“Until Christ Comes…Whistle in the Dark”
Sunday, December 16, 2007
Isaiah 9: 1-7
The season of Advent is about waiting. Waiting is a universal and commonplace experience. But waiting is about more than waiting.
Waiting is sacramental. It is an ordinary experience that has a deeper meaning. It is the outward sign of something more profound and intangible, but still very, very real.
Waiting is a sacrament of our finitude and mortality. Waiting is an outward sign of the reality that the universe does not revolve around me…or you. Waiting is a strange grace.
If life, or the universe, or God did not impose on us the need to wait, we would probably destroy ourselves and each other.
The question of the Advent season is: What do we do while we are waiting? How do we handle our finitude…the reality that the world does not revolve around us and that we are not God…the reality that the things we want to happen do not happen on our time schedule or at our pace or maybe sometimes not at all. There is a lot we are not in control of, not in charge of. This is the deeper meaning of reality of needing to wait.
What do we do about the aspects of life where we are not in control? What do we do while we are waiting?
One answer is that we whistle in the dark. Fred Buechner writes that faith is a kind of whistling in the dark…“an attempt to keep the spirits up while peering through the shadows for some glimmer of Meaning.”[i] And he capitalizes the word “Meaning.” He does this to show, I think, the connection between meaning and God. Sometimes the only revelation we get of God is a glimmer of meaning. God and Meaning may not be the same thing, but they are so closely intertwined that to see one is to see the other. To believe in the one is to believe in the other.
What do we do at those places of life where we are all too aware of the limitations of our power and control? We whistle in the dark. We keep faith. We keep our spirits up.
I’ve turned to a familiar Advent Scripture passage for our lesson this morning. The reason I was drawn to this particular passage is not just because it is a lesson we tend to read during Advent but because of the repeated use of words that mean “gloom.”
Verse one talks about “gloom.” Verse two could easily be translated as being about “people who walked in gloom…those who lived in a land of deep gloom.” The Anchor Bible translation is “dwellers in a land of gloom.”[ii]
One of the hard parts of those aspects and situations in life where we are not in control…where we can not by our own effort make things come out the way we want them to come out…one of the hard things about being in a place where we don’t know what is going to happen but can only wait is that our tendency, many of us, is to imagine the worst. It is hard not to do.
How do we wait for the results of the doctor’s tests to come back and not imagine the worst? How do we work hard in a campaign and experience the ups and downs and not imagine the worst come election day? How do we go through the normal struggles and risks and distances of a romantic relationship and not sometimes imagine the worst? How do we avoid becoming gloomy about those experiences and places in our lives where we are not in control and all we can do it wait?
One way, of course, is through denial. I read an article not long ago in the New York Times arguing that there is an upside to denial.[iii] “Everyone is in denial about something,” the article said, and this is surely true. The only problem is that denial doesn’t work on anything that is really important. Denial might work when that which we deny is inconsequential, but denial doesn’t work about anything that really matters.
Anxiety will never be denied. The deeper we try to push anxiety beneath the surface of our consciousness, the more insidious its control over us.
Isaiah 9 is not about denial. It is about how to keep faith in a gloomy situation. It is about how to keep our spirits up in our most vulnerable situations and times when we cannot control our own destiny. It is about whistling in the dark.
situation in Isaiah 9 was this. Ahaz is king of
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.” (Isaiah 9: 6-7)
Scholars can’t figure out why Isaiah sang this particular hymn. They can’t figure out the occasion. I think Isaiah was whistling in the dark. He was reminding himself and Judah that no human king reigns forever. New kings are being born all the time, and our true king – the one who will bring peace and justice – is being born even now if we could only see him. Isaiah was keeping faith. He was keeping his spirits up.
He is not in denial. He is looking at the gloomy realities straight in the face, but he is choosing to keep faith. He is whistling in the dark.
Craig Barnes, when he was pastor of National Presbyterian Church up the road, called it living doxologically. He told once about a bad week in his life. He’d spent most of the week at a denominational meeting that, he said, was a disaster. He came back to the church Friday morning to find a stack of phone messages 2 ½ inches high. He didn’t have a sermon prepared, and he found himself in the middle of a staff conflict.
Having made little progress on any of this, he was scheduled to lead a service at a neighborhood nursing home Friday afternoon. It was the last thing he wanted to be doing. He rushed through the service and then had to take communion to people too disabled to leave their rooms.
One was an elderly woman, almost blind and hard of hearing, named Lucille. She had outlived her husband and most of her friends. She had had to give up her home. She was confined to a small room. She had lost almost everything but life itself.
Barnes said he could hardly wait to give her communion and get back to his office and the staff mess that needed to be sorted out and the sermon that needed to be prepared. It didn’t help his mood, he said, that her hands were shaky, they spilled juice on his slacks. He finally got the Communion done and hurriedly gave her a pat on the back and began to rush away, when he heard her say these words in a clear voice: “Thank you, God, for being so good to me. Thank you that I am not forgotten. Thank you for always loving me.”
Craig Barnes said that, when he heard Lucille’s prayer, something broke in him and suddenly he did not want to leave her. It was the only sacred moment he had had all week. He realized that he himself had not said a single prayer of thanksgiving all week because he had been so focused on asking God to help him achieve what he wanted to achieve and the frustrations he was experiencing along the way.[v]
“Thank you, God, for being so good to me. Thank you that I am not forgotten. Thank you for always loving me.” Lucille, like Isaiah, was whistling in the dark.
We sometimes think the word “faith” means doctrines or ideas that we believe intellectually, but that’s not what faith is. Faith is the decision to trust, even when things look the gloomiest.
Certainly it is true that in the ideal world, it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. But even if we don’t have a candle or a match, we can still whistle.
[i] Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized (Harper & Row), ix.
[ii] See Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39: The Anchor Bible (Doubleday), 245-251.
[iv] Keith W. Whitelam, “Ahaz,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary A-C (Doubleday), 106-7.
[v] M. Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts: Finding New Life through Unwanted Change (InterVarsity Press), 146-8.