First Sunday of Advent: Finding our way in the darkness
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
“Every year, Advent begins in the dark.” (Fleming Rutledge, Advent). The season of Advent is perfectly situated to look at the world with rather unflinching eyes. I was rereading a wonderful Advent 1 sermon by probably my favorite preacher, the Rev. Fleming Rutledge, now well into her 80s, who reminds us that the medieval church -when our liturgical calendar took close to its present form - very intentionally arranged the readings and themes of Advent to swirl around the “last four things”: death, judgment, heaven, and hell – “in that order so that you preached on hell the last Sunday before Christmas Eve.” (Fleming Rutledge, Advent). She notes, and I agree with her, that one of the things that the Episcopal Church does quite well, in theory at least, is Advent. We focus our attention on the darkness as we take a real, up-close look at the way the world works, the way the world is – at its worst, anyway – and points us toward the reality that the Savior of all Creation was born in a less than clean place, to poor parents, in the middle of an occupied country.
Fleming Rutledge declares that “Advent is a time for fearless inventory of the darkness.” I know this may not be the way that we expected us to begin Advent, but we cannot appreciate the coming into the world of our Lord Jesus Christ, He who takes away sin and will bless those who believe with eternal life and, in the end, bring about His gracious rule with peace and equity, unless we first peer into the dark. Before we can fully live into the life of Christ, born in a manger, we must look with unblinking eyes and open hearts into the challenges we face. Moving forward, which we are always so keen to do, cannot be accomplished without naming and reckoning with the darkness.
I like for us to begin every Advent with (I unashamedly admit) my favorite Advent hymn, O come, O come, Emmanuel. And as much as I love the beautiful melody that, I don’t think, we hear repeated in our hymnal, I adore the words even more. “O come, o come, Emmanuel (that is “God with us”), and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here; until the Son of God appear…” The hymn for Advent, not Christmas, let’s us know who we are, as people of Advent, from the very beginning: we are prisoners, captive to the darkness of this world, to one degree or another. The sooner we acknowledge darkness’ presence and, even more, its relevance, the sooner we will become more capable of seeing the Light that shines from a manger in Bethlehem, and from a hill called Calvary; from the empty tomb and the thin places all over where God’s kingdom and ours touch and blur.
I think it is important to mention that acknowledging, truly looking clear-eyed at the darkness in ourselves, our country, and in the world does not mean that we ever lose sight of God. On the contrary, it means we are able to see God’s divine love, light, and grace more fully and with a deeper hope. Isaiah is the OT prophet of Advent and Christmas, too. In Chapter 64, Isaiah is nearing its end and has had ups and downs, moments of euphoric acceptance of God’s power and salvation and then, in the next moment, the devastation of all that Israel has known and loved; there is exile in Babylon and the stain of national sin.
What is happening in the world? We never have to look very far to see the darkness. COVID obviously, unless one has been circling the planet in a rocket for the last eight months with no communications. There is a continuing civil war in both the Sudan and in Yemen, with a huge humanitarian crisis in the latter because of war. We have encountered numerous summer storms in the Gulf that have left huge devastation to American lives, property, and businesses. But do we see the even greater devastation that two back to back storms left in Nicaragua and Honduras, among the poorest countries in the western hemisphere? Terrible divisions exist in our country with very few folks willing to look at themselves as part of the challenge – it is the other person, almost always, who is at fault. People are angry – who knows, maybe rightly so in some cases – but where does that anger lead us? Where does our confusion lead us? Israel believed that their current darkness was caused not by the Babylonians but by their own failure to put their hope and trust in God and not in themselves; a “failure of national faithfulness,” if you will. Where are we, really, as a people, a community, or a nation, along these lines?
Remember, “Advent is a time for fearless inventory of the darkness.” Remember, after 9/11, there was a great deal of calls for us immediately to go to war, to retaliate against the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, etc. Maybe that was the necessary and right decision at the time. But I also remember that Rowan Williams, who was not yet Archbishop of Canterbury, but was Archbishop of Wales, was visiting Trinity Wall Street, just down the block from the Twin Towers, when the planes hit. He could easily have been killed. He wrote a wonderful little book about that particular the international moment called Writing in the Dust. War seemed inevitable, in the aftermath of 9/11 and would, within a month or two, be a reality. He wrote, “we could refuse to be victims, striking back without imagination” (p. 46-47). He tried to remind us that “…terrorism is a place, not a person or a group of persons; it is a form of behaviour” [sic] (p. 36.37). Williams was roundly criticized for seeming to take a less hawkish stand against terrorism. For me, his statements, almost 20 years later, seem rather prophetic. But my point, if there is one, is that taking inventory is never easy; it requires us to ask challenging questions about ourselves or face changing behaviors that cut against the grain: ours, our community’s or the worlds. When we see darkness, how do we, ultimately, respond to it?
Paul writes to the Corinthians, about God, saying “He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” We have been called into the fellowship of Jesus; a great blessing and also, whether we realize it or not, a great burden, too. We are called, as Advent rolls in, to pause and take inventory: where is their darkness in my life? How do I see God there, in spite of the dark? How am I using the strength God has given me – or praying with patience for renewed strength – to respond to the dark moments and spots in my life or in the world? God has blessed us with the Light that shines from the manger bed in Nazareth and offers us what we need to shine now in the dark.