Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Advent Sunday is different from any other day in the church calendar, because the church year does not start with an event, such as Jesus’s birth, or death, or resurrection, or ascension, something from the past that becomes present once again. No: instead, the new church year starts with a strange darkness and even emptiness, a real sense of mystery, and a rather tense, almost spine-tingling, feeling of expectation. It is a curious mixture of both dread and delight. Dread, because the themes the church has historically focused on in this season are rather forbidding – the ‘four last things’: heaven, hell, death and judgement. Delight, because Advent does look forward to the promise of the Incarnation: Immanuel, God entering into the arena of our humanity and – astonishingly – sharing our human experience with us. And so today we observe the ritual of the lighting of our first Advent candle, as we seek to find our way in this mysterious darkness which marks the beginning of the season – waiting, wondering, daring to hope that the mystery might be revealed. Advent Sunday calls us to remain alert and to keep watch, but also to be still. As the hymn puts it, ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand.’
Do you ever watch the news and wonder where on earth God is? Talk about ‘darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples’! There is often a tendency, of course, for the focus to fall more on bad news than on good, so that we often get a distorted view of how things are. Nonetheless, there’s still more than enough distress and misery to go round, as we see pictures of human suffering on an immense scale – people and nations ravaged by war or terrorist attacks, lives blighted by poverty, drought, starvation or disease. Tragically, we have become used to seeing people with no light in their eyes, no hope for tomorrow, nothing to live for. Small wonder, then, that some people react with anger and frustration, and ask the age-old question, ‘Where on earth IS God in all of this?’
The questions about the whereabouts of God are, of course, as old as time. And they’ve been hurled at the sky as much by people of faith as by anyone else. We hear them asked repeatedly and urgently in Scripture, by individuals and by the Hebrew people in general. How many times do we read in the Bible of them saying, in essence, ‘Things are bad, God. We’ve been through a tough time. We could have done with you putting in an appearance. We wanted to know you were around, it would have been a great help because we were facing terrible odds. But, for reasons known only to you, you chose to keep yourself to yourself. So where exactly are you?’ As one prophet cried out, ‘How long, O Lord, how long?’
People of faith walk by faith. I know that sounds like playing with words, but it does need saying. We don’t walk with a clear view of everything around us. Nor do we know the answers to all our questions. It is by faith that we walk, not by sight. So we have just as good a knowledge of darkness and doubt as any agnostic, or anyone who feels God-forsaken. Somehow, even though it can be hard, we have to hang on even when God seems to be absent. Beware any religion that promises perpetual bliss or constant joy. If, as believers, we ever see a rainbow of hope, we can be sure that it’s through our tears that we trace its shape and catch a glimpse of its colours. The absent God has been a very real aspect of the life of faith from the very beginning. No one has described this better in modern times than the poet R.S.Thomas. Just listen to his words:
……I never thought other than/That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence/Within, the place where we go
I close my eyes,/the darkness implies your presence,
…..I shiver in it.
It is not your light that/can blind us; it is the splendour/of your darkness.
It’s out of the depths that we call to God; the depths of darkness and absence. Advent Sunday reminds us that we wait for God like night watchmen wait for the morning. In the darkness we yearn for the light. But the candle we light today is tentative and vulnerable; its flame flickers at the slightest draught. It is our experience of darkness, our sense of the absence of God, that give us our credentials for standing alongside all those who are going through the valley of the shadow, the shadow cast by suffering, pain, loneliness, disease, despair or death. We put our trust in a God we’ve caught glimpses of, and no more. We hold fast to understandings of the meaning of life which are sometimes tantalisingly difficult to cling to. We know that Jesus himself experienced the darkness of the human soul in the Garden of Gethsemane and that he too cried out loud when he sensed that God had hidden his face from him. We should not be afraid of the dark. Nor should we be surprised at sometimes sensing that God has disappeared from view.
Sometimes the darkness almost overwhelms us, and God’s absence can frighten us. Yet here’s the good news. Somehow the Advent hope tells us we haven’t totally lost our bearings or our sense of proportion; far from it. As Jesus says, it’s at just such a time that we are to expect a sense of the presence of God. ‘The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’, says the gospel. The darkness will be pierced, God’s promise will be fulfilled, a child will be born. Advent places us perpetually on the eve of God’s coming among us. So – stay alert, let the flickering light of the candle into your darkness, look for even the smallest signs of God’s presence breaking through. We don’t know when the darkness will be penetrated, but we do know the Advent candlelight grows stronger each week. The urgent prophetic message of Advent is that we must remain alert to the glimpses of light that come our way, as we travel towards Bethlehem once more. We must constantly be ready to meet the divine clothed in our very humanity, in the course of our ordinary everyday lives. Advent urges us to expect that encounter at any moment and in any number of surprising ways. And once it has happened, things can never be the same again. If in a month or so’s time, we are tempted to say, Well, that’s Advent and Christmas over and done with for another year, then somehow I think we will have missed the point.