The Advent of Grace
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
This gospel could have been ripped from today’s headlines. People are fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. There are wars and rumors of wars. There were Black Friday protesters on the Magnificent Mile. There is a frightening tone in the national political debate. Terrorists –both foreign and domestic—undermine our security. There are signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. (Luke 21:25)
These ancient words from Luke are reassuring if only because they tell us times like these are not unique in human history even if we have been privileged enough to say they are unfamiliar to us. These are days when our faith is most important. These are times that reveal who we are and what we truly believe. As comedian and political satirist Jon Stewart has said, “If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values: they’re hobbies.”
The season of Advent we begin today is about clarifying our values. Jesus taught us to read the signs. As we come face to face with human brokenness and the depth of our sin in Advent, Jesus teaches us how to live by the small light of hope rather than be driven by the strong force of fear. Some will ask why we need Advent when we’ve got such a lovely, joyous celebration like Christmas waiting in the wings?
Why Advent? To help us see beyond our suffering. Why Advent? To give us a lens through which to see God at work when it seems only evil gets the spotlight. Why Advent? To assure us God has secured a future for us all unfolding in, with, and under the present moment, even if we cannot see it now. (Karoline Lewis, Working Preacher) Why Advent? So that by God’s merciful protection we are alerted ‘to the threatening dangers of our sins, and are redeemed for Jesus’ life of justice.’ (Prayer of the Day, Advent 1C, RCL) Advent is the strong medicine of grace we need to move toward life together in the new Jerusalem God has prepared for us.
For me, one of the most memorable lines from the movie, Spotlight, in theaters now about the cover-up of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church, was, ‘[They say] it takes a village to raise a child. It [also] takes a village to abuse them. ‘ The story unfolds from allegations against one Priest, to thirteen, to eighty-seven and ultimately 247 Priests in the Boston area who abused children over a period of 30 years. That’s thousands of children, tens of thousands of family members, and hundreds of police officers, lawyers, social workers, school officials, politicians, and church leaders in Boston alone who all knew about the problem and did nothing about it—not to mention others in hundreds of cities around the world.
When reporters at the Boston Globe finally broke the story in 2001 people asked, “Why now? Why did it take so long? They had no good answer. The light of God’s grace can be like water finding its way through rock in us. It takes time to break free but once it does, there is no going back.
Civil rights litigator and legal scholar Michelle Alexander talks about a similar slow and painful process of realization in her important book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010). It took years of careful research to get to the startling conclusion. “Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration [in America today] operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.” While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.
Police abuse of power is only the tip of the spear we wield together as a society to control, separate and punish people of color. But by the advent of God’s grace, that fact is coming to light too. It can be summed up in one simple phrase: Black Lives Matter. Praise God. Hallelujah!
As we begin a new year in the church calendar—a year of reading Luke—there is special grace-filled irony in the fact that Luke and the community who helped produce this gospel were all Syrians. They lived in the ancient city of Antioch, which is the modern Turkish city of Antakya. As our nation debates whether and how to welcome Syrian refugees fleeing from violence and terror, Christians across the country and throughout the world are spending the year seeking the face of God by reading a Syrian gospel.
Jesus said, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise
your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28) It does not surprise us the bible’s most common metaphors for the Holy Spirit all point to a kind of natural and inevitable force: living water, blowing wind, descending flames, and alighting doves. Advent is the season to undergo God.
The waiting, the preparing of the mind, the softening of the heart, the deepening of intention and desire, the readiness to really let go, the recognition that I really don’t want to let go, then finally, the actual willingness to change—our readiness before God is the work of weeks, months, and years of opening ourselves to by grace for grace.
As Gerald G. May points out in The Dark Night of the Soul, we must be willing to endure dark periods of feeling that God isn’t here, that nothing is happening, that God has given up on you. The season of Advent makes it clear. God must often perform the work of grace in secret, in darkness. If God let you know what’s going on, you may try to control the process yourself and thereby destroy it; or you may try to stop it altogether because you are afraid of the immense freedom and spaciousness God is leading you toward. It’s only the wise, broken ones who allow themselves to “undergo God” and to trustingly “let go and let God.”” (Thesis of Gerald G. May as summarized by Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Undergoing God, 11/27/15)
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) But there are times we do glimpse what God is doing among us. This past week, Pastor Carol McVetty of North Shore Baptist Church wrote about it in a letter to the editor that appeared in Thursday’s Chicago Sun-Times. She wrote: “There were no news cameras present at St. Gertrude Catholic Church yesterday (Nov. 22) as Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood gathered for its annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Service. That was to be expected. There is nothing alarming, sensational, or particularly newsworthy about several hundred people gathering in a church on a Sunday afternoon to sing and pray. But in this anxious moment in our national life, a wider audience might benefit from knowing what went on there. Muslims, Jews, and Christians gathered to give thanks, together….
This is the world I live in here in Chicago. This is the community for which I give thanks to God. This is the kind of neighborhood I pray will be multiplied across our nation and around the world.” (Rev. Carol McVetty, North Shore Baptist Church, 5244 N. Lakewood Ave., Chicago, IL 60640)
For Advent we celebrate the work that God is doing in and through us to build a living sanctuary of hope and grace. Sometimes God performs this work in ways we can see. But most of the time it is done in secret. The Advent of grace quietly, steadily, then all at once reveals new strengths and new pathways to advance the cause of love, mercy and justice. We are strengthened by grace for grace—and to have the wisdom and courage to perform grace through our own hands and voices.