Ooops, I didn’t call it “the liturgical season before Christmas” — I must be one of the secularizers who are ruining Christmas (parishioner and Trib columnist Charlie Madigan’s take on the War is here, behind the Trib’s annoying free-registrration firewall). Well, you can judge for yourselves how anti-Christian I am if you care to read this morning’s sermon in the extended version of this post.
Anyway, we have a short break before Advent (otherwise known as “Pre-Christmas”) Lessons & Carols. If St. Luke’s posts a recording of the sermon, I’ll link to it here.
St. Luke’s Evanston
Is 65:17-25/Ps 126:1-7/1 Thes 5:12-28/John 1:6-8, 19-28
December 11, 2005
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream.
In the Name of God Almighty, the eternal Blessed Trinity – Amen.
A couple of weeks ago, the wind changed; after an exceptionally long mild, pleasant autumn, the gentle breezes changed and brought us bitter, cruel icy weather. The warmth of September lingered long enough to kindle the dream that maybe we could get away without freezing, maybe our plants wouldn’t wither and our parkas could stay in storage; then winter came, pummeling us, shivering us, slithering in drafty doors and windows. The air bites at your ears, wet snow chills your marrow, and we won’t even start talking about how short the days have gotten. All this comes as no surprise – it’s December in Chicago, after all – but being predictable doesn’t make the chill and the darkness pleasant. For every cheermonger who urges us to have ourselves a merry little Christmas, if we’re attentive we can count several neighbors whose hearts won’t be turned sunny and bright by dint of will and determination.
Cheerfulness is, of course, a fine thing. I myself tend toward light-heartedness, and I have a dear friend who says that if some people see a glass as half-empty and some people see it half-full, her half-full glass is two glasses’ worth. Good cheer is a precious gift, one for which I give thanks – but we can’t command good cheer, we can’t set it up as an expectation. When an afternoon is bleak and grey, rose-colored glasses only attenuate our capacity to see clearly. Winter comes suddenly some years, comes too early some years, and an unexpected freeze just makes the chill wind more rude, the grief more raw. Honest hurt trumps facile jollity every time, and on some mercy-forsaken days St. Paul’s advice to “rejoice always” reminds us of what he said elsewhere about the loveless sound of a clanging gong. Winter has come, Paul; the wind has changed, the world shows us its heartless side. Don’t come around haranguing people about joy when their spirits falter in this bitter season.
In this bleak midwinter, I bring you a message from John the Baptist. John sends us an scouting report, a prospectus, assuring us that “the light is coming.” He sent his message without being quite sure what he was talking about; he knew he was not the light himself, and he hadn’t yet encountered the light. He didn’t make boastful claims to represent God’s Anointed One or Elijah. He simply had a message for us: “The light is coming; no matter how fierce the gale, no matter how cruel the chill, the light is coming, and the light will bring us joy.”
John’s message doesn’t change the temperature, doesn’t shovel the walks or weatherstrip the windows or pay the bills. The promise of light doesn’t brighten the shadowy noonday. The promise of light hovers at the horizon, teasing us with something unseen, with an intangible hope. And that’s all that John’s message offers us: a baffling hint about a yet-undelivered package, with the assurance that it’ll be good, that it’s worth our waiting for.
John doesn’t foresee exactly what or who he’s talking about, but he knows the magnitude of the promise to which he binds us. John brings us the message that hope speaks the truth. In our miseries, our frustrations, in the cold and the darkness and the grief that all stake a claim on our souls, the last word belongs to hope, and we who band together in order to sustain one another through frightful winter already share (in tiny ways), already share the beginnings of the fulfillment of that message. John has been to the mount that overlooks the Jordan River, and he has seen the blessings that God promised of old – and he sends us the message, “Hold on, stay together, abide – because the light shines in the darkness, and darkness cannot overcome it.” John has been to the mountaintop, and although he may not live to see us enter our promised rest, he rejoices at the prospect of blessedness that awaits us.
Then Paul picks up John’s message of hope and passes it along; Paul urges us to rejoice not as a finger-wagging rebuke, not as a glib demand that we buck up. Paul reaches out to us with the resonant harmonies of love joined and amplified and gathered into hymns that lift holy hearts to the very brink of glory. Paul sends us a message from the threshold of hope’s realization, that our dreams do not play us false. The intuition that great things await us, lying yonder, just beyond what can be shown: that sense, that trust, that fragile, slender, tenuous thread of faith binds us to God’s promise that the power that made all things and makes them new has given us a taste of joy’s flavor and will feast us with delight. By a thin thread God draws us to look clear-sightedly on brokenness and grief, and there to build an shelter where love and trust open our hearts to a limitless grace that sustains us through winter. The message of hope, the thread of faith, the promise of grace found our dream of the best-ness by which God’s love makes itself known among us – and we pray for the wisdom and will to share that best hope with everyone who needs it.
Right now, we may seem to have naught but the dream of what’s best; disaster and misfortune still haunt our days, cold winter besieges our nights, and war and pestilence dominate our headlines. The dream of abundant life appears to us in the shattered fragments of incomplete projects, corrupted intentions, broken promises. But this is exactly where Jesus comes to us: as as the thin mint at the end of a sumptuous seven-course feast, but Jesus comes to us as bread for the starving, wine for the grief-stricken. This is winter, this is darkness; and this is the precise address to which John and Paul send their message, to which Isaiah sings the divine blessing of the peaceable kingdom: “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,’ says the Lord.” “Be glad, and rejoice forever!”
We see that mountain in our dreams, dreams that bespeak not a fleeting illusion or fantasy, but dreams that convince us of a truth real-er than the very real afflictions that beset us now. We know that joy in our dreams, but those very dreams reveal to us a life luminous in wholeness and love. We inhabit a world incomplete and partial, but our dreams show it to us perfected in love and harmony. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, our tongue with shouts of joy.” John reminds the people who wait in winter that our dreams remind us of a joyous summer to come, a new creation that will make all things a delight, a joy, a blessing. John’s message reminds us that Advent leads always to Christmas and culminates in Easter; what is wounded and bare comes to fruition in fullness; and though we spend a season of exile in darkness, we blossom in light.
Indeed, this very building itself testifies to John’s message. Look around you, sisters and brothers, at the incomplete church where we’ve come to this morning. Look at the empty pediments for angels, the structural steel that awaits being clad in wood. Look at the paintings of St Luke’s over by the bookstore, in the front parlor – they show our church building with a prominent bell tower overlooking the neighborhood, a bell tower that fills up the space that Diane and Mark and so many of you replanted so beautifully this year.
Unfinished beams, empty alcoves, lacking a tower, we gather in an unfinished church, a church whose completion lies far beyond any prospect of our immediate restoration, any realistic prospect of any kind of “-toration” in the first place – and I half think I like it better this way.
The church may not yet be architecturally complete, but assembled here around the altar of our Lord, for a few minutes we lack nothing.
This winter where we live harbors an ember of the light, and though it be cold outside, though gloom hover over us prisoners of darkness, we gather here as sisters and brothers, as half-empty and half-full, as wounded and as strong, as one, to celebrate in this unfinished church and make it such a place as shelters the embers of hope and awaits their bursting into flame. Through Advent and Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter, we assemble at the foot of the bell-tower, the tower that we see only in our dreams, and in our meeting we bring together some of the broken shards of of fragmented lives. We raise our eyes and see choirs of angels guarding our columns. We bring our selves together and see marvelous healing, wondrous harmony. We see smoke drift upward, we see sparks rise, and in our dreams we know they signify the fire of the Holy Spirit dwelling among us, making this building whole, this people whole. We gather up our grief, we defy desolation, and with all the wounded joy of winter disciples we persist together in the prayers that tell the story of our life. Any day now, every day now, by grace, though faith, our hope takes on flesh and lives among us. The wind has changed, winter will not prevail; we know, because in our dreams we have seen his glory.