Re: Romans 13:11-14 & Isaiah 2:1-5

Hello darkness, my old friend,
I’ve come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence.

Paul Simon wrote this in the early 1960’s. There is a longing in this vein for a reality that is truer than the “neon gods” we make. It is so often like us to want to escape or avoid genuineness in our relationships and communication and fall for the imitation of it offered by the neon lights of media, television shows, movies, and so on…and this is from the early 60’s, long before the invention of the internet or the smart phone or social media. We still miss out for we’re “talking without [really] speaking,” we’re still “hearing without [really] listening.” The dark reality is dreadful and at times frightening yet if we don’t acknowledge the darkness, then light will not get where it is meant to go. For Jesus came not to light a path that was already lit, but to bring light where there was none. That is, he entered the darkness to punch holes in it, as Robert Benson’s recent book speaks to. Jesus didn’t escape the reality and go daydreaming or fall for the fake alternative.

“Hello darkness, my old friend.” It is precisely to this context – a world in darkness – that St. Paul encourages the Romans, and therefore us, to wake up – awaken from our day- or night-dreaming and not seek those things that provide an escape to reality. Rather it is time to put our clothes on – Jesus himself, who is the Light of the world – and go share some light! In Advent, while the darkness still abides, light makes its way in one candle at a time…one hole at a time.

one-candle

This is the beauty and mystery of this season in conversation with this Romans passage. For I think we can put it like this: the Son of God put on our flesh so that we can put on Christ’s. We can put him on as our clothing – and neither He nor we will ever be the same. Christ could’ve escaped the reality, escaped the darkness – remained in the confines and safety of his heavenly home without having to suffer, but this way, what Charles Wesley called the sojourning “through this vale of tears” was the only way to bring light to darkness. He steered toward the pain and refused the escape clause, the fake reality. “Hear my words that I might teach you…take my arms that I might reach you.” Reality is Christ’s voice speaking to us, Christ’s arms reaching toward us and our really hearing and listening and welcoming and embracing. Then we extend that out.

How do we do this? How do we live into this? Waking up, not day dreaming, but embracing the reality of this world and its darkness AND YET…AND YET rejecting that this is all there is to it. The season of Advent tells us and gives us the vehicle in which we can proclaim, the best is yet to come! Yet it also manifests itself in simple acts that punch holes in the dark and I think that there is a practice that can help you every day to move toward that end. It can be as simple as doing what Paul says here: “Wake up and put on the Lord Jesus!” Here is a prayer that I use as part of my ritual to begin my days. It is in the midst of a longer set of prayers but this particular prayer is the centering or orienting prayer for how I want to put on the Lord Jesus for the day. The morning canticle from the Northumbria Community, also found in Celtic Daily Prayer:

Christ, as a light, illumine and guide me. Christ, as a shield, overshadow me.
Christ under me. Christ over me. Christ beside me on my left and on my right.
This day be within and without me, lowly and meek, yet all powerful.
Christ be in the heart of each to whom I speak, in the mouth of each who speaks unto me.
This day be within and without me, lowly and meek, yet all powerful.
Christ as a light; Christ as a shield; Christ beside me on my left and on my right.

And when you catch yourself escaping too frequently into an alternate world that avoids reality, put your phone down, close the computer, get off Facebook, and go give someone a hug, write a letter, make a phone call, buy a cup of coffee for a stranger, visit someone unable to leave their house, go to the checkout line that isn’t self-serve and share a little light with a clerk. Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and let your light shine.

There’s a story behind why I couldn’t stand up to preach today…in short, I had a case of vertigo this morning and wasn’t physically capable of standing to deliver my sermon this morning. So at the last minute my wife volunteered to do deliver it for me. She had heard me rehearsing it the night before and fortunately I had a manuscript of what I wanted to share. So she courageously stepped in and delivered this text that I had prepared for this first Sunday in Advent.

The primary Scripture was Isaiah 64:1-9, and I used the Common English Bible, which was crucial to illumine a couple of points that were made in the sermon. Here is the video of the service:

So today begins a new church year as we kick off the season of Advent this morning. I’ve come to cherish Advent more and more as the years go by. It’s not that it is my favorite because it means Christmas is so close, which was likely what I felt growing up, but because, as I see it, Advent is the season that probably gives us the most honest assessment about the way things are in the world. At its best the season of Advent and its relationship to Christmas mirrors that of Lent and its relationship to Easter. Advent, for some time, had seven weeks (not four), and was designed to be a season of repentance, fasting and preparation for the great mass, or worship celebration, for Christmas. But it was and is also a season that prepares us for the second coming of Christ, when all things will be summed up and the new heaven and new earth are joined together at last.

Now, if we can learn to fully appreciate a season of anticipation, of expectation, and waiting and not rush to December 24-25 as we are so prone to do, then we will be able really allow the sense of aching and hope to linger long enough for us to get genuinely thirsty for the coming of the Lord. For this reason, in recent years I have found myself drawn toward the words of the prophets who so frequently spoke as people in waiting, longing for God’s appearance, during the season of Advent. So this week’s sermon text comes from Isaiah; next week Dan’s message will relate to the prophet known as John the Baptist; and the following week we will return to Isaiah as we continue to prepare the way for Christ’s coming.

Simon and Garfunkel quipped that “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls and whispered in the sound of silence.” At the beginning of the song, they sang, “Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.”Advent meets us in the darkness, in the silence. So do the prophets.

Polish born Jewish rabbi, Abraham Heschel, who lost many family members because of the holocaust, who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. for the civil rights movement in the 1960s, wrote what is in my mind the best summary work of the lives and writings of the prophets. Here are a few of his comments that I thought fit particularly well given the context and content of our passage from the prophet Isaiah from this morning:
• “This is the marvel of a prophet’s work: in his words, the invisible God becomes audible.”
• “Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums…To us a single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to the prophets, a disaster…Their breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysteria.”
• “The prophet’s ear is attuned to a cry imperceptible to others…The prophet’s ear perceives the silent sigh.”
• “Instead of cursing the enemy, the prophets condemn their own nation.”
• “The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind…He begins with a message of doom; he concludes with a message of hope.”
• “The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.”

There are many more that are worth quoting, but something Heschel challenges is the notion that has gotten in some of our minds that prophecy has to do with a distant, impersonal, implacable God who serves as judge and who uses these obscure persons to serve as a sort of mouthpiece, which renders the work of the prophet as a mere technical function. Heschel wrote, “The prophet is not a mouthpiece, but a person; not an instrument, but a partner, an associate of God,” and that what is behind the message of the prophets isn’t merely an emotionally detached discussion about justice, but is rather the pathos, or feeling, of God with regard to the events of the world and the behaviors of God’s people. Heschel continued, “It is more accurate to see the prophets as proclaimers of God’s pathos, speaking not for the idea of justice, but for the God of justice, for God’s concern for justice. Divine concern remembered in sympathy is the stuff of which prophecy is made.” Indeed, “God’s role is not spectatorship but involvement…The God of Israel is never impersonal.” If this is true…if God is so concerned with the plight of the people and passionate about the cause of justice and at the same time is all powerful, then the question that rises to the surface is what is behind the complain of Isaiah this morning, “If only…” or “Why haven’t you torn open the heavens and come down? All would be settled, mountains would quake, enemies would flee or at least tremble.”

It comes as a cry from a people who have experienced the redeeming power of a God who overtook oppressing enemies to make things right. So where is this God? Heschel said, “In a stricken hour comes the word of the prophet. There is tension between God and [humans]…In the presence of God he takes the part of the people. In the presence of the people he takes the part of God.” So Isaiah reminds God of the former deliverance that the Lord procured for his people. “From ancient times, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any god but you who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.” That was the distinguishing mark of the God of Israel: patience and deliberative involvement in acting for those who wait on God. As far as the prophet could tell, there weren’t any other gods who were patient or longsuffering. And this has been evidenced in cultures throughout history as the greatness of a god was directly related to the greatness of the king and his army. When the people of a god were conquered, that god would disappear and usually the survivors wouldn’t hesitate to wreck the images of the gods in whom they had previously trusted.

So in a stricken hour, will we wait on the Lord? I don’t mean sitting down twiddling our thumbs. Nor did Isaiah. John Oswalt said it well when he wrote, “Biblically speak, ‘to wait’ is to manifest the kind of trust that is willing to commit itself to God over the long haul. It is to continue to believe and expect when all others have given up. It is to believe that it is better for something to happen in God’s time than for it to happen on my initiative in my time.” It is an active type of waiting that seeks to live rightly with relation to God and neighbor.

To get there we have to come to grips with something about ourselves that is really quite difficult, and this is the part no one really enjoys preaching or hearing about. But it’s something that is absolutely necessary and is evidenced in what Isaiah admits about the behaviors and attitudes of the people – sinning and doing wrong, being unclean – to such a degree that all our righteous deeds have become like filthy cloths, or as you heard it read this morning a menstrual rag.

I didn’t read this version to gross you out, but there is something in this statement that illumines our own brokenness as we approach the God of compassionate mercy and justice. You see ‘sin’ is like a contaminant that infects the whole body and it had become such a problem among the people of God that it infected even those things that we would typically deem as righteous acts. Even those had been contaminated to such a degree that the works weren’t signs of new life coming, but of the lack of conception (hence, “menstrual rag”), because all they do is self-serving and self-enhancing. They’d become a charade of the real thing.

Okay, I think I’m done with that analogy for the day. I suspect my email inbox will be filled with many messages from parents letting me know their children will be coming to ask me some questions that came up because of today’s Scripture.

Now let’s get really uncomfortable and see where this passage really addresses the darkness that remains in our world – Ferguson. What is the response of the people of God to the tragic death of Michael Brown and the events that have unfolded there and elsewhere since? Chances are when I simply mentioned the name of the town just now, there were several different internal reactions and emotions among the people in this congregation. Yet let us be honest that while our political ideologies and opinions on this and related problems are various within this church, we are nonetheless a rather affluent congregation comprised primarily of white people. We also ought to recognize that systemic injustice still exists despite our lofty dreams and naïve ideas that we have somehow arrived at a utopian society where all are equal. It is true that African-American men are more likely, by virtually every measure, to be arrested, sentenced, executed, or murdered than white men. And if that causes us to shrug our shoulders in apathy, then we are not in tune with the God of justice. If we think it’s no big deal, we are tone deaf to the wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr. who wrote from a prison cell that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If we are numb to the reality of privilege and of the responsibility that comes along with it, then we are a far cry from our movement’s founder John Wesley, whose last letter was written to encourage William Wilberforce to persevere in his cause of championing the abolition of the slave trade in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th century. If we remain apathetic, or even worse hold onto prejudices and fear of others because of the color of their skin, then we will be like the people Isaiah and the prophets wept for because they did not call on the name of the God of justice.

If only…if only you would come, God, Emmanuel. The cry of Advent is not merely a preparation for Christmas, it is really the final cry of the New Testament in the Revelation. “Maranatha! Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus!” If only you would come; I mean fully and really come all this would be reconciled. No more death, no more need for protests or riots, no more destruction…just the fulfillment of all our hope – a place of eternal shalom!

But as we cry, “Maranatha!” let us at the very least be the people who actively wait. And that involves listening – for God, to our neighbors – for they have a story to tell and experiences to share that are often very different than our own. Are we willing to be clay in the potter’s hands in this season? Take us, mold us, use us.

To close this morning, I want to share with you a blessing, adapted from a Benedictine prayer. It’s not any normal blessing, though; it is one that carries with it a challenge to be a prophetic witness in a world that doesn’t often care much for the prophets. So here goes:
May the Spirit bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships so that you will live deep in your heart.
May the Spirit bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people and the earth so that you will work for justice, equity and peace.
May the Spirit bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer so that you will reach out your hand to comfort them.
May the Spirit bless you with foolishness to think that you can make a difference in the world, so that you will do the things which others say cannot be done.

In the name of the Father whose pathos, love and compassion burned hot for the people of God to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God; and of the Son, who didn’t consider his privilege as something to use for his own gain but emptied himself to become human and really the lowest of the sorts—a slave; and of the Holy Spirit, who with open arms embraces us and welcomes us into the holy mystery of being the children of God. Amen.

So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up,and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.”

“I have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.”

We know these passages well, and others like them, about “running the race.” That in many ways the journey of discipleship in which we follow Jesus the Christ is a race that stretches us, grows us, challenges us, shows our weaknesses or proneness to fatigue, but ultimately perfects us (in love) as we persevere in the race.

I’ve added the daily spiritual discipline suggested by the folks at Rethink Church this Advent in the photo-a-day challenge. Today’s word, “steadfast/steady” kept running (no pun intended) through my mind as I went for a walk/jog this morning in the gym at nearby Camden First UMC.

When I go for a walk/jog/run and listen to music, I often get caught up in the flow of the lyrics or the beat of the music. At the onset of a particularly upbeat song, I have found myself all of a sudden picking up the pace, beating drums in the air (yeah, I’m sure I’m the laughing stock of the other walkers who use the facilities at Camden First UMC), kind of losing myself in the flow of things only to find several laps later that I’m winded and the unsteadiness of the changed pace takes its toll. This is particularly challenging to a person with asthma. Going through some change of rhythm is necessary in preparing for longer distance runs/jogs, but it takes training, and the body has to adapt to the change in physical tolerance. It can’t be done (well) through random erratic or spasmodic bursts. Again, it takes training.
…………

I began reflecting on the pace to Bethlehem in Advent and my mind went to pictures like this one:

steady advent

In our typical lives where we find ourselves rushed and hurried in so many ways, we often forget that Jesus saved the world at a pace of 3 miles an hour. In several emergency situations, Jesus is depicted as deliberative, yes, and perhaps urgent but not rushed. For instance, consider the episode(s) of Jairus’ 12-year-old daughter who was on the brink of death and the woman with an issue of blood for 12 years. At the pleading of Jairus, Jesus followed behind him to help Jairus’ daughter but allowed himself to be interrupted by the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ cloak that she might be healed. In his healing mission, Jesus was steadily deliberative.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall bring justice for the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. – Isaiah 35:1-4

“The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him…” Steady. Dependable. Faithful. Ongoing. I like what John Goldingay said about this notion of the steadiness of Jesus’ pace:

The supernatural presence of God’s gifting might not have to be tumultuous and spasmodic. It could be steady and continuous. It is such a gifting that the community needs from its Davidic branch, as it does of any king.

If Jesus in his mission went at a pace of 3 mph, the preparation for his arrival came even slower on the back of a lowly donkey, as legend has it. The road of Mary & Joseph to Bethlehem was a long journey that required steady pacing.
…………

And Advent is about that. On one level it’s about “slowing down” and not getting caught up in the “hustle and bustle” of the commercialism that often sweeps us away this time of year. But casting out the demon of rampant consumerism is not Christian discipleship in itself. Advent also, it seems to me, ought to be about inviting the abiding Spirit of God to steady us in the world, seeking God’s “wisdom and understanding,” “counsel and might,” and the “knowledge and worship” of the Lord. To join in Christ’s mission of bringing good news and “justice to the poor.” Advent is about steady preparation and pacing in growing as Jesus’ disciples and continuing this mission as we celebrate his first arrival and await Christ’s return.

Some would advise that what the world and the various communities within it need in the meantime is a sudden burst of energy or enthusiasm in what has been experienced beforehand as revivalism. And while in some ways that may be what is needed in part, if it is not accompanied with the steady, abiding dependence on the presence of God’s Spirit in the mundane, ongoing day-to-day living and work of the Church, then we will have invested our energies on something fleeting and we’ll find ourselves too winded to carry on. Because the length of the race we’re set to run requires steadiness. Let us pace ourselves that we might finish the race.

Come, thou long expected Jesus!

And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.

And he shall be the one of peace- Micah 5:4-5a

I’ll never forget the first and only time I was referred to as a “fine young chap.” I was sitting up in the balcony with a few friends at Barlow United Methodist Church during a cluster revival meeting of the UMCs of Ballard County, Kentucky. The visiting preacher had this very distinguished British accent with an inviting tone and compelling stories that drew his audience (or at least me) in to try to capture the vivid details and concepts he was portraying. The visiting preacher’s name was Dr. Reginald Mallett and he was from England. Unlike most ministers with the prescript “Dr.”, Dr. Mallett was a medical physician, not a doctorate by means of a Ph.D.

The late Rev. Dr. Reginald Mallett was both a minister and a physician.

The late Rev. Dr. Reginald Mallett was both a minister and a physician. Dr. Mallett passed away on September 8, 2010. You can read more about his ministry in a lovely article written in the wake of his death. See http://www.lakejunaluska.com/reginald-mallett/

After the service was over, I went down to shake his hand upon my departure, and he said, “Oh, you were one of the attentive fine young chaps in the balcony today! I hope you will come to some more services during the week.” That is what I just did. I took in every message and found myself compelled and confirmed in my recent direction to answer the call to ministry I had been perceiving. I found his sermon delivery very appealing as he would repeat the same Scriptural text or line from a hymn to serve as transitions throughout his sermons. This is a practice I have employed as well, though at times I perceive I have much growing to do in making the transitional phrases flow much smoother.

For those of us who cherished Dr. Mallett’s sermons, we are grateful that he set several of them to print. Last year, I checked out a copy of a book with a collection of his sermons delivered at Lake Junaluska. One of the sermons in that collection was about shepherds and when I read the Scripture from Micah, at the top of this post, in preparation for this Sunday’s sermon, I remembered an anecdote he relayed to his readers…

Edward Rogers told us how on this particular Sunday as he and the family were just about to begin lunch there was a loud knocking at the front door. It was one of the farmer’s neighbors. “Quick,” the neighbor cried, “Your sheep are in the wire.” It was obvious that this was a fairly common emergency to which the family was accustomed. As if on cue they all immediately rose from the table and rushed out to rescue the sheep. Edward Rogers confessed that, wearing a clerical collar, he could not sit idly by so he reluctantly offered his services. He was assigned one part of the field and as he went amongst this high grass, searching for sheep he said dryly, “I was unlucky, I found one!” He struggled to extricate it from the barbed wire as the terrified animal wrestled with him. Eventually, he finished up with the sheep in his arms, although he confessed that he was not sure whether he was carrying the sheep or the sheep was carrying him. Just then, the farmer arrived on the scene. “Here, let me have that sheep Mr. Rogers,” he said. Rogers then told us how the farmer, a big, strong man, his sleeves rolled up, arms lacerated and bleeding from encounters with barbed wire, took hold of the front paws of the sheep in one big fist and the rear paws in the other. He then slung the sheep on his back like a sack of coal and carried it to safety. The preacher concluded, “Now when I think about the good shepherd, I see that strong man, his arms torn and bleeding, carrying that stupid, struggling, frightened creature from danger to safety.

Something about that story communicated to me the significance of the promise of a coming ruler who would reign more like a humble shepherd who was willing to put his life at risk to save and take to safety an entangled sheep than a domineering sovereign who would overpower his unruly subjects.

Advent is for the tangled and torn sheep like you and me, unable to break free from the barbed wire that holds us in bondage. And we’re promised here by Micah that our promised rescuer will administer peace, that is, bring reconciliation and wholeness, not from political power, economic coercion, nor military might, but from a small village that is home to the likes of disreputable shepherds…one who would make and give peace, “not as the world gives” but “through the blood of his cross, reconciling all things to himself.”

Tangled and torn? The shepherd who is the prince of peace is on the way!

Yesterday I took the kids to go visit my Granny, since she’s not able to get out as much. I’ll have to tell you more about her soon, but I went to visit her yesterday because it was her husband (my Papaw’s) birthday. He would have been 89. As we were walking toward the door, I saw the sign next to the house that has been up for years, which inspired me to post the picture below of it on facebook. The word ‘friendship’ is under-rated. There’s something irreplaceable about having friends in our world, and this thought brought to my mind a hymn by Charles Wesley…

The sign outside my Papaw & Granny's house. Having known the gift of the surrounding community who helped in my family's time of need, Papaw and Granny know the invaluable gift of friendship.

The sign outside my Papaw & Granny’s house. Having received generous aid by the surrounding community who helped in my family’s time of need, Papaw and Granny came to know the invaluable gift of friendship.

Among the thousands of hymns and sacred poems that Charles Wesley penned in his lifetime is a collection of 18 “Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord”. The lyrics of the hymns in this collection beautifully portray the mystery of the Incarnation pointing out that it was not just the death of Christ that brings salvation but that the entirety of the life of God becoming human (conception, birth, childhood and development, teaching, miracle-working, suffering, dying, being raised again, ascending, and his impending return) that reconciles the world to God and one another. One hymn in the collection that has continued to resound in my remembrance of the Advent of our Lord is the fourth hymn, the first verse of which says this:

Glory be to God on high,
And Peace on Earth descend;
God comes down: He bows the sky:
He shews himself our Friend!
God the Invisible appears,
God the Blest, the Great I AM
Sojourns in this Vale of Tears,
And Jesus is his Name.

The first time I was exposed to this hymn was in 2003, when I took a class in seminary taught by Lester Ruth. He admitted his favor of this hymn over the others in the collection and drew our attention especially to the middle of this verse: “God comes down; he bows the Sky: He shews himself our Friend!” The end of the verse elaborates on this identity when Jesus is proclaimed to walk with us “in this vale of tears.” This is precisely why these lyrics fit squarely in Advent and is appropriate in light of events that bring us to tears, because in this thought, Charles was addressing Jesus’ identifying with our suffering, sojourning with us as we ache for the fulfillment of the creation’s redemption.

What is the Incarnation if it is not God empathizing with us? A friend is one who knows how to empathize with others in pain. The second verse of “What a Friend we have in Jesus” assists here: “Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness…”

Abraham was called a friend of God (James 2:23). Moses was said to have spoken face to face with God “as a man speaks to his Friend” (Exodus 33:11). Proverbs remarkably claims, “Faithful are the wounds of a Friend” (27:6).

And of course we have these words of Jesus spoken on the night he was betrayed:

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:13-15).

Laying down his life for friends…How does one reconcile that with Paul’s words in Romans 5 which declares that God demonstrates his love for us in that “while we were still sinners (can we substitute ‘enemies’?), Christ died for us.” Does God, in Christ, befriend the enemy? Is that how to bring these together? It seems so.

Friends, in this sense, are those who don’t turn their back when the ones they loves turn away, but pursue them in merciful love, seeking reconciliation anyway. Before he died for a world which had set itself at enmity with God, Jesus learned to walk in the vale of tears that were poured out in grief over the slaughtering of infants and children, the loss of life when a tower fell, by a widow who lost her only son, by two siblings who lost their loving brother… In this way, he “shews himself our Friend.” His befriending of the world began in Bethlehem. And when we become turn to receive his friendship, he invites us to join the mission of God in befriending our neighbors and enemies, indeed, the whole world.

For several years now, I’ve been drawn mostly to Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus’ during Advent. I’ve tried to suggest that it’s the best hymn of Advent, but Jerry Walls, my philosophy professor from seminary, has rebutted that while Charles’ lyrics are rich in theology, it does not carry quite nearly the narrative richness nor the robust pathos as his favorite, ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel.’ And I’m beginning to be convinced that he might be right.

I was so looking forward to preaching this Gaudete Sunday. The third Sunday in Advent, whose candle is typically pink, or rose colored, contains the theme of joy, and usually sparks a little more of an upbeat than the other themes. After all, joy is a hallmark of the season that focuses on happiness: it brings a smile to our faces as we share beloved memories with our faith and biological families, as we say ‘CHEESE!’ for family photos, and receive more mail (i.e., Christmas cards) during any other time of the year. (Who doesn’t love getting good mail like that?)

Joy filled the air with the evangel message brought by a host of angels to a group of lowly shepherds, saying, “I bring you good tidings of great JOY, which shall be for all the people…”

This Sunday, I was ready to burst out singing ‘Joy to the world, the Lord is come’ at such a volume that would’ve put to shame Clark W. Griswold’s prelude to his first failed attempt at turning on the lights on his house.

My heart and mind were tuned to the songs of joy, the notes were lined up, the outline was all typed out. I was ready to preach by mid-week. Then…Connecticut…

How am I supposed to talk about joy in a world, in a time, like this? It would come out rather hollow, it seems. And if I had talked about joy the way we tend to think about it, then yes it would have.

But then I realized that the joy that we discover in Advent is not a happy-go-lucky type of joy that ignores evil and darkness that exist in our world. Nor does this joy focus on us “holding on” long enough until God takes us out of this seemingly crappy world so that we can enjoy heaven on the other side. For as I read the pages of Scripture I find that the curse (Genesis 3 and thereafter) is not the beginning; that something joyful existed before then; that the world wasn’t originally crappy, but good, “very good” in fact; that the Advent of Christ’s Incarnation has begun the work of undoing that curse

I realized that ‘Joy to the World, the Lord is come’ are not the only lyrics of the hymn, but that it also proclaims that Christ “comes to make his blessings known far as the curse is found“…and might I add, “and even farther”? Isaac Watts, in penning these lyrics, knew that the curse was hanging around. And so do we. And it hangs around by paralyzing and captivating its victims with fear.

In the final stanza (3:14-20) of his book, Zephaniah gave us a melody of hope, and it found itself in the image of God singing over God’s people with joy, removing disaster from them (note: NOT removing them from disaster). But this final stanza is really the only bit of good news that Zephaniah offered the people. The rest was just bad news upon impending judgment upon bad news upon…well, you get the picture. Upon hearing all this, it would seem to be rather easy to be held captive by a fear that they (or we) wouldn’t be able to make it. But even this final stanza still wasn’t the fulfillment of that joy…just an invitation to believe that disaster would not ultimately be victorious over them but would be removed one day.

Musically, it would be like that moment when, in a song filled with dissonance yet concludes with a consonant chord, the instability is just about to be overcome by the final note, which provides the stable resolution we most long for.

A dissonant chord (Photo credit: wikipedia.org)

A dissonant chord (Photo credit: wikipedia.org)

When I first heard ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ as a child, there was something, musically, I didn’t like about it. It sounded dissonant to me. Like it didn’t seem to fit one of the few lyrics I then understood in the song: “Rejoice!” How could a song telling me to “Rejoice!” sound so…off? But perhaps that is why it is so appropriate, because the feeling is so familiar to our world, which is still cursed with dissonance…with evil that often holds us captive in fear. But this ‘joy’ we talk about, especially in Advent, is not identified with hollow happiness nor shown by fake smiles. Instead, it is of an expectant variety that in recognizing evil, is not held captive by it, for we believe that evil’s defeat has been guaranteed, and that we can pave the way (tune our instruments?) for the harmony to come “on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s not escapist theology…because if it was about going away from the earth, then the music would stop. God created the world in harmony with the creation responding appropriately. And God intends to take the dissonance away, so that beauty prevails. That’s what we long for.

As a later verse of (maybe) my new favorite Advent hymn says, “O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer; Our spirits by Thine advent here; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, And death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

If Advent I is hope for the longing, Advent II is love for the hurting. As emptiness may oddly convey expectant longing, pain may oddly show the process to purity. Just as dead stumps and empty branches are the images of hopeful anticipation, a metal refinery and a washboard (see Malachi 3:2) are the images of cleansing pain. I’m not intending to suggest that all pain fits this bill, but there are times when the path to being more filled with the love of God…to have, as John Wesley was so apt to put it, the “love of God shed abroad” in our hearts, is one marked with painful struggles and real hurt.

One of the helpful bits I came across in prepping for this week’s sermons came from Jennifer Ryan Ayres, who borrowed from Ralph Smith, in the Feasting on the Word commentary:

When silver is refined, it is treated with carbon or charcoal, preventing the absorption of oxygen and resulting in its sheen and purity. One writer has suggested that a silversmith knows that the refining process is complete only when she observes her “own image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the metal.” If this is the case, does [Malachi] also suggest that the imago Dei [image of God] is restored in this process?

(Photo credit: certifiedassets.com)

(Photo credit: certifiedassets.com)

The implications of this for Advent, a season of preparation for the coming of Christ, abound. This refining process is mentioned in the context of “preparing the way,” a key phrase for the season. As Christ is the “image of the invisible God,” in his Incarnation, God was (and is) refining humanity so that we may reflect the divine image once again. And that image is love (1 John 4:8).

So the path to Love’s arrival may be one marked with hurt. [That was something the Virgin Mary knew quite well as she prepared the way for the Lord.]

I don’t know. Maybe it’s too much to trust that the pain we experience in life will not be left unredeemed. Maybe the evidence that bombards our news outlets, our courtrooms, our funeral homes, our oncology wards, our unemployment offices, and so on, is too much for love to overcome…

Or…maybe, just maybe, we’ll find someday that Love’s reach is deep enough to find us in those areas of our worst humiliation and pains, like in an animals’ feeding trough because the beds were all taken up…and maybe, just maybe, Love will be strong enough to take us to a time and a place, as Mumford & Sons puts it, “with no more tears, and love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears…” and hurts.

Hurting and not sure, but hoping, that something better is ahead? You’re not alone in the fire.