This sermon was delivered Sunday, December 1, 2013 at the Marcellus and Wakelee United Methodist Churches (Kalamazoo District, West Michigan Conference). The Revised Common Lectionary texts for Year A, First Sunday of Advent were Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, and Romans 13:11-14.
My favorite part of Advent is the candles. Seriously. I think we do not have enough holidays that involve candles. They’re pretty awesome.
In the storms a couple of weeks ago, we were without power at my house from Sunday afternoon through Wednesday evening, and I spent more time with candlelight than I have in a while. The flame of a candle is different from electric light. It’s more glowy, and it doesn’t penetrate as far. A single candle, like the one we lit this morning, or a small group of candles, like the ones we will light in coming weeks, can illuminate the space immediately surrounding them, while at the same time highlighting the darkness at the edges of the room, outside the circle of light. This limited range of candlelight draws people in. It pulls them into the illuminated space. I suppose electric light works the same way, but on a grander scale, and the circle of light from one light bulb intersects with the circle of light from the next such that we notice the darkness less and we are not drawn together.
It’s no coincidence that Advent comes as the days are getting ever shorter, or that we celebrate Christmas at the darkest time of year. Have you ever noticed how many religious and cultural traditions celebrate a holiday this time of year? There’s Christmas, Hannukah, Saturnalia, the Winter Solstice, African Kwanzaa, Buddhist Bodhi Day.
The common theme of all these holidays is light. Hannukah celebrates the light that lasted eight nights despite having oil only for one. Saturnalia and Solstice mark the moment that the night is the longest, the transition point from waning to waxing. Kwanzaa uses colored candles as a mnemonic device to remember the Seven Principles. And Bodhi Day commemorates the light of wisdom coming to the Buddah.
There is something wonderful about a light shining in the darkness, a candle pushing back the night with its wee little flame. This morning, as we lit our first Advent candle, we began preparing for our own celebration of the Light of World, the birth of the one prophesied in Isaiah, who will teach us to walk in his paths.
Isaiah 2:5 is one of my favorite verses in all of scripture: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” What a beautiful vision. Imagine that for a moment. Imagine a world where everyone felt safe enough to transform their weapons into tools. That looks like a pretty beautiful place to me.
We often read this verse as an impossible pie-in-the-sky vision for the future. Something that maybe our children’s children’s children will see. However, this verse taken in the context of the passage from Isaiah and Psalm 122 and the passage from Romans does not have to be a vision for the distant future. If we accept the call from Isaiah to walk in the light or from the writer of Romans to put on the armor of light, we can work to realize this vision here, now, in this world where we live.
For centuries, Christian thought has regarded this present world as unimportant, an imperfect and broken world from which Christ will lift us on his second coming. This idea of the world as an imperfect shadow of the perfect reality elsewhere can be traced back to the Neo-Platonists, a group of Greek philosophers contemporary with the early church.* This idea, however, does not originate within the church. Rather, it is an example of secular culture overlaid onto the narrative of creation, fall, crucifixion, resurrection, and return. At some times in our history, Christians have argued that this world does not matter, that we should live our lives as a means to get to the Kingdom of God in the afterlife.
The passages from Isaiah and from the epistle to the Romans, however, each include an invitation for the present. They propose that we “walk in the light of the Lord” and “put on the armor of light.” But what does that mean?
Increasingly in recent years, there has been a movement among some Christians to live in the kingdom of god right here and right now. To endeavor to make this present world a better place by loving our neighbors as ourselves, turning the other cheek, caring for the creation, and working for social justice. A commitment to living the kingdom into fruition has broad implications for the way we live our lives and where we spend our limited time, energy, and resources.
We can join the Evangelical Environmental Network, which embraces creation care projects around the world. We can support missionaries who lead the fight against disease in the world’s most poor and war-ravaged countries. We can support organizations like Heifer International or Kiva Lending, which help families in the developing world create sustainable businesses. We can support international relief efforts in the wake of natural disasters like the recent typhoon in the Philippines.
Organizations and projects that live the kingdom into fruition exist around the world, but they are also happening right where we live.
The world is so big. The creation is so very big, and it is so very broken, and sometimes the magnitude is overwhelming. It can be hard to choose where to commit our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. With limited resources, we can only do so much.
But I think sometimes our commitment to projects and organizations like the one’s I’ve mentioned this morning become a way that we pat ourselves on the back. We say, “I am supporting the mission of the church in my town, or the Philippines, or the developing world. I am doing good work for the kingdom of God.” The greater challenge is to walk in the light in our daily lives apart from projects and organizations.
When we hear that line about beating our swords into ploughshares, we think of peace at the level of nations, but I think we need to also think of peace at the level of daily interactions. A sword is a tool for punishment, for killing, for aggression, and for domination. A ploughshare, on the other hand, is a tool for nourishment and for sustaining life. For the past few years, I have been working to interact with people using a ploughshare rather than a sword, metaphorically speaking, of course.
It has not been easy to break out of the patterns of aggression and domination and to build life-sustaining habits of love in interpersonal interactions, and I’m not always successful. I still sometimes lose my temper and yell, just ask my children. The effort I’ve directed toward living love, though, has made me a better parent, a better teacher, a better co-worker, and a better spouse and friend.
My commitment to walk in the light of the Kingdom of God by living love in my world was sorely tested this year. In June my husband was killed in an automobile accident caused by an unlicensed, teenaged driver who had taken her parents’ car for a joyride. She raced through an intersection without stopping at the stop sign and struck Adam’s car, spinning it into oncoming traffic at highway speed. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
A lot of people expected me to be angry. A lot of them were angry themselves. They told me to “sue the pants off” the teenager’s parents. They told me to demand the harshest sentence possible, to make sure the driver was tried as an adult. The people who were angry wanted me to take up the sword.
Friends, that’s not what I did. I bent the sword into a ploughshare instead.
I prayed for the driver and her family, and I asked those who offered to pray for me to pray for her, too. I have been wounded and frustrated, but I have not been angry. This girl has seen the results of her poor choices in a very real way. She can not unsee the carnage of the accident or unknow that her actions resulted in someone else’s death, and that is a powerful sort of punishment that she will carry her whole life.
I do think that this teenager should face formal consequences for her actions, and the mechanism we have for consequences in American society is the court system. In conversation with the prosecutor’s office, I agreed that some combination of home detention, probation, and restitution through juvenile court would be appropriate, and the judge will make that decision tomorrow afternoon. In reality, though, no amount of punishment in a court of law can restore my husband to me or replace his unique contribution to God’s creation. To destroy the life of the teenager with the harshest punishment available would be to rob God’s creation of her unique contribution, too, and that would compound the tragedy.
This is me living love in a broken world. This is me doing my best to walk in the light. This is me saying, “Peace be within you,” to the people whose lives intersect with mine.
Today, the first Sunday of Advent, is the beginning of the new year on the Christian calendar. We start our year in the growing darkness with time set aside to prepare to welcome the light back into the world at Christmas. There are many ways to answer Isaiah’s call to walk in the light, from the international to the interpersonal. I’ve mentioned several this morning. I invite you this Advent to join me in reflecting on what it means to walk in the light in our daily interactions with one another.
*More on this can be read here: http://www.aumethodists.org/worship/sermons/2013-fall/the-mourning-land/
K. Koppy is a contradiction in terms: an intellectual Christian, a teacher-researcher, a servant-leader, a cosmopolitan country-dweller. She might tip the apple cart, but she'll help to tidy up afterward.
A note from Spectrum: Join us for #GivingTuesday—share with us in the comments below how you participate in the spirit of giving.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5675