rather, every action, every thought, every moment of every day should be an act of resistance, an act of sabotage as we seek to overthrow hunger, oppression, greed, anxiety, and the illusions of control as we prepare for Christ’s Kingdom to come.

May God strengthen us for that task.  May God convict us and call us to repent when we’ve sat quietly by.  And to God alone be the glory, now and forever more.  Amen.

[1] This goes right back to the heart of this Feast, first added to the calendar by Roman Catholics in the early 1900s in response to increasing secularism.