In the story of Jesus as told by Matthew, Mark and Luke, while Jesus was dying on the cross, darkness came over the whole world. Astronomers have agreed there was a total eclipse of the sun during the crucifixion. But even one candle on the Advent wreath gives us a symbol of hope for dealing with personal darkness. Most of us have sadly experienced a darkness that no light can overcome. Have there been times when we could not see where our foot already raised had no obvious place to step?
Sometimes in that darkness the dawn seemed so remote we feared it would not come at all, times when every door seemed closed, every path blocked, every friend distant and God not in the picture at all. It is precisely at the moment of deepest darkness that the light of God breaks forth as symbolized by just one candle. Jesus said to people who did not believe he was the Messiah, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
We can try to imagine ourselves as living in Israel many decades before the light of God appeared in Jesus. Most of us can recall a time when were treated unjustly, victimized and depersonalized. The homeland of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the land of the prophets, the kingdom, of David and Solomon – was a mere province of the great Roman Empire. What a comedown from an exalted history; what a loss of national self-esteem and self-confidence! They were hurting.
With national pride low, they knew darkness. Their political situation was dictated by Rome – hard, repressive, cold, and exacting. Rome did not understand mercy, nor take interest in a religion that had so little to it that its people would not make a physical representation of their god.
If ever a whole people looked for a savior, a messiah who would bring the light of a new day, it was the people of Israel a few years before the birth of Jesus.
But they were looking for a political figure who would lead a successful revolt against Rome and restore the throne of David.
Jesus grew up while the people were looking for the promised son of Man sent from God, a deliverer to the descendants of Abraham. When Jesus emerged into public life after his baptism by John, the people were disappointed that the one sent from God appeared to be a carpenter-become-rabbi from Nazareth.
All he could talk about was the kingdom of God and going up to Jerusalem where something big would happen. Even as we strain to see a candle somewhere ahead in the dark, we may be looking for the wrong expression of God’s love and mercy.
We may have the same problem with Advent that the ancient people had when Jesus showed up along the Jordan. People did not recognize him as the Lamb of God John called him. Very few people believed in him because they were looking for something or somebody else. Where do we look for him? A story by the Russian, Tolstoi, is instructive about recognizing Jesus as Messiah.
The village cobbler Martin is reading his nightly devotions when he hears a voice assuring him that Christ will come the next day. He can scarcely sleep, and he’s up early to sweep the shop and put on his best apron. All through the day, he works at his bench repairing shoes. Except today, every few minutes, he looks out the window to see if Christ is coming down the steps into his half-basement workshop. He cuts leather and tacks on soles, all the time talking with his customers and giving them more than their money’s worth. Late in the day, everybody goes home. The streets are empty. Night falls. He has not seen Christ.
He goes off to his little room to think about what happened on this day when God did not keep his promise. He recalls the old man who came in for his shoes but had no money. Martin gave them to him because the man was barefoot in winter. There was a young woman with her baby whom he had taken in at midday, to warm them by his stove and share his noonday soup. Then the verse comes to his mind, “Inasmuch as you did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you did it unto me.”
Nowhere does Scripture say that God will make an exclusive appearance for our benefit. He may indeed appear, but in the guise of someone who needs help.
God always keeps his promises. God always comes, though not as we might think he should. God always identifies himself with his creation in suffering love. How many of us are unprepared to recognize him when he appears because we are expecting the wrong kind of God? How many of God’s people accuse him of being unrecognizable because we are unwilling to believe that God has taken the form that he has, or acted in the way he has acted? If we had been there when Noah was building an ark to escape the coming flood, would we find it hard not to laugh? The people did not believe Noah had a message from God.
They said what kind of respectable God would turn to a man like Noah as somebody to be useful in God’s plan? After all, the first thing he did after the land dried out was to plant a vineyard. When the crop fermented, he drank himself into a stupor.
So with an example no greater or better than that of Noah, Jesus pointed out that in his own age and in ages to come, lots of people would not believe that God had intervened in the time and events of the world. They would not believe that God was using Jesus. They would not believe that the creator of heaven and earth would hide himself in a wandering rabbi from Galilee. If the son of man, the crown prince of humanity is coming next week or next year, then surely he will appear in a BMW convertible, wearing a tailored business suit and looking better than anybody has a right to look.
That is, we think he ought to look like that, or something equally spectacular.
But when Jesus said to his disciples that the son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect, he meant that he is always in the motion of arriving. He is always, today, everyday, arriving, especially in unsuspected ways, even in such ordinary ways as being present in the breaking of bread and drinking of wine.
When Jesus departed this world after resurrection, he left a fellowship created by preaching, teaching, and baptizing. What kind of powerful and wise God would turn to congregations large and small, dotted over villages and cities and hills and plains, and say, “There is my presence?” Why, the same one who arrived scandalously, born to a mother who would not point to the child’s earthly father because she said she was still a virgin.
What kind of God? The same one who let his son die in disgrace for the sins of people not yet born. He is the God who arrives in the word preached, the sacraments given, the fellowship of believers who live out their unity with the risen Christ by putting his way into practice with other people.
Advent has many meanings. It is time to put away old attitudes, old habits, old personal prejudices that conflict with the arrival of the son of God. At the same time, Advent and the promise of God’s ever-arriving love means that there is always a balm in Gilead
There is healing for old hurts. There is mercy for sin-sick souls. There is relief from backbreaking soul killing burdens. The grace of God is sufficient to meet any need, any crisis, any situation. I am certain God is coming in this age in ways we do not expect. I am certain God will come to those who look for mercy, those who call upon him for help.
God is coming in ways we do not expect. Those who look for his mercy, his grace, and his help will find him. God wants us to use this time named Advent as it passes, to remind ourselves of his continual coming. Advent comes to many of us and in many ways Whatever name we give to this passing season, God says that we can look into that darkness without fear.
God has lit a candle visible from far down the road.
With hope and confidence we can walk toward that light, the light that comes with the birth of Jesus Christ.