Grace Presbyterian Church
December 3, 2017, Advent 1B
Tear Open the Heavens
Honesty compels me to admit: I’m a bit twitchy about having included a pure Christmas song on the first Sunday of Advent. Don’t expect that to become a habit.
Honesty also compels me to admit that of all the Christmas songs or carols I could have included, “In the Bleak Midwinter” really isn’t one of my favorites, for a few reasons. The musician in me generally concludes that if I’m going to listen to music by Gustav Holst (the composer of the tune), I’d much rather hear music from his orchestral suite The Planets (good chance you’ve heard music from either “Mars” or “Jupiter” even if you don’t know it). The theologian-of-sorts in me bristles at how the nativity, happening in decidedly non-snowy Palestine of the first century, gets turned into some crunchy sentimental English poetry. It’s really not a hymn you can sing except in very few places in the world – forget the Southern Hemisphere, where Christians are observing the beginning of summer as Christmas approaches, it’s hard to sing that business about “snow on snow on snow” here in Florida if we’re at all honest.
But there is one thing that “In the Bleak Midwinter” does very well, even if only briefly, that sets it very much apart from other carols and hymns of the season: it looks both backward and forward.
See it there at the beginning of the second stanza. It’s only a very brief glimpse away from the sentimentalized nativity scene the poet, Christian Rossetti, has created, but it’s still there:
Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.
For just that moment, the poem looks forward – not caught up in the cozy domestic English-ified nativity scene, but ahead to the glorious, inexplicable, hard-to-contemplate return of Christ not as infant but as king, to rule in glory for eternity. You know, that Second Coming thing we Presbyterians aren’t all that comfortable talking about. There it is.
Other hymns do it well – look to the last hymn in today’s service for a full-throated evocation of Christ’s glorious return, and the hymn that follows directly after the sermon does a neat job of contemplating both First Coming and Second Coming. And if we’re going to do it right, Advent requires contemplation of both the Advent that has been and the Advent that is yet to be.
Jesus sure does have something to say about it in today’s reading from Mark’s gospel. It’s part of the longest single speech Jesus gives in this gospel and it can be pretty thorny to read – fig trees and “you do not know the hour” not to mention darkened sun and moon and stars falling and “’the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” Clearly, this is apocalyptic – Second Coming stuff.
Isaiah’s prophetic message at times seems like a cry to speed up that unknown timetable – “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 the water to boil…” If I’m honest, I admit there are days, like when I wake up and wonder what atrocity Congress passed in the middle of the night, when I wish that God would just step in and “go all Old Testament” on a sick and cruel world and set everything right just like that … well, if you’ve ever felt that, you know where Isaiah’s coming from. So even Old Testament prophets know what it’s like to wish God would “go all Old Testament” on the world.
But ultimately, the reading for today that most captures us where we are – in between one Advent and the next – is this opening excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. If you read the two letters to Corinth you’ll know that the situation there is not so serene as Paul makes it sound here, but nonetheless the apostle does speak to them in a way that emphasizes where they are, in a way that we ourselves can relate to; given grace by God, enriched in speech and knowledge, Christ’s testimony strengthened among us, not lacking in spiritual giftedness … and ultimately, waiting, held together by God’s faithfulness until that day, “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Even in a culture that doesn’t wait until Christmas to “do Christmas,” we are still awaiting that day that marks the birth of “the Lord God incarnate, Jesus Christ,” as “In the Bleak Midwinter” names our Savior. But we can’t forget that we ourselves, in our own real time, are also waiting still. One Advent, the Advent that looks backwards, cannot be the whole story of Advent, or else we have little reason to be here. Our waiting continues, awaiting Second Advent (again borrowing from the hymn) “when he comes to reign.”
For Advents (plural), Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #97, Watchman, Tell Us of the Night; #144, In the Bleak Midwinter; #104, O Lord, How Shall I Meet You; #348, Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending