[from a sermon preached at Disciples Christian Church, November 30, 2014]
Now that Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Small Business Saturday are over, what do we have to look forward to? There has to be more than Cyber Monday! David and I spent Thanksgiving weekend in the woods away from civilization, so I don’t know the answer to this question. Maybe you can help me out …
Have we started the War on Christmas yet?
I think the War on Christmas is an absurd notion. I found a writer who agrees with me! Diana Butler Bass says the War on Christmas folks have it all wrong. Hearkening back to ancient Christian tradition, the Christmas season is not the entire month of December, with a pre-season that starts at Halloween. The Christmas season is Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the 12 Days that follow. Bass says the real war is the War on Advent! Forgotten and cast aside are the 4 weeks of Advent when Christians are called to reflect. Prepare. And wait. Wait for the celebration of Christmas when God entered our world in the Baby Jesus. It’s a War on Advent when satellite radio has been playing Jingle Bell Rock since Halloween. It’s a War on Advent when Walmart has poinsettias piled to the ceiling as doorbusters on Black Friday. But in this place of sanctuary from the war outside, we’re singing O Come O Come Emmanuel, and the only decoration is a simple wreath. A wreath with only 4 candles which we’ll light just one at a time.
Jesus wasn’t born so that human beings would spend December saying “Merry Christmas. Jesus wasn’t born so retailers would end the year in the red. Jesus was born to change the world. Jesus was born to confront the power structures and power brokers and to introduce to them the God of peace and love and justice. Jesus was born to usher in a new kingdom where the poor and marginalized and powerless are blessed. And before his work was complete, he would die by the hands of his enemies.
But to say that is probably bad for business.
So, welcome to Disciples Christian Church where we will once more observe the counter-cultural 4 weeks of waiting. Not to worry – we don’t not wait without joy and anticipation. Our sanctuary will begin to take shape with Christmas trees and golden wreaths. This place never looks better than when it is adorned with the colors of Christmas. Not to worry, Adam will mix in a few Christmas carols amongst the Advent hymns. We’re not anti- joy and beauty of Christmas. It’s just that we need to be the one place where we will hear the message we’re not likely to hear anywhere else during December.
We begin the season by lighting a candle for hope.
It’s a good place to begin because we crave hope at this time of year. I’m well aware that with the Christmas season comes a roller coaster ride of emotions for many people. There can be the high of falling in love again — or for the first time. Christmas can be a very romantic season. For others, there’s the sadness of an empty chair at the family table. Some families have already gone over their budget in buying gifts for their children. We love indulging the kids at Christmas. For others, there’s constant worry there won’t be enough to put food on the table. There’s the excitement of your youngest coming home from college over Christmas Break. Or maybe your son isn’t coming home because he was shot and killed at a Rec Center on the westside of Cleveland.
What part of the roller coaster are you on this year? Which way is your mood swinging?
It’s a good time to be reading from the Prophet Isaiah. Talk about a roller coaster of mood swings. Just in these 9 verses, we hear Isaiah beg and plead. He demands to see God’s face. He cries out to God wanting to know where God is. He blames blaming God for hiding, and yet he confesses he hasn’t exactly been looking for God either. You’ve shown yourself before God – why not now? We call it a lament in the bible. It’s a long one – we read just a portion this morning.
I’ll stop there and ask: does anyone else care to lament a little yourself? is there anything you’d like to say to God right now? I am lamenting, and yes, I have something to say. I’ve been lamenting much of the week. You’ve shown yourself before God. Why not now?
All is not well here, God. We need you to show yourself in a big way. All is not well when a child named Tamir Rice, who foolishly carried a toy gun that looked real to a Cleveland park on a Saturday afternoon is dead, 2 seconds after a policeman gets out of his car. All is not well when 2 innocent men spend 39 years in prison for a murder they did not commit before our criminal justice system decided to give Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgman back what was left of their lives. All is not well when people are taking to the streets all across our country, closing down Cleveland’s Shoreway during rush hour traffic. Shutting down a mall because young people are staging a die-in in solidarity with Michael Brown. All is not well when Ferguson burns.
That’s my lament. Yours may be different than mine. We could argue them, but neither of us would win. Laments are not intended to be argued. Laments are emotional outbursts, and the reasoning can be faulty. Laments are protests against pain. Laments are appeals for interventions – for signs that God is listening. For a promise that God will act. Sometimes laments are personal, but Isaiah’s lament was for his people. His people who wanted God’s intervention right then.
I know the feeling. I wanted it and I wanted it now. But the reality is. Sometimes we must wait. We must wait on God, wait with God, wait for God. Waiting is always difficult but waiting is impossible without hope. Hope that the lamenting will end. Hope that there will be answers, and there can be solutions. And one day peace will come, and justice will prevail.
That’s why Isaiah’s good for us, because he had it. He said it in a word. A very simple word. Did you catch it when I read it? That moment when Isaiah’s lament turned, when he could see change ahead. The word is Yet.
All of this, God. All of it – what are we to do. What will you do? All of this seems hopeless. And yet. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter. We are all the work of your hand. We are all your people.
Not every act of God splits open the heavens. Not every act of God shakes the earth. In Advent, sometimes it’s how silently, how silently God’s wondrous gift is given. Sometimes no ear hears his coming, but still the dear Christ enters in. God’s presence can be easy to miss if we’re not paying attention. The world did not recognize a messiah in a baby born in a stable. The world did not recognize a leader who said put your weapons down and love even your enemies. The world did not recognize the King of Kings in a barefoot man carrying his own cross.
It takes time to recognize that God at work in the world. It’s not that God isn’t there. We can be so busy lamenting we don’t notice. And yet … even during our lamenting, God has been at work in the world. It’s why we’re here this morning, isn’t it? I’m not so worried about us who are here. We’ve got our ups and downs, most certainly, but we are not people without hope.
I do worry, however, about those who are bereft of hope. Those whose lament takes the form of violence against person and property because they see no other way. Those whose voices are drowned out by others more powerful. Those who cannot break the cycle of poverty. Mothers who fear for their children when they are out of their sight. For any for whom justice may not come until their lives are over. Waiting can only be tolerated when there is hope that the wait will one day be over.
I was in a church on Tuesday night where the pastor opened the doors to provide a safe space for people to come who were grieving over the week’s events. A safe space where we could lament aloud or we could be silent, but know and trust that God was listening even in the silence. One woman spoke, saying that earlier in the day at work, when she said she was going to church that night for this reason, a co-worker said – well, why should you care? It’s important to the story for you to know that this woman is white. In other words, you’re white, why should you care? She shouldn’t have had to answer but she did. Because my son is brown.
The question is not why should we care? It’s about how much. We are the people who lit a candle of hope just a few minutes ago. Is that hope burning brightly enough in us to share with those for whom the flame has flickered and died?
To close, I want to share with you a short video. It’s a story of hope about how those of us who have it can share it with those who do not. About a man who sees hopeless and yet …. He sees what he can do. It takes place in Ferguson.
Pastor. Parent. Activist