It’s week two of Advent. Traditionally we look at the Old Testament prophecies that look forward to the coming of the Messiah. It never ceases to amaze me how Jesus’ contemporaries were looking for a ‘knight in shining armour’ Messiah rather than a suffering servant given that they had the same prophecies that we do. Somehow they managed to spin things in such a way that they could ignore the difficult and awkward passages and focus on the ones that they liked – perhaps they called the ones they didn’t like “fake prophecies”.
Of course we’d never do that, would we? This Christmas we’ll all be referring to the slaughter of the innocents in our nativity plays and emphasising the ‘sword piercing your soul’ heart-rending aspects of Simeon’s prophecy to Mary in our 9 Lessons and Carols won’t we?
I can still remember one of the comments made to me in sermon class at Spurgeon’s College*. It’s not because it was a really traumatic experience, but because it was profound. I had preached from Genesis 22 on God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and had spoken about Abraham’s faith, God’s honouring of that faith and the prophetic nature of the Lord providing a lamb for the burnt offering. One of the lecturers pointed out that I had ignored the darker side of the narrative and (to paraphrase him) made a profoundly macabre passage into one that was all light and fluffy! How would it have felt to be Abraham and be told that he had to sacrifice his son? Never mind that he was the miracle baby through whom the prophecy would be fulfilled, it was his son whom he loved!!
I took that on board. In my first church as one of a team of Ministers we took a risk one Christmas Day by taking the theme of ‘Disappointment’. We messed around with giving each other disappointing presents (“Have you got the receipt?”); explored the disappointment of God’s people expecting a warrior king and getting a baby in a cattle feeding trough; and then finished by talking about how Christmas can be a time of disappointment for some people – marked by loneliness, sadness, painful memories and a sense of being left out by all of the frivolous festivities. We pointed out how in the midst of the joy and wonder of the nativity narrative there were people walking in darkness, there was the inexpressible trauma of mothers weeping for children ripped from their arms, and even Mary and Joseph experienced rejection, loneliness and had to flee for their lives as refugees. And while we spoke of the great light, of the one who weeps with those who weep, and of the place for all in the cold, dark stable we got quite a lot of criticism from people for whom that was too sombre a message for a Christmas Day service. But I will never forget the warmth, length and strength of the hugs I received from people who with tear-stained faces needed no words to express that by exploring the darker side of Christmas we had enabled them to feel included and ministered to. It was worth it.
This Advent may you experience Immanuel’s light in dark places, his consoling embrace in abandonment, and his presence in loneliness.
Be blessed, be a blessing
*Sermon class was the occasion when a student preached in front of the whole College and then everyone decamped to a lecture room where it was analysed (not always positively).