The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined… For a Child has been born for us, a Son given to us; authority rests upon His shoulders.” Isaiah 9:2,6
Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you – wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your Savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel, praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors.” Luke 2:8-14
Today is the second Sunday of Advent, and during these four weeks leading up to Christmas, we’re waiting for Jesus to be born again… into the world, and into our hearts. And we’re waiting with hope. The origin of the word hope may have come from the word “hop” because hope can sometimes cause a leap of expectation! This is a prayerful season, and every week, as a new Advent candle is lit, we are given a new breath-prayer. This week’s breath-prayer is “hope.” We’ve heard part of the Christmas story from Luke’s gospel; the angels singing to the shepherds about the coming of Christ, who is the Hope of the World. For angels to come singing about the birth of a Savior for all humankind – singing to shepherds, the lowest and most despised people on the ancient world’s social ladder – was a breath of hope for all creation. Because Jesus chose to bring hope into the world in a backwater time in history, born to poor, young parents of no social standing… gives hope to all the rest of history. There’s room in the nativity, in Jesus’ story, for mismatched people like shepherds, and teenage parents, and you and me. Somedays the news, national and world news, makes me think humanity hasn’t moved very far from that backwater time. So now, as much as ever, we need to hear angels singing of the coming of the Savior, the Hope of the World. Let’s breathe in… and breathe out this weeks’ prayer word: “Hope.”
In my study I have a mismatched nativity set; some of the pieces are plastic and some are porcelain, and there’s an odd assortment of sheep. I love nativities and this one is special to me because it doesn’t match, the pieces don’t fit, and it’s far from perfect… but it tells the story of the coming of Christ, the Hope of the World. It reminds me that there’s room for me in the Christmas story… mismatched, far-from-perfect, me. This nativity – with its odd-looking sheep and the wiseman whose head broke off in our move to Napa that was glued back on – testifies that there’s room in the Christmas story for all of mismatched, far-from-perfect humankind.
Advent is an opportunity to be reflective and prayerful, which is what keeps me feeling sane in this holy-jolly season. I said last week that I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Christmas, but that wasn’t really true. My parents didn’t celebrate anything… it just wasn’t who they were… and I was susceptible as any child to television commercials, and department store displays, and letters to Santa, and each year as Christmas approached, I waited for it with dread and disappointment. Advent, however, became a gift for me to unwrap each year… this season of waiting and hoping for the coming of Christ… this season of making a welcoming manger in my soul for the Baby Jesus to be born again.
In this Advent season we’re in the company of a man named Scrooge, from Charles Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is a frost-bitten character, inside and out. Watch the version with George C. Scott as Scrooge, to get a glimpse of this snow-encrusted soul that Dickens wrote about. On Christmas Eve Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former partner, the late Jacob Marley. Marley’s ghost is wrapped in the chains he was forced to drag with him through eternity… chains of sorrow and regret that he, like Scrooge, had valued making money over all else, with no thought for kindness, or love, or his fellow humans. Marley tells Scrooge that he will be visited that very night by three more ghosts: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Future. When Marley leaves, Scrooge goes to bed, hoping that the conversation he’d with his dead partner was the result of “an undigested bit of beef”. But as the clock strikes midnight, Scrooge is visited by the first ghost… the Ghost of Christmas Past. When the ghost takes Scrooge to the past, he weeps as he witnesses the lonely and neglected child he was. Scrooge seems to have forgotten his own story, and during his visit with the Ghost of Christmas Past, he remembers that he wasn’t always stingy and bitter, and his frozen soul begins to thaw a little. Scrooge grieves over the girl he’d loved who, realizing that his love of money was so much stronger than his love for her, released him from their engagement. He rejoices at a dance his old employer Fizziwig gave, and he sees how a little kindness from the man, gave so much pleasure to the young Scrooge and his coworkers. And twice, as Scrooge sees the love and kindness he’d had, that he’d disregarded as of no real value, he experiences regret that he hasn’t done any small acts of kindness; he hasn’t cared for the people around him; he hasn’t ever seen the needs of others. Scrooge begins to recognize sorrow, regret, and compassion (the beginnings of his redemption!) There is a crack of light and hope as Scrooge begins to see that his faults – valuing and hoarding money and forfeiting compassion and kindness – is not (does not have to be) the end of his story.
This is where the first Christmas story, and A Christmas Carol, and our stories, intersect. Isaiah described humankind as “a people who walked in darkness.” If we could be perfect reflections of God’s love and light, we would be. If our good works and good intentions could build the coming Kingdom of God… we would they would. But we are flawed and imperfect like the mismatched nativity in my study. We can’t do this work without Jesus, who is the Hope of the World. We need His forgiving, redeeming, and sustaining grace and mercy. Like Scrooge, our mistakes and our past don’t need to define us. We are, because of God’s love for us, part of the hope of the world. The work we do of making peace, and welcoming the stranger, of praying for our enemies, of giving voice to the voiceless, of forgiving ourselves and others, and of persistently loving each other, is how we bring the light and hope of Christ into the world.
A Christmas Carol begins in wintertime, in darkness, in “cold, bleak, biting weather.” Scrooge was much too thrifty to burn many candles for light, and his clerk, Bob Cratchit, was given only one piece of coal in his office fireplace for warmth. Scrooge encountered Marley in his cold, dark room, at the end of the day, and all of the ghosts visited Scrooge in the dead of night. It seems appropriate to hear Isaiah’s prophecy in cold of winter, when darkness falls early. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined… For a Child has been born for us, a [Savior] given to us.” This is the story of Christmas: that God saw our darkness… our past regrets and sorrows, our wrongdoing, our careless disregard of our fellow humans… and God sent us the light and hope of Christ. Advent is a season of waiting, and if we listen to the invitation to wait, and anticipate, and hope for the coming of Christ… we are also able to listen for the cries of those in need around us, and we can be signs of light and hope for them.
The Ghost of Christmas Past had a flame of light on its head… illuminating Scrooge’s tragic past, and his coldhearted inhumanity, but showing Scrooge that the darkness of his past didn’t have to keep defining him… it wasn’t who he really was. We light candles in Advent to shine light in places of hopelessness; we light candles of hope for the coming of Christ… into the darkness our hearts, into our hearts, and into the world. This week’s Advent candle is the candle of hope, and we’re invited to pray throughout these next seven days for hope. A centering spiritual practice this week can be to light a candle in your home, or at your work desk, to remind you of the light of Christ. His light illuminates the sins and mistakes of our past… but He doesn’t leave us there; He invites us to accept God’s mercy and forgiveness, and to share God’s light and hope with the world. Christmas is a story of redemption, just as Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol is. Jesus came into the world to save us, to claim us as God’s own, and nothing… not the past, not the present, not the future, and not even death, can separate us from God’s love. Jesus came at Christmastime to bring light and hope… to each of us, and to all the world. Amen.