14Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! 15The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. 16On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. 17The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing 18as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. 19I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.
The book of Zephaniah is probably set in the time of King Josiah. This was a time of indifference of the people. Perhaps they were tired; perhaps they just got a bit too comfortable; perhaps they forgot who and whose they were. So, the earlier passages of this book are foretelling a time of destruction, the Day of the Lord coming in divine judgment for the people’s sins. That’s hard for us to hear. In the darkness of this world, it is hard for us to hear a tale of destruction, rather than hope. But lest we begin to imagine some dramatic apocalyptic movie scene, we come to this passage. It is changing what the Day of the Lord might look like. It is a voice of hope, foretelling not destruction but salvation. And it shockingly proclaims that “the Lord, your God, is in your midst.”
What does that even mean? In our midst? Like, here, now? What do we do with a God who is here? See, we’ve been content to spend these few days in the beginning of our Advent season looking for the Light that we know is “out there” somewhere. It all sounded so simple. But this…the Light is here? The Light is with us? That’s a totally different thing. In fact, that changes EVERYTHING.
Somewhere we have indeed convinced ourselves that God is “out there”, an elusive deity that we are trying desperately to approach. We have been somehow convinced that all of our hope rests in this “out there” God, that getting to God will once and for all save us. And, yet, we also know that God is everywhere. God is here, here with us. So, which is it? I think perhaps the reason we don’t see God and don’t feel God upon demand is not that God is elusive or hiding in plain sight. The reason is that we are not fully prepared to know the fullness of God, the fullness of life that God has in store for us. In language of some of the New Testament scriptures, we live beneath a veil, a veil that we have sewn, a veil that we are not prepared to shed, a veil that somehow obstructs our view of the Light or shields us from what we do not know or do not understand. And, yet, there are holes in the veil, places where the threads are worn and beginning to tear. And through those holes we sometimes get glimmers of light. This Light in our midst is always peeking in, beckoning us forward, guiding us into the Light that we might become full, that we might finally know this God who is in our midst, finally be prepared to see what we’re meant to see and be what God means us to be.
So, what do we do? We do what we’re called to do in this time, in this place beneath the veil. We prepare ourselves to see the Light. This is the season of that preparation. Walk into it. You will never be alone.
We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God…We must not…assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
3I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
7It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
9And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
The passage for today is the beginning of a first-century letter and Paul begins by reassuring them of his prayers and his pride in them because of their faith. See, Paul was never all that interested in winning converts. The game was not about numbers. He was more concerned about people entering into a new relationship with God that keeps them going. He was encouraging a faith that would keep them going through the hard times, would empower them to look at their lives the way God meant them to be, the way God looks at their lives.
This season of Advent calls us to do the same, to change our way of looking at our world, at our lives, at ourselves. It is a way of adjusting our eyes to see the light. It’s not about religious rules or theological presumptions. I don’t even think it’s about doing the right things. It’s about seeing things the way they are. See, contrary to accepted belief, I don’t think Paul had a rigid adherence to religious laws or set ways of believing. (I DO think some of his disciples and followers, some of whom wrote some of the letters attributed to Paul may have been a little more rigid in their belief.) Paul really wanted people to be genuine, honest, and sincere. He wanted everyone to be who they were called to be. Paul’s image of praising God has to do with real people living changed lives and changing others’ lives in the process. It has to do with seeing in a different way.
The world often discolors our view. We are affected by artificial light and fabricated color. Paul talked about “full insight”, actually seeing things the way they are. It means we have to strip away the colors that are not real. You remember your science. Light is just a collection of colors. Black and white aren’t even colors at all but merely an absence or a congruence of colors that make us see things differently. But what if you could see your life the way it was meant to be, with the colors God intended? The Light to which we move during Advent is not some fabricated collection of colors. It’s true light; it’s true colors. But it may not be what we thought it would look like. After all, sometimes life is hard. Sometimes it holds difficulty and loss and things not turning out the way we envisioned. So, Advent calls us to be open, to be open to recoloring our world so that it looks the way it should look. Open your eyes—to everything—to every color and every combination that God shows you on this journey. It will be glorious!
God is in the symphony, where harmony exists amidst the tension of pitch and tone. God is in the beautiful sunset, where contrasting colors hint at the glory of the Creator. God is in the beautiful relationship, where solidarity is born of struggle and disagreement. God is in the beautiful individual, whose wrinkled skin is witness to a life of challenge and hardship lived with the confidence that it all makes sense. (Paul D. Sweet)
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m focusing on Light this Advent—those flashes of light that come unexpectedly, often unbidden, that fill our lives with illuminating color and spark. But light is not always welcome. It’s not always a warm twinkle that tiptoes in or peeks over the horizon as it waits until your eyes are adjusted to it. Sometimes it is hot and explosive, even blinding. Sometimes it comes as a burning bush or a chariot of fire. And sometimes it is almost destructive, a white-hot fire that burns out of our control.
This Scripture from the Book of Malachi speaks of a fire such as this. It is a refiner’s fire that will reform the society in preparation for the day of the Lord’s coming. It is a purifying Light that will change everything and everyone that it touches. Its first hearers were probably as uncomfortable with this whole fire message as we might be. After all, fire is destructive. Fire burns. It is a light that consumes, that destroys. But it also purifies. It purifies by burning away the ore so the precious metal inside is revealed. It is intense, heating beyond what most of us can normally stand. But one has to get close enough to the fire to work with the metal for it to be refined. It is risky. It might even be painful. But it is the only way for all the impurities to be removed. The impurities must be burned away until the new part is revealed.
You’ve probably already heard this illustration because I’ve used it before, but it’s wonderful as it tells the story of a woman watching a silversmith at work. “But sir,” she said, “do you sit while the work of refining is going on?” “Oh, yes madam,” replied the silversmith, “I must sit with my eye steadily fixed on the furnace, for if the time necessary for refining be exceeded in the slightest degree, the silver will be injured.” So as the lady was leaving the shop, the silversmith called her back, and said he had still further to mention, that he only knows when the process of purifying was complete by seeing his own image reflected in the silver.
Light always brings about change. Sometimes it’s warm and inviting—a sunrise, a guidelight, a lamp. And other times the Light brings about change so fast that it is painful. But we are meant to be changed. We are meant to be refined. Our very image is being burned into the change that we see in this world. This Advent light is on the horizon. We can’t push it away, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. It is our journey—into the Light. And we WILL be changed. And, finally, the image in which we were created, that very image of God, will be revealed.
But whether small or great, and no matter what the stage or grade of life, the call brings up the curtain, always, on a miracle of transfiguration-a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth. The familiar life horizon has been outgrown, the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand. (Joseph Campbell)
14The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
“The days are surely coming…” These words attributed to the prophet Jeremiah are spoken into a world filled with uncertainty and despair. They are spoken at a time when Judah was literally being squeezed between the powerful and foreboding Assyrian nation to the north and Egypt to the south and the west. The faithful were on the verge of losing their society, their culture, and their faith. They were forgetting who they were. Hope was fading fast. The words were not a promise that things would be repaired or would go back to the way they were before. The promise was of a future hope, a New Creation beginning to rise just on the horizon.
The scripture talks of a righteous branch that will spring forth. It is a New Creation. It is that New Creation for which we look in this season of Advent. For us, the coming of Christ points us toward this New Creation. But branches do not grow alone. They are attached to the tree, sharing food and source with other branches. The branch is nothing by itself. If it somehow becomes detached from the tree, separated from its sustenance, the branch will die. It cannot exist alone. Sometimes we forget that. We begin to think that our way of being and our way of thinking and our way of understanding God is all there is. But this branch springs forth from a tree whose roots reach deep, roots that connect us all.
We are that branch, that righteous branch. But righteousness is not being “like God” or even better than most. Righteousness is holiness. It is realizing who and whose we are. It is knowing that this branch is nothing without the tree to which it is connected. It is understanding that our source and our sustenance is not made by us but comes from the God who created us all and from whom we spring forth, much like the branch that springs from the tree. Righteousness is being and growing in the way one is called to be.
This season of Advent is not situated in linear time. It is not a sequential season through which we cycle each year. It is a mystery, a season rooted in the past as we remember the promise of hope made to those so long ago, a season placed in the present as we prepare ourselves to fully grasp the meaning of Christmas, and a season that thrusts us toward the future, toward that promise of a New Creation. In this season, we realize that we are part of that branch, growing out of the sustenance and source that has existed all along and, as the righteous branch, growing forward as we reach toward the Light. Our stems and leaves may intermingle with other branches, even growing around them until they become indistinguishable. All of these branches growing together are part of a whole, part of a tree whose roots reach deep into time, sustaining everything, part of a network that always grows toward the Light. So Advent is not merely a season of waiting; it is a season of finding the Light.
Faith is not something to be grasped; it is a state to grow into. (Mahatma Gandhi)
25“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
We begin again. The Christian calendar cycles around and starts again today and Advent begins. And we wait. We wait for what will come. We wait for the promise to be fulfilled. We wait for the Light. And we look for the signs. You see, there are always signs. Even here in the darkness, before the birth, before the manger, before the coming of God into our world, there are signs. Even in this unsettling time when confusion prevails, when divisions escalate, when the world topples a little as it spins, there are signs. You know the ones. They are flashes of light in the darkness that come when we don’t expect them, that appear when we’re not ready to see them, perhaps when our eyes are not adjusted enough to encounter them. And so, they hurt. And we push them away. And we wait in darkness.
This is not new. The Hebrew Scriptures are often inherently dark in timbre. They carry stories of a people waiting for God to come, sometimes hurting, sometimes wanting, always hopeful. But in the midst of the darkness, over and over and over again, there are flashes of light, flashes of a great light to be seen by those who walk in darkness. But the light can only be seen by those who are looking for it, who are prepared, who do not push it way as a nuisance for which they’re not ready. That is the lesson of Advent—not just that we must wait, not only that we must not “jump the gun” before the season of Light comes, but that we must learn how to wait. Advent waiting is anything but passive. It is instead a season of preparation. It is a time of preparing oneself to see the Light. And the signs and flashes help us know where to walk—if we will only pay attention.
This Advent is different for me. My dad passed away in September. Those “high days” are always hard at first after losing someone. But, for me, THIS is the day I was dreading. For many of the last couple of years, I have tried to post daily to this blog during Advent and Lent. I thought about not doing it this year because I knew it would be a little painful. See, my dad was probably my most engaged reader. He would read it every morning and often he would text or email me or we would talk about it. He would engage with the writing and with me. Last winter and early spring, I had to spend some time “camping out” at their house after what I have chosen to call the “great flood of 2021” after the Great Texas Freeze froze my pumps in the house in which I was living. Each morning when I was there, while I was still in that groggy state of morning sleep, I would often hear the song that I had included with the blog as I often have done. It was coming from my dad’s iPad. At that moment each morning he became part of what I had written. And as I remembered that, I took it as a sign…
Advent is a lot like that. We enter it a little a groggy. After all, it’s hard to wait. It’s hard to know what life holds. It would be easier to push it away, to wait until we are ready. But there are flashes of light and carefully-placed soundbites that draw us in, that remind us that the waiting is not for naught. They are signs that invite us to engage. That’s what Advent calls us to do—to engage, to be alert. Those signs of light that we see along the way are not for us to smile and pass by. They are drawing us in, inviting us to become a part of them, to live with them not as sign of what’s to come but as chapters of the story itself. This is the way we walk toward the Light.
So, this Advent, remember to stay alert to those signs. They are for you. Engage with them in the way that you are called to do. Do not wait passively. Do not put off encountering them for later when you think the time is right. This season is not “pre-Christmas”. It is, rather, the season of holy waiting. I hope what I write will be helpful. I hope in some small way it will hold flashes of light for you.
God did not wait till the world was ready, till nations were at peace. God came when the Heavens were unsteady and prisoners cried out for release. God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great. In the mystery of the Word made flesh the maker of the Stars was born. We cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice, or to share our grief, to touch our pain. God came with Love. Rejoice! Rejoice! And go into the Light of God. (Madeleine L’Engle)
20Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
The women who walk to the tomb in the pre-dawn morning knew what they would find. After all, they were there at the Cross. They saw what had happened. Jesus had died. All hope for something more was gone. All dreams of the world somehow turning around and emerging from the darkness in which they lived had ended at that cross. They were able to quickly get his body and they had buried him, hastily laying him in a borrowed tomb so that the authorities would not find the body and take it as proof of his death. And then sundown came all too quickly before they could prepare the body. They had to stop what they were doing and observe the Passover Sabbath.
So, they come early, before the rest of the world was awake to finish what they needed to do, to properly prepare Jesus’ body for burial. They knew what they would find. But when they came around the path by the tomb, they were stunned. The heavy stone, the one that had taken all of them to roll over the hole, was no longer covering up the entrance. So, Mary takes off running. She ran to Simon Peter. He would know what to do. You can imagine his response: “What do you mean he’s not there??? That’s crazy. That doesn’t even make sense!” So, Peter and one of the other disciples went to see for themselves, running faster and faster down the pathway, surely knowing but probably dreading whatever they might find at the end. It was all there—the tomb, the linen wrappings, the cloth that had covered his head. Everything was there but Jesus. The Scripture says they believed. I don’t think they fully grasped it, though. They believed he was gone. But where did he go? And in that moment of not knowing what to think, not knowing what to do, not knowing where to turn, suspended between despair and hope, their faith journey truly began. This was the point where faith had to replace making sense of things.
But Mary Magdalene, distraught yet again with grief over what seemed to be yet another loss, just looking for ANYONE that could explain what happened or maybe just listen, mistook Jesus for the gardener. It wasn’t until he spoke that she knew who it was. It wasn’t until he spoke and she heard his voice in the darkness that she knew that she had seen the Lord.
Yeah, they had it all figured out. It was clear to them, until it wasn’t. Perhaps part of the message of Easter is that there’s always more to the story than what we know or what we have figured out or the limits around which we have constructed our very lives. So, in the darkness of Easter morning, our faith journey really begins.
But there’s something we often miss in this story. There is no sunrise service where Jesus rises with the Light. In fact, this particular Gospel account doesn’t even have any light at all. It takes great care in pointing out that it was early in the morning, while it was still dark. All of this happened in the darkness. But more than that, all of this REALLY happened before anyone showed up. Under cover of darkness, while the rest of the world was sleeping and grieving, before the women came, before the world started stirring, while Creation was still groaning under the weight of that Friday, God began doing something new. While it was still dark, God was recreating Life. God had done that before. God had come into the dark void and spoke Light and Life into being and Creation had begun. And, here, God does it yet again.
We speak of those that came to the tomb that morning as “witnesses” to the Resurrection, but, truth be told, there WERE no witnesses. No one actually SAW Jesus rise. There was no one there to document it for us. Everyone who saw Jesus alive again saw him after. Whatever happened between the hours that Jesus was laid in the tomb and that moment when the grave cloths were found discarded on the tomb’s floor, whatever happened between the beginning of the Sabbath and the morning of that third day, happened in the dark. We tend to begin our Easter morning with shouts of alleluia and beautiful Easter lilies offset by brightly streaming light. But that’s not really the way the story goes. Everyone who believes actually came into a story that was already going on, even those that were present that day at the tomb. Believing is not about seeing it happen but rather coming into the work that God has already begun and knowing that it is Truth AND that it is your story. Our journey of faith begins in the dark.
Maybe THAT’S the Resurrection story—that God does not wait until the world cleans up its act, that God does not wait until we are who we should be, that God does not wait until we believe to actually show up. Maybe the story is that God is working all the time to resurrect, to re-create, to reconcile all of us so that even in the dark, no, ESPECIALLY in the dark, we know that God is there.
So, think about it. Have you ever noticed how quietly Easter arrives? There are no angelic choirs making announcements of Jesus’ coming. There are no foreign visitors bringing gifts. There aren’t even any ordinary folks that come in from the Shepherds Fields to see what has happened. There is no voice thundering from heaven or Old Testament characters showing up on queue. There’s no drama of parting waters or chariots of fire or burning bushes or mountains shrouded in cloud. The sounds of the Resurrection are quiet, almost fearful. They seem uncertain what will happen next, a little reticent at going forward in a new way. And yet, there is a certain peace to Easter, a peace that begins in the quiet of the darkness and then allows the Light to begin to peek into the scene. It’s as if Jesus rises just for Mary and calls her by name. Maybe that’s what Jesus does for each of us. In the quiet darkness, Jesus comes and rises before we get there and then when we are listening, says our name. And we begin to follow wherever Jesus goes. We just have to pay attention.
Some of you may remember this, but twenty-seven years ago, an F4 tornado hit Goshen United Methodist Church in Piedmont, Alabama. It was Palm Sunday and the younger children’s choir had just finished presenting a pageant and were all seated on one pew. Rev. Kelly Clem was in the pulpit just beginning her sermon when the tornado struck, immediately lifting the roof off and toppling several of the church’s walls to the floor, crashing down on top of the pews and the congregation. The tornado killed nineteen people and injured eighty-six others that day. Over the next few days, all through Holy Week, the pastor performed one funeral after another, including one for her four-year old daughter, Hannah, who had been part of the choir. Toward the end of the week, she began receiving calls from members of the congregation. Given the death of the pastor’s daughter and the destruction of their sanctuary, they asked, “Reverend Clem, are we having Easter this year?” Her response? “Easter is coming.”
That Sunday morning, two hundred people gathered in the front yard of the destroyed facilities at Goshen UMC while it was still dark. And as the sun began to rise, Rev. Clem, with a bandaged head and her shoulder in a brace and a heart broken with grief, stood up in a makeshift pulpit, opened her Bible and read from Romans 8: “Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
THAT’S the Easter message. It’s not that God put light where there was darkness; it’s not that despite all the darkness that is inflicted onto us by circumstances or by other people, God always comes out on top. The message is that while it is still dark, God is working, recreating, resurrecting, raising us up. The truth is, we call ourselves “people of the cross”. I’m not sure if that’s really it. We’re probably more “people of the empty tomb”, “people of what happened after”, “people of what God is doing now”. And more than that, if we read this story as something historic, something that happened nearly 2,000 years ago that we just make sure we read once a year surrounded by Easter lilies, we have missed the point. This day is about Jesus’ Resurrection, the one NOW. That’s why most of our words for today are in present tense. “Christ the Lord is risen today…” And it’s also about OUR resurrection, OUR re-creation, OUR reconciliation with God. It’s ongoing. Even while at times it seems dark, God is there, recreating and resurrecting and making us something new.
It’s not just looking on the bright side of life and ignoring the darkness as if it doesn’t exist; it’s not a promise that nothing will ever go wrong or that God will put everything back in place at some point if we just hold on. To be honest, that’s just bad theology. Easter is not about replacing the bad with the good; In fact, I will tell you that Easter makes a whole lot more sense when you go through Holy Week and Good Friday, when you travel through the wilderness. Because the truth is, we are not out of the wilderness (ARE YOU KIDDING?). Life is a wilderness. And God shows us not the way around, but the way through. In fact, God walks with us through the wilderness showing us The Way. That’s it. God takes our hand while it is still dark, calls our name, and shows us The Way.
So, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” Because, Easter does not merely change death; Easter changes life. Easter shows us the Risen Christ. And once we’ve seen the Lord, once we’ve peered into the darkness and have caught a faint vision of Light, even if we don’t really know EXACTLY where it is, once we, too, have heard our name and Risen, there is no going back. He is Risen! He is Risen indeed! And so are we—even in the wilderness.
And not that [this] story is told, what does it mean? How can I tell? What does life mean? If the meaning could be put into a sentence there would be no need of telling the story. (Henry Van Dyke)
We made it through the wilderness! (Well, not really!) The wilderness is where we are, where we travel, where we find God. So, remain in the wilderness. It will be your place of resurrection! I’ve so treasured this time in this wilderness season, even as I traveled in my own wilderness–loss, grief, packing, storing stuff, moving, arranging, unpacking….more unpacking…still unpacking. The wilderness is always with us. Thanks be to God! I will go back to posting at least weekly and maybe try to do some other things. In the meantime, thank you for traveling with me!
1In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. 2Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me. 3You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, 4take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.
5Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God. 15My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors. 16Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.
What do we do with this day, this Holy Saturday? We are still grieving. The reality of it all is beginning to sink in, beginning to be real. Jesus is gone, dying alone on some hill that we don’t even know. So, what do we do today? How do we pick up the pieces in the midst of our pain and despair and just go on with our lives? Oh, we 21st century believers know how the story ends. We’ve already jumped ahead and read the next chapter many, many times. (Don’t tell those that don’t read ahead, but it all works out in the end.)
And yet, we do ourselves no favors if we jump ahead to tomorrow. After all, the Scriptures tell us that Jesus rose on the third day, the THIRD day, as in one-two-three. The third day doesn’t happen without today. It must be important, right? But, oh, it’s just so painfully quiet. The sanctuary is dark, awaiting to be redressed for its coronation. The bells are quiet, hanging expectantly for tomorrow. And we still sit here draped in black with our Easter brights hanging there ready for us to don. What are we supposed to do today?
Tradition (and the older version of the Apostles’ Creed) holds that Jesus died, was buried, and descended into hell. So is that what this day is? Descent? Good grief, wasn’t the Cross low enough? The well-disputed claim is that Jesus descended into death, descended into hell, perhaps descended into Gehenna (Greek) (Hebrew–Gehinnom, Rabbinical Hebrew–גהנום/גהנם), the State of ungodly souls. Why? Why after suffering the worst imaginable earthly death would Jesus descend into hell? Well, the disputed part is that Jesus, before being raised himself, descended to the depths of suffering and despair and redeemed it, recreated it. The sixth century hymnwriter, Venantius Fortunatus claimed that “hell today is vanquished, Heaven is won today.” Why is that so out of bounds of what God can do? Don’t we believe that God is God of all? Or does it give us some sense of comfort to know that we are not the worst of the bunch, that there are always Judas’ and Brutus’ that have messed up a whole lot worse than any of us and so are destined to spend eternity on the lowest rungs of hell? But, oh, think about the power and grace and amazing love of a God who before the Divine Ascent into glory, descended into the depths of humanity and redeemed us all, every single one of us, perhaps wiped out the hell of each of our lives rung, by rung?
Welcome, happy morning! age to age shall say: Hell today is vanquished, Heav’n is won today!” Lo! the dead is living, God forevermore! Him, their true Creator, all His works adore!
And, yet, again, we cannot leave it all to Christ to do. Just as we were called to pick up our cross yesterday, we are called to descend down into the depths, plunging into the unknown darkness, so that God can pick us up again, set us right, and show us a new Way. And so, this day, we stand between, between death and life, between hell and heaven, between a world that does not understand and a God who even in the silence of this day has begun the redeeming work. In some ways, this is the holiest day of the week. How often do we stand with a full and honest view of the world and a glimpse of the holy and the sacred that is always and forever part of our lives? How often do we stand together and see ourselves as both betrayers and beloved children of God? How often do we stand in the depths of our human state and yet know that God will raise us up. This is a pure state of liminality, a state, as the Old English would say, “betwixt and between.” It is where we are called to be. It is the place of the fullness of humanity as it claims both human and divine. In the silence of this day, we stand with God. And we wait, we wait expectantly for resurrection.
Do you remember how we started this whole thing? Do you remember the Creation account from Genesis, how how God spoke Creation into being, how God spoke US into being. So today we wait for God to say us into being again. It is where we should always be. We won’t though. We won’t be there. (Remember, we’ve had this problem before.) And maybe on some level, it’s too much for us to always be there, always be waiting expectantly for God. Because, granted, today IS very wilderness-like. In fact, you could say that it is the ultimate wilderness—lonely, forsaken, no clear path ahead. I know. You thought we were going to “wrap” this whole wilderness thing up, right? But, see, wilderness is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for God to say us into being again. But at least we can remember what this day feels like as we stand between who we were and what we will be.
So, for today, keep expectant vigil. Do not jump ahead. We can only understand the glory of God when we see it behind the shadow of death. But, remember, shadows only exist because the Light is so very, very bright.
The shadows shift and fly.
The whole long day the air trembles,
Thick with silence, until, finally, the footsteps are heard,
And the noise of the voice of God is upon us.
The Holy One is not afraid to walk on unholy ground.
The Holy Work is done, and the world awaits the dawn of Life.
(“Saturday Silence”, Ann Weems, in Kneeling in Jerusalem)
You must give birth to your images. They are the future waiting to be born. Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future must enter you long before it happens. Just wait for the birth, for the hour of new clarity. (Rainer Maria Rilke)