Sunday, December 1

First Sunday of Advent

Tonight we begin our Collective.  I have the honor of giving the first words.  It seemed appropriate to leave them here as a marker, a remembrance of a first moment.  There will be moments for dialogue, silence and light. Thanks be to God.

It is fitting that we are beginning tonight. That we are beginning a community on the day when traditionally the church begins its new year called Advent. The Jewish New Year, the High Holidays Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur were in September.  The secular New Year is coming, and the academic new year is well underway. 

We mark these special days with special celebrations. The Jews celebrate by blowing the shofar and casting off what's left in their pockets. We all celebrate our calendar New Year in Times Square or Paris with champagne and fireworks and kisses at midnight. In August or September we begrudgingly celebrate with new notebooks and routines and maybe coffee to get the brain working.

Tonight we celebrate Advent with light. We are now in a season of darkness. The leaves are fallen, the time change is behind us. We are well into the season of sleep and rest, of hard freezes and snow and are are fast approaching the longest night of the year, just days before Christmas. It is fitting to celebrate Advent with light.

This is a traditional symbol of Advent: a wreath of greenery with four candlesticks surrounding one pillar candle in the center. In the northern hemisphere the wreath is evergreen, which reminds us that we are eternal beings, that we are no longer without life in us. The circle is a symbol of eternal life, God's unending love, or even the long time when people lived in darkness waiting for the coming Messiah, the light of the world.

And then there is the light. In Advent, candle light is our symbol of hope. The use of light reflects what Luke’s gospel says about the advent of Christ:
Luke 1: 78-79 ‘By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
Advent means, “coming.” We progressively light the candles, one each week as a way to mark the passage of time while we wait for the advent of Christ at Christmas. We come together in these weeks before Christmas as a way of expressing our anticipation for what God will do, and to give a faith-filled expression that we believe not only did he come the first time as a babe in a manger, as a suffering servant, as a teacher, a savior, a redeemer and risen Lord – but that he will come again to rescue and redeem everything.

Advent finds us caught in that middle place. We have seen the work of God and we are looking forward to that work completed.

The candles in the wreath have meanings that differ depending on the tradition you journey from. The colors may be purple and rose or blue. Ours are white, purely out of preference, because white seems to be a color of hopeful expectation, but maybe it means something different to you. The focus is not on the candles, but on Christ who is our light.

The candles for us won't stray from the traditional meanings: all are geared to unfold the story of redemption through the coming of Jesus. The first is the Prophet's Candle or the Candle of Hope.

“The prophets were people who stood on the borders between heaven and earth, between our present time and God's future time. They came to know God so well (a very painful experience, as some of them discovered) that they could discern the shape of his plan: to rescue the world through the sufferings of his chosen one, his anointed, the Messiah."

“They knew that God had more grace coming – grace that would rescue people from where and what they had been, and would give them a wonderful, glorious new destiny and hope.” (N.T. Wright)

There are over 300 prophecies from the Old Testament that point us to Jesus and that we can actually see him fulfilling in the gospel narratives. Tonight we'll just read one from Isaiah 60:1-6:
1 Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
3 And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
4 Lift up your eyes all around, and see;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from afar,
and your daughters shall be carried on the hip.
5 Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and exult,
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
6 A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lor

Isaiah gives us both of the stories, both the darkness and the light. And he describes – this is what it will look like when the light comes. He had a foot in both worlds and knew this is what we need and this is what it will look like when our needs are met.  But we can't rush right to the light. We wouldn't even want to unless we were made aware of our darkness.

When we come into Advent we are confronted with darkness.
No candles are lit yet.  We are still sitting in it.

What would be exposed in your life if light were to hit it? That you are only concerned with your immediate interests? That you believe you are somehow unfit to carry hope for the future? That you live under a suffocating blanket of doubt regarding faith? That really as close as we are, we’re strangers and you don't really want to know what it means to be a good neighbor? That you tell yourself untruths about your worth and our identity?

That's the darkness. That's the need. That is actually what the prophets spent much of their time exposing. They knew the light was coming and they said, “Knowing this, do you still want to hang onto that?”  What would the prophets speak to you?

In the passage in Luke the darkness is chased away by the tender mercies of God.

In the passage from Isaiah the darkness is chased away when a great community of people gather together around the unifying Lord.

What would chase away your darkness? What would light look like for you? [Light the Candle]   Would tender mercies look like a friend who could listen and help you sort out your true self, from your false self? Would it look like being freed from addiction and temptation by the renewing of your mind? Would it look like a progressive movement toward character and away from just trying to be good? Would it look like a chance to be a part of a great community, perhaps this one, that walks together toward the light of Christ? Would it look like drawing more deeply into love, more deeply into trust?

What do you need to hear from God, what do you need Jesus to be to chase away that darkness?

God doesn't leave us in darkness.  While he meets us where we're at and loves us in spite of all things we've said and done and been, he continually moves us into light.  When he created the world, it all began in darkness and because God has always been, he somehow was there existing in that darkness, just as he is with you in yours. 

But he also began by giving light.  And then in the next act of creation he diffused the atmosphere and condensed the water down into ocean so that light could be more clearly seen.  And then on the fourth day he created the sun, moon and stars... a little more light, and a little more and then some more. It doesn't take much to dispel darkness, but God does more than push it aside.  He overcomes it. 

John 1:1-5
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

In John's passage, what chases away the darkness that existed before the creation of the world is the Word, the God that made all things, the God that came to the world as the light of men offering life.  Jesus is what light looks like.

We gather here tonight not to count down the days before Christmas, but to enter into life with Christ. We don't participate in the “coming” of Christ as spectators, but as those who, like the prophets, live with one foot in the world and one in the kingdom of God. We don't come and say, “Come, Lord Jesus and take us straightaway to peace” instead we say, “Come, Lord Jesus and end our darkness.”

You go tonight in the way the prophets did, knowing what God has done, and knowing what he wants to do. You go knowing that God has more grace coming – grace that can rescue you from where you've been and what you've done and grace that will give you a wonderful new destiny and hope.

Community Prayer:
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. 
Captivated by the darkness, we ignore your glowing ember. 
Intimidated by the glare, we hide from your warmth. 
Confused by the shadows, we misunderstand your vision. 
Compelled by the light, we embrace your promise. 
Jesus, source of light, remind us again that you burn and beckon in our darkness, even here, even now. 
Come, Lord Jesus. End our darkness.
Ending Blessing:
By the tender mercy of our God, may the dawn from on high break upon us, to give light to we who sit in darkness and to guide our feet into the way of peace.