A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, December 2, 2018
Isaiah 9:2, 6-7; John 1:1-5 ESV
Why is observing the season of Advent at church so important? Why not just jump all over into celebrating Christmas as soon as the Thanksgiving decorations are taken down and packed away?
As I noted in my December Chapel Chimes article, the church I grew up in commenced singing Christmas carols right after Thanksgiving. Being a country church, we were not in the least liturgically-minded. We celebrated Christmas, Easter, and World Communion Sunday. But we didn’t observe the Season of Advent (or the Advent wreath) or the Season of Lent. So I was not even familiar with the Season of Advent until I went off to seminary and learned more about the Christian liturgical calendar and different seasons of the Church Year. The small congregation where I preached in West Tennessee while attending seminary introduced me to the Advent wreath, the best I recall.
But the older I have grown, the more I have learned to appreciate the liturgical seasons of the year, and especially the Season of Advent. I love this first Sunday of Advent and all that it stands for. Today’s service is one of my favorite of the year. And today, you see, is the very first day of the beginning of the new Church Year.
Thus, I love the mood and structure of the first Sunday of Advent service. We always begin the service (and hence, begin the new Church Year again) on a somber, longing note: “O Come, O come, Emmanuel!”
“O come, thou Day-spring, come and cheer Our spirits by thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
O come, Desire of nations, bind All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.”
Those hymn words are much more appropriate for the our time than we might have ever realized.
And our responsive reading is also a reminder that we begin the season in a time of darkness, when the sky is grey, the trees are bare, and the days are short and the nights are long. (As a side note, it is apropos, I think, that the season of Advent coincides with the darkest season of the year.) But as we progress through the service, we move from the opening somber spirit to a lighter, more positive tone, so that by the time we close the service with the hymn, “Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus,” we leave on a joyful, hope-filled note.
I love the spirit of Advent and the role that it plays in the annual religious drama. Advent takes us back to the time before Jesus was born, to the time when the Jewish people were yearning and praying for a long-awaited One, a Deliverer. Thus, the Season of Advent is the time of anticipation, longing, and waiting.
Most of us have known that time of anticipation of longing and waiting for a child or grandchild to be born. It is a time of joyful preparation – buying baby furniture and baby clothes; preparing the nursery; preparing ourselves emotionally for the new life that will become the center of attention; and so on. So Advent is important as a time for anticipation and preparation, just as the nine months of pregnancy is an important time of preparation before that baby is born. To jump from Thanksgiving right into full-fledged Christmas celebrations at church would be like jumping from conception right to the birth. We need some Advent time of preparation (i.e., time to prepare the manger bed, in a manner of speaking) to be reminded of why the birth of Jesus mattered to the ancient world and why his birth matters to our world today.
I love the emotions and spiritual themes that Advent represents. I have already mentioned the anticipation and longing. But another Advent emphasis is waiting in the darkness for the coming of light. Hence, the perennial passages read from Isaiah and John. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:2). And “the light shines in the darkness,” John proclaimed, “and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5 ESV).
Just as the Jewish people of Isaiah’s day and the Jewish people of the first century knew that there was something wrong with the world, we know such as well. We all well know that there is so much not right with our present world – violence, suffering, prejudices, persecution, inequalities, and oppression. The beginning of Advent acknowledges that all is not right with the world, but there can be a better day as people again commit themselves to the principles of justice and righteousness embodied in that One born in a manger.
I love something that minister-writer Frederick Buechner said in this regard: “this metaphor of Isaiah’s [i.e., people walking in darkness] is a very relevant one for us and our age because we are also, God knows, a people who walk in darkness. . . If darkness is meant to suggest a world where nobody can see very well – either themselves or each other, or where they are heading, or even where they are standing at the moment; if darkness is meant to convey a sense of uncertainty, of being lost, of being afraid; if darkness suggests conflict, conflict between races, between nations, between individuals each pretty much out for himself when you come right down to it; then we live in a world that knows much about darkness.”1 Such is why Isaiah’s theme of walking in the darkness is such an appropriate theme for Advent.
And another important Advent theme, as well as a basic human need, is hope. It is no coincidence that the first candle of the Advent Wreath is the Candle of Hope. Indeed, the first spiritual principle of the first Sunday of Advent is the principle of Hope for things to come, hope for an end to the present darkness, and hope for a better world.
Frederick Buechner continues, “Somewhere between the darkness and the light. That is where we are as Christians. And not just at Advent time, but at all times. Somewhere between the fact of darkness and the hope of light. . . . The challenge of it is that [the Light] has not come yet. Only the hope for it has come, only the longing for it. In the meantime we are in the dark, and the dark, God knows is also in us. We watch and wait for a holiness to heal us and hallow us, to liberate us from the dark. Advent is like the hush in a theater just before the curtain rises.”2
And so, we cling to those words of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, words echoed in the hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”: “the Dayspring from on high shall visit us; To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79 NKJV).
So you see, taking the Season of Advent seriously, if only for a Sunday or two, is important. Because during Advent, we pause. We pause to acknowledge the darkness. We pause to recognize that all is not right with the world. We pause to commit ourselves to a better way and a better day. But Advent also reminds us to hold onto hope that the Light will come. Amen.
1Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations. New York: HarperOne, 1992. P. 266.
2Ibid, pp. 314, 315.