But I am reluctant to get to Christmas yet. Part of this blog comes from an article I sent out in our weekly newsletter today, the Olive Branch (online at blog.mountolivechurch.org). Normally I’d write about the upcoming Christmas festivals in some way in the last newsletter before the Nativity. For obvious reasons, given what happened last week in Connecticut, I was, as I said, reluctant to go there. I wanted, and still want, to stay in Advent a little longer.
Advent is a season which speaks to the realities of this world in which we live and helps us navigate through the darkness. It points to the light, to the coming of Jesus into the world then, now, and in times to come, and that is a good thing. But Advent speaks to our hearts in a time when that coming often seems far too distant in either direction to have an impact, times when the darkness seems to be able to overcome the light. As we despair over the senseless deaths, are frustrated by our nation’s continuing unwillingness to join every single one of our fellow Western, developed nations in having real control of guns in this country and thereby enjoy their much-reduced rates of gun-related deaths, and are deeply saddened and grieving once more to face the mass death of children and teachers, Advent speaks to our hearts.
We had planned last Sunday’s worship well before the shootings at the elementary school, and didn’t change them. Everything was ready, the service folders were printed, and we knew that we’d be including these families and our nation in our intercessory prayers. I was gone from Thursday through Saturday, so my sermon was written on Wednesday, well before the shootings. Given that I had no time to re-write, I looked at my sermon and to my surprise I discovered that it was already addressing some of the pain I was feeling about the state of this broken world. The readings for Sunday were mostly about joy and rejoicing, but in the middle of that John the Baptist was calling in harsh words for repentance, saying the world was disastrously not ready for God’s coming. So, with only a couple additions, I left the sermon alone and preached it.
Here is the wonder of Advent, and in general of the gift the Church gives by walking us through the year. We had planned to come and worship God last Sunday, using the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, and singing hymns which reflected those readings, Advent hymns which we sing every year, and as I said, that is what we did. And yet, the gift of the Church, the gift of Advent to me, and I suspect to many who gathered Sunday, that what we sang and heard powerfully spoke to where we were.
We sang a plea that we see the coming of Jesus bring light to a world seemingly steeped in impenetrable darkness: “Our hope and expectation, O Jesus, now appear; arise, O Sun so longed for, o’er this benighted sphere” (ELW 244). We sang hope that our Lord indeed comes “the broken heart to bind, the bleeding soul to cure” (ELW 239). And we sang this promise: “In darkest night, his coming shall be, when all the world is despairing, the morning light so quiet and free, so warm and gentle and caring. Then shall the mute break forth in song, the lame shall leap in wonder, the weak be raised above the strong, and weapons be broken asunder” (ELW 242). Weapons be broken asunder, amen.
The readings called to joy but also spoke of the brokenness of a world longing for the coming of the Messiah. So though we also had prayers written and prayed by our assisting minister which spoke deeply to almighty God from our hearts, the whole liturgy for me was a call for the coming of God's healing in Jesus, God’s light in the darkness. I remember a similar experience after September 11, 2001, when in my parish at the time we gathered and simply prayed Compline, with the regular readings, hymns and prayers, and powerfully were given the precise and deeply important words we needed at that time.
This is the gift of Advent, that we can name our fears alongside our hopes, name our longing and desire for God’s grace and life in spite of the way the world looks, name our desperate need for God’s coming in light and healing. When we celebrate our Lord’s birth next week, we will begin to celebrate how God has come and is coming, how that light makes a difference even in a world where children are killed. Because we do believe that the coming of the Son of God into the world is the beginning of the restoration of all things.
For now, I’m not ready to go there, not just yet. For now, I’m grateful for all who gather with me in Advent waiting, watching, hoping. Grateful for honesty about the brokenness of the world and our need for healing from God which our worship helps us find. And most of all, grateful that we belong to a God whose promised coming then, now, and in the future is already bringing about the healing that this world needs, if only we watch for it, and are a part of it. Advent helps us do just that.
Amen, come, Lord Jesus, we pray. For now, that’s enough.