In the trenches of World War I, British private Henry Williamson, a future author, sat writing to his mother. The year was 1914 and the day was Boxing Day, the traditional holiday in Britain the day after Christmas. On the day before, Williamson had experienced the most wondrous Christmas he’d ever known. He wrote:
“Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a ‘dug-out’ (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it?”
Marvelous indeed. World War I had broken out just five months prior and was already shaping up to be what it would become: the bloodiest and most terrible war the world had ever known until World War II. In fact, after it was over and until after World War II, it was commonly referred to simply as “The Great War.”
But on that Christmas Day 1914, all along the trenches, there was a truce; a temporary one, but a truce nevertheless. In some corners, soldiers from opposite sides exchanged their dead and helped each other bury the bodies. In other places, there were prisoner exchanges and handshakes. In still other places, there was the swapping of souvenirs and bartering for things like cigarettes and tobacco, just as with Private Williamson. And in a few places, a football game broke out between English and German soldiers.
Above all, there was the sound. First, an eerie silence as one soldier reported it. No one making a peep as that Christmas morn broke. No gun fire. No orders being shouted. No yells of running across no man’s land. Just an eerie silence.
Then, the exchange of Fröhliche Weihnachten and Happy Christmas between the British and German trenches. Then the sounds of greetings and conversation as the soldiers met. Then the sounds of a football game played where, just the day before, bullets had flown. And in most places, as the soldiers prepared to part ways, the sound of Christmas carols. Germans sang Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, alles schläft, einsam wacht while the British sang along, singing Silent Night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright. Christmas carols, sung together by enemies; the sound of a temporary, but still true, reconciliation.
Soon the fighting would resume. It was war and war it would be for the next 46 months. But the fighting ceased that day, just for a moment; a sign of wonder, a sign of hope, during a dismal hour in human history.
Let’s read together our scripture for this first Sunday in Advent: Matthew 24:36-44
This feels like such an odd passage for Advent, especially to start the season. Instead of talking about Jesus’s birth, forecasting it as coming, some prophecy perhaps, we’re talking about what seems like the end times. Rather than focusing on Mary and her journey, or Joseph and his predicament, or any of the other characters we know and love, we’re focused instead on what sounds like the rapture. One will be in the field and another taken away.
And yet, here it is, what’s called a “little apocalypse.” Each year, the first Sunday of Advent, today, includes such a little apocalypse from one of the gospels. And it always struck me, in fact up until this year, as such an odd thing to include.
This time of year, we’re focused on warm, fuzzy, feelings. Chestnuts roasting by an open fire sounds about right. We love hearing yuletide carols being sung by a choir, even if we have to be dressed up like eskimos. All those jackets and things keep us warm, while the caroling, the turkey, and tiny tots, with their eyes all aglow, make the season bright.
All the more reason that it seems odd to begin with a passage of this kind. Today, we lit the candle on the advent wreath signifying hope. Where is the hope in this passage?
Especially when it seems to point to disaster. The first example Jesus uses is the world-devastating flood in which all of humanity and creation are killed, except for those that make it on the world’s first all-inclusive cruise: the ark. Certainly such disasters fill our news: floods such as this, hurricanes, tornados, and massive forest fires, all of which bring chaos and destruction.
We also know of tales of people suddenly disappearing. Stories from many African nations talk of sudden disappearances of young men and women, kidnapped by terrorist organizations or rival clans to be conscripted as forced soldiers or worse.
And, of course, this is only the beginning. As another little apocalypse says, there are plenty of “wars and rumors of wars” to fill hours worth of sermons. There are dysfunctional governments and oppressive regimes to fill our news. There are economic woes and fears, there are trade disputes, all of which can affect our bottom line. There’s plenty of news to despair over and, indeed, the more we watch, the more we despair.
And despair is the opposite of hope. To be resigned to the fact that the world is a terrible place and only getting worse; that’s the opposite of hope. To think that there’s no way anything gets better until Jesus comes back and destroys everything in order to remake it; that’s the opposite of hope.
So, where is the hope? The hope discussed in the candle lighting? The hope we celebrate during the Advent season?
Safely ensconced in his ivory tower, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow mourned for his country. The Civl War raged. News filled with lists of the dead and missing. Families everywhere grieved. Church bells rang to summon the people to funeral after funeral.
At his desk, worried for the safety of his own child who was fighting for the Union, he heard bells again, this time signifying it was Christmas Day. As the bells rang out, Longfellow penned these words:
“I heard the bells on Christmas Day, their old familiar carols play, and wild and sweet, the words repeat, of peace on earth, good will to men.”
His words, set to become a Christmas carol sung typically to a jovial tune, ring familiar to our ears. Until, perhaps we get farther in the poem.
Writing on Christmas Day itself, 1863, Longfellow says, “Then from each black accursed mouth, the cannon thundered in the South, and with the sound, the carols drowned of peace on earth, good will to men. It was as if an earthquake rent the hearth-stone of a continent, and made forlorn the households born of peace on earth, good will to men. And in despair I bowed my head. ‘There is no peace on earth, I said, for hate is strong, and mocks the song, of peace on earth, good will to men.’”
Hope, for Longfellow, was quickly fading, giving way to a despair. Two years prior, his wife had died. At the time of his writing, his only son, whom he had forbidden from joining the army, laid severely wounded in an army hospital in Virginia.
And to top it off, the war looked like it would never end. Scholars think of 1863 as the nadir of the war. No one yet knew that Gettysburg was a critical turning point. The war just felt, on that Christmas Day, 1863, like it would go on forever.
Longfellow on Christmas Day, had much reason for despair.
Where’s the hope?
Consider the circumstances of Jesus’s birth. At this time of year, there’s no one more famous than Jesus. Countries who don’t know Santa Claus know about Jesus. He looms large, bigger than life, and as well he should.
But by my best count, thirty people at most knew of Jesus’s birth when it happened: Mary and Joseph, a small band of shepherds, some wise men who wouldn’t arrive for another two years, some angels, and not too many others. There it was, the in-breaking of God into the world, Immanuel, God with us. The most momentous occasion in world history, the event on which our entire history turns, changing time from Before Christ to Anno [Demeni] Domini, Latin for “In the year of our Lord.” And only a handful of people knew about it.
At that time in world history, it’s estimated the total world population was around 300 million. So if thirty people knew Christ was born, .000001% of the world population knew that history was just changed forever. To put that in decimal, that’s a period, followed by seven zeros, and then a one. In other words, an absolutely obscure number of people knew Jesus was born on that first Christmas Day.
To those who had kept watch, like Zechariah and Elizabeth, like Joseph and Mary, like John the Baptist, like the shepherds “keeping watch over their flock by night;” it was to those that knowledge came of the single greatest event in human history.
For the other 99.99999% of the world population, life continued on that day as if nothing at all was different.
It’s funny how God works.
In bringing his Son into the world to a statistically insignificant percentage of the world population.
In revealing the most major turn in world history to a group of ordinary, obscure, people.
In still small voices.
In burning bushes in the middle of nowhere in the desert.
In blinding light and a voice only known by Paul and not by his fellow travelers.
In revelation to only a few disciples at the transfiguration.
In investment in only twelve ordinary men to change the world.
And yet, in these small ways, we see God working.
In the child who sees his mother crying and stops playing to give her a hug.
In the kindness shown in a gift received out of the blue.
In the casual aside comment, “I’m praying for you.”
In the remembrance that we’re having a hard time.
In the unexpected generosity of a friend.
In the meals delivered when suffering.
In the gift of simply being present during grief.
In the gracious gift of love after an offense.
These are all things, every last one of them, that I experienced on the day before I wrote this sermon. But I hadn’t noticed them at first. It was only when I stopped moving so fast to take stock, to think back over the day, to consider where I had experienced God, that I discovered these blessings, these examples of God’s in-breaking into my personal history; these examples of Immanuel, God with us. It was only with intentionality that I found God all over my day.
In a day that had been hard, full of sorrow, full of stress and anguish, full of being busy and too many demands; in a day like that, I ended the day thinking that it had just been a hard day. Just one of those bad days. Just one of those times where I get to the end and just want to pour a drink and go to bed.
But no, God had been all over my day. I just didn’t see it until I went to look for it.
Longfellow needed to see it, too. He needed to see God at work in his life; all over his days. And somehow, in the mystery of faith, he caught sight of God working. His poem, so poignantly begun, so devastatingly depressing in the middle, yet shifts again at the end. Still mindful of the death of his beloved wife, still worried about the condition of his son in an army hospital in Virginia, and still hearing the bells of Christmas Day outside his window, Longfellow finished his poem saying:
“Then peeled the bells more loud and deep. God is not dead, nor does he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail. With peace on earth, good will to men.”
The sound that had been there all along, the sound of church bells ringing people to services, celebrating the birth of the Savior of the world. The same bells that tolled for those who perished in the war. Those same bells that moments before had “mocked the song of peace on earth good will to men” now “peeled more loud and deep,” declaring that God is here, Immanuel, God with us.
And therein is the hope.
We often refer to this season as the season of Christmas, but that’s actually not the case; at least, not in church. This is the season of Advent, a season of waiting. It’s a season in which we are mindful that Christ is coming and we anticipate what that will mean for us. We say that it will mean joy, peace, love, and on this Sunday, hope.
The fact that God came into the world, and remains in the world, is reason to hope. All around us, throughout all of our days, God is there, showing up in surprising ways with joy, peace, love, and hope. If you were to consider your day yesterday, no matter how good or bad, and really examine where you saw God, my guess is you would see God everywhere.
God operates in small ways that we can easily miss. I do not know why that is. It seems odd. It seems too small, too insignificant. Why allow us to miss it?
And yet, there in a cave off the beaten path from a rundown nobody town named Bethlehem, the Savior was born in obscurity to .000001% of the world’s population; a statistically insignificant bunch of nobodies from a land of little consequence.
But if we take stock, if we see where God is active and moving in our lives: in the joy of a child, in the gift we receive, in the grace given, in the love of a friend, in the care of a family member, in the unexpected laughter, God is there.
Does this solve the great crises of the world? The wars and rumors of wars? The natural disasters and the like? Certainly not; but we can be assured, God is in the midst of those things, too, patiently, meticulously, working behind the scenes to change things for the better.
That’s what Advent is all about. God is here. God is with us. We just have to take notice. We just have to:
The scripture calls us to keep watch. To see where God is active and working. To see what God is doing in our midst. Only those who pay attention see it. Only those who look for it, find it. Only those who keep watch will see.
According to Karl Barth, a twentieth-century German theologian, we as Christians are to hold the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other so that we can find hope in the midst of despairing news. This Advent, let me suggest a different way to think of that. As you read the news, as you watch the news, as you have bad days, as you despair over personal difficulties, as tragedy strikes or reminders of tragedy come, as bills pile up and your schedule fills; in whatever ways hope gives way to despair, do this: hold your despair in one hand, and the manger in the other.
The manger, the obscure stable where Jesus was born to a tiny band of obscure people, is where hope was born anew.
Hope is being born anew into your life, too. Everyday. In unexpected ways. Don’t miss it.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.