13 December 2011

An Advent Series: The Way Toward Birth - III. Lost in the Dark

Isaiah 9:2-7 & Luke 1: 39-55

Third Sunday of Advent/11th December 2011

Advent means “coming.”  In this season we remember the original coming of Jesus, of that journey to Bethlehem, to the place of God’s incarnation, the Word made flesh.  It’s also about the future coming of Christ at the culmination of time.  We could also say it’s about arrival–the arrival of God with us, the promised future arrival of Christ.  There’s yet a third meaning. It’s also about our “coming,” our “arrival” in Bethlehem, to the place of God’s incarnation, God’s Word made flesh in us.  It’s about Jesus’ coming into our lives, his arrival in our lives, in the flesh.  It’s this latter view that I’ve been trying to stress the last two weeks in this series.  The incarnation occurred and continues to occur in us.  What God reveals to us through Christ, God has always been doing and will continue to do.  Once we see this pattern at work in him we can see the pattern at work all around us, in the world and in our lives.[1]  God is in the birthing business, as it were, and delights in bringing universes and things and, most of all, people to life. 

            And so for the last two weeks I ended the sermons with a series of questions.  What if the characters in the birth narratives represent parts of our own personalities?  What if you, then, are like Mary, being asking to bear the life of God into the world?  What if, then, you are like Joseph, being asked to care for the life of God in the world?  

            I believe we are asked to bear the life of God into the world.  I think God is always trying to birth something new within us, to grow a life in and through us, so that our lives in all their beauty and brutality, their suffering and joy, might actually reflect the glory and love of God, in order that we, like Mary, can say, “My soul magnifies, glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Luke 1:47).  What will it take for us, for you and me, to be able to say that our souls are magnifying, glorifying, intensifying, reflecting the love of God, and therefore we rejoice? The journey to that point, to that kind of confession, to that realization is the journey toward birth, the journey of life, the journey of faith.  It can happen in a moment or it can take a lifetime, but it’s the journey that counts. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany – the incarnation – is about God making this journey toward us and inviting us to make the journey toward God.

            And like any good journey or adventure there will inevitably come a time when we get lost.  In every spiritual journey toward birth there comes a time when we realize we have lost our way.  Think of the Magi, even with the star overhead – a kind of celestial GPS system – they still had to ask for directions to Jesus. 

            Sometimes it’s the fear of getting lost that prevents us from ever venturing forth on the journey.  Sometimes we lose our way because we become distracted–we lose sight of what’s important, we lose sight of the goal and purpose of our lives, we become tempted by idols conjured up by our minds. Our minds are a factory of idols, as John Calvin (1509-1564) said, around which we obsess.  The commercialism this time of year, alone, is enough to make even the most committed Christian get sidetracked.  The worries and anxieties, the sorrows and grief we bear can also lead us astray.  The stresses and strains of a world that appears to be whirling out of control can also easily block out the light, leaving us feeling as if we are lost in the dark.  We all get lost now and again.  We miss or ignore the signposts.  And sometimes it’s very dark indeed.  And in the darkness, I mean complete darkness­–with no ambient light–it is very dark indeed.  When you’re in complete darkness you cannot move, the way isn’t clear.  It’s inevitable there will come a time, maybe many times, when we are lost.

            Isaiah offered his words of warning and hope to a people who were lost in the dark.  It was dark and getting darker.  The risk of invasion of the Assyrians from the north was real.   Nevertheless, the promise of God is that a way out will be offered.  As Robert Frost (1874-1963) said, “the best way out is always through.”[2]  The way out is always through, through the darkness. In other words, in any journey toward birth there will be a time when we have to concede that we’ve lost our way; we have to acknowledge that we’re in the dark apart from the light of God.  The difficult truth is that sometimes we’re only found after first admitting we’re lost.  We have to get lost in order to be found.  Remember, for example, Dante’s (1265-1321) great masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, a text that has defined the narrative of Western culture, in which he recounts his own spiritual path.  It begins this way, set on Good Friday, 1300, he writes, “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” But then he goes on to “give account,” he says, “of the good which I found there.”[3]  For many, the way toward spiritual birth only occurs after one first admits that one is dead or dying, that one has reached one’s limits, we hit rock bottom, when we are confronted by our own mortality or the mortality of a loved one.  Just think of Scrooge in Dickens’ (1812-1870), A Christmas Carol (1843).  New birth begins only after Scrooge has the courage to face his own death.  That’s when the light of a new day begins to dawn, Christmas Day – the day of birth.

            The good news is this:  “The people who walked – and who walk and will walk – in darkness have seen – and will see – a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2).  “For a child has been born for us” (Isaiah 9:6).  In time, the first Christians used this image of light to describe their own experience of what it was like to walk with him.  “In him was life and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4).  It doesn’t say that in him was the absence of darkness.  The darkness remains.  But the darkness does not have the power to overcome his light–never has, never will–the light of God that shines in the face of Jesus Christ.  The days might be dark, but there’s a light that can shine in the darkness. The light shines within the darkness.

            The anthem we hear this morning was inspired in the darkness.  It was 1953.  Paul and Ruth Manz were sitting vigil with their three-year son, John, who was seriously ill in the hospital.  The doctors gave little hope.  They sat there 24/7, Paul during the day, Ruth at night, both filled with sadness.  They had devotions together behind his bed; they read scripture during this time together.  Ruth was drawn to Revelation 22, the vision of a different John, author of Revelation, standing before the throne of God and the face of Christ.  “And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light…” (Rev. 22:5). Ruth wrote out some words, expressing her trust in God, and giving her sorrow up the Lord, “E’en so, Lord, quickly come.”[4]  Their son survived and in response Paul set her words to music, dedicated to “John and all those who prayed for him.”  Lost in their darkness, they trusted in the inevitable power of that light, a light that has the power to change the way we see the dark.
Peace be to you and grace from Him
Who freed us from our sin 
Who loved us all, and shed his blood
That we might saved be.
Sing holy, holy to our Lord
The Lord almighty God 
Who was and is, and is to come
Sing holy, holy Lord.
Rejoice in heaven,
all ye that dwell therein
Rejoice on earth, ye saints below 

For Christ is coming,
Is coming soon
For Christ is coming soon.
E'en so Lord Jesus quickly come
And night shall be no more
They need no light, no lamp, nor sun
For Christ will be their All!

You can listen to a performance of the anthem here  and here.   

[1] I’m thankful to Fr. Richard Rohr for this statement/insight.
[2] Robert Frost, “A Servant to Servants” (1915).
[3] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, I. Inferno, John D. Sinclair, trans. (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1961), 23.
[4] Paul Manz (1919-2009), E’en so, Lord, quickly come (1953).  See also, http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/2004/12/20_olsond_manz/“E’en so, Lord, quickly come.”

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