This morning, as I got my four children and myself ready for church, I read two meditations on this first Sunday in Advent. Lest you think that is something that I'm normally capable of doing, they were short meditations and my children were unusually quiet for about twenty minutes. After reading those meditations and hearing my husband Matthew preach, I recognized a theme.
The first Sunday in Advent is a little harrowing.
The lectionary passages aren't cuddly. The Gospel of Mark talks about the sun being darkened and the stars falling when the Son of Man comes. My husband Matthew preached on the passage in Isaiah 64:1-9, when the Israelites have returned from exile to see their home in ruins. They lament their sin and cry out to God to rip open the heavens and come save them: "We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people."
What a strange passage for Advent, right?
After we got home from church, I opened Facebook and saw a post from a friend, Jessica, who is writing a book about the refugee crisis. As part of her interviews with a Syrian refugee who has become her friend, Jessica has had to listen to and watch videos of the horrors that humans inflict upon one another. Jessica says, "Most people here in the US don't even think about it most days, this civil war that is still being waged, but I'm spending hours every few weeks with people who can't think about anything else, who can never truly rest because their loved ones are still in danger, their country still a war zone."
As Jessica says, for many of us, it's easier to turn off our brains to the injustices in the world. Sometimes, in order to cope, we have to do that. But we also have to realize that for those experiencing injustice--like the ethnic cleansing happening in Syria and in Myanmar, like Christians who are being persecuted in many countries, like those in our own country who are victims of injustice, abuse, bigotry, and misogyny--turning off the brain, shutting the computer, or putting on a movie are just not options.
What does this have to do with Advent?
In an Advent devotional book called Watch the Light, the introduction paraphrases Dietrich Bonhoeffer that "God's coming is not only a matter of glad tidings but, first of all, 'frightening news for everyone with a conscience." How is Advent frightening news?
Well, what was it that the Israelites were lamenting in the Isaiah passage? What sins had they committed? Earlier in Isaiah, the prophet tells the people they ought to:
"Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.[a]
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow."
The people of God were in trouble because of their idolatry and sin. And they were ignoring the most vulnerable among them: the oppressed, the fatherless, the widows.
Sound familiar? Just as I can easily numb myself to injustice, Isaiah calls the Israelites to rouse themselves, to worship God only and to recognize the most vulnerable around them.
I found in the Advent scriptures for today a warning and a call. The Gospel of Mark tells us three times to "stay awake." Advent is a time to be alert enough that we are frightened by this Good news, especially if we have fallen asleep to our sin, to our idolatry, to injustice.
Watch the Light says that the love that was born as a baby in Bethlehem is a "burning fire whose light chases away every shadow, floods every corner, and turns midnight into noon." Advent is a time to watch for the Light, yes. But we should be aware that this Light could be a reckoning flame that burns away the darkest parts of us in order to make room for God's love.
The Light Came Down by Josh Garrels