The wishbone from our Thanksgiving turkey is still drying on my kitchen cupboard door; and in my refrigerator, there is still a dried-out pumpkin pie. But, by today, most of us have already moved on, hurrying and worrying about Christmas. Angels and Santas are everywhere, draped with cascades of red and green; and the incessant refrain of "Silver Bells" is already anesthetizing the airwaves at the mall. Yes, the great American Christmas orgy has begun.
And, yet, beneath our holiday cheer is the gnawing anxiety, the nostalgia, the strange spiritual hunger that this season inevitably uncovers, which is why the alternative world of the church during this Advent season is so odd and so strangely comforting. With our somber hymns and deep purple, with our apocalyptic Scriptures and melancholy liturgies, the church on this late November Sunday is strangely out of sync with the secular world. And in that incongruity, we are reminded of who we are. We are reminded that as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are not to be conformed to this world. Instead, we are to be transformed by the astounding good news of the Christian faith.
But, before the good news comes the bad news. Things are not the way that God intends for them to be. And the sooner we admit this, the sooner we can move into the fullness of God's promise. A simple reading of these verses from Luke tells us that they come just before the Passion story of Jesus. We hear Jesus predicting terrible times--destruction, war, political catastrophe, suffering, persecution, natural disaster. It's almost as if he is offering these words of warning to himself about the earthquake, the darkness, the suffering of the cross that is yet to come.
An even deeper reading of this text, however, shows us that these words were actually written 50 to 60 years after the Passion, after the destruction of the temple, after the wars, after the suffering, the turmoil, and the political catastrophes of first-century Palestine. These words, then, are written for a people already molded by the suffering and fear and turmoil which the words predict. Luke describes events that took place after Jesus' death; but he describes them through the eyes of Jesus, as if he were there--how he would feel, what he would say, what he would do. And so Luke gives to us a God's-eye view of reality. Luke offers us an historical, big picture view of reality that we can all use when we find ourselves in tough places.
Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders are Presbyterian mission workers in Palestine. For several years they have quietly ministered to a small Christian population in the occupied West Bank village Zababdeh. Amidst the mortar attacks, the midnight raids by Israeli soldiers, the innocent deaths of people they love, these missionaries have tried to offer a God's-eye view of all this tragedy--a vision that offers healing and hope amidst all the hostility.
Now in the Middle East, Easter is celebrated in a particular way. The tradition is that on Holy Saturday--the day before the Orthodox Easter, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch enters the tomb of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. After a moment of prayer, he emerges with the holy fire, which he then passes on to the faithful. From there, with shouts of "Christ is risen!" the flame is spread to the churches all over Israel and Palestine. Unfortunately, because of the tight occupation gripping most of Palestine last spring, this ritual proved to be almost impossible for the Palestinian Christians from the West Bank because they simply couldn't get through the Israeli military checkpoints. So Marthame Sanders decided to make the impossible possible. He borrowed a car from the Catholics, some lanterns from the Orthodox Christians, a robe from an Anglican priest. And then he started out early on Holy Saturday morning to go and get the light. Immediately, he was stopped and threatened at one of the checkpoints. But though he was verbally harassed, because he was an American, he was allowed to pass.
He rushed to Jerusalem, getting there in time to receive the holy fire from the Patriarch. Now the trick was to get the flame back home through all those checkpoints before the fire went out. Late at night, he once again entered that tricky checkpoint, and this time he was stopped with an M-16 nervously waving in his face. His baggage was searched. The gas tank, the trunk, and the steering wheel were taken apart. But, finally, blessedly, he was let through. When he arrived back home, he was greeted by a large crowd, and so at midnight, this joyful throng of resurrected people traveled from church to church, bringing the light of Christ to the Orthodox, the Melkite, the Catholic, and the Anglican communities. Marthame's reflections on that day are the very heart of this day's Gospel lesson--the good news that hope is always stronger than despair when life is seen from a God's-eye point of view.
He writes, "Everyone agreed that the arrival of the Holy Fire this year paled in comparison to the celebrations of brighter days, but it was the biggest event in years. The days are still dark here. The economy is destroyed. The roads are closed. The army comes to town far too frequently. But for a brief moment, the Christians in the northern West Bank were reconnected with the miracle of Christ--the miracle of incarnation, the miracle of hope."
Luke's words in our Advent Scripture for today are written to people living with the kind of darkness and danger and despair that the villagers of the West Bank are living with every day. And what Luke imagines Jesus saying to them and to us is this:
Bad things happen. In fact, bad things happen to good people. In an unfinished world, a world of sin, a world of free will and selfish living and power politics, bad things happen to good people. Earthquakes happen, terrorism happens, wars and famine happen, towers fall and babies die and cancer kills, but bad things are never the final word.
During his 27 years of imprisonment, Nelson Mandela refused to give in to the bad things. And now at 85, he remains one of our most vivid icons of hope. In his autobiography, Mandela writes:
I have found that one can bear the unbearable if one can keep spirits strong even when the body is being tested. Strong convictions are the secret of surviving depravation. Your spirit can be full even when your stomach is empty. I always knew that some day I would once again feel the grass under my feet and walk in the sunshine as a free man. I am fundamentally an optimist. Part of being an optimist is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward.
Today Jesus tells us that Christians do not escape the great tribulations, the political and economic and personal traumas of this world. We experience them just like everybody else, and sometimes we are the perpetrators as well as the victims. The difference is that Christians stand up. We raise our heads and we look at the sun while always keeping our hearts moving forward. And the reason is that even though bad things happen to good people, we trust that God is still in charge. God is behind history. God is embedded in history. And God is marching in front of history. Again and again in Scripture, God uses the darkness to kindle the light. God transforms the tomb of death into the womb of new life. And so even though bad things happen to good people, we live with the hope and the conviction that God is in charge, and so in the meantime, we turn to Jesus in order to learn how to live in this darkness--how to wait, how to stay alert, how to live moral, disciplined lives in preparation for the moment when we will be needed to bring creation to completion. Because, as the people of God, for better or worse, we are the ones who bear Christ's hope for the world. Hope cannot be bought and wrapped and put under a Christmas tree. Hope cannot be squirreled away in a stock portfolio for safekeeping. Hope cannot be won with bombs or bullets or 21st-century artillery. Brothers and sisters in Christ, the hope we carry--God's promise of God's coming again and again and again--this hope is the birthright of God's whole, weary, wonderful world.
Barbara Kingsolver has a new book of essays called "Small Wonder," and it is a poetic proclamation of the power of hope. It is also a stinging diatribe against the hubris of self-centered America. Taking a sharp look at the wars, the natural disasters, the political violence of the 21st century, she writes a modern translation of Luke's little apocalypse. By the end of the book, we know more than we need to know about the wastefulness of our beef consumption, the natural disasters caused by genetic crop engineering, the distortion of patriotism that blind flag-waving can produce, the barbarity of war and capital punishment. But she ends with soaring words of hope--a call to self-discipline and compassion and tolerance and moral living--a vision that matches the energy of Jesus' words to us today.
Rather than feeling hopeless, like a screen door banging in a hurricane, Kingsolver suggests that we should be the ones to bang and bang on the door of hope and refuse to let anyone suggest that no one is home. She writes, "What I can find is this and so it has to be: conquering my own despair by doing what little I can. Stealing thunder, tucking it in my pocket to save for the long drought. Dreaming in the color green, tasting the end of anger." She concludes: "Small changes, small wonders. These are the currency of my endurance and my life. It is a workable economy."
Today we Christians around the world light the first candle in a four-week journey through the darkness of Advent. Rather than hiding inside the secular sentimentality of a Christmas cocoon, we are called to open our eyes to see the chaos of the cosmos. We are called to recognize with a God's-eye view both the beauty and the terror of this world. And then with eyes looking up, we are called to wait for God's promise to be fulfilled, rejoicing in the small wonders and the simple graces of these danger-filled days.
May it be so--for you and for me.
Let us pray.
God of tribulation and of truth, light a spark of hope in the darkness of this season. As we keep the vigil of these purple days, keep us strong, keep us lean, keep us faithful, and prepare us to bear your new life into this needy world. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.