(NB: Each year I try to publish an advent sermon. I’m a month late, but here it is.)
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” ~ Revelation 1:8
Advent is a season of double waiting—we wait in imaginative memory with the story of Israel’s waiting for the birth of their Messiah, and we wait in present anticipation of Messiah’s final return. Advent is the season that brings the story of Israel, and the story of the Church, into unique and permanent contact. Setting aside such a designated time to re-imagine Israel’s story—stepping again into Isaiah, and Ezekiel, and Moses—trains our hearts and minds for our waiting today. We wait, along with the whole company of the redeemed, anticipating justice, eager for God’s comforting presence, desperate for God’s victory to be revealed once and for all.
We are eager for Christ’s advent, above all, because the world remains a place filled with darkness, echoed all the more in the winter season’s short days and long nights. So we string lights and light candles as tiny and cheerful testimonials to the power of light to conquer the darkness. And yet the darkness is no less real—not simply the extended evening darkness in the Northern Hemisphere, but the darkness of the deeds of men, of sin and evil in their rampant tyranny across the earth. We light a candle, but the flickering light seems—and is—tiny against the onslaught of news and tragedies both near and far from home.
The candle and the Christmas light are symbols—signs—pointing beyond themselves to that greater light, who is Christ. And when we gaze at his light, meditate on his character, our perception changes in much the same way that our eyes adjust to light. Stare at the sun and you will go blind. Stare at Christ and you will be enabled to see.
In this way we turn our gaze to Revelation 1:8, focusing our attention on this single verse as a way to enlarge our sight in this present darkness, and in its light three simple lessons illuminate our darkness.
The first lesson is this: God’s victory over the darkness is certain. Why is it certain? Because he is the Almighty, the all-powerful one, Deus Omnipotens, because there is no power on earth or in heaven which can thwart Him, undo His plans, or unmake His intentions. Because He is the I AM, the being who names Himself, uncontrolled by anyone or by any destiny, the one who by His very nature creates His own destiny. The reason we have for hope in the darkness of life is because of the One in whom we hope. He is the One who, in Genesis, created the light, and it is He whose presence in Revelation 22:5 is the light. Darkness has no more power to win over God than any darkness has power to win victory over light. Put the other way, God’s victory is certain in the same way that all light is victorious over darkness. Think about it—darkness has no power to creep, darkness does not fight against light, darkness, in fact, has no substance at all. Hence, when light appears, darkness flees, evaporates, hides, and is abolished immediately. As light completely abolishes darkness so the presence of our God abolishes spiritual darkness. It is a victory that is certain and unavoidable.
The second lesson is this: God is understanding, and when we look on Him we grow in understanding. The words of the Psalmist resonate here, “in your light, we see light” (Ps 36:9). In the light of God we are enabled to see—this is a process of illumination. Having the light of God within us, we are enabled to see the world differently, in much the same way that shining a UV light can reveal startling colors, hidden messages, and can change how we look at others and ourselves. “I believe in Christianity,” says C.S. Lewis, “as I believe that the sun has risen; not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.” In the light of God we are enabled to make sense of reality. And this, furthermore, is what I believe to be the meaning of the phrase, “the Alpha and the Omega.” More than simply stating the primacy and ultimacy of Christ, to claim these letters also implies that Christ Himself is the inherent grammar of all thought. If you are going to say something then you must appeal to Christ and his logos-nature in order to say it. Therefore if anything makes sense, if we have the capacity to articulate any realization, then it is because Christ provides us with the building blocks of sense-making, the alphabet of thought. The human heart is illuminated, then, through God’s light, God’s words, and through God’s thoughts. In His light, we see light.
The third, and final lesson, is this: In the meantime, during our present darkness, understanding can look like foolishness and victory can look like defeat. This is one of the central mysteries of the Christian faith, and one of the central tensions of our present waiting for Christ’s advent. When once we have aligned ourselves with the God of the universe, with Christ crucified and risen, with the true light that gives light to all men, then we no longer operate under the dictates of the former wisdom of the world. Christ hangs on the cross, and the two thieves hung beside him deride him, challenging him to let himself off the cross if he is truly someone special. They viewed Christ from the old way, and not from the new. But Christ’s light would prove his visible defeat to be the true victory. This is the message we preach, the message Paul preached to the proud Corinthians, “Christ crucified, foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling stone to Jews, but to we who are being saved the power of God and the wisdom of God.” And really, what is more foolish, what is more strange and un-victorious, than the story of a baby born in a backwater town and placed in an animal’s food trough? What is less victorious than the stench of animal dung, of filth and squalor and poverty? What is more foolish than people waiting for a mighty warrior and receiving a helpless baby of questionable parentage? The Christmas story highlights this mystery of the Christian faith—that while we wait our understanding resembles foolishness and our victories resemble defeat. So be it.
In the meantime, what is asked of us while we wait in anticipation of Christ’s return is a similar commitment to foolishness—an “understanding” that accords with God’s light, and not the world’s. What will be provided for us is oftentimes victories that resemble earthly defeats—loss and failure according to the standards of the world. A commitment to holiness is an unmistakable commitment to foolishness. You will be considered a fool for sharing your faith. Similarly goodness—true goodness—is always considered the province of fools and simpletons. So be it, such will we be—fools and simpletons for Christ. To love justice will often mean choosing to side with those who lose—not because there is nobility in loss or poverty, but because when we choose God’s justice we choose against the mighty powers of the world. “Blessed are those,” Jesus says, “who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Blessed the ones who refuse to capitulate with systems and structures that oppress, and who suffer willingly on account of it. In all this we will not look like heroes, instead we ought to look like Christ. But in the end, the true light will imminently and unmistakably reveal how God views us. And at that time, at the time of our Lord’s final Advent, we, and the world, will truly and undeniably see.