KNOWING WHERE TO LOOK FOR GOD
Advent begins in darkness. We light one candle to express our hope in the growing light of Christmas. But Advent begins by recognizing the darkness in our world, with the hope and expectation of a new day.
These days it's not always easy to begin Advent in darkness. Our stores want to start Christmas earlier and earlier each year. The biggest shopping day for Christmas was Friday already. And now there are even pre-Christmas sales, and pre-pre-Christmas sales in the weeks before Thanksgiving. So many of the stores and malls have been lit up with there decorations for weeks already. The brightness and light of our modern Christmas celebration is all around us, so it is difficult to begin Advent in darkness anymore.
Some in the church have said, 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.' They've suggested that we should start Advent earlier, and then start our Christmas season earlier and stretch it out longer to climax on Christmas Eve. Maybe that's not such a bad idea.
But there is one problem with all these approaches to the right timing for Advent and Christmas. No matter what we do outwardly, with all our decorations and shopping and festivities, it still may not coincide with how we feel and experience Christmas inwardly. Even with all the trappings, it is difficult to come by the Christmas Spirit yet. And some folks may never quite get there this year. Perhaps they have recently suffered a terrible loss; perhaps their relationships are in turmoil, on the brink of falling apart. Yes, there will be many people, as there are every year, who are in too much pain to ever feel the Christmas Spirit. Their lives are in darkness right now, and it will be difficult for the light to penetrate.
So it is good, perhaps, that Advent at least begins in darkness. Even for those of us whose personal lives aren't darkened by turmoil or tribulation, we can begin in darkness with those who are. And even for those of us whose personal lives are relatively bright right now, it remains true that we look around us and can see much darkness in our world.
So Advent begins in darkness. And our first reading in Advent from the book of Isaiah is a cry from the darkness: (Isaiah 64:1) "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!" It is the anguished outburst of a desperate people, having exhausted all possible human alternatives, having given up on polite, respectfully restrained prayers to God. They cry, "Tear open the heavens and come down!" Earlier in this passage Isaiah calls out, (Isaiah 63:15) "Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and glorious habitation. Where are your zeal and your might? The yearning of your heart and your compassion? They are withheld from me." In other words, "Where are you, God? Where are you?" Isaiah prays the prayer of a people who long for God, yet cannot see or hear God, people for whom God is absent.
Do any of you know what that feels like? Have you ever prayed, but felt like you were only talking to yourself? Have you ever stood by the bed of a loved one in pain and prayed to God for help, but felt like God was far away? Have you known Isaiah's prayer: 'God, where are you? Tear open the heavens and come down! Please come!' This is the Advent prayer, as we begin in darkness. "Come, Lord Jesus, come."
Will Christmas bring an answer to that prayer? We celebrate God's coming in Jesus on Christmas. But will he come again this year? Will he come to those who sit in darkness who yearn to see a great light?
At Christmas we do celebrate that Christ has already come, that a great light has come to shine in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. But how does that make a difference to those who sit in darkness now?
The difference it can make, I think, is this: Since Christ has already come, we now can know where to look. More specifically, we can know to look in the unexpected places. Think of the Christmas story: the savior of the world, the king of creation, born to two poor people in a barn in tiny Bethlehem. Is that where you would expect God to come? Not really, right? And it never really changes with this Jesus. The Pharisees expected such a great teacher to be with them all the time. But they continually had to look for him among the tax collectors and sinners, the sick and outcast. Finally, it even ended with this Jesus hanging on a cross, the very last place anyone would have expected to find God coming into this world. So when we pray the prayer, "Where are you God?" perhaps what we need is to remind ourselves of where to look. Perhaps when we can't find God, it's because we look in the wrong places.
I'd like to share a brief passage about looking for and finding God. It's from a book with a good Advent title, Night, for it describes one of the darkest places ever known on this earth: the Auschwitz death camp. Elie Wiesel is a Nobel Prize winning author who survived Auschwitz and recorded many of his experiences in this book. If ever there has been a place on earth where we are justified to cry out, "Where are you, God?!" Auschwitz is the place. One particularly well-known passage from this book asks just this question. It describes the Nazis hanging a young boy:
The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him. This time the camp executioner refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.This is the Christian answer to the question "Where is God?", isn't it? When we are looking for God to tear open the heavens and come, we begin by looking at the one who was hanged on the cross for our sins. Jesus turns the whole question of suffering around. When we are suffering, or when someone close to us is suffering, we are often moved to ask "Where is God?" But with Jesus, suffering becomes the answer, not the reason for the question. In Jesus we begin to see that the answer to "Where is God?" is precisely this: God is with those who suffer. That's where God is. In Jesus we learn where to look for God.
The victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses. "Long live Liberty!" cried the two adults. But the child was silent.
"Where is God? Where is He?" someone behind me asked.
At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.
Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. "Bare your heads!" yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. "Cover your heads!"
Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive...
For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. Behind me I heard the same man asking: "Where is God now?"
And I hear a voice within me answer him: "Were is he? Here He is - He is hanging here on this gallows. . . " (Night, Bantam Books, 1982, pp. 61-62.)
And this is where our salvation itself lies: learning where to find God. For I think that the problem of humankind has been to so often look for God in the wrong places. We have tended to look for God among the powerful and mighty. 'It's someone with great power, who will get us out of this mess!' is what we are usually tempted to think. But, no, it's those people of great power who generally represent our human powers that are responsible for the suffering in the first place. We have tended to look for the solution to suffering among the mighty who help to wield the power that brings us suffering.
In Jesus, we learn to see differently. When we look to the cross, we learn to see that God is with those who suffer, and has been all along. As long as there is suffering in this world, that is where God will be. And, when we learn to find God there and go to be with God there, then won't the suffering finally end? If everyone learns to find God and to be with God among the suffering, then who will be left to cause the suffering? Then, when we all learn where to find God and where to be with God, then will that Christmas prophecy of Isaiah come to fulfillment: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness--on them light has shined. For unto us a child is born; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:2,6) Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, Nov. 30-Dec. 1, 1996