Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Psalms, Psalm 80. And with the rest of those who have led us into this season already, I want to welcome you to the season of advent, which is a time in the church calendar when we remember the coming of Christ to earth, and we wait and hope for his coming again.
Before turning to the Psalms this morning, I want to start with a different book: namely, Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Because it’s one of my son’s favorites around this time of year, and I find myself in this stage of my life learning many things from children’s books. What’s more, the Grinch seems particularly on-the-nose this year. I imagine the virus as some green monster lurking nearby to take away everything we use to celebrate advent and Christmas. No feasts or warm parties. No picture with Santa, no group sings, no travel, no big gatherings of family, no packed church services or big pageants. Caroling door to door is bioterrorism this year.
This year, because of the bio-Grinch, Christmas isn’t going to come from a store. But what if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more?
My son and wife can’t wait for Christmas to come. Well, maybe they can’t wait or maybe they can. We’ll never know. What’s certain is that they will not wait. On Monday this week, I came home from work to them making gingerbread cookies and singing the chorus of “We Need a Little Christmas” at top volume over and over again.
I try to celebrate advent in the home, to practice waiting for the coming of Christ, so I started shouting over the singing—“No! It’s not Christmas yet!” but they only sang more loudly. What’s worse, they’ve gone on the offensive. I woke AJ up on Tuesday, and before he spoke a word to me—we’re sitting in his rocking chair—he smiles mischievously, opens his eyes, and starts singing “We need a little Christmas, right this very minute.”
But, as much as I’m against their premature celebrations, I understand the urgency this year. I have a deep feeling this year that the world needs to move on. It started with Fall. I was wearing sweaters in October this year, not because I needed them in New Orleans, but because I needed the season’s change. I voted early. I’ve been eating dinner at five. I’m looking at the New Year like dogs look at treats before you let them have it.
The last thing I want to do this year is stop and wait, and so this year I think I’m finally waiting the way we’re meant to wait during advent. I’m finally understanding, at least more so, the brightness of Christ’s second coming, here in the darkness of this year.
Read with me, Psalm 80. We’re going to read vs.1-7, and then 17-19. […] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly. Father God, who makes his face to shine on us; glorious Christ who is coming again; Holy Spirit who waits with us; show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
This Psalm draws on several other passages of Scripture, most notably Moses’ blessing of the people of Israel in Numbers 6, asking God to make his face to shine on us and give us peace. The psalmist imagines the people of God as a vine, and the Lord himself shining as the sun in their midst. He is their light and their source of life. But at this point in Israel, because of the sins of the people, God has turned his face away, and the psalmist imagines God’s mourning like the sun disappearing from the sky. “Restore us, O God,” they cry out, “let your face shine that we may be saved!”
Can you imagine the sun disappearing, if it just one day stopped shining? How soon after would the whole earth perish? Would it last weeks, or would it be days without food and without heat? Without light, the world is without life and without hope.
Celebrating advent in this season when the sun goes down earlier and earlier each day, before most of us even get back to our homes or our safe spaces, should remind us of the spiritual darkness of the world around us, and in our own lives as we struggle through sin and brokenness. Jesus Christ is the light of the world. He is our hope. We need his face to shine upon us and give us peace.
And as we light candles and put up lights, as we see light bursting from every storefront, I want us to remember the light of Christ, and how he shines in the midst of darkness.
Traditionally, the first Sunday of advent is centered on hope, and this year, especially, that’s an important topic; because this year has been marked by hopelessness. Especially in March, when everything in New Orleans shut down over the course of a few days, but really all of this year, the disruption to normal life and rhythm combined with the future going up in the air, I saw a lot of people lose hope.
For me, personally, I had big hopes about my first year as a pastor. Anne-Elise and I have been hoping for years that this year, when she graduated with her degree, would be the year we really found healthy rhythms of work and life, financial stability, mental and physical health. We had resolved to see our families more and go on more dates, even take a cruise for our anniversary. It’s like we had put up lights all over our mental space, and this year, it’s seemed like the grinch came and unscrewed our little lights and put them in his bag. One by one, in every place I looked where I was expecting some kind of celebration of life and light, there was just darkness.
And ministerially, I got a question over and over again about where God has been in all of this darkness this year. People have been feeling like he has turned his face away, and the sun had disappeared from the sky. And understandably, a lot of people have lost hope.
We’ve lost hope because we’ve gotten confused between the metaphor and the reality, and we’ve forgotten our Dr. Seuss. Christmas lights are a good picture of the light of Christ shining in the darkness, and they feel good, but take them down and you haven’t done anything at all to Christmas. The Christmas lights are not the thing-in-itself we celebrate in this season: Christ is the light of the world. And the things we were hoping for this year, the wishes we had of what we were hoping to accomplish and who we were hoping to be by the end of it—those hopes are nice, they feel good, but take them down, and you haven’t done anything at all to hope in Christianity. Hope in Christianity is founded upon the resurrection of Christ and upon his return, bringing his kingdom to fullness. This advent season, we need to remember, someone, something, has taken our lights, but nothing at all has happened to the gospel this year. Jesus’ life, his death in your place, his resurrection, his return—they’re still here, as ever.
I’m not trying to minimize at all the difficulty of this year. In fact, I’m trying to do the opposite. I’m trying to say that next year and every year after, God willing, I’ll preach a sermon about hope in Christ in the midst of darkness. All of life is difficult, because the world is broken by sin. I can hope all I want to, that the new year will change the course of the world just by changing the calendar, but you know it won’t. The world will still be broken and mired in sin. If you find in yourself a longing for a world in which people live at peace with each other, with no more viruses or sickness, no more pain or loss, you have to realize you’re not longing for a new year; you’re longing for a new world. You’re longing for Christ’s return.
Don’t think this year that because your hopes were dashed you’re now hopeless. This year has stolen a lot of small lights from us, but the sun is still going to rise. Jesus Christ, light of the world, will make his face to shine on us again.
I said earlier I’m finally understanding something of the brightness of Christ’s coming again against the darkness of this year. I’m also understanding, in a new way, the wait for Jesus’ first advent in our world. I’ve been thinking, in preparation for this season, about the darkness of the world into which Christ was first born; about his parents, and how they waited.
Joseph was a carpenter, meaning he was a builder; we would call him a construction worker, a laborer. He would have been a bit older than Mary, and able to provide for a family, but still young himself. Mary would have been young, probably teens. They are betrothed, which is similar to our custom of engagement; they would have already been considered as married, but they wouldn’t live together or make love. He was meant to be working, establishing himself and building a home for them. She was meant to be spending time with her mother, learning how to be a wife and manage her own household, sewing a dress for the wedding. Betrothals would typically last a year or so.
I’m sure they went into that year with all kinds of hopes and expectations. All I did when I was engaged was daydream about what our lives together would be like. And they lived in a small country town, a fishing village; I’m sure the whole town was looking forward to the wedding. Then, in the betrothal year, she got pregnant. When her parents spoke to her about how she came to be pregnant, she would have told them an angel came to her to tell her the child is conceived by the Holy Spirit, and will be called God-with-us. But the angel never appeared to her parents.
Instead of spending the year with her mom in excitement and preparation, plans changed. Mary was sent to her cousin’s house, the priest’s wife, out-of town, which is something parents used to do where I spent my high school years in Tennessee if their daughters got pregnant before marriage. Joseph knew the child wasn’t his, so he makes preparations to divorce her, which was kind. The custom was to execute a woman found in adultery. But, praise God, the angel does appear to him, and he stays married to her, despite the fact that throughout the gospels people call Jesus an illegitimate child, and worse.
Then, the foreign rulers call everyone to return to their city of origin to be counted in a census, which is how Mary ends up on a day’s long journey on foot while nine months pregnant with her new husband that everyone already thought she was sleeping with. They finally arrive in Bethlehem, and again, you have to think about what should have happened when they arrived in town. They shouldn’t have stayed at the inn at all. Inns were more like public houses. The custom among godly Jewish people was that when travelers came through a town, they would wait in the town square until a family would invite them into their home for the night and offer them food. I wonder how long Mary and Joseph waited in the square, with the whole town walking past them, before they went to the inn. The text just says there was no room at the inn, but that’s not surprising. There’s rarely room in small town inns for people who are viewed as sinners, so they told the young couple, as though they were animals, not people, to go sleep in the barn. That’s where Jesus Christ was born.
Nine months of waiting, nine months of being talked about, and sent away. A year of hopes dashed, and experiences they had been waiting for their whole lives, just cancelled, like Christmas lights being unscrewed and stuffed in a sack. But through it all we see them singing and praising God for his faithfulness. When you read through the narrative in Luke of the two of them awaiting this child, you would think they’ve never had more hope before in their life. Why? Because in spite of all the darkness, they knew Jesus was coming soon. Heaven come to earth, Immanuel, God with us. He was the source of their hope, through pain and embarrassment and shame. Christ is coming soon.
This is why we celebrate advent every year, why every year we repeat the same promises of hope. Because even though some years are good years, where the sun shines on us, and we grow and thrive and produce more than we even thought possible. And some years are bad years, when all of our little hopes are taken down and snuffed out before their time. But every year, we are able to remember that Jesus is coming soon, and so every year we can have hope that very soon sickness, and sorrow, and loss will be memory, because Christ is able to turn back sin and death itself. Soon we will be reunited with the friends and family we’ve lost or who were ashamed of us and sent us away.
This is the nature of hope in Christianity. It doesn’t grow dimmer as the days grow longer and darkness seems as though it is going to conquer the light. It doesn’t depend upon the economy or the election. It doesn’t even change with our circumstances, whether we better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health. Even if every other light in our life goes out, or is taken from us, still we have reason to sing, reason to pray, reason to hope. Because Christ is coming soon.
My invitation today is an invitation to hope. If you feel like you’ve been sitting in a darkness, and all your lights are taken from you, look to Christ. He is the light of the world. Call out to him, and he will cause his face to shine on you and give you peace. If you have been longing, as I have, for the world to turn and for everything to be right again. Have hope. Christ is coming soon. And if you, like Mary and Joseph, have been excluded and felt shame, know that Christ is coming, and he bears our shame.
And for all of you, may “The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”