Hope Amid Violence

Today we lit the mysterious pink candle in our Advent Wreath. Very little happens in the Church that does not have some sort of meaning behind it. Not that everything we do has profound or deep significance, but most traditions are there for a reason. The pink candle is the candle for “Joy.” This Sunday of our Advent journey is supposed to work as a moment of reprieve. Every other Sunday of this season we have called out for our God to stir up His power and come, to come to His people, to come and bring to fulfillment all He has promised. But this coming of our God, His advent in power, is not all sunshine and rainbows. When God is stirred up in His power there will be consequences. There is judgment, destruction, and wrath. That is why, like those going out to see John the Baptist, we have been focusing ourselves on repenting because the Kingdom of the Heaven is at hand. We repent because we are no match for the finality of the judgment of God. We have nothing in our hands to barter with, naught with our own ability to fight against His declarations. We are at His mercy. Consequently, though we pray for God to stir up His power and come, we do so sort of checking-over-our-shoulders, unsure if we really want Him to come, unsure if we are ready.

So, in the spirit of all of this, today we light a different color candle. It is a pink candle, a candle intended to remind us of joy, joy in the midst of the advent of our God, joy which remains even as there is judgment, suffering, and opposition. Now, when you think about it, joy (at least how we understand it in the Church) is not rooted in what we might call happiness or even contentment. Joy is not the same thing as being happy, for there can be joy in the midst of suffering, joy at the heart of trial and tribulation. Joy, at least the joy signified by this pink candle, is rooted in hope, and hope is built on the promises of God Himself. That is the cause for our joy. He is the reason for our confidence and hope. For the promises of God still stand. The promises of God still come to you. Even as He comes in judgment and power, He promises salvation to all who believe and are baptized.

It is intriguing, at least to me, that on the day we light the pink candle, the day marked for joy is the same day we read this strange text from Matthew 11. It is a text where the great forerunner of our Lord is locked away in prison. There is doubt and chastisement in these verses and we are told in clear terms that the Kingdom of Heaven will suffer violence. For there, our Lord says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” The Kingdom of Heaven will suffer violence. In fact, it is enduring hostility even now and cruel people take it by force. These sadists lay their hands upon it and seek to destroy it, undo it, if they can. That does not seem to fit with the theme of joy, does it?

But if joy is rooted in hope, then perhaps this is a perfect text for the day when we light the pink candle. For what we are given in this text is a clear and accurate picture of the Kingdom of Heaven. This Kingdom comes with grace and mercy and is a kingdom which arrives in such a way that it, for a time, is resistible. It can be opposed. It can be rejected. In fact, this whole text is providing us with an accurate description of the Kingdom of Heaven. John the Baptist was the great herald of the Kingdom. He was the one sounding the alarm, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” But now, John is in prison. He crossed the wrong person, upset the wrong royal figure. In fact, we know by reading further on that John will never get out of prison alive. He will be beheaded as a party favor for a little girl. Certainly, the Kingdom suffers violence.

The violence inflicted upon the Kingdom of Heaven and felt in the life of the prophet of God makes one wonder if this is really the Kingdom at all. After all, expectations and reality do not seem to line up. If Jesus is the arrival of God, the advent of the Kingdom, then why is John in prison? Why is he suffering this way? Perhaps we do not talk about this much in the Church, but this is not an infrequent reality for the people of God. There are people all around us who suffer from the same doubts as John, and they do not have the blessing of being the voice crying out in the wilderness. They are not prophets of the Most High. No, they are the widows whose hearts ache as they scream out in their solitude for God’s mercy. They are those consumed by depression who have heard promises of better days but cannot ever seem to find them in their own lives. They are the ones who see their own failures in life, they see them so clearly so sharply that they hurt. And they all begin to wonder if this is really the Kingdom of Heaven. Does any of this makes sense? If this was the advent of God, why is there suffering? Why are there tears, trials, and violence everywhere they turn?

John sends some of his followers to ask Jesus for a little clarification. The question is simple and straightforward, “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” The Kingdom is suffering violence, or at least John’s portion of it, and he begins to wonder if perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps there is another who will usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. In response, Jesus tells them to simply look around and tell John what they see. He says to them, “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” The climax of this list, the focal point, is how the poor have the good news preached to them. The poor hear the promises of God, promises not made to their fathers, not made to the righteous, and not made to the powerful and mighty. No, they are promises spoken in real time to real people. They are promises made to the underserving, the frail, the broken hearted, the lowly, and the poor. This is the proof there is no other to look for, that Jesus is the real deal.

As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” This proclamation is the reason there is hope, and the hope He proclaims is the source of joy in the midst of all the doubt, hardship, trials, and temptations. Joy, not because we have overcome the world by our faithfulness or righteousness, but joy because He has overcome and promises life and salvation to you, freely given, freely bestowed. For the violence which got ahold of John, will also get ahold of our Lord as well. The violent will bear Jesus away. They will chain Him up and beat Him. They will ridicule and mock Him. They will pierce Him and crucify Him. Violence will collide with the coming Kingdom of God, and in many ways, it must be this way. For the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven is the judgment of the kingdoms of this age, and they will fight to the bitter end to stay alive. They will unleash all their brutality.

Yet, in all that comes there remains hope. There is hope because the sacrifice was made, the violence was endured, but victory was won by the Kingdom of Heaven. The tomb is empty! This is the good news which endures, the good news preached to the poor, the good news declared to you this day. In the midst of the violence, there is hope for you. Hope because it is for your sins that He suffers, for your life that He dies. All who cling to our Lord, all who trust in His promises are given this hope, a hope beyond the reasonableness of our age. For it clings to the proclamation that you are forgiven. In Christ alone, all your sins are forgiven, here and now, they are all forgiven.

It is because of this hope, found not in our work or ability, but in the love and compassion of Christ alone, we in the midst of violence can continue to have joy. Joy to know there is more to come in this great Kingdom of Heaven, more which has been promised to us all. So, we keep the vigil, we light the pink candle, and we have joy in the promises of Christ.