Did you see it? Did you see them?
All around us, in the darkness, there are lanterns. Lanterns in the darkness that surround us.
We peer into the darkness, squinting our eyes, attempting to make out a shape or hear a sound. We peer into the darkness trying to see who’s there. We peer into the darkness trying to see what is there.
We look and look…we seeing nothing, but specks of light in an ocean of darkness.
The walls of our lives are high…there are times we feel totally safe, as if the walls of our lives cannot be taken. Yet, as we keep watch in the tower that rises above these walls, we can’t help but notice the lights in the distance, those lanterns, flickering outside the walls of our lives. We are safe in here…yet out there, darkness creeps closer, and pressing against our lives…the darkness merges ever closer attempting to confuse the cities of our lives with the presence of the darkness.
We see the lanterns. Still flickering. Still burning.
In the darkness is the reminder that there is something pressing against us that we cannot make out, that we cannot see, that we cannot hear. Yet, there is it…it’s presence of the ominous light of silence. The lantern in the darkness letting us know all might not be well.
“Hear the Word of the Lord given to Isaiah the prophet, “Now it came about in the days of Ahaz, the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, the son of Judah, that Rezin the King of Aram and Pekah the son of Ramaliah, King of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not conquer it. When it was reported to the House of David, saying, “The Arameans have camped in Ephraim, his heart and the hearts of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake with the wind. The Lord said to Isaiah, say to Ahaz, Take care and be calm , have no fear and do not be fainthearted because of these two stubs of smoldering firebrands because they have said let us go against Judah and terrorize it, and make for ourselves a breach in its walls. Thus says the Lord, “it shall not come to pass.” Then the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, “ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God, make it as low as hell and as high as heaven. But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!” Then he said, “Listen now, of House of David, is it too slight a thing for you to try the patience of men, that will try the patience of God as well? Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.” Isaiah 7.10-16
We did not come here today care free. Not one of us came to this place with a perfect life, without problem, without deficiency. Not one of us came here unaware that there is something, someone, some opposing and broken force, camped outside of our cities that seek to press against us and overcome us. We’ve seen the light flickering in the darkness and it fills us with fear and anxiety because we know the lights will move closer and those things holding the lights will seek to breach the walls of ourselves and our homes as they seek to terrorize us and destroy us…
Some of us may already see ladders mounted on the walls and we can only imagine what is it at their bottom, attempting to make their way up and occupy our cities.
What is attempting to occupy you? What is it that is attempting to overcome you? What do those lanterns in the darkness mean to you as they move closer, and closer…ever closer to our presumed safety? What is that makes you shake as a tree in the wind when you hear its marching, see its presence moving closer, maybe begin to hear the faint war songs of those things that seek to take away all hope, all future, and all attempts of salvation? What are those realities in our lives that announce to each of us…let us go up and terrorize them!
Let us breach their walls and overcome them!
The absence of love.
In our families, between husbands and wives who have forgotten how to love, and have instead chosen to co-exist.
Between children and parents, who take one another for granted, ungrateful for the gift that they are to one another.
Relationships that are shipwrecked on selfishness and torn apart by stubbornness. The absence of love…people who are so lost in each other’s presence that they are not even sure how to have a simple conversation anymore.
The absence of economic certainty.
Funny thing, in times of economic turmoil and strife, we often take our frustrations out on one another, when one another is all we have to make it through. Do you have enough or is “not enough” threatening your family? Is not enough the thing that keeps you from being happy? Do our pursuits for economic certainty get in the way of us finding ourselves, seeing our loved ones, or cast a vision of the world that simply creates another version of, not enough?
The absence of contentment.
Discontent seeks to overtake all of us. Discontentment…it eats us alive and pushes us to create another future wherein we can ensure our contentment. We are not satisfied with who we are, where we are, what we are and the reason we are here is because of everyone else around us…
The presence of temptation.
What temptation haunts you? What thing is it that no one else knows about, that is constantly there, whispering your name, whispering for you to enter? What thing is that you have never been able to overcome and it has paralyzed you physically and spiritually so that you have even begun to question whether God can forgive you or that you can even resist this stranglehold it has one you? What is it that seeks to press up against you, from out of the darkness…
What carries the lantern and reminds you that it is always there?
“And I will give you a sign, behold, a virgin, a son, Immanuel.”
As we stand here, in our cities, worried about what is drawing near and camping all around us, seeking to overtake us at any moment and throw our lives into the abyss, we hear a word of the Lord. And the word of the Lord is…have patience.
You may see these things lurking outside your walls. You may be hearing them try to convince you that there is no deliverance…there is no hope…there is no answer to the problems that fill our lives and threaten to break our relationships.
The Good News of Immanuel, of the sign of God, is that these things do not have the final say. They are not able to overcome you…they will not breach your walls, they will not have victory, they are nothing but smoldering firebrands whose days are numbered…and by the time the Son comes, by the time Immanuel is in our presence, they will be things of the past and would have given way to a future whose motto is no longer, “us all alone”, but “God with us!”
And here is the beautiful thing about Advent: Advent happens in the midst of occupation; in the midst of a threat to our lives!
Advent is God’s statement that when the world seems bleak, when your life seems to be threatened, when you have more questions than you have answers, when brokenness and loneliness is attempting to fill your home, when temptation is seeking to become a permanent fixture in your daily existence…when it seems like the terror you’ve been living with has no end…just then, at that moment, when you are unsure about even asking God for a sign…God gives us one anyway and his name is Immanuel.
God. With. Us.
God is coming to dwell with us Church. When it would be easier for God to leave us alone to the mess we’ve made, our God makes himself known not as one that determines our lives in some far off place, but as a God that knows that only one answer will do: Immanuel.
In reflecting on the Immanuel passage in a sermon Saint Augustine writes:
“You must remember, brothers and sisters, what a tremendous desire possessed the Saints of old to see the Christ. They knew he was going to come, and all those who were living devout and blameless lives would say, “Oh, if only that birth may find me still here! Oh, if only I may see with my own eyes what I believe from God’s Scriptures!” The saints knew who from the Holy Scripture that a virgin was going to give birth as you heard when Isaiah was read: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb and shall bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” What Emmanuel means the Gospel declares to us, saying, “which is interpreted God with us.” So do not let it surprise you, unbelieving soul, whoever you are, do not let it strike you as impossible that a virgin should give birth and in giving birth remain a virgin. Realize that it was God who was born, and you will not be surprised at a virgin giving birth. So then, to prove to you how the saints and just men and women of old longed to see what was granted to this old man Simeon, our Lord Jesus Christ said, when speaking to his disciples , “Many just men and prophets have wished to see what you see and have not seen it; and to hear what you hear and have not heard it.”
I propose the words of Jesus to his disciples are not only to them, but to us also…and the words of Augustine are not merely for his church, but for us in the present…
For indeed, many just men, women and prophets have wished to see what we see and to hear what we have heard…lives spent in anticipation and expectation longing to see what we see and hear what we have heard and experience what we have, and are, going to experience.
The question this advent becomes for us all: when we see, will we believe? When we hear will we listen? “Therefore, the Lord said to you Church, “Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son and she will call his name Emmanuel…which translated means, God with us.”
As the lanterns burn around the camps of our lives: Emmanuel. God with us. Amen.