Sunday, November 27, 2016
A little girl named Jana was given a part in her church’s Christmas drama. Jana was so excited about her part that her mother thought she was going to be one of the main characters. Jana, however, would not tell her mother the part she was supposed to play.
After much anticipation, the big night finally came. The parents were all there awaiting their children’s participation in this Christmas drama. One by one the children took their places. The shepherds fidgeted in one corner of the stage. Mary and Joseph stood solemnly behind the manger. In the back three young wise men waited impatiently. Meanwhile, Jana sat quietly and confidently.
Then the teacher began: A long time ago, Mary and Joseph had a baby and they named Him Jesus. And when Jesus was born, a bright star appeared over the stable. This was Jana’s cue. She got up from her chair, picked up a large tin-foil star, walked behind Mary and Joseph and held the star up high for everyone to see.
When the teacher told about the shepherds coming to see the baby, the three young shepherds came forward and Jana jiggled the star up and down excitedly to show them where to come.
When the wise men responded to their cue, Jana went forward a little to meet them and to lead the way, her face as alight as the real star might have been.
The play ended. They had refreshments. On the way home, even though she only had a nonspeaking role, Jana said to her Mother, with great satisfaction, I had the main part! You did? Her mother asked, wondering why she thought that. Yes, she said, because I showed everybody how to find Jesus! I guess she did have the main part. She pointed all the other actors toward Jesus.
Welcome on this First Sunday of Advent. Where we light the first Advent candle, the candle of HOPE. Advent points us towards the birth of Jesus. It also points us to that day when the triumphant Christ shall return to establish His reign, when nations will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, as Isaiah so beautifully describes that wondrous time.
Paul describes that day like this: At the name of Jesus every knee [shall] bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11).
One of the great pieces of music that will help us celebrate this special season is, of course, George Frederick Handel’s magnificent work, “Messiah.”
Handel, after a brief period of popularity, had been reduced to poverty. During that time, he felt so defeated that he would walk aimlessly along the dark streets of London convinced that he didn’t have a friend in the world. Add to that, he had a cerebral hemorrhage that impaired one entire side of his body. It was at this time in his life that he was given a manuscript by an amateur poet named Charles Jennens. Jennens wanted Handel to put his new work to music.
Somehow this new project ignited a spark in his heart. He worked fanatically for 24 days and in that short amount of time produced a wondrous piece of music that has thrilled audiences for more than 300 years. It was during one of the most difficult times in Handel’s life that he was suddenly seized by the need to produce this amazing piece of work which we know as “Messiah.”
There’s a parallel to Handel’s story in the New Testament church. When parts of the New Testament were written, the church was at the kind of low that Handel experienced before he produced “Messiah.” Persecuted and torn from within, the New Testament Church went through several times of crises. Only one thing sustained them during these trying times. That was the truth that the Messiah had not forgotten them nor forsaken them but that He would return to rescue those who had been faithful, often faithful unto death.
Advent then is a celebration of hope. It’s the celebration of a people who know what it is to be in darkness and to see a great light. It’s far more than tinsel and holly and silver bells and the ringing of cash registers. Advent goes right to the heart of the Christian experience.
If Christmas is the season of childhood, Advent is the season of maturity. When we’re young, it’s easy to believe that “they lived happily ever after.” With the passing of time we find it much more difficult to believe that optimism. The death of optimism is the birth of Christian hope.
We need hope, because there are some things in life we can’t face alone. That’s a lesson most of us learn with time. One of the most refreshing things about being around young people is their feeling that they’re invincible and that nothing’s impossible for them. Whether it’s righting the world’s wrongs, curing society’s ills or even avoiding death, youth is convinced that an answer can be found. Such confidence and such optimism about the future is refreshing.
Not every young person feels that way, of course. Statistics concerning drug and alcohol use among young people, as well as the growing plague of teen suicides indicate that many of our young people need to hear a word of hope. The greatest gift we can give our young people is the message that they’re loved, that they’re important, that they can cope and that tomorrow will be better than today.
There comes that time in life, however, when even the most confident and the most competent of us discover that our resources aren’t enough. Standing beside the bed of a sick child or an aging parent, dealing with a failing marriage or contemplating our own mortality, we quickly become aware of what finite creatures we are. There come times in life when we’re confronted with our own inability to deal with the most important life issues on our own.
And, let’s face it, there are times when it seems evil is in control. You know what I’m talking about. There are times when hope is in short supply.
Isaiah the prophet sensed that in his own time. Political conspiracy and idolatry were running rampant in Isaiah’s day and things seemed to be getting worse. Isaiah, then, wrote about one who would come to “judge the earth.” A judge was needed to set the world right.
Things were no better in New Testaments times than in Isaiah’s time. Members of the New Testament church were torn apart by lions in the coliseum and burned as living torches in Nero’s gardens. But they knew that this couldn’t be the last word of a righteous God. So Matthew 24, Mark 13, the book of Revelation and a host of other New Testament writings testify that someday Christ will return to right the world’s wrongs. Paul writes, our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. (Romans 13:11). Paul knew that evil times are never the last word of a loving God.
Could we apply that same hope to our own time and our own land? We look at the prospect of terrorists causing havoc in our largest cities, the brutality of Isis in the Mid-east, watching people fall into despair because of low wages and inequality, we listen to the roar of racism and we wonder if it’s possible that Americans will ever be optimistic about the future again?
Of course, that’s a superficial view of history. There’ve been many eras in our brief history when things have been far worse. Consider the two World Wars or the Depression or the Civil War.
It’s difficult to believe but only a few generations back, human slavery was an accepted practice in our land and ending that practice was a long and difficult battle. There was one period when an especially dark cloud hung over the entire anti-slavery movement.
One of the leaders of that movement was a man named Frederick Douglas. He was speaking to a great crowd during this time when it seemed that the cause was going to fail. Both political parties were turning their backs on the movement. The Supreme Court as well. As Douglas spoke hopeless words about the future of the movement to end slavery, darkness seemed to settle down upon the audience.
Just at the instant when the cloud was at its darkest, an old black woman sitting in the front row, stood up, her name was “Sojourner Truth.” Every eye was on her. Frederick Douglas paused for a moment. Sojourner Truth pointed towards him with a long bony finger, and cried out, “Frederick, is God dead?”
Her words were like “a lightning flash” upon that audience. Sojourner Truth helped the audience believe that there was hope with that one question, “Is God dead?”
That’s a question we need to hear in our times of personal darkness: Is God dead? Of course, He’s not. He’s alive and He’s at work in our world and one day those who’ve been hurting will be healed, those who’ve been mourning will break out in laughter, people who are at the end of the rope will not only tie a knot in that rope but will use it to pull themselves to a better place, a place where hope and inner peace prevail.
People who are suffering in the Middle East under Isis need to hear that question, “Is God dead?” As do suffering people in the Sudan as well as those in gang infested inner cities in our own land. God is not dead and God will not allow wrong-doers to be in control.
This brings us to the final thing that needs to be said. When we’re forced to deal with the fact of our inadequacy, and when it seems that evil is in control of our world or at least our individual lives, it’s then that we most need to lift our eyes from our situation and fix them upon the cross. When difficult times come, we have a tendency to make matters worse by concentrating on our problems rather than upon Christ.
Isaiah looked to the coming of the Messiah. I hope that you and I are not simply looking to the superficial elements of this special season. I hope that ours is a mature faith that can declare, even when it seems that we’ve come to the end of our rope, even when everywhere we turn there seems to be darkness, that we’re not without hope, for God is alive. With such a faith, maybe we can sing with Handel, And He shall reign forever and ever, King of kings and Lord of lords.