FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Prayer of the Day: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection save us from the threatening dangers of our sins, and enlighten our walk in the way of your salvation, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…” Romans 13:11-12.
The church year begins where the secular year is drawing to a close. The clarion call to stay awake, to watch the horizon intently for a sign of the dawn rings out in a time of encroaching darkness as the hours of daylight recede. That should not surprise us. God does some of God’s best work in the dark. Abraham and Sarah received the promise of a child under the starry night sky in their twilight years. The miracle of the Exodus was conceived in the darkness of slavery and oppression. Jesus’ resurrection was birthed in the darkness of a graveyard. What better way to begin a new year than reminding ourselves that the darkness surrounding us is not the darkness of the tomb, but that of the womb.
I have preached that message for some forty years each Advent season. I don’t know why it never occurred to me that this is true for only half the world. Our Christian siblings in the southern hemisphere are celebrating Advent in the spring. For them, daylight is not in retreat, but advancing. In the southern half of the world, the dawn for which we hope has broken and sunlight is stretching over the fields and infiltrating the dense forests with spears of light. The dark and cold of winter is only a memory. While we hunker down, the church of the south basks in the sunshine and warmth of spring. Fresh blossoms, new growth and the season of planting are the surrounding parables of Advent.
I wonder how this seasonal difference shapes the preaching of our Advent texts among Christians south of the equator. What I do know is that we in the north could use an infusion of spring time hope into our Advent observance. I won’t belabor this post with yet another recital of the threats, both immediate and existential, that flood network news, the internet and conversations in barber shops and nail salons. You all know what’s out there. And maybe that is part of the problem. It’s gotten so damned dark that we have forgotten the dawn. We are not looking for it anymore because we cannot see any way of digging out of the ecological, geopolitical, partisan rancor that imposes itself on all of the personal struggles that go with getting through any given day. We have grown so accustomed to the darkness that our eyes reflexively close in the face of every show of light. In short, we have begun to lose hope-an essential ingredient to discipleship.
Hope is not the same as mere optimism and it does not rest on rational argument. It is inspired by parables, stories and analogies that appeal to our imaginations. Jesus never told us where the reign of God is located or when and how it will come. He spoke about it in parables. The reign of God is like a mustard seed, a farmer planting wheat, a pearl of great price, a treasure buried in a field, a royal banquet for the poor and the lame, a wedding feast and the list goes on. Does imagination make a difference? Long before there were vaccines, someone dreamed of a world without smallpox or polio and refused to accept the gloomy assumption that “such afflictions will always be with us.” Can we, for our part, imagine Russians, Ukrainians and people from nations all over the world transforming tanks into tractors? Can we imagine a congress and president committed to dismantling once and for all the engines of systemic racism and investing in restorative justice for its victims? Can we imagine a united global initiative to save what is left of our rainforests, reduce carbon emissions substantially and provide relief for those populations most vulnerable to the effects of climate change? Have we lost altogether the prophetic imagination of Isaiah who could visualize the day when peoples of all nations cry out,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.” Isaiah 2:3.
Have we become so thoroughly jaded that we can no longer imagine a day when
“[God] shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.” Isaiah 2:4.
If so, I am afraid we have little to offer a despairing world.
Perhaps instead of singing “people look east” this Advent season we should be singing “people look south.” We need a reminder that the darkness will not last forever. We need to be reminded that imagination precedes knowledge and spurs us on toward things we cannot now see. We need to be reminded that fulfilment follows God’s promises just as surely as the season of increasing light and renewed life follows the season of darkness.
Last week a friend and fellow disciple with whom I participate regularly in an weekly prayer gathering reminded me of a passage from J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It comes from the third book, The Return of the King. I trust that most of you are familiar with this classic work of fantasy fiction. For those who are not, perhaps this will wet your appetite. Frodo and Sam are deep in the bleak land of Mordor on a mission to carry the dreaded ring of power to the cracks of Mount Doom, the one place where its evil power can be destroyed forever. The journey has been fraught with danger, misssteps and wrong turns. The end seems as far away as ever. It is night. Frodo is sleeping, but Sam is kept awake by his doubts and fears. And then….
“Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a bright star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.”
Make no mistake about it. The power of evil in the form of systemic racism, nationalism, ecological exploitation and their dreadful consequences are not mere illusions to be wished away. The darkness around us is very real. But it is not the only or even the most compelling reality. In this season of growing darkness, we need the witness of our southern siblings to remind us that the dawn is just as real as the darkest hour of night.
Here is a poem by Joy Harjo telling an ancient tale brimming with something akin to Advent hope.
Once the World was Perfect
Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world.
Then we took it for granted.
Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind.
Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head.
And once Doubt ruptured the web,
All manner of demon thoughts
We destroyed the world we had been given
For inspiration, for life—
Each stone of jealousy, each stone
Of fear, greed, envy, and hatred, put out the light.
No one was without a stone in his or her hand.
There we were,
Right back where we had started.
We were bumping into each other
In the dark.
And now we had no place to live, since we didn’t know
How to live with each other.
Then one of the stumbling ones took pity on another
And shared a blanket.
A spark of kindness made a light.
The light made an opening in the darkness.
Everyone worked together to make a ladder.
A Wind Clan person climbed out first into the next world,
And then the other clans, the children of those clans, their children,
And their children, all the way through time—
To now, into this morning light to you.
Source: Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, (c. 2015 by Joy Harjo; pub. by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc..) Joy Harjo (b. 1951) is an American poet, musician, playwright, and author. She served as the 23rd United States Poet Laureate, the first Native American to hold that honor. She was also only the second Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to have served three terms. Harjo is a member of the Muscogee Nation. In addition to writing books and other publications, Harjo has taught in numerous United States universities, performed internationally at poetry readings and music events and released seven albums of her original music. Harjo is the author of nine books of poetry, and two award-winning children’s books. You can learn more about Joy Harjo and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
 “People Look East” (c. Miss E. Farjeon Will Trust) Hymn #248 Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (c. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pub. by Augsburg Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2006)
 Seriously, I think that might be a great theme for an Advent hymn. Composition of good church music, however, is significantly above my pay grade. So I will have to hope that somebody else will pick up that ball and run with it.