I got a nice little note today from someone. It was about yesterday’s sermon. It had, apparently, “made sense of a few things.” I appreciated the note. Very much. God knows there are enough Sundays where it feels like one’s words are scattered to the wind. Who knows if or where or how they land? It is nice to hear that a sermon has helped.
For whatever reason (or combination of reasons), I have found this year’s Advent sermons difficult. Is it just general fatigue? Or is it, perhaps, a hint of uncertainty? Here we, are back at the beginning again. Are we up to going through the old, old story one more time? Are there enough words for another round of sermons?
The Christian calendar provides a structure to the life of faith that I have come to very much appreciate. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time, and then back to the top. I like the rhythm, the predictability. I like keeping time with Jesus instead of the machinations of the marketers and the shopping malls.
But sometimes there can be a wearisome quality to the Christian calendar as well. Jesus comes, Jesus teaches and does some cool stuff, Jesus dies, comes back from the dead, promises to come again. A church is born. And around and around we go. This is how all things are made new, we say…
And wars and rumours of war grind inexorably on… And people fall apart… And death stalks our lives ceaselessly, relentlessly…
These moments, this way of keeping time with Jesus—we are rehearsing how the world is changed, we say! Except for the world is not so easily changed.
And so what does one say when standing behind a wooden pulpit on the two thousand and fourteenth Fourth Sunday of Advent (give or take) since that first Advent when the star shone and the heavenly host broke out into glorious song at the coming of a king? What can be said that hasn’t been said innumerable times before? What can be said when these convictions about what God has done and what God will do sometimes waver and stagger and struggle to stand up straight? What can lines and sentences on a page really do when it can sometimes seem like all these sermons are just castles built with words in a faraway land.
This morning I read these words in a poem called “Voice of One Head” by Christian Wiman, found in his collection Every Riven Thing:
then one Sunday instead of speaking
burned his sermon
so that, he whispered over the ashes after,
there might be finally one fire our eyes would see.
Perhaps this is, finally, what we ache for. Something for our eyes to see. No more word castles in the sky, no more stories of a God who comes and dies and lives and promises that we, too, shall live. We want to see something for ourselves, something new, something hopeful, something that tells us that things will not just keep going around and around and around. Something. Anything. Even if we have to watch it burn.
Yesterday we came to the portion of the worship service where the four Advent candles were to be lit. The first three lit right up, but the fourth was stubborn. It simply refused to burn. We sat there watching, waiting, willing the light to appear. But nothing. I got up, took a pen and dug around the wick, trying to pry it up, stabbing, digging, trying to carve away enough for a hungry flame to seize upon.
And people shuffled their feet and blew their noses.
Eventually, a tiny, half-hearted flame appeared. It lasted for about three minutes, before whimpering, pitifully, out. I sat and stared at this obstinate flame that refused to stay lit. I was angry at it. I wanted to rebuke this stupid candle for not burning.
A woman got up during our second song. She had a little electric candle on a white cylindrical base that she had used for the children’s story earlier. She flicked the switch and placed it on top of our recalcitrant fourth candle. We breathed a collective sigh of relief. The service was rescued.
There they stood—three white candles with proud, compliant flames of heat and light, and our belligerent fourth, with an insipid orangey-yellow plastic flame on top.
We needed to see it burn.