Out of the Darkness

Advent 1: Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44
When we get to Advent, we are expecting the coming of Christ. Our minds jump to images of a mom and dad walking to Bethlehem to be counted in the government census, a baby in a manger, angels appearing to shepherds on the hillside. Our ears look forward to the familiar strains of “Silent Night” or “O Come All Ye Faithful”. We anticipate hearing from family and friends, special family gatherings and gift exchanges, special holiday foods. Our natural tendency is to jump right in and celebrate Christmas. Advent invites us to focus not only on Jesus’s first coming, in the form of a baby in the manger, but also on his second coming as described by the prophets of Old and New Testaments. This morning we look at both the visions of Isaiah and of Matthew regarding the Coming One. The message is one of transformation, of change and new life…
Isaiah opens with visions of what will come. We will be touching down on various pieces of the prophet Isaiah throughout our Advent journey this year. We begin with a look at the invitation to walk in the light of the Lord. Isaiah offers a vision of a day when all nations will stream to God’s temple, up to the mountain of the Lord. The Lord will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. The need for war will be over. Weapons of war will be transformed into useful tools for good. This is what it will look like to walk in the light of the Lord. Our first candle in our mega advent wreath represents the light.
This vision of Isaiah has not yet come to fruition, but there are artists who insist that the vision must be kept alive. Ralph Ziman, a South African film producer turned artist with a cause, has worked with women in South Africa and in Zimbabwe to create a beautiful piece of art by covering a large armored personnel carrier called a Casspir with 55-60 million colorful beads, making use of the brightly colored patterns and designs of the local people. The Casspirs were used in apartheid South Africa to threaten, to cause harm, to symbolize power and authority. According to an interview in a recent Sojourner’s magazine, Ziman’s intent is “to make this weapon of war, this ultimate symbol of oppressing…to reclaim it, to own it, make it African, make it beautiful, make it shine.” He does a marvelous job of transforming a weapon into a piece of beauty. What a transformation filled with color and beauty, a sign of life instead of death, a symbol of peace instead of war.
Could the work of artists like Ralph Ziman serve as encouragement for us in a world of violence and fear, in a world longing for the peace, the light of the Lord? Could there be things that you can do in this season of Advent to transform a negative word or a violent action or a fearful attitude into one that belongs in the light of the Lord, one that is filled with peace. What if you took these weeks of waiting for the Coming One to intentionally move in a direction of peace? In this in between time, to find a way to shine, to be transformed.
Matthew the writer of the gospel is lifting for us a reminder that we are living in between the time when Jesus came as a babe and the time when Jesus will return as the Son of Man, riding on the clouds. We often look back with sentimental fondness for the day of his birth, and we look forward to his return with fear and trembling. But we live in the between times. Advent calls us to pay attention, to watch, to be ready. And to be ready does not mean holing up in the basement, storing supplies in anticipation of the end of the world. Neither does being ready mean only making sure you as an individual are ready for your own death. It means every day being aware of whether or not we are living up to God’s expectations. The coming of a Savior into the world is a sign of hope for us all. We create many symbols to remind us of the presence of God’s hope in the world. We use the growing light of the candles on the Advent wreath, we use Advent calendars, we offer an Advent devotional prepared by members of your church family. Here we have a tradition of moving the kings and their camels, Mary and Joseph so that they come closer and closer to Bethlehem as the weeks go by.
Matthew is setting us up for the parables to come in the next chapter, parables of being ready, of watching, of preparing. No one knows when the Son of Man is coming. We must be ready every day, with eyes open, following his path of peace. We live in this in between time. We neither dwell on the past nor dwell on the future. We lift up God’s promise to Israel of sending Immanuel, or “God With Us”. On the other hand, we are also anticipating the day when Immanuel will return as king of kings and lord of lords. We both give thanks for the child and we ask God to bring the kingdom Jesus declared, the kingdom of peace where war is no longer needed, where violence has ended, where true shalom is evident in colors as bright as the millions of beads on the Casspir.
We have recently surrounded a member of our church family who walked in the dark valley of grief and pain at the sudden loss of her grandson. Bradley’s pain and darkness overwhelmed him so that he could not see the light of God shining. At Bradley’s memorial service last Sunday, Joan encouraged us all to take note of any loved ones who are suffering with any form of mental illness. And she encouraged those of us going through the dark valley of depression or any other form of mental illness to reach out for help. So often we hole up in our own darkness, separating ourselves in our pain. Many of us have been impacted by a loved one who suffers from mental illness, often creating a sense of loss, loneliness, hurt or anger within a family or among friends. Mental illness is a form of darkness, a dark valley of suffering that exists all around us. Just naming it makes us aware and alert, watchful for the friend or the family member who needs support, love, light and energy. Just naming it helps to shed light, helps to bring hope, helps to keep it from being hidden.
As we enter these weeks of Advent, we are seeking ways to walk in the light of God, to walk through any dark valleys in our own lives, looking for the light of hope and peace. Let us continue to be active, to live in a spirit of wakefulness, watching, ready. Amen.

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