All Lit Up

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122
Fox Valley Presbyterian Church

If you were here last week, you know that Pastor Carl recommended the practice of making it through a whole church year. It’s New Year’s Day for the church calendar today. You could start afresh and make it through the whole year. This is your chance! Maybe, on the first Sunday of Advent, churches should look a little like gyms on January 2.

In all honesty, this is one of those Sundays when I think it might be easier to stay home. To begin with, there are the obvious things like the post-turkey hangovers, shopping exhaustion, extra time with families, cozy pajama mornings, and, of course, travel on Sunday to get home by Monday.

But, if you can get around all those obstacles, it’s also hard to know which holiday you are supposed to be working with when you come through the doors. We’ve still got the Thanksgiving leftovers in the fridge. Some of us spent the last few days making over our homes, switching out the pumpkins and dried corn for green and red. A few people might even be done with their Christmas shopping.

So, you arrive at church this morning in this strange breach between the time of pumpkins and holly berries, and what do we church people do? We start telling you that it’s not Thanksgiving OR Christmas. It’s Advent. Feel free to head to the stores to hear your favorite carols, but we are going to hold out on full-out-singing of them in church for a few more weeks. And, yes, that is purple and pink, not red and green all over the sanctuary. It might be Christmas out there, but in here we are making you wait! It’s enough to make me wonder if, among Black Friday and Cyber Monday, we ought to call this “Discombobulation Sunday”.

And then there’s the other reason to call it “Discombobulated”. In this season when, on every side, we are surrounded by reminders of sweetness and light, we know that everything is not right in the world. I’ve started too many Advents hit with bad news. This year, it was the news of the death of a favorite college professor. At age 55, he died of cancer, still quoting his favorite poets, reciting sonnets about light and dark, the great contrast of this time of year.

But it’s not just death that tells us things aren’t right. Imagine the pain of a couple struggling with infertility in a season when there is so much talk of babies; the idea that there is peace coming when North and South Korea are fighting again; the idea that there is hope if you are jobless or homeless or friendless; the thought of joy when you are overcome by grief.

Since Advent is about waiting, though, the pain and expectation of waiting, I am grateful for this time to counter the messages that everything is cozy and alright in the world.

So, if you had a hard time dragging yourself here this morning, I get it. It’s a confusing day. And I’m not sure I’m about to make it any better.

See, the plate of Bible texts we have to pick from this morning includes what we just read from Isaiah and Psalm 122. And all of sudden, I am stuck back on Thanksgiving. Because there is that whole “city on a hill” image…which is tied in with our historic picture of the earliest EUropean settlers in New England. It wasn’t a phrase that the group who we think of celebrating the first Thanksgiving are remembered for, but a subsequent group of religious immigrants used: In a 1630 sermon, John Winthrop, still on board the ship Arabella with his group of puritans, set out what ought to be the basis of their society. Toward the end comes this famous line:

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
Winthrop and his group were not looking so much to make a new community as a new society. The sometimes undeserved and stereotypical stuff we place on the Puritans today (stuffy, cold, fundamentalists who thought a bit too much of their own importance) isn’t totally deserved. I think we hear what Winthrop said today and sometimes think: “Well, he was pretty full of himself, huh?” But, if you can get settled in with 17th century English and make yourself read through most of this (REALLY REALLY long) sermon, there’s some amazing stuff in there about how we ought to live as community, including some financial advice that would be pretty interesting to look at in light of the last few years. I’m waiting for someone to write a reflection on what poor old John Winthrop would have thought of today’s Black Friday!!!

The city on a hill imagery is all over the Bible. Winthrop is probably most directly quoting Jesus in Matthew 5:14

“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden”.
But he and his audience were avid Bible-readers, and they probably heard echoes of passages like Isaiah 2 and Psalm 122 as well.

I know that one of the huge problems with pointing to someone like Winthrop, and to the Puritans and Pilgrims as great arbiters of American Civil culture is division of church and state. And, yes, it is a valid issue to raise.

But, they are are surely part of our heritage as American Christians. Even when we don’t like them too much. And, besides, on Discombobluation Sunday, I suspect that many of us are struggling with that line a little. Are these holidays and our traditions around them sacred and churchy or secular and civic? What does separation of Church and State mean when the holiday we just celebrated, is a holiday for which the president of the United States releases a presidential proclamation that asks us to give thanks to God? Here’s the quote from President Obama’s 2010 Thanksgiving day proclamation:

As Americans gather for the time-honored Thanksgiving Day meal, let us rejoice in the abundance that graces our tables, in the simple gifts that mark our days, in the loved ones who enrich our lives, and in the gifts of a gracious God.
Part of it is that our country is not so much a Christian nation, but while we’re neutral on the matter of religion, we have roots in the Christian tradition.

But even more so: the great themes of our faith resonate with the deepest human longings. We long for a better world: a world without North Korea sniping at South Korea; a world without heart attacks; a world without divorce and estrangement; a world where 55 year old men don’t die of cancer; a world that is whole and complete and right. it’s what the Bible calls “Shalom”: peace, we sometimes say that Hebrew word means. but it really, fully means a word set complete and whole and right, as God intended it to be.

And who doesn’t want that?

There is part of me that wants to tell you all to try your best to avoid the craziness that “the world” has put onto the next few weeks. I think there is great wisdom in movements among Christians to reclaim the season:

avoid the overkill and overeating and over-consumption

stand against the consumerist take-over of the season

watch and wait and prepare our hearts, as much as our homes, during Advent

But I know, because I live in this world, too, how difficult it is to completely avoid the excitement. I will admit it: I was out ever so briefly on North Michigan Avenue on Black Friday for a little shopping…and it was beautiful to me, all these things: from glittery window displays to people enjoying the fun of hunting for a deal, the excitement of little kids, the street musicians. I even loved, in some odd way, sitting all cozied up with a bunch of strangers on the CTA bus. It was a beautiful thing: the city all scrubbed and cleaned up, all lit up for the occasion.

I like the season, too. So I’m not going to tell you the only way you can really get the whole Christian package of Christmas is by radically altering every last thing about how you interact with the season. Scaling back a little might help. Thinking a little less about the shopping is a wonderful goal. Carving out time to reflect and prepare is going to make the season more meaningful for your faith-life.

But here’s what I will ask: that you take note of what you hear in church this season, what you read in the Bible, what you hear in the songs, and what has sunk deeply into your soul from time in worship, among the saints, and with God.

And that you take the words that you hear and sing with you into the world, and you look around with a critical eye, and ask yourself questions.

For example, when you see a store window display that features words like “believe” and “joy” and “peace” you ask yourself:

What do they mean, “believe”? Belief in the coziness of that really nice sweater? What do they mean by “joy”? Joy from getting some object that you must have? What do they mean by “peace”?

Or, when you see an advertisement with happy people of many races, a small picture of the whole world, that you recognize the longing for a place where all people come together?

And when you watch TV and see happy families gathered, all comfy in their pajamas, you recognize it not just as how YOUR family ought to be (and, perhaps, frequently, is not…) but as a version of that deep longing for a place where everyone feels safe and whole and love?

It is a dark time of the year. And there are dark things happening in the world. We need the lights on our houses and our city streets, everything all lit up, to provide some hope.

But look again, with that critical eye, and ask yourself: hope for what?

Is it just presents and cookies and a perfect family Christmas portrait?

Or is there something more?

What Isaiah and the Psalmist present is the something more. A city that is truly lit up.

Not just any city on a hill.

But a city on mountain top, higher and truer and brighter than all the lights around it.

The place where there is true peace, and hope, and joy.

The place where everything is whole and right, because God is in its midst.

The place where we can place our belief with confidence in the goodness of a God who loved us so much as to send the greatest gift: Jesus Christ.

The longing is everywhere. Not just here in the church, but out in the world.

So look at the lights, and glitter, the decorations.

But recognize in it: the longing.

And every once in a while, when you see the longing behind the beauty of the season, think of the city that is truly all lit up with the presence of God.

And, maybe, under your breath, say or sing, with Christians of so many times and places:

Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel…