Advent sings of Emmanuel: God With Us, the very Son of God in our very midst, Jesus.
As early-winter skies croon with reds, pinks, blues, and purples, Advent further carols the Dayspring, the morning dawn of daily mercies potent and fertile with the fresh possibilities of heaven.
This morning, lyrics of Advent chant another name for God’s promised Messiah – a name that rises from the heart, because it sincerely speaks of that which stirs the restlessness of our spirits: Desire. “O come, Desire of Nations, bind all people in one heart and mind” – a desperate plea quite appropriate for these days of Red and Blue lines being drawn in the sinking sands of division.
Though our mid-Advent draws neigh and the manger beckons us ever closer to Bethlehem, our New Testament lesson that drags us kicking and screaming into the long shadows of death that lie ahead on a dark Good Friday. Within its hard-to-hear verses lies our desired hope for resurrection. Listen for the Word of the Lord.
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.
And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.
Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. (Matthew 27:45-56)
Jesus is dead. His body is in the tomb. Traumatic death has pushed the living to the edge.
And you surely know what that feels like: Standing there knock-kneed, gingerly toeing the borderline of understanding that you cannot go back to the way things once were. Like it or not – in this case not, life has changed drastically.
A cherished friend is no more. A mature relationship has ended. A cancer has attacked. A loved one has died. A dream is shattered forever, broken and blown away like so much dust in the wind. Life so carefully planned and executed has come unglued and is falling apart. The walls of security have been breached; the show’s final curtain has fallen. What used to be is no longer. Which leaves nothing to go back to.
That’s life on the edge: Miserable, bleak, dismal, hopeless.
On that Good Friday, amid its chaos of emotion, the disciples cower in fear over the unknowns that lie beyond the sharp, jagged edge of change. So also do we – in our own foot-of-the-Cross moments – feel the stabbing pain of an inflection point, a hinge point.
The Church names that edgy turning point “Holy Saturday,” bookended on one side by the darkened skies and trembling earth of a Friday we call “good,” and on the other by the hope of Easter’s new life and resurrection. But it’s not yet Easter. And when such profound loss and grief, pain and suffering, come crashing down upon a poor, hapless soul, Easter surely seems a long way off.
Like Holy Saturday’s time of waiting for a new day, during Advent we stand on identical holy ground: A time of knowing yet not knowing, a time of silence and sighs. In Matthew’s telling, the women – “looking on from a distance” – say nothing, do nothing, obviously stunned and paralyzed. A few verses down the page, Joseph of Arimathea stammers a few words, asking for the body. He cares for it, then leaves, quietly, sympathetically, as if treading the shells of eggs. There’s little else to say or do – other than moving on with life and reluctantly reliving the trauma like clockwork with the coming of each gloomy night.
The way forward is unclear; God for reasons unknown is not making way, which reflects the harsh reality of nowhere to go. Your entire world, it seems, has become a tomb – a cold, damp and dark cave, yes, yet somehow strangely safe and oddly secure – not sealed by stone or guarded by posted soldiers, but locked up tight by your own overwhelming sense of heartache. That uncomfortable feeling, however natural and understandable, tells you nothing about how to escape your tomb.
The silence of Advent parallels our stunned speechlessness, no good words to be uttered, apparently nothing happening, just staring into the gaping hole of the unknown and its uncertain future. Beneath the silence and stillness of our Advent, Holy Saturday’s death trembles, and hell cries out in terror.
“Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this”:
No matter how securely we build our tombs, or how highly we build our walls, neither will never-ever separate us from the love of God in Christ. The depth of God’s love is every bit as deep as the graves we dig for ourselves and as bottomless as the pits into which we are thrown.
And during Advent, the abundant life of Christ descends into our depths, into the hell of our living, into the sin and brokenness of our world, snapping the bonds of death, and setting free the captives. The grace and peace of Jesus – the abundant love of God in Christ – fill each of our vaults, permeating its walls and unexpectedly morphing its deadly darkness into a womb of new birth.
Without Christmas, there is no Easter, and Christ’s triumph is not apart from death, but within death, ironically trampling down death by death and giving life to those buried deep up to their necks – to ordinary folks like you and me, all and only for love’s good and for Christ’s sake.
He lives! Jesus lives! The first fruit after conquering death bursting forth the graves of those saints of old. Only after the Child of Bethlehem rises do the saints rise, welcomed with the hospitality of heaven in the embrace of loved ones from long ago, sleepy-eyed saints all pointing to greater resurrection that lies ahead; living, breathing precursors of what is to come.
Jesus doesn’t tease these saints with life just to send them back into death. No, they join the Lord in his ascension from earth back to heaven, giving direct access to God the Father through a curtain now torn in two, dying but once and never to die again. Finally resident of that holy place, they are with the Lord, in full assurance and confidence in his earlier-spoken Word: “I will shake all the nations, so that the precious desire of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with the glory of resurrection.”
What I now share is the voice of God through the pen of the Old Testament prophet Haggai:
In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying:
Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?
Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.
For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the desire of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the LORD of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts. (Haggai 2:1-9)
“And in this place, I will give prosperity – peace, wholeness, salvation, says the LORD of hosts.“
Every Saturday night of his youth, Fred and his siblings dressed up in their best clothes, which also happened to be their most uncomfortable clothes.
And in a living room starched as white as a fresh, stiff collar, the children of European descent all sat up straight as arrows, eyes to the front, speaking only when spoken to. Then, a couple neighbors came over, then a few more, and suddenly, their numbers circled the living room. Folks were taking turns reading aloud the Bible, then singing songs from old, spiral-bound songbooks: “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “Standing on the Promises,” “Up from the Grave He Arose.”
Because he long pondered these things, though never discovered even a faint hint about the weekly goings-on, Fred once asked his mother why their living room always provided the place of gathering. “Well, son,” his mother said, “we don’t live close enough to a church to actually attend. But some day we might, and so for now we’re practicing.”
“And in this place, I will give prosperity – peace, wholeness, salvation, says the LORD of hosts.”
One of the regular attendees at “practice church” was a neighbor, an African-American man named Will.
The presence of cocoa-brown skin in this mostly white household was the exception not the rule, limited to the obligatory Saturday-night gatherings, somehow or other making Will an intimidating-but-not-unwelcome houseguest. Thus, young Fred one day turned up the dial of courage and blurted out the question weighing heavy on his heart and mind:
“Will, you ever been in a real church?” “Hundreds,” came Will’s reply.
“Well, what’s it like?” “Well, I’ll tell you,” the man said. “First off, don’t go by appearances. Cuz’ sometimes you’ll see some little, old white clapboard church up on cinderblocks out in the middle of nowhere, and maybe the shutters are sagging a bit and all. But don’t go by that. Cuz’ sometimes the Lord disguises his goodness – hiding heaven’s best stuff in little, old, no-account places like that. But just go inside one of those, and you’ll see.”
“See what?” the now-mesmerized Fred anxiously wondered? “Well, when you look up at the ceiling, you’ll see it’s a deep, deep blue. And the stars shine, and the angels sing and, well, you’ll just have to see for yourself someday, young man!”
“And in this place, I will give prosperity – peace, wholeness, salvation, says the LORD of hosts.”
In due time, the boy grew in spirit and became strong in faith, alongside old Will, whose still vigorous, beating soul was living in an aging, ever-more-worn-out body. And then he died. Young Fred and his family attended Will’s funeral in one of those little, no-account churches that God for whatever reason plants in the middle of nowhere.
When Fred got inside, he was disappointed. It was nothing like what Will had described. The paint was peeling. No stars were shining. No angels were on display.
But then the funeral started. The choir got to singing and swaying. The congregation joined in, and all of a sudden, somewhere in the core of all the singing, and the swaying, and the praising, Fred looked up. And the ceiling was blue. And the stars were shining. And the ministry of angels was singing Will to his rest.
If you understand that Jesus is the “desired of all nations,” then you understand what happened that day. Jesus claims that he is the new temple, the place where God dwells among of God’s people. The glory of Jesus is “greater than this present house” or the temple of Solomon. Because in his person and work, Jesus grants peace. The place where God dwelt among his people in Old Testament times has been replaced by the person in whom all the fullness of the God-head now dwells, even to this very day!
And in this place – through, with, and in the Christ Child, I will give prosperity – peace, wholeness, salvation, says the LORD of hosts.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, December 4, 2022, the fourth Sunday of Advent at First Presbyterian Church. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by M. Eugene Boring, Doug Bratt, Fred Craddock, Scott Hoezee, W. Eugene March, and Mike Marsh inform the message.