Advent Homily Series

Preached at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Bellevue, WA
on December 1, 2015

A mid-week series for Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9

Jesus Christ is the light of the world. The light no darkness can overcome.

They blamed the darkness on God. It’s your fault, God, the people of Isaiah cried out.
You were angry. So we sinned.
You hid yourself. So we sinned.
You have hidden your face from us. So we sinned.
You can’t blame us for all this darkness. It’s your fault, God, not ours.

They blamed the darkness on God. Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down… God’s people found themselves back in Jerusalem after seventy years of exile in Babylon. They have had their prayers for homecoming fulfilled. We’re back! We’re home! But like so many of us discover of our homecomings – home was not quite what we remembered it to be. So they blamed God.

We blame God for our darkness. Different words, perhaps, but the thought is the same:
You were angry. So we sinned.
You hid yourself. So we sinned.
You have hidden your face from us. So we sinned.
And it is dark these days, is it not? Shall I rehearse the already familiar litany of dark places? Syria, Afghanistan, the cafes of Paris, the campus of the University of Chicago and our own Lutheran Seminary just across the Hyde Park street. It is dark. Darker still as recently as 11 a.m. this morning, and as near as San Bernardino, California.

Refugee boats washing up on shores filled with bodies, dead, or nearly dead, or starving. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

Yes, give them to me, but only the desirable ones. The safe ones. The ones most like us.

We blame our darkness on God. And it’s dark in here, too, is it not? Even inside these four walls of sanctuary?

Dark.

Dark, within the supposed safety of Seattle and Eastside lives, all sewn up and prosperous and secure. Even within our lives, often untouched, unscathed by huddled masses and the wretched refuse of other teeming shores, and – so far, at least for most of us, — untouched by the terror of random gunfire.

Still there is no defense against the darkness of an unwanted diagnosis, an unexpected rejection: job loss, a relationship racked by infidelity, that thing at work you thought was going so well suddenly rebuffed, perhaps even ridiculed.

Jesus Christ is the light of the world. The light no darkness can overcome.

See here’s the thing: the darkness that cannot be overcome by the light of Christ is not God’s darkness. It is OUR darkness. It is OUR doing, OUR mess. But into it, right into the middle of it, Christ comes anyway. Into our messes. To our darkest dark. To our bleakest hour. To the most unexpected moment of our lives, or to the chaos we knew all along we were creating, but tried to deny. To this, Christ comes. Christ comes.

[It’s been dark before. Dark and lonely nights for Abraham standing beneath the stars which numbered his heirs according to God, but there was no heir. Nights of second guessing for Moses who couldn’t help but wonder along with his accusers, should we have just stayed as slaves in Egypt? It’s been dark before – when Esther defended her people against the wiles of Haman; when King David heard the damning words of Nathan, “You are the man…”

It was dark on the day when Mary said to Jesus, Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And when those men on the road to Emmaus said to a supposed stranger, but we had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel. We had hoped. Dark. Very dark.]

It’s been dark before, but maybe never as dark as on that Friday, Jesus himself on the cross and against the wall — My God, my God why have you forsaken me?

Jesus Christ is the light of the world. The light no darkness can overcome.

We who are the people of God,
who are as clay in the hand of the potter…
We who are named, chosen, to bring Good News to the world…
We who Jesus chooses to call his body, the body of Christ…
We are not inoculated against the dark. We are simply not overcome by it.

No matter the disappointments, no matter the disasters and defeats, no matter that even death will one day close our eyes and suck away our final breath, we do not live as people who are without hope. It is possible to be honest, and to still have hope.

In Christ Jesus, God has torn open the heavens and come down. In Christ Jesus, God is remembering that we are all God’s people. In Christ Jesus, God will one day and forever banish all the darkness.

It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. That candle has been lit. And its name is Jesus. Jesus Christ, the light of the world. The light no darkness can overcome.

In the name of the Father and of the (+) Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Isaiah 40:1-11

Jesus Christ you are the light of the world. The light no darkness can overcome.

I felt overcome by darkness as we closed the lid of dad’s coffin. And no sooner had we done that, than I was sorry that we decided to bury him with that ring.

Dad never talked much about the war years. I know now that they were far too painful for him to remember. But as a little kid, I was intrigued by tanks and fighting men and I would beg him to tell me stories about his days in a German prison camp at the end of World War II. It’s actually from my mom that I learned most of what I know about his war years. She is the one who told me how this strapping young farmer that she had sent off to war weighed only 99 pounds and was infected with hepatitis and pneumonia when he came home. One night at the supper table I refused to eat boiled turnips. And at nine years old, who wouldn’t, right? Dad took advantage of that opportunity to tell of how the Germans had boiled muddy turnips in a large pot and then ate the vegetables, leaving the mud broth for the prisoners. But none of these little snippets told me as much of the story as the ring. The ring that was dad’s symbol of comfort and hope.

People held in captivity need hopeful and comforting symbols and words. The people to whom Isaiah speaks in this powerful passage are also prisoners of war. They are people held in bondage in the foreign land of Babylon, deported from their home in Jerusalem at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. Their temple lay in ruins, as did their lives. Like more recent prisoners in Germany, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, there was precious little for God’s people to cling to. Stripped of pride, possessions, identity and freedom, there was nothing left to celebrate. All flesh is grass, cries Isaiah on his people’s behalf. In other words, we are down and out. We have no sense of permanence, no future, no hope. Yet at the same time, while they are still prisoners, the urgency of the prophetic word forces Isaiah to point out to his people that there is hope. And what does he point to? Words. Images. Symbols.

The Word of the Lord will stand forever, he says. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Isn’t it interesting that he evokes an image of what they long for the most – home. But it brings strength, even among exiles. No one has yet packed a single caravan to head back home and yet the people of grass revel in the helpful, hopeful vision of a shepherd opening his arms in welcome when they do finally get back home. Chains still embrace the courtyard gate, but Israel hears the word that God has not forgotten, and is comforted.

People of grass like you and me, whose accomplishments sooner or later wither and fade need to be honest. We are in bondage, too. We are people held, if not in chains, then by the captivity of our own egos. We are bound by prides and lusts. We are chained to our own stubbornness, our inability to see any future but the one in our own imagination. We say it most every week – but do we believe it: we confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. Just like Israel, just like dad, we need comfort and hope. We need images. Symbols. Words.

Not just any words or images. Any old symbol will not do. What we need are words and symbols and images that are of our God, the living God. He is here in the symbol of a lighted wreath, an empty cross. He comes to us in the Word of scripture and evening prayer. Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world. The light no darkness can overcome.

It was that same hope, molded into a simple, silver ring that sustained my dad in his days of German prison camp. Somehow he managed to smuggle a silver dollar into camp with him. And in his boredom he pounded that silver dollar into a silver ring, his symbol of comfort and hope. I never saw him without it on his finger. On the outside was a keystone, the symbol of his home state of Pennsylvania. Home, which he longed for but could not
have. On the inside were the words from that silver dollar: in God we trust. Not much at all in the grand scheme of things. But enough. Enough to bring comfort. And hope.

Let’s not be mistaken. To be comforted in the sense in which Isaiah uses that word does not mean to be comfortable. It is not the warm fuzzy comfort of grandma’s feather bed. It is not the soothing hospitality of Southern Comfort. It is not some sort of self-help, feel-better personal improvement project.

Isaiah’s comfort has its root in the word forte, “strong.” Our God comforts us. Our God gives us strength. Our God makes us ready to face the adversaries and bondages of life. And with that strength, we go courageously to face whatever might hold us captive.

A silver ring, lost in all but a few precious memories. A vision held up of a Jerusalem waiting, where once again good tidings would be proclaimed. The words, I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins. A sip of wine, a bit of bread. Water poured. A cross forged on the forehead with oil. A wreath of increasing light that points to the promise, Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world. The light no darkness can overcome.

Not much, but enough. Enough, for they are themselves the promised presence of our God. In them there is strength. In them there is hope. In them, there is comfort. For the Word of our God will stand forever. The light no darkness can overcome.

In the name of the Father, and of the (+) Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Isaiah 35:1-10

Jesus Christ you are the light of the world. The light no darkness can overcome.

There is darkness for many in our world. Too many. Some of life’s darkness is predictable and follows a well-worn path of logic. You hold up a convenience store at gunpoint and get caught, it stands to reason that you will do some prison time. It will be dark in there. But it’s a darkness that has a certain logic to it.

But there is also darkness in the world that seems unjustified, and unjustifiable. To this sort of darkness, we might paraphrase this evening’s prophecy and ask:
When will the eyes of the blind be opened?
When will the ears of the deaf be unstopped?
And when will the lame ones leap like a deer and the tongues of the
speechless sing for joy?
The prophet promises a holy way on which to walk for the people
of God. A place where even those without a GPS will not get
lost. But I can’t imagine it. He promises a time when sorrow
and sighing will flee away. But I don’t see it.

Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world. The light no darkness can overcome.
Last night at dinner, my wife Donna and I lit our little kitchen advent wreath as we usually do in these December days. The tall, stately blue candles are in the dining room with the fancy wreath. These are just four little tea lights – perfect for a winter supper after a day of work for each of us. We sang O Come, O Come Emmanuel, our Advent table prayer and dug in.

When the first one burned out, we didn’t think too much about it. It happens. But about five minutes later, a second bit the dust. “Advent is declining,” Donna said. And then it happened. With a poof that was almost audible and an uncharacteristic plume of gray smoke, the third one died. Right there in front of us, with just eleven shopping days left until Christmas.

Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world. The light no darkness can overcome.

When will the eyes of the blind be opened?
When will the ears of the deaf be unstopped?
And when will the lame ones leap like a deer and the tongues of the
speechless sing for joy?
The prophet promises a holy way on which to walk for the people
of God. A place where even those without a GPS will not get
lost. But I can’t imagine it. He promises a time when sorrow
and sighing will flee away. But I don’t see it.

Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world. The light no darkness can overcome.

Just because I don’t see it doesn’t mean the Light isn’t there. Maybe I am looking for Christ with the wrong eyes.

Let me try this on, just for size, and see what you think. Maybe, just maybe, it’s the BODY of Christ that is the light of the world of which we sing every time we pray evening prayer. Maybe, just maybe, the light no darkness can overcome is a light WE are called to carry: to those blinded by their own fear, to the lame who limp with anxiety or grief, to those lost on the highway, to the offended and the offenders. Maybe, just maybe the light no darkness can overcome is OUR light to bear – in Jesus’ name of course, and with his encouragement and example – to an aching weary, world.

Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world. The light no darkness can overcome.

And that light is you. And it is me. Remember what St. Paul told us? Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

In the name of the Father, and of the (+) Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Isaiah 7:10-16

Jesus Christ you are the light of the world. The light no darkness can overcome.

The days of Ahaz were dark days for Israel, that’s for sure. The kingdom was divided in half, the Assyrians were threatening from the North, the Egyptians from the South. Without going into a whole lot of detail, Isaiah had his hands full with stubborn, sarcastic, godless Ahaz. You can hear the darkness of Isaiah’s frustration, “Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?”

Thanks to George Frederick Handel and a host of others, we read this prophecy about a young woman conceiving and bearing a son and immediately think: Jesus! It’s certainly not a bad thing to look back on ancient prophecies such as this from the 8th Century before Christ and make the connections to Christ. Luther loved doing that. But let’s not miss the depth and richness that is there for its first hearers.

More than anything, Isaiah wants Ahaz and all the rest of the players in this story to realize: we worship a REAL God who is active with REAL people in their very REAL lives and history. Isaiah was right: in his very own day a young woman did conceive and bear a son among the royals. And before that child was able to reason the evil from the good – in other words, before he was twelve years old – their land lay in ruins. There was nothing left. All one could scrounge to eat were the curds and honey amid their overrun farms and villages. Dark times.

But the word of Isaiah remains: God is alive. God is active. God is with you. Pay attention.

At a church not unlike St. Andrew’s it was time for the annual Christmas pageant. Around the end of October, one of the Sunday school teachers gave birth to a baby boy. So this year, instead of the usual doll, the leaders of the Christmas program decided to use this new little baby in the manger to play the part of Jesus.

The congregation sang Silent Night. Mary and Joseph, played by sixth graders and dressed in costumes that looked a lot like bathrobes, came down the aisle. The children were singing on the steps, just like they had always been. Except this year, Mary was not carrying a doll. She was carrying a tiny, live, sleeping boy.

When the hushed tones of Silent Night came to an end, the church was filled with the warmth of everyone’s candlelight. And there we were, wrapped in the silence and the wonder of it all.

And then it happened. One of the Kindergartners noticed the surprising difference in this year’s Christmas play. That was no doll. That was a real baby. She couldn’t help herself, and broke the silence by shouting, “My, oh my. This year we’ve got us a real, live Jesus!”

The word of Isaiah remains: God is alive. God is active. God is with us. A real God, a living God. Pay attention. This year we’ve got us a real, live Jesus!

God has been surprising his people since the beginning of time with gifts of love and mercy. As we make the final preparations for Christmas as God’s people, there are likely to be many surprises. Gifts will be brought from hiding places; families will delight in one another’s company. Jesus Christ, the light of the world will be so very obvious to us. We are blessed.

But all around us, there will still be darkness. There are people who are hungry. Refugees who need a home. Men and women whose lives are joyless or depressed. Sick people, hurting people. People who need us to share with them God’s greatest gift.

This year, we’ve got us a real live Jesus. This year, like every year, like every day in fact, Christ is really, truly present with us. Surprise! Emmanuel has earned his name – God is with us.

And now… Now that he is with us… Now that he is alive in us and among us, there is just one question left to ask… The question as old as Isaiah and as recent as tonight’s 6 o’clock news. What will we do with him now that he is here?

This year, we’ve got us a real live Jesus. Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.