For some reason, I have this sermon from Advent 2, 2001, in my first year out of seminary and still writing out the whole sermon each time I preached. I found it recently and it still speaks to me, despite the 2001 references, so I thought I'd pass it along.
As part of my own spiritual discipline as I try to discern what I think and feel about the current world situation after September 11, but even more after October 7, the day we first began bombing Afghanistan, I have been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian in Germany when Hitler came to power. For a time he taught in an underground seminary that supported the work of the “Confessing Church,” a network of churches not under the control of the Nazi regime. In 1939, he came to the United States for a lecture tour and was urged to stay rather than return to the rapidly worsening situation in Germany. But he refused and took one of the last ships back to Germany. Originally a pacifist, Bonhoeffer was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was arrested in April of 1943 and spent the first year and a half of his imprisonment in the military section of a Berlin prison. He was executed in April of 1945, but not before writing an extraordinarily thoughtful collection of letters that are still pertinent today.
I found myself recently reading his letters from Advent 1943. He writes, “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other—things that are really of no consequence—the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.” I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit.
I’ve also been thinking about some of his comments in a letter from December 18, 1943. He says, “In my experience, nothing tortures us more than longing…Substitutes repel us; we simply have to wait and wait; we have to suffer unspeakably from the separation and feel the longing till it almost makes us ill…[T]here is nothing worse in such times than to try to find a substitute for the irreplaceable.”
We’re in the middle of Advent and we’re waiting. In our day to day lives, things seem to be hurrying toward the harrowing end of a semester, for some of us, or rushing us towards Christmas with all of the things we still have to do. All the extra things that our celebrations require of us. It keeps us busy. It keeps us distracted and occupied. But there’s something else going on underneath that. There’s a longing. There’s a longing for something we’re not even sure what it is and no real conclusion in sight. And if we stopped to think about it, it might be too difficult to bear.
And in the larger world, after that initial fraught time in September, things seems at least for me to have settled down into a steady normalcy of war. I read the headlines about Afghanistan, but I barely read the articles any more. I hear about military successes in various places I’ve never heard of and safe here in my corner of Ohio I don’t spend too much time thinking about what real peace might look like. And here we are, reading Isaiah.
There’s a future tense in the readings this morning. And with that future tense comes a longing. A longing for justice. A longing for peace. A longing for the one who will come. And images that are so dissonant with reality as we know it that all we can put it down to is hyperbole.
“The wolf shall live with the lamb? The leopard shall lie down with the kid? A little child shall lead them?” It’s the image of the peaceable kingdom that we may have seen hundreds of times in paintings, but can we imagine such a thing in reality? It’s an image of peace that is so extreme as to be completely unbelievable. Or, as I once heard one person say, if this scene were to take place, wouldn’t you rather be the lion?
We are so used to a simulacrum of peace that the image of peace that Isaiah gives us looks ludicrous. How could it possibly work? And I think it might scare us. It scares me. In this image of peace, there is little protection for the one who has always previously been the victim. What if things go wrong? Who will guarantee that the peace will last?
Advent is like being in a prison cell. And in your cell there’s a window above you where you can see the sky, but it is so different from the world you inhabit that it hardly seems to be a possibility.
There’s a longing in us for something meaningful and significant. There were crowds of people who went out to be baptized by John and he says there’s something more. There’s someone who is coming after him who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire. And we find ourselves in the land of hyperbole again.
Baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire? What on earth does that mean? Will it hurt? What would it do to us? The baptism that John offers is at least clear. And yet this is the same person who says that’s not all. Could that be true? Could there be something bigger and better than this?
What if it’s true, something in us says. What if there really is something better than this? And another part works hard to squash that down, keep it quiet, to protect ourselves from disappointment. And then Advent comes along and exposes our hopes and expectations.
In Advent, we learn to live in the awareness of our own longing.
Living with longing is not easy. Bonhoeffer says to do so is to live with an almost unbearable tension. And the pressure upon us is to fill that void. The pressure upon us is internal because the longing can be so difficult and so painful that we would simply like it to stop. And the pressure can also come from outside because our longing can make us protest that we are not willing to settle, that this is not good enough. The longing can make us want to change our world and can unsettle those around us. It would be so much easier to find an acceptable substitute.
To uncover the longing is a bit like opening a Pandora’s box. It’s a dangerous activity. And inside the box we find not only the longing we first suspected was there, but all the longing that we have ruthlessly suppressed over the years. And having unleashed our longings, we can’t put them back in the box.
But we don’t need to put them back in the box. Advent invites us to look at them. Advent is a season of longing.
We demonstrate this by our own activity. We hurry around trying to find the perfect gifts for the people we love. But this is indicative of something larger. What would be the perfect gift for us, for our world? Would it be peace? Would it be a powerful, transforming baptism? Where can we go to get them? The answer is we have to wait. But they are coming.
What is it you long for? Let that be your work this Advent. To open up that stifled box of longing and show God what’s inside. Expose our hopes and expectations. Lying down with them like a lamb with a wolf. God loves us. God, too, is trying to find the perfect gift for us. We’re waiting for something, we’re not even sure what it is, and it’s hard work. Wait for it. Accept no substitutes. It’s coming.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.