Happy December, Happy Advent! Happy New Year! Just as we’re settling in to the warmth and coziness of the Christmas season, we’ve begun buying gifts, lighting candles, singing carols, and hoping that we can listen to some affirming readings about God’s love all wrapped up in the sweetness of a baby, we are confronted with this text, for the First Sunday of Advent—doom and gloom if ever we’ve heard it. Instead of gathering around the manger, we meet the angry, adult Jesus, warning us about the end of the world, and the suffering to come. Wait, hold on a minute. Where is my jolly peace on earth, good will towards men? I don’t think Frederick, that dear mouse in the story we read last week, would have terrified his friends with dire visions like this, in their dark, wintry cave. Where is the vision of comfort he was offering? When I worked in campus ministry, we used to talk about the difference between Happy Bible, and Scary Bible. Today’s Gospel is definitely Scary Bible. What’s it doing here, when we’re trying to welcome in the new year and prepare for the birth of our Saviour?
The cycle of stories that we share through the church year is an ancient one, given shape through the Middle Ages, and pieced together from these texts handed down to us from the Jewish tradition and the first century of the Jesus movement. The communities that produced these documents knew incredible hardship. They were constantly under threat from invasion, enslavement, persecution, as well as disease and natural disaster from which there was no security, and with little help—imagine a world with no Red Cross, no UNICEF, no hospital, nowhere to turn, in a crisis, and nothing to do but lament. Theirs was a world of, to us, almost unimaginable darkness. If God’s story was to make any sense to them, to have any integrity with what they experienced, it would have to acknowledge that reality.
So as he speaks to the crowds about distress and confusion, fear and foreboding, Jesus is not really predicting a distant future, but describing the present that his listeners knew only too well. These dangers were all around them—the nearness of death and misfortune was just the constant of life, that accompanied them from birth, through every day. It wouldn’t have been a surprise, to hear that upheavals were in store. No, it was the nearness of joy, of mercy and release, that was hard to hear, that was practically incomprehensible. For those who’ve grown accustomed to the dark, the light can be blinding.
In Jesus, darkness and light are intertwined. This was new. In the stories that the people had cherished and retold for generations, human suffering and God’s glory were so different, so far apart. The tradition contained accounts of the people’s struggles, over and over again, against great odds. Seeking a promised land through decades of wandering the desert. War after war. Capture and exile, the destruction of their homeland. Always, it took so long to return to a peace and safety that had become only a legend, the long-vanished Eden, or Canaan, or Jerusalem, that a previous generation had known. And all the while God’s truth existed, majestic and remote, so pure that if mortals were in God’s presence they shone like the sun, or were maimed or even perished because they came so close to such power. They set up a whole structure of temple worship to maintain a safe distance between the ordinary, everyday world and the Word of God, with the holy of holies sequestered in its own chamber, behind curtains and smoke, approached only by the priests at special times, surrounded by ritual.
And now, in Jesus, all at once, that careful distance between God and humanity is collapsed. The Word that spoke all things into being is coming now in a human voice, eternity is unfolding in this human life, a hard-working life, with laughter and jokes, alongside grief and heartache. In art there is a word for this closeness, chiaroscuro, that intimate play of darkness and light across the canvas. You can see it in the beautiful painting that hangs near our altar—look at it, as you come up for Communion. See how the faces of Mary and the infant Christ gleam forth from the dim background, their love radiant, human and divine, next to each other, within each other. Looking at them in their happiness, we remember the rest of the story, the day when the darkness will overwhelm the light, snuff it out, so that it can return with a brightness that is still truer, for its hard-won acquaintance with the night.
In the story of Jesus, Happy Bible and Scary Bible come together—when the terrors of death are the harbingers of resurrection.
This prophet’s dark tidings are not a warning to work your way back into God’s favour, over the decades or generations. It happens now, in a moment of grace, of liberation. Look at what Jesus actually tells the people, after the acknowledgement of suffering. Don’t be weighed down, by distractions and the worries of this life. All of this stuff, it’s heavy and it’s real, God knows, God knows, it’s pulling you under and it’s killing you, you’ve got to set it down. To let go of it. The promise of hope that Jesus offers is the strength to stand before the Son of Man. To stand up—not bowed down because we’re terrified. To stand beside him, not separated by anything.
That strength doesn’t come from what we do. It comes from what we have the courage not to do. Not to be defensive. Not to pile up stuff around us so that we don’t notice our loneliness. Not to build ourselves up in anger or pride because we are, at heart, afraid of the dark.
What can we do, to get ready for the coming of Jesus, into our lives? Perhaps the less we do, the more room we make for God, to be revealed to us and within us, for others. So what less, could you do? What could you set down, that is so heavy, that it’s pulling you down with it? What might you let go of, to take the hand that Jesus is offering, to take your place before him?
Perhaps, this Advent, we could practice saying no, to what is not God. To what is not the freedom and grace of God’s welcome to us. It might be a little no, “No, I can’t do that today,” or a big one, “No, that’s not who I am.” But hear this, now: you get to say it. You get to put those burdens down, if you choose. They are not the stuff of forever. No matter what happens, we know what lasts: God’s Word of love, of forgiveness, of grace, remains. Heaven and earth, darkness and light, will pass away. But my words will never