A Sermon by Greg Ledbetter Preached at Shell Ridge Community Church on November 30, 2008 | First Sunday in Advent, Year B
Texts: Isaiah 64:1-7 and Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Where WERE you? How many times does any child hear these demanding parental words in the course of growing up? Showing up at the back door, hours after you were expected, and being met by one parent or both, hands on hips demanding: "Where WERE you?" And how often did you, as I know I did, answer like a being with its brain removed … "I don't know."
With cell phones becoming ever more ubiquitous, it's getting harder and harder for kids to hide … harder and harder to come up with an excuse for being unreachable. "I know you know I was trying to reach you …" the hands on hip parent will now insist.
Of course the reverse can be true as well … the child trying to reach the parent … sure that the parent sees who is calling … needing the parent for cash or a ride or permission to do something … and nothing at the other end but a cheery, "Hi, you've reached my cell phone …". Where are you? Where ARE you? No matter how flaky we might be as kids, we want our parents to be reliably accessible … reachable … findable.
Even this kid, today, can get a little annoyed when he tries to reach his parents who should be home knitting or playing solitaire only to realize that they're out for their almost daily walk to the 24 Hour Fitness gym where they work out.
Cell phones are only one of many ways that we effortlessly connect with each other … find each other … keep track of each other. Slowly and subtly, but very surely, we have an increasing expectation, as modern beings, that the other will always be there for us when we need them. And how frustrating to "reach out" to touch someone, as the old phone company slogan went, only to find them persistently beyond your reach … beyond your touch … beyond your … control.
We moderns ought to relate very easily to the anxiety in the voices of the Prophet and the Psalmist this morning … voices that cry, not into a ringing cell phone … but into the night, into the bleakness of time, into the troubles of existence … a cry of longing and need for the heavenly parent: "Where ARE you?" … "Why won't you answer me when I call out for you?" Where ARE you?
These are the first, almost heartbreaking, words of the Advent season … of this new year on our liturgical calendar. Where ARE you? While hordes trample down the doors of retailers on Black Friday in search of … who knows what, we gather just days later to join in our search for God. Where ARE you? While dizzying arrays of lights spring up on the roofs and lawns of homes throughout our neighborhoods, we gather to note the lack of noticeable light, the darkness of the sky. Where ARE you? While radio stations crank up their 24 hour Christmas music extravaganzas, we huddle around to sing in plaintive tones: "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" … "Watcher, tell us of the night" … Where ARE you?
If your every appetite is not sated by an over-abundance of stuff … and if your eyes are not blinded by the dazzling lights of the season … and if your ears are not shredded by a thousand renditions of Rudolph … then you may still have enough sensitivity to the world within and the world beyond to name the need of these worlds for a wise and just and loving being … a need for God and a need for God's presence and God's justice and God's mercy … and, blessed be and whaddya know … God is safely within your sight … your grasp … in the imagination of your heart and soul … and then the next abominable terrorist act, such as the recent awfulness in Mumbai, that bewilders the mind and curdles the blood … an act that hints at the human malevolence that is too much in evidence in this world that God loves and we have every right to add our anxious cry to the cry of the Prophet and the Psalmist: "GOD, where ARE you?".
Advent … especially early Advent … is one of two "nights" of our liturgical year. The other is Holy Week, especially Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Holy Week. These are the dark times on our liturgical calendar … times when darkness grapples with the light … when light fades and seems to disappear. We have likely heard many times the season of Advent put into the context of the old primal fear that was triggered by the shortening days, diminishing daylight and the sun's shortening arc across the sky. The ancient mind wondered fearfully: What if the sun simply ceases to rise? Is that all there is? Whether we're speaking of the sun in the sky or the light and warmth of love and compassion … Advent names our anxiety that the sun of goodness however we name it and however it manifests itself might be on the wane … might cease to rise altogether. "GOD, where ARE you?".
It seems to me that early Advent is the time for us to wrestle with any divine abandonment issues we might have … abandonment … fear of abandonment … this is heavy stuff … really. Something I read recently said:
Abandonment is among one of our most primal fears. To be abandoned as a child is to die. A child cannot survive without the nurturing of adults -- depending on our individual histories, that fear remains within us to some degree. As adults, if we are abandoned by someone to whom we look for love and support, childhood fear of abandonment is triggered. The result is an activation of the childhood fear which, coupled with the present threat of abandonment, can generate intense fear and panic. Our ability to reason rationally may be so affected that all we experience is the terror of the abandonment. When we feel abandoned, we can feel panic over suddenly being alone, together with a feeling of rejection.
The terror of abandonment … is it too much to say that we hear this being expressed in the cry of the prophet and in the cry of the psalmist? And is too much to say that this is, in part, what we feel in life's "Where are you, God?" moments. Amidst difficult diagnoses, difficult headlines, difficult losses, difficult times of all kinds … we may wish to join the prophet and join the psalmist in naming our fear of abandonment. And no amount of shopping or light-hanging or carol singing can take away from us our need to confront this fear.
Now don't forget, everything you are hearing this morning is being said by someone who loves to shop, loves Christmas lights, and loves the guilty pleasure of Christmas carols in August. But I am also aware of the many ways we resist and avoid the depth of the dark waters into which the words of this morning's readings invite us. "Keep near the surface, stay where it's light" … that seems to be the natural instinct we're too often tempted to follow. But the texts this morning, and the season of Advent itself, invite us to swim away from the shore and lower ourselves into the dark depths.
You may have read recently of the growing concern over the lack of night and the loss of darkness as a result of the growing prevalence of light pollution. The cover story of this month's National Geographic is titled: "The End of Night: Why We Need Darkness". You know, I think this about the third time in four sermons that I've made reference to something written National Geographic. I swear they're writing the magazine with my sermon writing strictly in mind. The article: "The End of Night: Why We Need Darkness" notes that many people who live in or near cities have begun to take the glowing, nearly starless night skies for granted. It says that light pollution not only throws off natural human rhythms of waking and sleeping, but also has a number of measurable negative effects on animal populations.
Who knew you could have too much light? But we remember from our junior high science lessons about photosynthesis that plants need the darkness as much they need light in order to make food and grow. Light-loving plants need darkness to be healthy. Advent is here to remind us that we light-loving beings need darkness, as well.
It might help us to name the various ways we experience darkness … we've alluded to the darkness of difficulty … matters of … health … world affairs … inner struggles of the soul. These are inescapable realities … inseparable from the lives we live. The darkness can also be thought of as the other side of our "sunny side of the street" faith … the side of our faith that is willing to honestly struggle with difficult things … and willing, like Isaiah and the Psalmist, to incorporate these struggles into our prayer life and into our worshipping life. We know that neuroses, in large part, are a result of avoiding struggles. If we "religiously" avoid these struggles, our faith in God can be become neurotic and imbalanced. If we avoid these struggles, it becomes ever harder to imagine that God is in these struggles in any meaningful way. If we avoid these struggles long enough, "Where are you, God" will be transformed from a cry of longing on our lips into a deep ache of absence … the absence of God.
In the language of our faith that we use for prayer and worship, we could learn a lot from the Psalmists and the Prophets … the honesty of expression and the depth of feeling … the willingness to express strong emotion … the various levels of intimacy of all kinds with God. Following the lead of these ancient souls, we are invited to take off the kid gloves … we're urged not to wash our prayer hands with prayer hand sanitizer … not to parse and refine your words too carefully … but to step meekly or boldly before the throne of grace and to address God as the deepest needs of our hearts would dictate.
Of course, wise souls would remind us all that not even words are always necessary in these times. With our mouths closed, but with the ears of our heart and the eyes of our soul wide open … in time, the darkness will teach us … will reveal new things to us … will reveal God to us. In the darkness, we can be strengthened and we can grow.
If we're going to accept an invitation into the dark depths … we would do well to remember that it is from the darkness of the womb that we were each and every one of us born. The darkness is a place of gentle growth and preparation for birth … and re-birth.
Amidst some of the unavoidable pollution of this season, I invite you to find times and spaces for stepping away from the blare and crush of Christmas … away from the forced "lightness" of the season … and entering into the darkness of your own lives and the world in which you live … confronting your fears of abandonment and whatever ways you might perceive the absence of God … and perhaps only then and only there, in that unfamiliar darkness can you and can we all sense and see glimmers that we could not see and sense before … glimmers of goodness … glimmers of hope … glimmers of love … glimmers of God.
And if you choose to break the silence with your words, and you cry out: "Where ARE you, GOD? Where ARE you? Where ARE you?" Linger in the silence that comes again after your words until you hear in the darkness the still voice of divine silence that says: "Here I am … here I am … here I am."