It is always dark in Scotland. Seriously. I know you might not believe me because Every time you see pictures of Scotland, it is always beautiful green hills with castles on them. Beaches with golfers playing nearby. Highlands with fog. Well the pictures all lie to you. That might be what it’s like two months a year. The rest of the time it is dark. From about 3:30 pm to the next day around 10, you don’t see any sunlight. It’s so bad that many students will take Vitamin D or buy special lamps in order to emulate the sunlight they should be getting.
Advent, the four weeks we wait to celebrate Christ’s birth can feel a lot like those pitch black months of Scotland. For those of you who don’t know, Advent is the start of the Christian year. It is a four week season that culminates in Christmas, the birth of our Savior, and is to be understood as a time of preparation, of waiting in hope for the world to be restored and for all to be made right when God puts on flesh in the form of a child. It is a time that marks the longing in the darkness for the true light to come into the world. This is the reason we light candles, as they serve as a reminder of the coming light into this dark world. One of the texts of this time of year comes from the prophet Isaiah, who declares the birth of the Messiah.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light, those who lived in the land of deep darkness-on them light has shined.”
Advent reminds us that there is light coming to those who sit in darkness. But the majesty of this approaching light doesn’t sink in the depth of our being. Why? It is because we don’t understand the depth of the darkness around us. For many of us, Advent is like commercials during our favorite show. They just get in the way of the main event, and we hope that we can work our TiVo well enough to avoid them and get on to the good stuff. We are so quick to rush into the birth of Christ, to celebrate, that we miss the longing, the hope, the desire, that marks this season; and even more importantly, we gloss over the darkness of the world and hide ourselves from the glory of the coming light. So today we are going to talk about Christmas, yes; but in order to talk about Christmas I want us to place ourselves in the darkness of a]Advent, the longing for God to return. For it is when we are deeply aware of this darkness that light can burst forth and transform us on Christmas. So before we dive in, let us pray:
He knows not Advent’s meaning who has never sat
By twilight in a dreary cell, its window dim;
Even by day comes little light into the narrow space.
Evening falls, slowly steals away the sun.
Night throws her gloomy mantle round the room
These words were written by the Christian priest Jospef Metzger, as he sat in his cell at a Holocaust death camp, where he would lose his life for opposing the violent Nazi regime. These words come from a heart longing in the painful darkness that marks the waiting for the Messiah to be born. Indeed, these words seem to catch the darkness envisioned by the prophet Isaiah in our first reading today. God’s chosen people Israel have been driven out of their homes, forced to leave their whole lives exiled to a foreign land. They leave the land, their homes, owned by their families for generations. They are enslaved to those who spoke another language, breaking their back under oppression. It was the deepest darkness. When Isaiah declares that the people in darkness have seen a great light, he is offering them hope that God and his Messiah will soon free them from this oppression.
But this life of exile is not isolated to the prophet Isaiah. Again and again we see the darkness gripping the writers of the Old Testament, whether in exile or death, despair or longing. Consider the deep mourning of Psalm 13, the lament of the individual seen in our second reading, who longs for God to act.
“How long oh lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”
It was within this deep darkness, and longing, that Israel hoped in expectation for God to come. This is the longing that Advent represents as it looks forward to the birth of Jesus.
In these recent days, we don’t need much reminding about how the world longs in darkness, longs for God to set all things right. Only a week or so ago, upon hearing the tragic news of the local elementary school, marked by the pictures of terrified children and parents who will spent Christmas without them, we are only too aware of the darkness in which the world sits. This senseless tragedy makes us all long for light, truth, and hope to break upon the world and set it to rights. To make things new. This world is darker than even the bleakest Scotland night. It is an Advent world, caught in the darkness of exile, crying out to God for something else. And we can join in the cry of the psalmist, ‘”How long, oh Lord?”
And as this senseless act of violence still reverberates in our ears and the images still scar our minds, there are still other darknesses that grip the world. We forget that for some, this Christmas season will be marked by an empty chair at the dinner table, by a missing family member, friend, or loved one. Christmas season is a reminder that the darkness of death still grips us. It reminds us that the world is still ensnared by darkness, over-shadowed by the suffocating cloud of death. We are trapped in the darkest prison cell, like the poet, longing for even a faint glimmer of hope. And we hear the faint cry of the psalmist, “How long, oh Lord?”
There are yet other darknesses-the darkness that is a hollow thud in our souls, a nagging emptiness that the festivities of Christmas never fill. It is the ache in our hearts that the present buying, the Christmas cheer, and the holiday parties do their best to mute, though never successfully. It is the feeling that life might be meaningless and empty. It is the reminder of hatred and unforgiveness toward family members that only resurface when one is forced to meet them around the dinner table. It is the realization that another year has past, and for some reason we still feel so unfulfilled. The promotion, activities, new indulgent hobbies haven’t provided the feeling of joy we so long for. We haven’t changed despite our best intentions last year. And even though bright lights decorate our houses which match the brightness of our pasted on smiles, they are a parody. We know the darkness around us and inside us. The world, and we ourselves are darker than every day spent in Scotland. We are an Advent people, even when we do our best to hide it. We are a people living in exile. We are the people who are crying out to God with the psalmist, waiting for God to act. Waiting for light to appear.
It is when we turn off the Christmas lights, it is when we slow down from the constant running around trying to buy presents and make everybody happy that we honestly begin to understand the Advent season. It is in the sober awareness of the world that we encounter the light. When we grasp the immensity of the darkness in the world, then we are prepared to traverse the Advent road, grasping desperately to the hope that will soon be revealed.
But…There was another group that sat in darkness an Advent season years ago. While the rest of the world was nestled in their beds, there were shepherds in the darkness.
And it is among the shepherds that the angel appears declaring the birth of a Savior, a Messiah, the Lord himself. Now despite what all of our stained glass windows tell us about the life of David or Moses, it was not a calm and easy profession. They are not the middle class workers at the office from 9 to 5, who come home to 2.2 kids and an SUV. No, shepherds are the ones working all day and night, who are forced to spend the evening in the field sleeping on the cold wet grass while other are inside in a warm bed. They are not wealthy, they are not well off. They are those who understand the harsh reality of life, fighting to put food on the table. No doubt these shepherds also understand what it is like to be scorned and rejected by the world-as they were outcasts, forced to roam the wilderness. They lived in darkness and knew what it means to long for God to act to set the world aright Moreover, they toiled under the oppression of people life Caesar and Herod who want to take what little they have by crippling taxes derived from a census. They are homeless, poor, rejected. They are the janitors who work in silent, making minimum wage with barely enough to squeak by. They are the single moms working two jobs, never stopping, just to provide for the family. They are the immigrant workers, paid under the table but refused human dignity. They are the people in exile. The people in darkness-both metaphorically, and literally as those keeping sheep at night.
Note who the shepherds are not. They are not those who are snug in their beds in the inn, while the Son of God is born outdoors in a manger. They are not those who are sleeping soundly, thinking all is right with the world-deceiving themselves by failing to recognize the darkness. They are not the Caesar’s and the Herod’s of the world, who are spending the season stuffing their pockets on the wages of others in order to adorn their fancy palaces. The shepherds are an exile people, aware of the darkness. Honest to God about their desire for something else, a light that will change the world.
And it is to these people that good news are first proclaimed, they are the first to hear the birth announcement, they are the first who are given hope that the world will be different. They are the first to see Light break upon the world.
So, in Luke 2 we see the angels appear, declaring the Christmas message:
“Do not be afraid for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. To YOU is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah the Lord.”
To a people sitting in darkness, LIGHT HAS SHONE. How long must we wait oh lord? No longer, for your salvation is HERE! It is to the shepherds that the good news is announced, that are the first recipients of the light that drives out the darkness. Those shepherds who are living in the darkness, honest to God about the world, that light is revealed. And the light wants to break forth to us this Christmas if we are willing to acknowledge the depth of the darkness we sleep in.
Receive the message the angels bring today, as they did that first Christmas, a message that drives out the deepest darkness. It contains the truth that we all so long for. It is a message of peace for the world, a peace that means no more violence tearing apart our schools, tearing apart the Middle east, tearing apart the world. It is a peace that gives meaning and purpose to our lives, a peace that helps heal the hatred we have for our neighbors and family. It is a peace which surpasses all understanding.
It is the good news of God’s glory, a glory that will not be put out by death, but which will overcome death. It is the glory that will cover the earth, as waters the sea, the glory that emerges in the hope of the resurrection of all our dead loved ones and the healing of a broken creation. It is glory of all things set to right. It is the glory of the God who has come upon the earth.
Most importantly, it is the good news of the Savior, the King who now lies in a manager. He will save all people from their hurts, their sin, their unforgiveness, from death. He is the one who will bring this peace and glory upon the earth. He is the LIGHT that drives out the darkness, the Light of Advent come into the world. He is the good news embodied, the return from exile, the defeat of death, the answer to our question ‘How long, oh Lord?’ This is the hope that world longs for and has now been revealed. He is the Christmas message.
And he is revealed to those who are sitting in darkness, us shepherds, longing for something different.
As I close today, I am aware that Christmas is a time of cheer and I have spent so much time talking about darkness. But I am convinced that Christmas is best celebrated only after we have grasped the darkness and been honest about our broken world. It is when we know-just like the shepherds-the death, the sadness, the losses in the present world, that we can begin to talk about the good news of Christmas. We need Advent to cultivate us in the deep ache of hope, four weeks of longing and desire. For it is in this hope that we can celebrate the immensity and the excitement of the light that dawns upon us, God made man, Christ himself coming to be King.
So let me urge you today, with the first words of the angels, so common in all of their appearance. Be not afraid!
For some, this morning is a chance to be honest about where you are, and to know that it is alright. It is ok to be sad, to be longing, to be in need of God this Christmas season. Do not be afraid of the truth. You are not a grinch, but you have touched on something deeply important in the Christmas faith. God recognizes your deep cry and wants to console you in your sadness and to plant deep seeds of hope, a hope that will bloom with the birth of Christ in you life. If this is you, if you are searching in darkness, do not be afraid. Light breaks forth in the darkness.
For others, you have been filling your life with a deceptive and fabricated light-which is actually the darkest corners of this dark world as it pretends to be true light. Perhaps you have been distracted this holiday season with busyness, with presents, with pleasing others, that you have forgotten how much in need you are, how empty this all is without the light of Christ. You have blotted out the light of Christ shining, you have supplemented the deep hope of Christmas with cheap plastic alternatives. If this is so, hear the words of the angel: be not afraid. God is calling to you as well. God loves you in your distraction and wants to open your eyes to the beauty of Christ this season, to drive out that deceptive darkness and give you the light of Christ.
For all gathered here, those who are in Christ as shepherds, waiting in the dark, I invite you all to come forward, to have your hearts prepared to receive the light, to be consoled by the grace of God in the knowledge that although there is darkness in the world, Light is coming and indeed has come. May we all have the light revealed to us, and be receptive to the good news of God in the days ahead, as we set our eyes on the manger, where we see Light dawning on the world. Dawn is breaking upon the world.