Most of us have crossed a number of borders in our lifetime. Like many of you, I’ve crossed the border between Canada and the U.S. quite a few times – I’ve crossed that border by land, over bridges, and in the air. In the past I’ve driven with my parents across the border between Holland and Germany. Of course in our time of frequent air travel you’re often crossing borders without even realizing it, especially if you fly in or out of Europe.
But when it comes to crossing a border, I think we’d have to say that there is something unique about crossing by land. There’s something unique about it because when you cross by land there is always a kind of in-between space. No-man’s land, as it is called. You have passed the border station of one country, and you are approaching the border station of another country, but for just a few meters or minutes you are nowhere exactly. Not in one country. Not in the other. You are in an undefined middle.
A few years back a movie came out entitled The Terminal. It starred Tom Hanks. It was the fictional story of an Eastern European visitor to the United States who arrives a JKF airport in New York but without the necessary papers to get into the country. But right at the time this visitor arrives in New York, a civil war breaks out in his fictional home-country of Krakhozia and he can’t go back. So he can’t get through customs into the U.S, but he also can’t go home. So he lives for several months in the airport terminal – he lives off of the generosity of the vendors and employees within the terminal. The movie, in fact, is partly based on the story of an Iranian refugee who lived for more than 20 years in the departure lounge of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Imagine, then, not only passing through this kind of no-man’s land, but being stuck there – unable to go back, unable to move forward. Stuck between countries – neither here nor there – for days or months or years.
The most interesting border crossing that I have made was with Becky when we were travelling in West Africa – it was a border crossing between Eastern Gambia and Senegal. Now the road between the last town in Gambia and the first town in Senegal was at least 20 kilometers long, with a border control point smack dab in the middle of nowhere. It was a twenty-kilometer, hot, dusty road running through the middle of a dry, scrub brush landscape. With that little border control point in the middle. And to make it across along that road and across the border by public transportation, you bought a ticket to ride in the back of a small dilapidated truck loaded up with people and luggage.
Now on the way back across that border Becky and I got lucky and got the primes seats right up in the cab of that little dilapidated truck. Prime seats, it turns out, to be able to see how much trouble the driver had getting the thing into gear. Prime seats to see them adding water to the constantly over-heating engine. Prime seats, it turns out, to hold the windshield in place, which kept falling out onto our laps. That rusted out little truck gave every indication that it was going to give up the ghost on that trip across the frontier. And it’s not necessarily a place you really want to get stuck – no man’s land between the Gambia and Senegal, at the hottest, most humid time of the year. Sitting in the dust with only a little water left, 10 kilometers from the nearest town in either direction.
No man’s land. The frontier. That in-between place. It is often a difficult place to be. No one wants to be stuck in no man’s land for any significant period of time. Whether we are talking about a very concrete passage between one country and another country – or perhaps talking about a more metaphorical in-between space, where we feel lost, where we lack a context to give our lives meaning, or where we feel out of touch with ourselves – most of us would prefer not to find ourselves living in no man’s land.
In an important sense, however, Advent finds us in just such a no man’s land. Advent finds us in just such an in-between place. There are 10 kilometers of emptiness and wilderness in both directions – with just a little Advent outpost to remind us where we are, to give us some sense of who we are. It is a place of tension. It is a place of uncertainty. Not a place we might choose to stay.
We can try to understand this in-between place of Advent this morning by looking for a moment at our passage from Isaiah chapter 61. You will have recognized the words of that passage because you have heard them read from Isaiah before. But perhaps you also recognized the words of that passage because Jesus uses them to describe himself in the earliest part of his ministry – when he goes to the synagogue and preaches.
We read: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
Hearing these words, is there any question why we light the candle of joy today? Is there any question why we announce our joy in this season of expectation. We expect God to do an amazing thing, and it fills us with joy. Things are going to be made right. Jesus is coming. His kingdom will make all the difference for our world. Joy defines us. “The oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” “Good news for the oppressed.” The candle of joy, indeed.
But our sermon title for today is Advent Blues. How can we have a sermon title of Advent Blues on a Sunday when we light the candle of joy? Well, we can have an sermon entitled Advent Blues today precisely because we are in a kind of no man’s land. We are in-between. There are 10 kilometers of emptiness and wilderness in both directions. Joy yes, but still we are in that difficult in-between, wilderness place.
You see, when Isaiah announces freedom for the oppressed, gladness for the sorrowful, release for the prisoners, and comfort for the mournful. And even when Jesus announces in dusty Galilee that all of this is accomplished in himself – it is against a backdrop of continuing oppression and sorrow and bondage. There is joy – amazing joy at what God has promised and given in Jesus. Yet we wait. We remain in a kind of no-man’s land – an in-between space with 10 kilometers of emptiness and wilderness in both directions. This is the space of Advent Blues.
The Blues, of course is a musical form that is uniquely American. The blues originated in the Southern United states. The blues carries with it remembered rhythms of the African heritage, and the call and response form of the African vocalization and song. And it carries with it the painful experiences of American slaves and sharecroppers. A uniquely American form of music – in the form of vocalization only or played on slide guitar – its lyrics capture the pain of the human experience. Loss, pain, broken relationships, backbreaking work. And yet in certain streams of the blues there is also an expression of hope and joy – particularly in expressions of the blues linked up with the gospel tradition, with African American spirituals. So that on the one hand blues gives voice to all of the grief that human life can entail, but on the other hand the blues can give voice to this hope for something more. What we would call joy, this morning.
Thinking about our culture this morning, we might say that talking about Advent Blues is a way of getting beyond the superficial, consumeristic holiday that passes for Christmas today. In western culture today, Christmas does not put us in touch with what is most real in our lives – Christmas today doesn’t put us in touch with the truth of the human. Mostly, Christmas represent just another attempt to put a happy spin on life – a superficial gloss over the struggles of life – a bit of shiny wrapping to distract us from the injustices in our world – and a few new toys for adults and children alike to make us forget our wilderness experience.
But Advent draws us into the wilderness.
Yes, we announce the advent of hope,
We announce the advent of peace,
We announce the advent of joy,
We announce the advent of love.
But we do so with a profound acknowledgment of the present reality of our world – into which Christ comes – the reality of exile.
The blues helps us do that. Advent Blues.
This morning the choir will lead us in a simple, traditional African American Spiritual called Sister Mary had-a but one child. And it is a song that is unabashed in acknowledging the sutbtext of suffering. There is joy in the birth of the child – there is profound, even decisive hope in the announcement of Isaiah and of Jesus – but there remains a subtext of suffering. And the blues aren’t afraid to name it.
Sister Mary had but one child, born in Bethlehem. And every time that baby cried, she’d rock him in the weary land, she’d rock him in the weary land.
The weary land. A land of injustice. A land of exile. A land of alienation from one’s true home. A land where identity is lost. A land where nothing is as easy as it should be. Ours is a land with 10 kilometers of wilderness stretching out in either direction. In the midst of such a land we locate our little Advent outpost.
O three wise men to Jerusalem came. They travelled from very far. They said where is He, born King of the Jews, for we have seen His star. King Herod’s heart was troubled. He marveled, but his face was grim. He said tell me where you find the child that I may worship him.
A weary land. A land where the spirit of Herod is not as uncommon as we might like. A land with many hard hearts. A land where some manipulate and control. A land where many deploy financial or political or emotional power for their own purposes. A land where the spirit of Herod is not as uncommon as we might like. Ours is a land with 10 kilometers of wilderness stretching out in either direction. In the midst of such a land we locate our little Advent outpost.
An angel came to Joseph and gave him this command. Arise and take your wife and child and flee to Egypt land. For yonder comes old Harod, a wicked man and bold. He’s slaying all the children from six to eight days old.
A weary land. A land of refugees. A land where women and men are forced from their homes. A land where children are exploited as cheap labour. A land where children go hungry. A land where even children don’t always have the peace and comfort they need. Ours is a land with 10 kilometers of wilderness stretching out in either direction. In the midst of such a land we locate our little Advent outpost.
These are the Advent Blues.
For some of us the season of Christmas is something we simply endure. Because the heaviness that is in our hearts, and the weight that is on our minds, does not correspond with the happiness that is supposed to accompany this season.
For some of us the season of Christmas may not be something to merely endure, but we nevertheless wonder whether the shopping and the glitter and the happy tunes really amount to much at all.
In its every corner, ours is a world marked by suffering.
And many of our own lives are marked by suffering, whether others see it or not.
We have our loneliness.
We have our sadness.
We have our shame.
We have our insecurity.
We have our doubt.
But none of this means that there we cannot have joy. None of this means we do not have a deep and real joy. Even that traditional spiritual sounds a note of hope. Sister Mary had-a but one child. Sister Mary had-a but one child. There is a child to be celebrated. There is hope to be announced. We both take seriously the reality of our world and our lives – but against that backdrop we celebrate the child, and announce our hope.
Here, at the site of our Advent outpost – in the middle of this no man’s land – even as we sing the Advent blues – we remember and cling to the only hope we know. The hope embodied in the child himself – the only hope for our neighbours and friends – the only hope of our world. God with us.
There is nothing generic about this hope.
There is nothing wistful or dreamy about this hope.
There is nothing tentative about this hope.
There is nothing indefinite about this hope.
This hope is as real as a child cradled in the arms – not just any child. The child Jesus. The one about whom Gabriel declared: Of his kingdom there shall be no end.
This hope is as real as the Jesus who sat down in the synagogue, opened the scroll and read Isaiah’s words:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
This child. The one we wait for expectantly. He is our hope. And he is our joy. Even in a weary land.