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.

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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.

From my Easter Sunrise homily this morning based on the text of Luke 24:1-12…

It’s been a week of sleep deprivation. The difficult thing about when I struggle with insomnia or even being just a little deprived of sleep is that sometimes there is a bit of confusion as dreams begin to seemingly take residence in my periods of consciousness. The lines distinguishing reality from fantasy begin to blur. Have you ever had a dream so vivid and filled with such detail that it seemed as real if not more so than your most sober of moments? Or maybe it was so detailed and your emotions were stirred in it to such a degree that it bled over into your daily life and affected how you interacted with others through the day or week?

One morning last week Julianne woke up mad at me saying that I had been mean to her. I don’t recall having done anything to her the day or night before that would give her reason to think that so all I can imagine is that she had a dream where I had disciplined her or just did something not to her liking. (That is not too uncommon of an occurrence.)

I’ll have dreams all the time that are so bizarre yet so vivid that I wake up wondering if the events of my dream had actually occurred. So as the details of the dream come a couple of days later, I’ll tell the story and Carrie will give me that odd look: “Ummm…that didn’t happen, hunny!” Must have just been a dream.

Carrie will wake up in the middle of the night with a dream that someone is trying to break in or has broken in and she’ll ask me: “This sounds crazy, but can you check downstairs to make sure nobody is down there?” And me, being the loving husband I am will go and check it out…usually. Sometimes, it’s just too crazy: “Jeff, will you be a dear and make sure nobody is hiding under the kitchen sink?” “No, Carrie, that’s simply not possible! Get some sleep!

It appears as though that’s kind of what happened with a group of grieving and probably sleep deprived women who went to the tomb that morning and reported to the disciples what they had seen and heard. And how did they respond? They thought it was an “idle tale” or as another version puts it, “stupid, useless talk.

Here we sit, some 2,000 years after that morning and many are saying the same thing that the disciples said to the women that morning, “A dead person came back to life after being buried? That’s just plain crazy. People don’t come back from the dead. You must be short of sleep. Come back to reality. Get some rest. Eat a meal. Something. Enough of this stupid, useless talk.

So much of this is as surprising and unexpected as one could imagine, both in the world of the 1st century and in our own. If God already had to overcome the hurdle of the universal knowledge that “dead people don’t come back to life,” one would tend to think that surely God would do whatever possible to make it more credible, by supplying some socially acceptable witnesses. If God wanted the most credibility to suggest the resurrection had indeed happened, then the story would’ve looked quite differently. There wouldn’t have been women at the tomb, but the disciples, which wouldn’t have satisfied some given the social outcast status of some of them, but would’ve been a little more believable. Women, unjustly, weren’t seen as credible witnesses in the ancient world. Instead the disciples or would’ve been there or some group of capable men, waiting and eager to believe and ready to lead the church into its bright future.

Instead, God chose women. (Take note: the first apostles to bear the good news of the resurrection were women!) And what about the women? They weren’t expecting it either. It’s not as though they were saying, “Well let’s take these spices in case he’s still dead, but let’s see if maybe he’s alive again!” They saw death like the rest of the world: when you’re dead, you’re dead. There’s no coming back. And they got the surprise of their lives when they were grief-stricken and probably sleep deprived from the grieving. This was came out of left field to these non-credible witnesses. Like the shepherds 30 some odd years prior…watching their flocks by night, most likely sleep deprived. And the greatest news the world had ever heard was proclaimed to a group of non-credible witnesses. And the shepherds, the women and we are the ones who are called to bear this good news, this surprising news that faces these odds: virgins don’t get pregnant; dead people don’t come back to life. This is “stupid, useless talk.”

Yet like Peter who ran to the tomb, some evidence is here before us, and we’re perplexed. Hmm…could it be true? How? I don’t understand! Well, would it be good news if we did expect it, if we were inclined to believe, or if we could fully understand? Perhaps it is precisely the good news that we and the world most need to hear because we couldn’t have dreamed it up this way for ourselves. Even the dreams of the sleep deprived wouldn’t come up with this. God is outside the box…or more aptly, outside the tomb.

Looking out from within (credit: thenewself.wordpress.com)

Looking out from within (credit: thenewself.wordpress.com)

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

In mid-January I went to a training event in Dickson, Tennessee with other young clergy in the Memphis & Tennessee Annual Conferences in the United Methodist Church. That weekend was special in that our bishop, Bill McAlilly, was present with us and led us as he began to reveal more about the missional theme of his vision for the Nashville Episcopal Area. In short, he led us in conversation that centered on two key passages that are often in view when we think of mission and evangelism: Matthew 25:31-46 and Matthew 28:16-20. It became clear as we shared with one another that it is a rare thing for a congregation to excel in both of these areas. If a local church is vital in the least, it will do well in one (the social justice ministries often associated with what is mentioned in Matthew 25, like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and so on) or the other (experiencing growth through evangelism and discipleship with an eye toward the Great Commission in Matthew 28), but typically not both.

The conversation then began to shift toward what would it look like if we didn’t divorce these two areas of mission (social justice & disciple-making) but integrated them and saw missions & evangelism as two sides of the same coin, so to speak. While we were having these conversations, at some point my mind began to wonder about those two passages and the fact that they both come toward the end of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life. Beyond the missional connection between the two passages, it wasn’t long before I began to wonder what is the literary connection between the two in Matthew? Maybe it was the long time I have spent studying the doctrine of the atonement that drew my attention to the cross and resurrection as that narrative is found between the two passages. So internally I began asking: What is the relationship between Matthew 25 & 28 and the narrative in between them? What does mission and evangelism have to do with Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection?

Let’s let that narrative sink in…what is found in between? The plotting of the chief priests to capture Jesus, the worshiping of Jesus by the woman with perfume, the disciples scandalized by Jesus’ allowance of this, Judas’ agreement to betray Jesus, preparation for and celebration of the Passover, confusion, more worship in the sharing of the bread and the cup and singing, hollow promises of faithfulness, agonizing prayer for another way, betrayal with a kiss, a battle abated, disciples scatter, a sham arraignment, ridicule, adamant denial, deep regret and a failed attempt to undo betrayal, sham trial, speechless lamb, the guilty goes free and the innocent one is condemned to die, washed hands, swayed crowds, more ridicule, beating, more ridicule, more beating, more ridicule, more ridicule, more ridicule, darkness, a cry for rescue, pause, death, a curtain torn in divine grief, earth shook, rocks split, (are those zombies?), identification of God’s Son from an unlikely source (a Roman centurion), women watching and waiting, burial, an attempt to be sure he stays buried…

cross in office

…the attempt fails – Resurrection…

Those 72+ hours between Matthew 25:31-46 & Matthew 28:16-20 are, for the community who follows the crucified and risen Lord, the most intense hours in human history. In those moments are the darkest of hours of despair that bring out the worst in humanity’s capacity to do harm. But in these moments we also find in the Human One’s actions the very best of humanity (Jesus was and is fully human, after all) and the very source of our hope. These hours proclaim that even in the midst of betrayal, sin an darkness there is Eucharist, and that on the other side of suffering and death is their defeat at the hands of Life.

So what sort of relationship or weight do those days of suffering, death and resurrection bear on the missional passages before and after the Passion narrative? Maybe in telling us that when we give food, drink or clothing to those in need or visiting the sick and imprisoned we are doing these acts of mercy to Christ himself, he was dropping a hint that it would not be long before he would be hungry, thirsty, naked, afflicted, and condemned. When disciples of Jesus do these acts of mercy, we’re ministering to the suffering & crucified Messiah who humbled and emptied himself to such a degree as to be counted among criminals. When we clothe the naked, we condemn the criminal actions of Jesus’ torturers who stripped him down and cast lots for his clothing. When we give water to the thirsty, we cease from stopping the one offering a sponge to the dying Jesus with an ounce of water to soothe his lips. When we visit the imprisoned and offer words of encouragement to them seeking to set them free from whatever holds them in bondage, we display our contempt of the fraudulent court system and trial that condemned the Innocent One to death.

And maybe in telling us to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them, Jesus is pointing back to what was just before as the content of what it looks like to live like genuine disciples of his. That is, when we are baptized into Christ, we are united with Christ in his suffering, death and resurrection, and lay claim to hope that sin and death’s defeat has been guaranteed in our own lives and for the world. That is, the closer we draw near to Jesus, the more we are genuine disciples who do not betray, slumber, scatter, or deny, but who follow near and are willing to be counted among the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, condemned just as Jesus was. That is, that genuine disciples are not afraid to cry out to God when we feel most deserted by the world, by our friends, and even by the God Jesus called Father, too. And that this movement would be so radical that the world could not stamp it out, but that people of all nations would be drawn to the sacrificial love that is willing to forgive those who betray, scatter, deny, and even those who condemn. And in that, we’re given a most blessed promise…that God’s presence in Christ will be with us as we embark on that mission.

And to me, these are the sorts of things that distinguishes a community who follows a crucified and risen Lord from a mere charity organization who just wants to be kind to others or a country club who just wants to increase in size. The narrative in between centers our missional life in that we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection.

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.

As I have reflected further upon the topic of Advent as a season of aching, longing emptiness, which I wrote about in the last post, I have been taken back to the realization of the important role of music during this time of the year. During the time around Christmas, our hearts and lips are tuned to sing more than most other times of the year. In Christmastide (Christmas and the days thereafter), our songs are those of hope arrived, joy fulfilled, peace on earth, and love’s dawn. But in Advent, our songs express the various sentiments of preparation: feelings of longing hope, expectant joy, wishing for reigning peace, and yearning for lasting love. Advent is meant to prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming…not just in the past as the Infant of Days in the manger, but also in looking forward to his return as triumphant King. As each year we step backward in time, into the shoes of an exiled people, a group who was feeling out of place, whose home had been taken from them, I realize that Advent adequately portrays our current place in time and space, and I’m drawn toward the songs that describe the longing for the coming of a promised deliverer. Not “deliverer” in the sense of one who will “Take me outta this earth!” but as one who will deliver the things longed for, the fulfillment of hope and joy, the bearer of peace, good will, and agape love. In this way, Advent, its themes, and hymns are meant to tie together the first (already) and second (not yet) comings of Christ on earth. Hence, Advent is about yearning for Christ’s “kingdom [to] come…on earth as it is in heaven.” One of my favorite of these hymns of longing was written by Charles Wesley, called ‘Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,’ which is often sung during this season of longing and preparation.

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.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

Advent’s songs are about this yearning. It’s like the prelude to a kiss. When captured in a picture, the moment right before the couple’s lips meet brings out this sense of longing for the kiss to be fulfilled.

almost kiss

In the Incarnation of Christ, divinity and humanity come together & meet in one person. In the coming kingdom, that which is already and that which is yet to be fulfilled are drawing nearer to one another, yearning and waiting for the completion of the union between earth and heaven. May we echo with Charles this season of Advent, “Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.”