I’ll Be Home for Advent

Last Sunday, one of the children of the church said to me, “Pastor Chris, I’m tired of waiting. I’m ready to light the big candle.” She was referencing the Christ Candle in the center of the Advent wreath at First Pres. Each week we light one more candle, gently illuminating, flame-by-flame, the worship space. And each week during the children’s time, I ask them, “How many candles did we light today?” Once they give the answer, I ask, “So how much longer do we have to wait?” And you can tell from their faces that however long it is, it is too long.

So this one little girl had enough of the waiting and spoke her heart. “I’m tired of waiting. I’m ready to light the big candle.”

Truth is, I’m with her, and I suspect I speak for many.

I am tired of waiting for peace on earth, good will to all. I am ready to see peace on earth, an earth freed from war and genocide, from fear and insecurity, a world that no longer has room or time for nuclear weapons or troops in Afghanistan. I agree with the President when he says that is not the world we inhabit, and that as long as there is evil in the world, there will be the need for weapons and war. I know. We still light the Advent Candles in such a world, casting whatever bit of light we can muster against so great a darkness, and we wait. We wait for the day when the Prince of Peace establishes peace once and for all and the Gentle Shepherd guides us to a world freed of pain. But there are times when I grow tired of waiting. I’m ready to light the big candle.

I am tired of waiting for human redemption. As a pastor I see too many good people struggling against so many forces, within and without. Marriages crumble, children get in trouble, cancer invades a household, people struggle to live into their identities as children of God. I see a lot of brokenness. Sometimes it is overwhelming. Against such brokenness the best I can do is light the Advent Candles, one at a time, hoping against hope that they will be enough to guide the way. Baptismal water, bread broken and wine poured, a word scattered like seed; all seem meager light indeed in such darkness. I wait for the day when we human beings awaken to the persons we truly are, the persons God intended us to be; beautiful, shining, beloved children of God. But there are times when I grow tired of waiting. I’m ready to light the big candle.

I am tired of waiting, in other words, for “the Kingdoms of this world to become the Kingdom of our God and of his Christ…” I am tired of waiting for home.

On a dark evening in just a few days, we will gather and light that big candle. From it we will each light our own, singing “Silent Night, Holy Night.” And as the sanctuary fills with light, we will choose to believe all over again that somehow in this Child there is the “dawn of redeeming grace.” The waiting will be over.

Even though in many ways we will continue to wait as much the day after Christmas as we did during the month before, the news that greets us each year on this silent, holy night changes the character of our waiting. We are no longer passive observers, we are active participants in the coming kingdom, choosing to live by its increasing light even as we wait. We become people of peace even as we wait for peace; we become authentic human beings even as we await our full redemption. We live in the home God intends even while we await its completion in all the world.

It is the mystery and wonder of Advent and Christmas. We wait for One who is already come.

That’s why we light the big candle.

I can’t wait.

What about John 14:6?

I have been asked this question quite a bit in the wake of a series of Wednesday Night Live studies Dr. Gary Brown and I conducted on something he calls “Interspirituality.” During the study, we spent time discussing the western (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and eastern (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc) religious traditions and the ways they intersect with and inform one another. Specifically, we looked at the spiritualities that emerge from these traditions, seeing the ways the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mystical traditions more closely resemble the eastern religions in their approach to spirituality. Our time together was enhanced by a visiting lecturer from Vanderbilt Divinity School, John Thatamanil, who helped us think about the Bhagavad Gita in conversation with the Gospel of John.

The conversation about the Gospel of John led naturally to a session on John 14:6 – “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This passage had come up several times throughout the semester, both in class and in private conversations. So last night I began a two-session close reading and study of John 14. We only made it to the verge of the verse in question and next Wednesday we will dive right into it.

One of the things we discussed last night is that as in real estate there are three important things: location, location, location; so in Bible study there are three important things to keep in mind: context, context, context. It is easy to get so familiar with passages like this one, especially ones that often get quoted as single verses, that we lose context and, consequently, meaning.

So here’s my question for my readers as I look toward next Wednesday. How do you read this text in light of the presence of people of other religions no longer, as Thatamanil says, across the ocean, but often across the bed? The reality of inter-religious and interfaith dialogue is no longer a theoretical question for missionaries, but a day-to-day practical question for all Christians who take their faith and the faith of their friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family members seriously.

Is Christ the only way to God? Should people of other religions be recipients of our evangelism? Are there many paths to God? If so, what do you do with a text like John 14:6 and many others like it (though not as explicit perhaps) scattered throughout the Bible? Does reading this text in a wider context change the way you look at it? How do you personally think about your acquaintances of other faiths? Is there a middle position between the extremes of complete acceptance of other faiths or complete rejection?

Please share your comments. I will keep them anonymous if I share them with the class on Wednesday night, but I would love to know how folks on this blog are thinking about these issues.