Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I just turn and go right back to sleep. Sometimes, though, I wake up and I want to know what time it is. I wonder if I still have hours until morning or if my alarm will go off in just a few minutes. When I wake up in the dark just before dawn I find it hard to imagine that the sun is about to rise. Sometimes I just lie there and watch as the familiar world slowly emerges from the darkness: the neighbors’ house across the street, the tree outside the window, the dresser in the corner.
This hour right before dawn, says the Apostle Paul, is the time in which we live. “You know what time it is,” he writes confidently in his letter, “how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep… the night is far gone, the day is near.”
We live on the edge of daybreak. We know the thick darkness around us and within, but the resurrection of Jesus from the dead marks the dawn of a new day, and what is emerging now is not the old, familiar world, same as it ever was, but a new creation, new time, new life.
We live on the edge of daybreak. You ask Paul what time it is, and he will tell you, “It’s early in the morning, friend, the night is far gone, the day is near. The birds of the kingdom are singing songs of redemption.”
Disciples of Jesus know what time it is; we live “at the dawn of a new day, at the point where night and day, things passing and things to come, grapple with each other.” Disciples of Jesus look into the darkness with watchful expectation, claiming the Easter promise that the faint glimmer of light we can make out is not the fading memory of former glory but the dawn of peace.
It takes discipline to look at the world in that peculiar way. It takes discipline to look at the world from the perspective of the new day, and not just that, but to light candles in preparation, one at a time.
Humans beings are very gifted; we shoot each other with everything imaginable; we we turn every technology into weapons – but that’s not the whole story. God speaks, and we light a candle.
Human beings oppress and abuse each other, we exploit every fear for power – but that’s not the whole story. God speaks, and we light a candle.
We live on the edge of daybreak. Things passing and things to come are grappling with each other. We live in the dark, but our eyes have caught the first light of the coming dawn, and we light a candle. Justice, beauty, truth and peace are things to come, and we light a candle for every glimpse of life in fullness.
Advent means coming, and it stirs in us a holy restlessness for the complete transformation of ourselves and the world. Advent tells us what time it is better than any clock or calendar: time to wake up and live in the light of the new day.
Advent teaches us to live in the interval between the early signs of dawn and the sunrise itself, where our actions are no longer dictated by the passing night but called forth and encouraged by the coming day. “Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” Paul writes, reminding us that this is not a battle of us against them, but about the victory of God over all that would keep you and me and all creation from being fully alive. Our struggle is against the destructive temptations of idolatry, where we seek fullness through lust and greed, or surrender to hopelessness rather than the grace of God. We put on the armor of light, and sometimes it is just one flickering candle that has to be sword and shield, breastplate and helmet.
It takes discipline to look into the darkness with watchful expectation. The great Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav lived more than a century ago in what is today the Ukraine. He noticed that if dancers could persuade melancholy persons to join them, their sadness would lift. “And if you are that melancholy person,” he taught, “persuade yourself to dance, for it is an achievement to struggle and pursue that sadness, bringing it into joy.” In 1903, a year in which Russia passed a number of laws that made life very difficult for Jews, Rabbi Nachman said, “I have danced a lot this year.”
It is easy to dance when you feel like dancing, but it is essential that you dance when the darkness is threatening to swallow you. It is essential that we hope when we think all hope is lost for humankind. Our hope isn’t something we dreamed up one day, it is a gift shaped and sustained by the faithfulness of God; and we hope against hope not because the world is promising, but because God’s word is trustworthy.
In the darkness of slavery in Egypt, God spoke – and Moses lit a candle of freedom.
In the darkness of Jerusalem’s corruption, God spoke – and the prophets lit a candle of justice.
In the darkness of Israel’s exile in Babylon, God spoke – and Isaiah lit a candle of hope.
In the darkness of Good Friday, God spoke – and the disciples of Jesus greeted the dawn of a new creation. We look at the world with expectation, because God speaks and God’s word is trustworthy.
“In days to come,” we read in Isaiah, “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.” Isaiah sees all the nations coming to the house of God, but this time not to conquer, plunder, and destroy as in the past, but to learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths. And because God is judge between them and allows them to settle conflicts without recourse to violence, they are finally free to beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. The global war economy finally becomes a peace economy.
What I find most remarkable about this vision is how utterly useless it is for imperial dreams or other ideas of domination. The nations don’t come after their defeat, forced to pay tribute to the new rulers of the world. They come willingly and expectantly, eager to learn. They come, because this city is like a magnet. The implication for the people living by this vision is not to go and conquer the world, but to build a community that is inviting and hospitable to the world’s hope for peace.
We live in dark times when too many children learn war and little else, but it shall be otherwise. We live in dark times when nations beat their trucks into tanks, and their education budgets into weapons programs, but it shall be otherwise. We live in dark times when the temple mount in Jerusalem is of all the mountains the saddest, but it shall be otherwise. The word of God confronts our resignation with a vision of what shall be.
We do live in the dark, but with our faces lit by the faint light of the coming dawn. We light one candle, and we sing of the sun of righteousness. We live “at the point where night and day, things passing and things to come, grapple with each other.” We trust the word of God that the twilight around us is the dawn of the new day, and we put on the armor of light. With generations of God’s people we encourage one another saying, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
It is Advent, and we practice and nurture daring hope. I went to see a movie last week, a documentary film called Little Town of Bethlehem. It is not a Christmas movie, although the title sounds like something from the Hallmark channel. It is an Advent movie.
It follows the story of three men of three different faiths and their lives in and around Bethlehem. Sami’s story begins as a young boy living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank; Yonatan’s starts on an Israeli military base; and Ahmad’s begins in a Palestinian refugee camp.
Their three stories are interwoven through the major events of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, starting with the 1972 massacre at the Munich Olympics and following through the first Intifada, suicide bombings in Israel, the Oslo Peace Accords, the assassination of President Yitzchak Rabin, and the second Intifada.
The film explores each man’s choice of nonviolent action amidst a culture of overwhelming violence that has dehumanized all sides.
Sami, after first learning about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a teen, began lecturing about nonviolence in high school. Later, he traveled to India to learn more about Gandhi. He founded the organization Holy Land Trust to promote nonviolence in the Palestinian community.
Yonatan embraced his father’s legacy as a pilot in the Israeli Defense Forces and fulfilled his own dream of becoming an helicopter pilot. However, his journey led him to the astonishing decision to join with 26 other Israeli military pilots who publicly refused to participate in missions that would lead to civilian casualties. Yonatan struggles to reconcile his love for his country with his growing opposition to the Israeli occupation. He is the co-founder of the organization Combatants for Peace, made up of former Israeli and Palestinian combatants.
The third man, Ahmad, after studying in Spain, returned to Bethlehem to become a nonviolence trainer. Despite the daily challenges of living in a refugee camp, Ahmad risks his life and livelihood in nonviolent actions to bring an end to oppression.
Sami and Ahmad have been labeled as “Israeli collaborators” by some within the Palestinian community and they are seen as a threat to security by the Israeli military. By refusing to participate in offensive military actions against Palestinian civilians, Yonatan has been branded a traitor by some Israelis and can no longer work in his homeland.
Sami is a Christian, Ahmad a Muslim, and Yonatan a Jew. All three practice the daring hope that peace can be achieved through nonviolent struggle. I see how each one looked into the darkness and chose to live on the edge of daybreak.
Have a blessed Advent.
 Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and Implications of a Christian Eschatology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), p. 31
 See Annie Dillard, For the Time Being (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), p. 144