“Light and Life to All”
December 2, 2012
Advent begins. In our annual act of hope during and resistance to the growing darkness of these days, we bring light to our wreath and to our worship. So this morning I want to share two stories about candles with you.
The first story comes from South Africa during the time, not all that long ago, of apartheid. Despite the government’s grinding oppression, Christian communities met to worship and sing songs of faith. In one village during December people would gather and sing their Advent hymns and Christmas carols.
We do that here—and don’t think much about it. We pipe them through our malls. And my guess is that we’re not really listening. We’re not hearing the disturbing prayers and affirmations carried by those familiar songs:
Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free
Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel
Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day, to save us all from Satan’s power
Maybe we’re not listening.
But the South African government was. And the government was offended. The police ordered the people to stop. Hymn-sings were prohibited. The government said they were acts of “disturbing the peace.”
The people went to their homes and at night, in silence, lit a candle and placed it in the window. In every home in the village a candle gave its light.
Again the government was offended. Police were sent to every house. They ordered the candles snuffed out. When the people refused, the police entered the homes of the people and blew the candles out themselves.
The next night, the people lit their candles again, this time not just one candle, but many. There was not a window in the village from which a candle did not shine into the night. It is said that the dark night sky above was flooded with candlelight.
The police backed away, embarrassed by the thought of entering every house in the village and having to bend down to blow out a thousand candles.
Advent is a season of defiance.
The days grow short. Almost as an act of resistance, we begin our worship with adults and children standing where all can see them and lighting a candle—a reminder to us that the light of God still shines in the darkness. The light fades early, but we say it will not always be so.
The leaves turn brown and fall. We take pine and balsam and holly—evergreens—and turn them into living circles with neither beginning nor end. As nature point toward death and decay, we turn our sights toward resurrection and new life.
In opposition to the poverty and despair in our city, we join with others to provide food and shelter—and perhaps as important, community.
War continues. We pray for peace and will continue to pray and act until our petitions are heard in the highest heavens and made real on earth.
The way of the United Church of Christ all too often goes against the way of the world. Our actions are filled with both symbol and substance. In our defiance we discover God, faithfully with us. In our defiance we proclaim God doing something new among us and within us.
Some 2,500 years ago, the Hebrew people looked at the injustice done by the rich and powerful. Many concluded: “All who do evil are good in the sight of the Lord, and God delights in them.” And they asked the prophet Malachi, “Where is the God of justice?”
To this point blank question, Malachi responded with the word of God: “Behold, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come—but who can endure that day?”
The advent—the coming—of God is disturbing. And as the villagers in South Africa discovered, even the hope of that advent gives power to the powerless.
Five hundred years after Malachi spoke, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
How do we imagine such an event?
In the movie of Godspell John appears in the wilderness of the city streets, blowing on a ram's horn, singing "Prepare ye the way of the Lord." Those who have ears to hear follow him with joy and abandon.
In The Last Temptation of Christ John the Baptist is encountered as a wild man who gathered around him a frenetic band of followers. Far from the city, at the Jordan River, they pound on drums, crash cymbals, and blow flutes. They dance as if their lives depended on it, wading in the water as if it really mattered. And perhaps it does.
In the city, in the wilderness, along a river—John confronts his listeners with a demand and an offer: repent and be baptized.
This is John's baptism—a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Repent—turn around and go in the opposite direction. To someone heading toward a cliff that is the best news possible, truly the "word of God." To someone heading toward a cliff, "Turn around" is the word that gives life.
The word of God came to John. The word of God comes to us. In the wilderness or in the city.
Prepare, says John.
Advent can be such an uncomfortable time for our spirits. It is a time of upheaval, a time of construction, of clearing new paths. We would rush toward Christmas because it is a sure bet. The road to Bethlehem is at least familiar. And we know what happened there. It is known. It is safe.
Christmas, however, is not the end of advent, but more like the midpoint. The birth of Jesus is for us the fulfillment of hope that Emmanuel would come, but in many ways it is more like a promise—a promise of something more, something that we wait for still.
If we listen, we can hear in John's words a call to prepare, not for the God who has come, but for the God who will come.
This “second coming” makes most of us squirm. Karl Barth said that we can’t fathom the Second Advent of Jesus Christ and we stammer when we speak of it.
We’ve been expecting the second coming for so long and it hasn’t happened yet. Centuries ago the Christian Church settled in for the long haul. We don’t deny the big, booming events like the coming of Christ, but we don’t think about it very much either.
After all, we’ve got congregations and sacraments; we’ve got scripture and prayer. We’re content to leave this embarrassing second advent to the embarrassing Christians with their charts and wrong predictions that then become new predictions.
It’s embarrassing. But that’s not really the problem.
As one person put it, “The hardest part for people who believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ is living the sort of life that makes people say, ‘Ah, so that’s how people are going to live when righteousness takes over our world.’”
And this brings me to my second candle story. This one occurred in Connecticut on a sunny day in May in the late 1700’s.
The Connecticut House of Representatives was in session, doing their work by natural light. Right in the middle of debate, there was an eclipse of the sun and everything turned to darkness. Some legislators thought it was the second coming. So a clamor arose. People wanted to adjourn. People wanted to pray. People wanted to prepare for the coming of the Lord.
The speaker of the House, however, had a different idea—one that showed good logic and profound faith.
“We are all upset by the darkness,” he said, “and some of us are afraid. But the day of the Lord is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. And if the Lord is returning, I, for one, choose to be found doing my duty. I therefore ask that candles be brought.”[i]
In these weeks before Christmas we are called to prepare the way of the Lord. And here’s the surprise: in the weeks after Christmas we will still be called to prepare the way of the Lord. Advent simply brings to our attention the situation in which we live all year long. It invites us to simple faithfulness in our work and our attitudes at all times—until that day when all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
We light these candles in worship and we light candles in our homes, not simply to warm our hearts—which they do and which is much needed—but we light these candles to stir our consciences. They are there to remind us not only of “the beauty of Christmas” but of the power and responsibility that we have as people who await the advent of our God.
Let candles be brought.
Carry the light of God’s love into the world.