It was November first when one of the preachers on an Internet discussion group casually wrote, “I can even choose not to send Christmas cards. I can choose not to sing Christmas carols during Advent!” Then he added, “Any bets on when we get into that annual discussion on this list?”
Well, the discussion started that very moment and continued through 57 messages with the subject line changing from “Advent Introit” to “Advent/Christmas Rant” to “Rant Continued.” Some preachers ranted eloquently against the commercializing of Christmas explaining that the church had sold out to the secular culture. Others gave equally passionate defenses of “Christmas carols during Advent” point of view.
You see, in properly liturgical churches Christmas carols are not sung until Christmas Eve. Advent songs are not the same as Christmas carols. One is supposed to sing, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” or “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” But one is certainly not to sing “Silent Night” or “Away in a Manger” until the liturgical calendar recognizes that Jesus is actually born, which is Christmas Eve. Then you sing the traditional Christmas carols for the two Sundays after Christmas. But it seems that the liturgical churches have mostly lost that battle because Christmas is celebrated earlier and earlier.
Our family once attended a church that refused to sing Christmas songs until Christmas Eve, and we found it very difficult to “get in the Christmas spirit.” I never thought that was a battle worth fighting, although it is apparent that many churches still do. I see no harm in singing Christmas carols whenever you want to.
But there is a certain value in the emphasis upon preparation found in the liturgical churches. That is what Advent is all about. One church stumbled into a proper Advent because they simply couldn’t find all the pieces to the manger scene. So the first Sunday there was only a bare manger. The next Sunday the shepherds and animals appeared. And so it went until finally the Christ child lay in the manger on Christmas Eve.
When our associate regional minister Tom Steiner was visiting with us a couple of weeks ago, the subject of the lectionary came up. He observed that he really likes preaching the lectionary, except for the first Sunday of Advent in which the New Testament passage usually focuses on apocalyptic themes. This dark theme is hard to turn to a Christmas message.
Our passage today from Isaiah has something of that flavor. Isaiah is no longer a young man as he was in chapter six when he had his magnificent vision in the temple. Now he is an old man who has returned with his people from exile. They returned to a city in ruin, a temple in ruin, and their lives in ruin. These were dark days for the people of Israel.
And it had been a long time since anyone had seen God do mighty works. So Isaiah pours out this lament, pleading for God to “tear the heavens” once again. He is longing for God to act. Standing in the rubble of a lost temple, amid the ruins of a lost faith, he cries out for God to be visible instead of hidden.
In verse seven, he proclaims, “For you have hidden your face from us.” Earlier in verse five, he tries to blame the people’s sin on God, “Behold, you were angry, and we sinned.”
This bleak passage from Isaiah is actually a great one for beginning the Advent season because it is so filled with an eagerness, a yearning for God to act. This yearning would not really be answered until the birth of Christ centuries later.
But that is a good model for us as we prepare for Christmas ourselves. We need to reflect on the deep need we have for Christ. It is a mistake to gloss over the very reason for Christ’s coming. He came into the world because the world was in sin. The coming of Christ filled a deep need in the people, and still does.
Can you identify with these words of Isaiah about the hidden-ness of God? I suspect that most of us can. Have you ever stood amid the ruins of your faith and prayed, but felt like you were only talking to yourself? Have you ever stood beside the bed of one in pain and prayed for God’s help, but felt that God was far away? Have you ever felt that God had been hidden for too long? Have you ever wanted to God to do something, something like “tear the heavens and come down?” All of us have felt that way at one time or another.
Perhaps those are the people who are struggling the most to get ready for Christmas. How can you properly enjoy Christmas when you feel that God is absent? How can you experience the presence of God when all you know now is the hidden-ness of God?
Many famous people have experienced the hiddenness of God. The famous theologian Henri Nouwen felt that way. In fact he coined a phrase, “the ministry of absence,” to describe God’s actions among us. He insisted that we should prepare people for God’s absence as well as for his presence. The worship service itself, says Nouwen, expresses the fact of God’s absence:
“We eat bread, but not enough to take our hunger away; we drink wine, but not enough to take our thirst away; we read from a book, but not enough to take our ignorance away. Around these “poor signs” we come together and celebrate. What then do we celebrate? The simple signs, which cannot satisfy all our desires, speak first of all of Gods’ absence. He has not yet returned; we are still on the road, still waiting, still hoping, still expecting, still longing… The minister is not called to cheer people up but modestly to remind them that in the midst of pains and tribulations the first sign of the new life can be found and a joy can be experienced which is hidden in the midst of sadness.” (1)
Philip Yancey confessed to such an experience. In his book Reaching for the Invisible God, he writes:
“I experienced the sense of abandonment just as I was making progress spiritually, advancing beyond childish faith to the point where I felt I could help others. Suddenly, the darkness descended. For an entire year, my prayers seemed to go nowhere; I had no confidence that God was listening. No one had prepared me with ‘the ministry of absence.'” (2)
At another point in the book, he writes, “God’s style often baffles me: he moves at a slow pace, prefers rebels and prodigals, restrains his power, and speaks in whispers and silence. Yet even in these qualities I see evidence of his longsuffering, mercy, and desire to woo rather than compel.” (3)
The famous poet Emily Dickson had a profound faith, but she too experienced God as hidden. She wrote:
I know that He exists
Somewhere in Silence
He has hid his rare life
From our gross eyes. (4)
On recent Sunday nights in our small group Bible study, we have focused on the books of Job and Deuteronomy. Now there’s a contrast.
In Deuteronomy, Moses recounts the amazing, miraculous actions of God in dealing with the people of Israel. God shook the mountains when he spoke. God marched them through the Red Sea, then destroyed the pursuing Egyptian armies. God gave them a fire by night and a cloud by day. God provided miraculous water and bread.
Moses says, “For what great nation is there, that has a god so near to them, as Yahweh our God is whenever we call on him?” (Deuteronomy 4:7) And later, “Did a people ever hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and live? Or has God tried to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by an outstretched arm, and by great terrors, according to all that Yahweh your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?” (Deuteronomy 4:33-34).
Those were indeed times when God “tore the heavens and came down.” But Deuteronomy shows Moses filled with fear that the people will not obey in spite of all that God had done. And indeed, his foreboding was exactly right. When God was spectacularly visible and active with many miracles, history shows that such actions did NOT produce faith. In fact, their faith was weak in the presence of God.
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Then consider Job. When God turned Job loose as a plaything of Satan, Job’s faith remained strong. It was a cosmic test to see if Job would maintain his faith in spite of the circumstances and not because of them. And God is obviously filled with great delight at the faith of this one man. His faith was strong in the absence of God.
Dare we argue that the absence of God produces more faith than the presence of God? I suspect that if we look carefully at human history we just might find that to be a fact! And it may well be that the hidden-ness of God is just the preparation we need for this Advent season.
And the reason is that the absence has a presence about it. The absence of God is not a void, as if there were no God. God’s absence has a shape about it. And that shape is Jesus Christ.
Isaiah suggests this theme in chapter 9:1 when he says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” When are we more aware of the light than in a time of darkness? In fact, Matthew picks up on that same verse when he proclaims about the coming of Christ, “the people who sat in darkness saw a great light” (4:16). Living in the darkness is just the right preparation for seeing the light.
There are many people this time of year who really struggle to get themselves in the proper Christmas spirit. Many churches recognize this reality by planning “Blue Christmas” services especially for people who are grieving during the holidays. These people are struggling with the dark side of life and have real trouble making themselves feel cheery, as seems required.
But Isaiah would argue that those are the very people who are most prepared for Christmas. We are ready for the light only when we have sat a while in the darkness. We are ready for the presence of God only when we have experienced the absence of God.
How can this be? Consider the absence that many parents like us feel when their college students leave home. I suppose almost everyone experiences such an empty nest much like our family has. Since this is our son Will’s first year of college, we have often noted the sense of absence around our house. Even though he was always a rather quiet boy, the house seems emptier, quieter. Daily we sense the absence. Every time we walk through the house, we see reminders of the one who is not there.
But that absence is not a void. It is not as if he never existed. No! The absence has a specific shape – the shape of our beloved son who is away for a while but will be back home soon. His absence somehow makes us even more aware of him and how much we love him. Maybe we just took the boy for granted when he was about the house every day. But now, we eagerly await his return from college. We count down the days until Christmas break. We constantly ask one another, “What’s Will doing now? How is Will? How long until Will comes home again?” Do you see how his absence actually makes him present?
Surely, something like that is true of our relationship with God. The hidden-ness of God is not an empty void, not since Jesus came and showed us what God is really like. I love that verse from Colossians 1:15 that says that he, “is the image of the invisible God….” Jesus put a shape to the absence. Jesus offers a face to the hidden God. And when we sense the absence, we cannot help but focus on the shape, the presence.
Our text from Isaiah shows us how Israel yearned for God to be make known. And that yearning was gloriously answered in Jesus Christ. And our yearning is still answered in him. When we stop and look, we can see the light of God in him. When we stop and listen, we can hear the voice of God in him. When we stop and consider, we can find the hidden God in Jesus Christ.
So maybe that’s why the church has the season of Advent in the weeks before Christmas. If we are to see the fragile light which dawns among us in Christ, we must sit awhile in the darkness. If we are to hear the songs of the angels, we must first be silent. If we are to know the presence of God, we must first sense the absence of God.
1) Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey, p. 241-242
2) Yancey, p 242
3) Yancey, p. 67
4) Quoted at http://www.christianitytoday.com/bc/2001/004/6.16.html
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2002, Mickey Anders. Used by permission.