Peering Into the Darkness: The Hope of Advent

Sermon delivered on Advent 3A, Gaudete Sunday, December 15, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 35.1-10; Luke 1.46-55 (Magnificat); James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Today is Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent. Gaudete is Latin for rejoice and like its Lenten counterpart, Laetare Sunday, signals a brief respite from the more penitential and apocalyptic season of Advent where we focus on everybody’s favorite topic, the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. As we have observed previously, Advent is a season that begins in the dark. It begins during the darkest days of the year and Advent gives us the opportunity to peer into the darkness of the world in which we live, including the darkness of our own lives. Advent often comes as a shock to the system for those who are new to the season. Instead of the bright festive lights and general merriment of the Christmas season, Advent calls us to ponder the second coming of our Lord Jesus, with all its serious ramifications. But this isn’t necessarily bad for us because it forces us to come to grips with the presence of Evil in our lives and in God’s world, and it also helps us truly get ready of the joyous season of Christmas that will begin a week from this Tuesday evening. Without Advent and its focus on the end times, we Christians, like the rest of our society, would likely opt to gloss over the darkness in which we live as well as the darkness of our own lives, substituting instead all the mistletoe and glitter and eggnog and jingle bells celebrations we can muster. Don’t misunderstand, I have nothing against the bright lights and tinsel and Christmas carols and all the rest that we do during this time of the year. Our house is ablaze with the festive symbols of Christmas, both secular and sacred, and I love it. But to focus on all that glitters in hopes that the darkness of our world goes away is to live in La-La Land and it will ultimately prevent us from grounding our hope on Christ where it should be, and this is what I want us to look this morning.

What do we mean when we say that Advent begins in the darkness, or what do we mean when we say that we peer into the darkness? When Scripture speaks of the darkness it usually refers to God’s good world gone bad, corrupted by human sin and the power of Evil our sin unleashed, along with the fact that our sin brought God’s curse on his creation and us (Genesis 3.14-19). All of us here today know what the darkness looks like. We suffer from alienation and anxiety, along with a host of other physical, emotional, and mental disorders. We all have suffered the death of loved ones and we are all acquainted with the various forms of suffering that afflict us. We are heartbroken over cherished relationships gone bad or hopes and dreams crushed. If we have a sense of justice at all we are astonished at the injustice that swirls around us and the vicious and vindictive conversations we find on social media. We read about, or worse yet, experience young lives being snuffed out by drug or alcohol addition and are alarmed at the seeming rise in violence in our society. This is only a small sampling of the darkness with which we must deal and every one of us carries the burden of some form of darkness in our own lives. We know what it is like to fail, to betray, and to fail to live up to our own standards of Christian living, to name just a few. This is what we mean when we as Christians talk about darkness and living in it. Not all is bad and dark, of course, but there’s sadly more than enough to go around. This leads us to ask the classic Advent questions: How long, O Lord, before you act? Is the Lord with and for us or not? Why do you allow all this evil to continue, O Lord? As we peer into the darkness of our own lives and the world around us, we often wonder if God exists; and if he does, does God really care about us and his world?

This is why Advent’s focus on the End Times and Christ’s return is so important for us to reflect on because as we peer into the darkness of our lives and world, Advent reminds us that we have reason to have hope and even to rejoice. We start with our OT lesson. In it, the prophet Isaiah is given a vision of God’s new creation when God’s curse and the darkness of this world and our lives are swept away. The wilderness, a classic biblical symbol for the darkness of this world, is transformed into an oasis and all nature rejoices. Weak hands and feeble knees, i.e., human frailty, will be made strong once again. Deserts will become pools of water and nature will once again enjoy the harmony it apparently enjoyed before human sin brought about God’s curse. No evil or evildoers will be there and therefore no evil will exist. Neither will there be any more injustices to  blight our existence and cause hardship and suffering, presumably because human beings will be transformed to once again fulfill our function as God’s image-bearers who bring God’s goodness and justice to bear on God’s world so that all creation sings and praises its Creator. Sorrow and sighing will be replaced by singing and laughing and rejoicing and as the prophet reminds us here when he speaks of straight paths) and elsewhere, it will be God himself who wipes away our tears (Isaiah 25.6-9).

This is a compelling and wholesome vision of our future as God’s people. And what makes this bright future possible? God’s judgment on all that is evil, on all that is dark, both the spiritual powers and their human agents. Isaiah roars that God will come with vengeance to destroy his enemies and put all things to rights. This is the justice and judgment of God, and while there is obviously a punitive dimension to God’s judgment and justice, it ultimately is for our own good because in it, evil and evildoers are destroyed and God’s world along with our lives are no longer corrupted and afflicted by the darkness of Evil and Sin, our own sins included. Notice carefully here that Isaiah speaks of a warrior God who comes to destroy his enemies and all that corrupts and afflicts us. We are typically not comfortable with this language because it violates our idol of a God who is a kind, grandfatherly type who would never hurt anyone and who welcomes one and all. But this god is a lie and distinctly not the God of the bible, either in the OT or the NT. While it is true that God loves everyone, it is not true that God will fail to address the injustice and darkness that afflict his world and image-bearing creatures. How could we love and worship a God who stood by and did nothing to address the injustices, darkness, and evil(doers) of his world? What kind of loving God is that? 

Of course, the topic of God’s judgment can be a fearful one for us because none of us is innocent. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23). But as Christians, we are not to be afraid of God’s judgment, not because we are superior or more deserving than unbelievers, but because we believe that the terrible judgment of God has already fallen on Christ so that God himself has suffered his wrath on our behalf to spare us from his terrible judgment when Christ returns to finish his saving work. If we truly love others we must proclaim this truth to the world, both as a warning and as the joyous proclamation of the day when our God will finally make all things right and new in his new world. Many of us shy away from this because we fear it makes us look “judgmental,” a relatively new term that was certainly foreign to Jesus and the NT writers. Would we refuse, e.g., to warn a person to flee a burning building for fear of being judgmental? Would we fail to warn our kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol or promiscuity or anorexia [name your favorite danger here] for fear of being judgmental with them? How loving is that? And if you are still bothered by this notion of God’s judgment and justice because it sounds too harsh, what kind of being do you believe God to be in the first place? Does God come to judge because he just doesn’t like us and wants to hurt us? To you parents out there, I ask this question. When you first laid eyes on your newborn child, did you wish ill on your new baby and want the worst for him/her? Of course not! What a ridiculous notion! It is ridiculous because you know you loved your child and wanted the best for him/her the moment you laid eyes on him/her! If we who are broken and fail to love so often can love our newborn babies like this, how much more does God our Father who loves us perfectly love us and want the best for us? Would a Father like this fail to warn us about the day when he intends to make all things right again so that we can be included in that new world and not excluded? God’s justice is simply a complementary dimension of God’s great love for us.

Neither should we be troubled by the language of a warrior God and God’s Messiah because the fact of the matter is that we are at war with Satan and the dark powers along with their human agents (Eph 6.12). These powers of Evil hate us and want to destroy us. They want to separate us from God, our Source of life and health and goodness, and they will stop at nothing make that happen. They are at war with us and the language of the OT prophets reflects that. We also see it in our gospel lesson this morning. The Baptist has been imprisoned by the dark powers and he is confused, despite the fact that he baptized Jesus. Are you really the Messiah, he asks Jesus? John asked this question because he expected a warrior Messiah to appear and defeat the powers and their human agents. Make no mistake. Christ knew he was at war. After all Herod had tried to kill him shortly after he was born and Satan himself waged war against him during Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. But Jesus didn’t wage war against the powers using conventional weapons. To use force and violence meant that the war was already lost. Instead, Jesus responded to John’s questions by pointing out signs of the coming kingdom of God on earth as in heaven: The deaf hear, the blind see, the dead are raised, demons are exorcised. This is what happens when God comes to rescue his people and establish his new world. This is what godly warfare looks like.

This is why Advent is such an important season for us as Christians. It reminds us that despite the darkness that swirls around and within us, we have a real future and a hope. God is waging war on our behalf to rescue us from the darkness and ultimately to destroy the forces that are responsible for the darkness. As St. James reminds us in our epistle lesson, God will answer our Advent questions. God has acted decisively on our behalf to rescue us from the powers of Evil and from ourselves by giving himself to us in a great and costly act. We are therefore to wait patiently and with real hope, the sure and certain expectation that God is good to his word and promises to us to make all things right. We are not to be afraid, nor are we to turn on each other when we do succumb to fear and the darkness because we are a rescued and redeemed people. Every time we forgive where forgiveness is undeserved, every time we love when aversion might be justified, every time we work to alleviate some aspect of the darkness in our lives and the world around us, we are engaged in the battle, not by our own power, but in the Lord’s power on our behalf. We may not see any progress being made. Things may (and often do) appear to remain unchanged, but looks can be deceiving. God uses our efforts and our faithfulness (as well as our brokenness) to accomplish his redemptive will and purposes for us and his creation. How do I know that? How do I know our future is bright and the promise of a new creation devoid of evil and suffering and death and sorrow and darkness of any kind is true? Because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, thanks be to God! And because he is raised from the dead, I believe the promises of his cross and his Lordship are also true. I also see the faithfulness and indefatigable spirit in so many of you who give of yourselves and your resources to work on the Lord’s behalf. This is why I know the promise of Advent with it proclamation of God’s good justice coming to right all the wrongs is true. 

This is also why I can rejoice today on Gaudete Sunday and you should too if you have a real and lively resurrection theology and hope. This knowledge that God will usher in his perfect justice to right all the wrongs also prepares us to hear the Good News of Christmas, of God’s light shining in the darkness, not to be overcome by it but to destroy it. This is why we need Advent, my beloved. It reminds us that we are beloved by the Father, rescued by the Son, and sustained by the Holy Spirit, and therefore we have a future and a hope because of our warrior God’s promise to defeat the forces that corrupt and hate us, and he has done so in a most unexpected way. Let us rejoice in our Advent hope as we prepare to celebrate our Savior’s first coming and wait for that great and glorious day when he returns to make everything new and right again. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.