God Among the Shadows.
It was literally the day after Thanksgiving
That day most of us nowadays call Black Friday
The day I’ve learned to avoid going out at all costs, if I can help it.
Who wants to, anyway, when there’s all that left over pie to eat for breakfast.
But I was sent out, to get replacement cream for the coffee.
We used it all up over thanksgiving
And some of us (me) can’t drink our coffee without it.
I was hoping that the grocery store might be spared
From all the Black Friday madness.
It was early, maybe 8 or 8:30
And I hoped I’d sneak in and out and get home unscathed.
I did. Don’t worry.
It wasn’t too busy.
None of the reports over fighting over the cut-rate price for strawberries were true.
But I did notice something, right when I walked in the door.
Or better, I should say, I heard something:
Oh! You better watch out,
You better not cry,
You better not pout,
I’m telling you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town.
Christmas music, on the Grocery Store sound system, the day after Thanksgiving!
All the oranges and browns of Thanksgiving had been put away.
Greens and Reds were everywhere. And now the music, too, was in the air.
Its time for Christmas! Or, at least, waiting for Christmastime to get here, and soon!
The thoughts of John Buchanan,[i]
former Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago,
have helped me get a hold on what is going on here: this feeling of hopeful waiting.
Like him: I can see it most strongly in children around us. The waiting.
To be a child in December is to know the most exquisite kind of waiting—
impatient waiting, waiting in hope.
Lights are hung.
Trees displayed prominently in many a window.
We had a brave crew festoon the sanctuary last Sunday
So Eryn and James could cabaret our way into the season.
Someone even decked the stop sign on the corner of our house with
Flashing lights all the way up and down the pole.
Something big is about to happen,
and when you look around it seems like it is already happening.
That’s kind of the paradox of this time of year.
Its already happening.
But IT isn’t here yet. It will be, but not yet.
To be a child, or frankly to be an adult, too, in these weeks before Christmas
is to experience existentially the great theological paradox of “already but not yet.”
The kingdom of God is present, but it is also coming.
The world has been redeemed, but it is not yet what it can and will be.
Christ has come; Christ will come again.
In the meantime, in our meantime: Christmas is all around us
Cities have holiday lighting festivals
The Plaza on Thanksgiving
Prairie Village, the town I live in, this past Thursday
Or the one on Friday in Mission, Kansas
Where Tessa’s elementary school choir sang in a gymnasium
As kids ran around with balloon animals, all loaded up from the sweets.
It’s like a switch gets pulled
And somehow everything gets going at full speed:
Store windows brighten with new, colorful displays.
There are sales and bargains, and the local economy goes into overdrive.
Merchants depend on the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas
for something like 90 percent of the year’s profit.
Not just Black Friday but emails, oh the emails, all weekend long,
Then Cyber Monday and Giving Tuesday.
And I don’t know about you, but my calendar is somehow now full
of invitations to special events not to mention
holiday breakfasts and lunches and dinners.
And right in the middle of all that,
just at THAT moment, the church asks us to slow down,
exclaims “whoa cowboy”
puts on the brakes, becomes somber and reflective and pensive.
Right here, today: it’s Advent
an intentionally quiet time to spend pondering,
watching, waiting for something to happen.
We break out the advent wreath and candles.
The pastor insists on all these hymns in a minor key,
At least early on in December
As we watch and wait and look and expect and keep watch.
To observe Advent,
to get anything out of Advent,
to have a good Advent, is to wait,
to have the experience of “already but not yet.”
In fact, waiting is an important Biblical theme.
But it’s more than passive waiting: It’s yearning, actually.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence,
to make your name known to your adversaries.
That prayer is 2,500 years old.
It’s from the sixty-fourth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah,
that Ann read for us this morning,
a plea that comes around for Advent every three years.
A few months ago, one of you
Brought me a little book called Children’s Letters to God.[ii]
I had seen it before. I have a copy of it myself.
But I was glad to see it and read some of it again.
Someone once said that you can find every major theological question
and every major theological issue somewhere in those letters:
Are you really invisible
or is that just a trick?
Thank you for the baby brother,
but what I prayed for was a puppy.
Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each other so much
if they had their own room. It works with my brother.
Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones,
why don’t you just keep the ones you got now?
Or this one, which is almost an Advent prayer:
Are you real? Some people don’t believe it.
If you are, you’d better do something quick.
Harriet Anne sounds a lot like the prophet Isaiah:
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…
to make your name known to your adversaries.”
The situation is this:
The armies of Babylon have crushed Israel
and have carried off Israel’s leadership,
politicians, businessmen, clergy,
all of them back to Babylon, to live in exile.
Several generations pass in exile, and then amazing things happen.
The Persian Empire defeats the Babylonians,
and one of the first things the Persian leader, Cyrus, does
is send the Jewish exiles home,
back across the desert, back to Jerusalem.
They have been waiting for this moment for seventy years, for three generations.
They have been singing songs about Jerusalem,
telling stories to their children born in Babylon,
stories about their beautiful city, the strong walls, the turrets,
the gleaming buildings, the temple built by King Solomon himself.
But when they arrive after the long trek across the desert,
what they see is desolation.
The walls of the city have been knocked down,
beautiful buildings burned to the ground,
and the temple—the heart and soul of the people—is in ruins.
They should have known, but they didn’t.
The original people who told the stories
Those who had lived through the trauma of defeat and exile were all gone now.
So the sight shocked those returning.
It must have been like those heartbreaking pictures of families
returning to their homes hurricanes and floods this summer,
sifting through the ruins for any fragment of their belongings,
furniture, scrapbooks, photographs—
any reminder of who they were and who they are.
It is at this moment that one of their poets prays for them:
“O that you would open the heavens and come down.”
Or, in other words: “ Dear God: Are you real?
Some people don’t believe it. If you are, you better do something quick.”
It is the oldest prayer in human history.
It is a prayer prayed at every occasion of tragedy,
every occasion of undeserved, innocent suffering.
It is a prayer I suspect you and I pray a lot.
“If you are a good and gracious and merciful God, why did this happen?
Why can’t women finally be free from unwanted harassment, or worse?
Why are shooters still killing so many people: Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs,
Sandy Hook, Orlando: concerts, churches, schools, nightclubs?
Why don’t you do something—tear open the heavens and come down?”
Nicholas Wolterstorff, a retired philosophy professor from Yale, a Christian,
Wrote a book called Lament for a Son, to chronicle his emotions
after he lost his twenty-five-year-old son, Eric,
in a mountain-climbing accident. He wrote,
“To the most agonized question I have ever asked,
I do not know the answer. I do not know why God would watch him fall.”[iii]
Terry Anderson, one of the American hostages held by Iran for seven years,
wrote in his journal,
“I reach so hard to touch God, concentrating, waiting for something,
some acknowledgment from [God] that I exist,
that [God’s] listening. . . . Help me.
You say you love me, so help me.”
Who hasn’t prayed that prayer, asked that question?
We yearn for answers.
We yearn for certainty.
We yearn to know God is there.
That God knows we are here, among the shadows, in the difficult spaces
Even as the jolly carols and hallmark scenes paint a picture of a jolly Christmas
That not all of us are experiencing all of the time.
We yearn to know that God cares.
And it is not just in the middle of tragedy and grief.
It is an everyday yearning that seems to be deep within everyone of us,
part of who we are.
Yearning for the same thing Isaiah,
the exiles, Terry Anderson, Harriet Anne,
and you and I yearn for: yearning for God.
Yearning the same ancient yearning for God to do something,
To know the hour, or the day, which Christ says no one truly knows
to tear open the heavens and come down.
And then Isaiah’s prayer takes a surprising turn, a change in tone,
offers a new idea about God and how God comes to and works in the world,
how God relates to human beings, to you and me.
Did you hear it?
After pleading with God to do something,
after sighing that it feels as if God is hiding,
after almost accusing God for not coming down to make things right,
the prayer makes a startling affirmation,
offers a new idea, a confession of faith:
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter:
we are the work of your hand.
That is an absolutely new and unique idea of God and how God works:
Not a powerful force that violently tears open heavens and comes down,
intervenes forcefully in human affairs to bring down cruel dictators
and establish justice.
Who doesn’t wish for a God like that?
Not God–omnipotent power in the universe,
but God–of all things, as a parent, an artist.
I know a little bit, now, about being a parent,
and I know that love works a lot better than coercion.
I have seen, over and over,
how my inclination to force some sort of behavior doesn’t work
and how steady, gentle persuasion does.
I know enough about parenting to know that there are limits,
that you cannot, finally, protect your child from all risk,
all danger, all harm,
that the final act of love is not to hold tightly and coerce,
but let go and promise to be there in love, come what may.
I am certainly not an artist,
but I have watched a potter at work, enough to know
that it is not about force and coercion, but gentle persuasion.
As the shapeless lump of clay whirls on the wheel,
the potter gently touches it with a finger and slowly a form emerges.
I have often thought that what a potter is doing
is drawing a form out of a lump of clay
something somehow already present in the clay, waiting to be summoned.
I loved learning once that Michelangelo said something like that
about the huge blocks of marble on which he worked.
He said he wasn’t creating a form
so much as releasing a form that was already present in the marble.
That, remarkably, the ancient prophet Isaiah said,
is exactly who God is and how God works in the world and in individual lives:
not coercively, but gently; not forcefully, but lovingly.
And so God will act, we believe, will come down,
not by an act of violent tearing apart,
but in the gentlest, quietest way—in the birth of a child.
God will come, we believe, not a military conqueror,
destroying enemies and putting things right,
but in a gentle, but strong young man,
a man who will teach the most astonishing things:
that it is better to forgive than exact revenge;
that it is better, happier in fact, to give than to get;
that it is a far better thing to love than to hate.
He taught and lived the most astonishing and new and radical ideas:
that the peacemakers are blessed,
that the meek and merciful are God’s most favored ones,
and finally that the best, happiest thing any one of us can do
is give our lives away for his sake.
And the greatest reversal of all:
that real strength, real power, is not in muscular militarism
but, of all things, vulnerable love that will suffer;
that real power is in weakness.
And then he will, himself, do the most amazing thing:
he will go to the cross, to seal it,
to make the point and to save your soul and mine.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down . . .
Dear God, you better do something quick . . .
In the event we anticipate in these Advent days of waiting,
we watch for a birth of a child in Bethlehem,
a newborn who is God among us,
Word made flesh,
the very love of God in a life lived in the world,
love that will experience everything it means to be human,
in that birth and that life.
And here’s the thing: a love that will come into your life and mine
in quiet, inconspicuous ways,
ways you could miss if you are not waiting and watching;
ways that are redemptive and new and hopeful and strong.
It is a holy love that will suffer and die our death
and rise again to show us and anyone who will see and listen
that the love of God is the most powerful force in the world,
a love from which nothing will ever separate us,
a love that is God’s response to our deepest yearning:
Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.
All praise to him.
[i] This sermon is heavily indebted to and at times follows the sermon of the Rev. John Buchanan “The Yearning”
[ii] Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall, Children’s Letters to God: The New Collection (New York, New York: Workman Publishing, 1991)
[iii] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1987). See also his Inquiring about God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
photo credit: Giuseppe Milo (www.pixael.com) Sunset on bridge street – Dublin, Ireland – Color street photography via photopin (license)