Sermon preached at Muncie Friends Memorial
Reading: Luke 1:68-79
Hymn following reading: O Come O come Emanuel, followed by a period of silent prayer and meditation.
Last week, you might remember that David repeated a remark that I made to him: there are many Christmas carols, but not that many songs for advent. I think part of the reason for this is that we are so focused on Christmas that we forget advent. Part of our challenge is that we know which day Christmas will come. Advent is the time before Christmas comes, but because Christmas is so certain it is easy for Christmas to stretch backwards and swallow advent.
Christmas comes right after the darkest day of the year. It comes in a season when we wake and start our work in darkness, and when we return home from our work it is often in darkness. The weather is often unpleasantly depressing. Nature seems to do her best to make our world bleak and difficult to endure. In spite of this, we chose to celebrate light, hope and joy in this time. Christmas is difficult work because it rebels against nature, but it demonstrates that Faith brings light and joy into the dreary darkness of the world around us.
The problem is, the first advent was much longer than the month we observe. Several centuries before Christ was born, the Jews were taken from Judah to Babylonia. At this time, the Ark of the Covenant was lost — whether it was hidden in a cave or the Babylonians carried it away, the result was the same. The Holy of Holies in the new temple was empty. There was no physical symbol of God’s presence.
Not only this, but with only a brief exception, the Jews were ruled by foreigners who had no respect for their God. The Greeks, at one time, defiled the temple by sacrificing a pig. Not only was God’s presence taken away, symbolically, but the Jews were occupied by people who had no respect for God. From the time of the captivity, to Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist there were prophets who said that a savior would come, but there were only prophecies — nothing more. This centuries long advent was remarkable in that when the prophets declared that Christmas was coming, but no one said when.
When I think about what the people must have felt, what comes to mind is a fairy tale written by C.S. Lewis titled the “Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”. In this story Narnia was ruled by an evil witch who styled herself the white Queen. She had cast a spell on Narnia that caused it to be always winter but never Christmas — however there was a prophecy that her rule would be broken by 4 humans. In the story, the creatures of Narnia are not united in hopefulness that the prophecy is true. The rule of the white Witch and the oppression of an eternal winter without Christmas has crushed all hope.
But, the similarity starts to break down here. In Narnia, the children came, Aslan the hero lion also came. The white witch was defeated, and Narnia was restored to prosperity and like all fairy tales, in effect, they all lived happily ever after. For Narnia, when Christmas came — winter ended. In fact, at the same time people saw Father Christmas, the snow was melting. The first Christmas after so long in Narnia was also the first day of spring.
For the Christians, it is true Christmas broke this divine absence. The Danish Christians sing a Christmas carol, I denne søde juletid where one of the lines calls Jesus the Ark of the Lord. The ark that was not in the Holy of Holies ends up replaced with God’s presence in a form where God walks and talks with the people, but Jesus behaves differently that we might expect.
Many of us want a Christmas that turns December into July, or at least that it would melt the snow and the trees would turn green like in Narnia. We want the oppressive darkness and the bitter cold to go away — but Jesus just did not work that way. Jesus did nothing to end the oppressive rule of the Romans. Not only that but he was put to death by those powers that made Judah so dark. We believe that Jesus was the light that came into the world, but the darkness was still there.
We are approaching Christmas — a holiday that comes in the darkest time of the year. Oddly enough, the darkness and weather are still oppressive, but we still celebrate light. Jesus is described in the gospel of John as a light that shines in the darkness. We are waiting for God’s light — and we find a holiday that shines in the darkness. It is light, but just as the darkness does not extinguish the light, the light does not remove the cold or the dark that is in nature.
Friends, let us remember to keep at least a little bit of advent. The faith that causes us to hope and pray even though we doubt the presence or power of God. The time when we know that there is promise that God will come into our lives, but the darkness is overwhelming. Let us remember, because Advent and Christmas are not only days on the calender but a reality in our lives. When we face those dark days when God seems absent, we can remember the promise of Christmas — that the time is coming when we will see Emanuel — God is with us.