“This Advent season,” says Bishop David Bard, “we find ourselves in the wilderness, exiled from our usual practices.” The bishop offers a song about the new thing God is doing in these troubled times.
BISHOP DAVID BARD
We are entering one of the very special seasons of the Christian year, Advent, and it is my joy and privilege, as your bishop, to offer a few words.
Advent is a season of four weeks leading up to the celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas. In The United Methodist Book of Worship, it says that “the season proclaims the comings of the Christ – whose birth we prepare to celebrate once again, who comes continually in Word and Spirit, and whose return in final victory we anticipate.” It is a season filled with poignant yearning and tinged with a profound mixture of joy and sadness. One of the familiar Advent hymns, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” speaks of a people “that mourns in lonely exile here.” Often during this season, we begin to sing Christmas hymns as well, and even some of these are tinged with joy and sadness. In that little town of Bethlehem, there are dark streets where “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
The traditional Scripture readings of the season speak of wilderness and dry land, of being in exile. The story of the events leading to Jesus’ birth, as recounted in the Gospel of Luke, remind the readers that this is a time of occupation, referring to Emperor Augustus and Quirinius. The references to wilderness and exile remind us, who know more of the story that Jesus too will be driven into the wilderness.
This Advent season, we find ourselves in the wilderness, exiled from our usual practices, even from the very sanctuaries that provide us space for celebrating this season. We mourn in lonely exile. We know hopes and fears on dark streets. Yes, we live in a difficult time, a time of exile and wilderness. We live in a time where we know things are changing but what comes next is uncertain.
Some call this a liminal time. It is especially in such a time that this season speaks to us by the power of God’s Spirit.
If there is a realism about life in the Advent season, a realism that strikes profound chords for us, especially this year, there is also hope. It is from the wilderness that John the Baptist appears, a voice crying out preparing the way. When Jesus is in the wilderness, angels minister to him.
In a well-known Advent Scripture, we hear, “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” (Isaiah 9:2). Into pitch darkness, another way to translate the phrase, light shines, into the pitch darkness of exile, into the pitch darkness of a pandemic, into the pitch darkness of a world where there are too many broken systems leaving too many broken people, where we feel our own brokenness. As the Psalmist reminds us, for God, “even darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (139:12).
At the heart of Advent is an acknowledgment of difficulty, darkness, wilderness waste, and exile of all kinds along with the word that the God who came to us in Jesus continues to come to us in Jesus as Word and Spirt to reconcile and make new. God is always about to do something. God is always about to do something – in the wilderness, a voice, in the wilderness ministering angels, in the dry land rivers springing up, in exile a highway leading home, in pitch darkness light so bright the darkness cannot overcome it. God is always about to do a new thing.
I am thinking of that beautiful song, “Canticle of Turning.”
My soul cries out with a joyful shout
That the God of my heart is great
And my spirit sings of the Wondrous things
That you bring to the ones who wait
You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight
And my weakness you did not spurn
So from east to west shall my name be blest
Could the world be about to turn?
My heart shall sing of the day you bring
Let the fires of your justice burn
Wipe away all tears for the dawn draws near
And the world is about to turn!
That’s a song of Advent. The world is not what we would like it to be, where we would like it to be. We know wilderness. We know exile. We know darkness. And we hear the voice in the wilderness, find the highway, see the light. We know God is always about to do a new thing. Our hearts shall sing of the day you bring, let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.
This Advent, as deep as the wilderness, as pitch dark as the darkness, as exilic as it may be, know that God is always about to do a new thing. Know that God is always about to do a new thing in you and through you, even now. Even now.