This weekend, we’ve begun what’s supposed to be a happy time, “the most wonderful time of the year,” as the song says: the secular world’s Holiday Season. As far as the sales circulars are concerned, it actually began not with the Black Friday door-busters, or even with the innovative guilty pleasure of Thanksgiving-Day sales, but with a new holiday sub-season – “Black Friday Week,” which, honest to God, I saw on a billboard while driving around town. But if shopping isn’t where you find the true meaning of the Holiday Season, there are always the holy obligations of parties and preparations, making plans and lists and appearances, trying to cram as much as we can into this month of anxious relaxation.
Deep down – along with Charlie Brown in my favorite of the old TV Christmas specials – deep down, we may be wondering: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!” So Linus, with his blanket, calmly takes center stage and sets the cartoon world to rights: “And there were, in the same country, shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night…” (Luke 2:8 KJV). And we church people breathe deeply as we remember: Oh, yes, that’s it. That’s our story. The shepherds, the angels, Mary and Joseph, the baby in the manger, glory to God in the highest. That’s our story. That’s what we’re getting ready for as we begin the Church’s season of Advent, our time of watchful expectation.
But … so what? I mean, really: What difference does that story make in a world that’s either consumed with the secular Holiday Season or that rejects everything related to Christmas as nothing but crass commercialism? OK, Jesus is coming. What difference does it make?
And the question gets even harder for those for whom the Holiday Season is a time of quiet desperation. For many of us, we put on a brave face, and we wish people “Merry Christmas”; but inside, there’s pain and isolation and grief. Maybe it’s about employment; maybe it’s about money; maybe it’s about relationships with spouses or partners or parents or children. Maybe it’s about missing someone terribly or needing our lives actually to mean something. When you’re in that place in life, candy canes don’t offer much sustenance, and jingle bells don’t speak much hope. In that place in life, especially, I could imagine looking at the Holiday Season, or even the Church’s season of Advent, and thinking, “So what?”
So here’s the first installment of a sermon series that tries to put some flesh and bones on an answer to that question, “Jesus is coming … so what?” I think the answer comes from three directions: from the past, the present, and the future.
The Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning point us to the historical experience of our spiritual ancestors, the people of Israel. The prophet Isaiah is speaking to the people of Jerusalem and Judah at a time when their nation is falling apart. In that moment, the Northern Kingdom, Israel, is being overrun by the Assyrians, who are taking God’s people into exile. The Southern Kingdom of Judah will hang on for another century or so, suffering devastating invasions and sieges, only delaying the inevitable. Their world is crumbling; and the prophets are saying there’s lots of blame to go around, from the religious and political leaders all the way down to the regular folks – everyone who’s turned away from following God’s covenant, just going through the motions of religious observance with no movement of the heart to accompany it. God’s judgment is coming, Isaiah says just before this morning’s reading, and the nation will be no more. But even so, he says, the story is not over. A remnant will be preserved, Isaiah says. And “in the days to come,” all the nations shall stream to the mountain of the Lord’s house, that God “may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (2:2-3). Conflicts will no longer be settled by invading armies but by the sovereign Lord. “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” Isaiah says; “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (2:4). Destruction may be coming, God says through the prophet, but destruction is not the last word. The last word comes when God sends the anointed king, the messiah, who will restore God’s people in their faithfulness and in their security. The last word is life made new.
Now fast-forward to the time of the Gospel reading. The news is not good: Once again, God’s people are on the brink of disaster. Seven centuries after Isaiah, Jerusalem is occupied again, only by a different power. Now the Romans are the conquerors, and they rule through blood and iron. By the time Matthew’s gospel is written, Jerusalem will be rubble and the Temple will be destroyed. But even as Jesus tells his followers about the destruction to come, he too says that judgment is not the last word. The Temple will be torn down; there will be “wars and rumors of wars” (Matthew 24:6); and the people will know terrible suffering. But afterward, the messiah, God’s anointed ruler, will appear out of the clouds of heaven and gather the faithful remnant. He will come out of nowhere – like the flood of Noah, like a thief in the night. So keep awake, Jesus says, and be ready. Salvation is near, despite the present darkness, despite what life tells you. Your experience may feel hopeless, but that is not God’s story line. Jesus will return to set the world to rights. The last word is not oppression by violent powers you can’t hope to overcome. The last word is life made new.
Now fast-forward 2,000 years and jump from Palestine to Kansas City. Hopelessness still haunts us; it just looks different now. I’m sitting with a couple whose marriage is dissolving. There’s been injury on both sides, failure to honor the image of God in each other. On one side, the harm has been recent; on the other, it’s been happening for years. We talk for an hour about how each partner must honor what the other needs for the relationship to grow in a healthy direction. It will mean hard work, the reorientation of two hearts. It will mean compromise. It will mean change. Our conversation is coming to an end, and neither one of them is feeling like the odds are in their favor; but I assure them that, yes, they can come back from all this, stronger than they ever were. One spouse, beaten down, looks at me doubtfully and asks, “Why do you think so?” And I am blessed with words that are not mine. God’s prophetic Spirit speaks up instead, and I hear myself saying, “I know you can come back from this because that’s the story of our faith. If what we believe means anything, it’s this: that resurrection happens. God came to be with us in Jesus, and Jesus still comes to be with us in our joy and in our pain. We screw up, but forgiveness is always an option. We are not stuck in the choices we’ve made or in the harm that’s been done to us; we can always be transformed. The last word is not death. The last word is life made new.”
So to anyone wondering what difference it makes for Christ to come into our broken world and into our broken lives, I’d say this: Jesus comes to change the game. Jesus comes to reset our expectations. Jesus comes to make life new. When we reach those moments that makes us cry out, “Isn’t there anything more than this?,” God’s answer is a resounding, “Absolutely.” Everything around us may point to the gloom and darkness of impossibility. Hostile forces may be assembled around us, holding us under siege. And precisely then, Jesus comes to us and says, “People, look east. Turn your face and see your situation from the other side. This dark moment is no ending but a beginning; and to those sitting in darkness, light will shine.” For even in the darkest hour, when there seems no way out, that’s when Christ intervenes to remind us that God specializes in lost causes. It’s been God’s pattern in the past, and it’s still God’s forecast for the future – when the Son of Man comes “in power and great glory” and sends out his angels “with a loud trumpet call” to “gather his elect from the four winds” – and makes life new again (Matthew 24:30-31).
So no matter what your present and personal darkness may be, making Christmas lights seem crass and cheap, God speaks these words: “There is hope.” Relationships on life support can find their resurrections. Lives on autopilot can find the meaning only love can bring. The walls of long-standing conflicts can be broken down. Illness of body, or mind, or spirit can be touched by healing grace. Jesus came to us, and comes to us, and will come to us again in order to set the world to rights. For darkness is not God’s desire for beloved children like us. Instead, Jesus comes as God-With-Us, whispering through the din of our conflicts and concerns: “I am with you; I will heal you; and your tomorrow will be made new.”