The promise of Christmas is that the desert shall bloom and rejoice, and a highway shall be there, a road that leads all nations to God (Isa. 35:1, 8; 2:2). But what happens when the desert doesn’t bloom? What happens when instead of rejoicing we hear the din of destruction, the weeping of despair and helplessness? We have to listen pretty hard and look pretty imaginatively these days for signs that the night is far gone and the day is near (Rom. 13:12).
Advent is a season of promise, not yet the season of fulfillment. It invites a realistic acknowledgment that we usually feel and act more like people who walk in darkness than those who have seen a great light (Isa. 9:2). Social and political tension at home and around the world can keep us deeply unsettled and divided. Homeless people still sleep on our streets. We still shed tears at funerals. One in every five children in the United States lives in poverty.
When the desert doesn’t bloom, the age-old questions return. Why does evil persist? Why do bad things happen to good people? Like John the Baptizer sitting in prison, hearing reports that Jesus was helping everyone but him, we might ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another” (Matt. 11:3)? If Jesus was the expected one, the promised one, why do even the faithful continue to suffer so, 2,000 years later? It’s a reasonable question.
When I look at the darkness around me and ask these questions, like Job asked the same ancient questions, God invites me, like God invited Job, to look at things with a different perspective, to see things from God’s point of view. “Why do you talk without knowing what you’re talking about?” God asks. “Where were you when I created the earth” (Job 38:2, 4 The Message)? Truth is, my questions are less a demand for accountability from God than an expression of my own limited understanding of life.
But when I look at the darkness with the eyes of faith, I start to see signs of something greater: blossoms in the desert, the outline of a way that leads all people to God. On the horizon, dawn’s first light starts to show. And I begin to know, in the words of Desmond Tutu’s African Prayer Book, “Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through the One who loves us.”
In the words of a pastor colleague of mine, Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “It is into darkness that God sends light. . . . God’s dawn from on high breaks upon us – but it is not a disembodied light. The way the dawn comes is that God sends people into the darkness – people like Jesus, like us – who shine with God’s light. It rises in us. We embody it. Our simple acts of love and courage, every act of kindness, every witness for justice, every prayer for another, no matter how feeble, no matter how doubtful or conflicted, every tear shed for the world, no matter how fragile, is light that transforms the darkness, that gives light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and guides our feet into the way of peace.”
You and I, everyone who claims the name “Christian,” is a sign of God’s light breaking into the darkness, a sign of healing flowing into a broken world that cries for help. Every cry for light, for healing, for help, is a question from someone sitting in the prison of darkness and asking us: Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? And every one of us, in some small way, can answer: “Yes, I am the one, we are the ones. You’ll know us not by what we say but by the fruit we bear.”
Ninety-one-year-old Morrie Boogaart answers “yes” to that question by knitting, and he knits a lot. A resident of an assisted living facility in Michigan, Morrie wakes up every morning and starts knitting, and he doesn’t stop until he falls asleep at night – all day, every day, with coffee breaks along the way. Setting a goal for himself of three hats a day, he’s knitted over 8,000 hats, all of which are donated to the homeless.
Terminally ill and bedridden, Morrie refuses to spend his last days focusing on the end. Instead, he fills each day with meaning and direction. When asked each year what he wants for Christmas, and for Father’s Day and his birthday, Morrie asks for only one thing: more yarn. “This is my life,” Morrie said, “I have always liked to help people, and I’m not going to stop now. We all need a sense of purpose.” Morrie is a light shining in the darkness that the darkness has not overcome.
A waiting world walks in darkness and looks to the church, to you and me, and asks, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? How will you and I answer? What message will we speak to them? What signs will they see because of our witness?