Looking for Signs of Christ’s Coming in Ferguson and Madison: A sermon for Advent 1, Year B

Almost a year ago, The Rev. Alex Gee, jr. wrote an op-ed piece in the Madison State Journal in which he described his experience as an African American male in Madison, and called on our community to address head-on the issues of racism, inequality, and injustice in our midst. Since then, there have been a series of meetings, a great deal of press coverage, and new energy in the African American community to speak out on the issues that divide us.

Still, the depth of the divisions between black and white in Madison, Dane County, and Wisconsin are unimaginably wide. Wisconsin incarcerates a higher percentage of African American males than any other state. At 13%, it’s double the national average. The achievement gap between whites and blacks in our schools is the highest in the country, and Madison’s among the highest in the state. In 2011, the unemployment rate was over 25% for African Americans in Dane County, less than 5% for whites. In that same year, three quarters of the African American children in Dane County lived below the poverty line; for whites, that number was 5%.

The numbers are staggering, beyond depressing. And then, this past week, with the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, as Ferguson erupted in flames, we as a nation have been forced to confront the reality that nearly fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement, and although we have an African American president, our nation is as deeply divided racially as ever.

No doubt, many of you are wondering what all of this has to do with Advent. On this first Sunday of Advent, as we begin the season of preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ into the world at Christmas, we want to focus on the joy and hope of that event. We’re thinking about getting ready for Christmas, Christmas decorations and shopping, making plans for parties and other gatherings and we don’t want the distraction of apparently intractable problems to divert us.

The fact of the matter is, even though we clergy like to make a big deal about the difference between Advent and Christmas—that according to the liturgical calendar, the season of Christmas begins on Christmas Eve and ends on the twelfth night, that we shouldn’t be singing Christmas carols, or even decorating the church, the fact of the matter is, we in the church have done a great deal to domesticate, to simplify Advent, to make it all about, or mostly about, Christmas.

The reality is rather different. If you pay attention to the scriptural readings for the four Sundays of Advent, you will notice that our focus is on the Second Coming, not the first; that we hear more about John the Baptizer than about Jesus. Advent is a time when the church is waiting and preparing for Christ’s coming; for Christ’s coming at Christmas, but yes also, and perhaps most importantly, for Christ’s second coming. If you think about where we’ve been the last few Sundays, you’ll recall that ever since All Saints’, our readings, and especially the gospel texts, have been all about preparation and waiting.

But what have the gospel texts, including today’s, what have the texts, their authors, and the initial audiences for the texts been waiting for? It’s hard for us to imagine the urgency with which early Christians awaited Jesus’ coming. We Episcopalians rarely discuss it; it’s not at the heart of our faith, and when we encounter Christians who do expect Jesus to return in their lifetime, or even within a few years, they’re likely to become the butt of our jokes. Even if it is something we recite every week in the creed, or in the memorial acclamation during the Eucharist—Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again—the words we say seem very far from our lives. We expect the world to continue much as it has, indefinitely, and if it is destroyed, it will be of our own making, due to Global Warming, rather than from divine intervention.

It’s hard for us to conceive of God entering into history, coming down to us to make things right. Oh, we might get our heads around Christmas, that God became human and dwelt among us; that God became one of us, was crucified. But that we might cry with the prophet in today’s reading:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence–
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil–
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
That, I wager, is rather beyond our comprehension.

But that’s precisely what the prophet was hoping for when he wrote these words in a difficult period, after the exiles had returned from Babylon and were trying to remake their lives in a ruined and impoverished city.

That’s also what the early Christians were hoping for when Mark was writing his gospel. For them, the situation was even more dire. Mark was written during or just after the Jewish rebellion against Rome in the late 60s. That rebellion, and Rome’s over-the-top response created intense crises both for the Jewish community and the small band of Jesus’ followers. Mark write to reassure the early Christians, but his message from our perspective may be less than comforting. It’s not only human beings that are in danger—when Christ returns the cosmos, the whole universe will be recreated. Still, Mark can’t tell us when this all will happen. All he can say is, “Keep awake!”

Those dramatic images, of a darkened sun and moon, of stars falling from heaven, are a reminder of the darkness of a world without God. They call us back to the very beginning of the story, to creation when God separated the light from darkness and created the sun, moon, and stars. They remind us that Advent is a season when we look for the coming of the light into a dark world.

We celebrate Advent in the darkest time of the year, as the days grow shorter and the light of the sun grows weak. We celebrate this Advent in a dark world, keenly aware of the forces of injustice and evil. Like Mark’s community, our hope is dimmed, our fears aroused by the looming darkness.

Our fears are justified. It is a dark world. Our tendency as humans is to overlook the evil and injustice. We want to focus on joy; we want to be happy. As Christians, we want to look ahead to Christmas and the heartwarming, inspiring story of Jesus’ birth. But it is a dark world.

As Americans, we want to hold fast to the myth of the American dream, we want to believe in equality and justice for all. We want to see ourselves, our nation, and our institutions, including the church, as having overcome racism. But Ferguson—and Madison—tell us a different story, depict a different, a truer reality.

Advent calls us to keep awake, to be alert, to watch. To be faithful to Jesus Christ in Advent means keeping alert, acknowledging the dark world in which we live. The prophet pleads for God to break into this world. But the prophet also speaks plainly and forcefully about the world’s evils, including those evils perpetrated by his people. Speaking honestly, naming the darkness, is part of Advent faithfulness.

But keeping Advent, staying awake, being alert, also means looking for signs of Christ’s coming. For Christ is here in this world even now. Christ is present. The light shines in the darkness. The candles of Advent are a reminder to us to look for signs of Christ’s presence. The candles of Advent are a reminder that we need to be the light of Christ’s presence in a dark world.

Naming the darkness, looking for, being the light. That is what I hope our Advent is at Grace. May we be agents of reconciliation in our community and in the world. May we be prophets of justice and people of love. May our Advent cry be that of the prophet—that God might tear the heavens open and bring justice to the earth!

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