Advent Candle Lighting 1: Hope
In the beginning was the Word,
and the word was with God, and the word was God.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
The Word has come to live among us.
We come waiting for the light of Christ.
Tonight we remember the Prophets,
who spoke of things unseen,
giving words to the longings of a people
and their God.
Tonight we light a candle for HOPE.
As we begin our Advent journey we pray for hope.
Give us the courage to anticipate hope.
Hope that we are not alone,
Hope that this is not the end,
Hope that you are always with us now and you promise always to be.
Advent is a gift to us- the darkness and hush of these weeks before Christmas.
A time of preparation and awareness, a waiting that lets us feel our longing for hope.
But the first week of Advent is always jarring. We’re all turkeyed out and geared up to plunge into the Holiday season along with apparently everyone else in the world – we’re sentimental and ready, but then we come to our scripture to begin us on this journey of prayerful, joyful waiting, and we find either dire end time predictions or disconcerting lament.
Where are you God!? Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!
Today our wait for Christmas is shaped by a view of life through the eyes of the prophets. Throughout scripture the prophets have a profound role. They speak to the people for God, telling the people what God has done, or will do; standing in the gap they interpret God to the people.
But they also raise their voices to God on the people’s behalf. They interpret the people to God. They are emboldened to convey the message back and forth, almost like the angels ascending and descending Jacob’s ladder, the prophets are both the messengers of God and the voice of the people’s true experience back to God.
Our lament tonight comes from a people who were driven out of Jerusalem into exile by the Babylonians and have just returned- some sixty years of prayers have been answered and all the hope that sustained them while they were in captivity in Babylon is coming to fruition. Finally! They are free to go home! God is going to help them rebuild and they will be as glorious as of old!
Only it doesn’t happen that way, and all that kept them hanging on while they were in their wilderness of exile turns out to be false, or at the very least extremely overly optimistic. They return - and most of them don’t, so the disappointment starts there, but those who do - come back to a home different than when they left, it barely remembers them, and it’s not so easy to get it all up and going again. The tension and conflict between those returning and those who had moved in in their absence and those that remained behind comes to a head, and this is not turning out like anyone had believed it would when they dreamed of rebuilding their lives. They are frustrated and disheartened.
This week our friends Matt & Annamarie were all set to move back to Jordan tomorrow – Blaze had his last day of preschool and said goodbye to his friends and teachers, they packed up and moved out of their missionary housing apartment at Luther, and were spending Thanksgiving with Matt’s family before they said goodbye and eagerly returned home.
Then on Wednesday Matt fell down the stairs and broke his leg in two places. Now he’s laid up with rods and pins in his leg and their dream of returning home is postponed a minimum of 8-10 more weeks, and they are really, really disappointed.
I have been watching the well wishes pour in on Facebook, and a few of them have really rattled me. They imply – or state directly- that God must have some reason for keeping them here, or even that God made it happen and must not want them to go.
It’s the same as when we tell people at a funeral that God called their loved one home, or pat someone’s shoulder and say God has some reason for the sickness they are going through or the layoff that pulls the rug out from under them.
It’s our way of coming to terms with the disappointment, I suppose – or avoiding it – our way to try to find hope. But it’s not real hope, this optimism that keeps God on a pedestal and makes us have to stuff down our disappointment or sorrow and keep a positive smile plastered on. It’s the stuff of a holiday season, if you think about it. And while this might be what we’ve decided it means to be a good Christian, or to honor God, it could not be farther from what a prophet does.
In this lament the prophet does a rather astonishing thing, actually. Even while affirming God’s steadfast love, the prophet lays the blame for the distance between God and humanity on BOTH God and humanity. Because you were angry, we sinned, because you hid from us, we rebelled.
God, this is not like we thought it would be. It’s not like we believe it should be. It’s not like we feel was implied in our relationship with you. We’re mad, and we’re disappointed. And we feel a little abandoned. And we get it, yes, that we abandoned you too and have really dropped our end of the relationship so maybe we even earned this, but you never were one to pay people back by what they had earned – who could stand then? No, you always acted from your own faithfulness and commitment to us, your own unending love, so will you please do that again now?
Where are you God? The prophet boldly cries. And this question, we discover, this very human and honest, Where are you God? is astoundingly not a forbidden cry. It is actually a cry of faithfulness.
Only one that knows God can be there, one that has seen God in the past and believes God is capable of showing up again can utter such a cry.
Crying out about the absence of God is an act of great faith. It can come only from trusting in the presence of God, and grieving when God lets us down. We let God down too- that’s not in dispute, but here the prophet is holding God to God’s character and capacity – not ours.
And Advent begins with this view, this call, this voice of the prophets: To raise up on behalf of all people a great cry of disappointment, to point out God’s absence and wonder if God is going to step in and do something.
We would feel much more comfortable, perhaps, if we just tried to explain away God’s actions or lackthereof; we’re pretty good at big rationalizations that get God off the hook for the state of the world and put it all squarely on human shoulders. But the odd invitation of both Advent and this text is to hold God to account. And certainly to be aware of what we are asking as well, that human beings would fare poorly indeed if God actually did tear open the heavens and come down and we were scrutinized by the Divine for our own faithfulness and goodness because most of us are rarely very faithful or good - but nonetheless, this text says, nonetheless, we are to come to God and ask for God’s presence. Not based on our own righteousness or fidelity but on God’s.
And the beauty of beginning Advent this way is the irony that it represents – the prophet speaking for the Hebrew people has no way of knowing that God will indeed come down – God will indeed enter intimately into the scene - just not at all like he is asking for God to. He has no way of knowing that God doesn’t smite enemies or come to us in power and intimidation with awesome deeds and trembling onlookers– instead God comes in utter humanity, in the weakness and vulnerability of a poor, illegitimate and homeless infant, and experiences all of it with us from the inside.
For the next four weeks our lives are going to get crazy. We will project onto Christmas irrational expectations and nostalgic optimism, and we’ll spend more money than we should and eat more junk food than we should, and I’m just acknowledging that this is the reality and I don’t want anyone to feel too badly about it, because that’s just how it goes.
But there is something else going on these next four weeks that is really significant and a lot less noticeable. And it is this invitation to deep honesty, to step into the shoes of the prophets- to see the world with stark candor and not be afraid to bring our complaints to God, and also to speak into the world the hope of a God who enters in. A God who comes near. A God who shares all of it. And joins us just as we are. That’s quite a celebration to anticipate.
The beginning of Advent is a chance to let down our guard, and our weird pressure about being good or right people, people who believe in the right causes and stand up for the right issues and give to the right charities and never lose sight of the larger global crises and our own cushy existence and earn the respect of our neighbors and our God with just the right attitude and faith.
No, the prophets would say. It is what it is, and we are who we are. And also, God is who God is, so God, will you be who you are?
Advent is a chance to open our eyes and hearts and minds and be brutally, refreshingly honest with God and ourselves. Some really terrible things happen and are happening. And we are brokenhearted about it.
And we don’t’ have to have it all worked out – how God comes or what it looks like, so we can’t even make sure we are asking for the right thing with the right motivations - we just have to ask. To speak out of our own deep honesty.
To answer the incessant invitation of God throughout all of scripture to be in this with God! To drop all the religious and polite filters we usually put on, and to speak right to God who already knows who we are and how it is, and just longs for us to be real with each other, us and God, and who really, really likes it when we are.
We’re called to put voice to the longing. These next four weeks, we function like prophets, or rather, all together like a prophet. With boldness we call God out and are not afraid to lift up to God those things that have broken our hearts and confounded our faith and cry to God, If only you would tear open the heavens and come down?
Wont you come down, Please?
It’s no mistake that the cry of Advent is “Come, Lord Jesus!”
Someone once said, “Hope is what is left behind when your worst fears have been realized and you are no longer optimistic about the future. Hope is what comes with a broken heart willing to be mended.” (Patricia E. DeJong in Feasting on the Word)
This Advent, let’s be people of Hope. For each other and for the world that will be rushing through to Christmas with smiles plastered on their faces and God at a distance let’s be prophets who give voice to our longing for God’s compassion and companionship, and who recognize that the steadfast love of God holds us even when it doesn’t feel like it.
Let’s invite God to strip away our optimism and religion so we can stand bravely with our broken hearts and the world’s broken hearts waiting to be mended. Let’s not be afraid to see and say things as they are, and then to put our trust in the savior who crawls into it all right beside us.
Come, Lord Jesus!