Sermon, November 27, 2016

A Door That Can Be Opened Only from the Outside
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
November 27, 2016   First Sunday of Advent, Sunday of Hope
Isaiah 60:1-20, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 25:36-44

Atul Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and the author of the extraordinary book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. The book shows how there can be a conflict between what modern medicine says to do and what really matters to a person whose life is nearing the end.

One of the reasons is that our perspective changes when we sense that our time is short. Modern medicine often asks the dying to endure isolation or debilitation for the sake of safety or prolonging life by weeks or months, whereas an end-of-life perspective tends to value most the continuation of connection, choosing to focus on love and home, family and friends with the precious time it has. Nearing death can open us to the spiritual realm more widely. It can spur us to share our remaining gifts for the good of a world we want to bless before we go. It can change the way we want to live the last stage of our life.

Of course, the prospect of death can also paralyze us with fear or negativity, but if we have the courage to open to its truth it can make us wise. It can make us more Christ-like and full of light. The world can look not more terrifying but more beautiful.

Paul guides us in that positive direction. He writes, “The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” He urges us to wake up and see that our time is short no matter what age we are, and to make our focus the spiritual life, not the life driven by our selfish desires.

Jesus says, “About that day and hour no one knows…. Therefore you…must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Advent reminds us that something is coming, something bigger than we are, something beyond our control, something that will change our perspective and reorder our priorities of what matters.

Advent turns us toward the coming of Jesus into the world as a baby, and the second coming at the end of our time when we will meet Christ face to face, and the presence of Christ coming at unexpected moments in our lives today.

The voices of Jesus and Paul call to us during Advent to change our perspective, to sharpen our focus, to dedicate ourselves to what matters most because a reality-transforming force of love and light is coming, a door is about to open into the realm of God, and it is important that we prepare for it by living the life of love and light as fully as we can now.

Today’s Silent Meditation quote comes from the book God is In the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas by the German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The quote is an excerpt from a letter that Bonhoeffer wrote from his jail cell in Tegel Prison during World War II. The Nazis had imprisoned him for plotting the assassination of Hitler. Bonhoeffer knew his life was in great danger, and that he could be executed at any time. He wrote, “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent: one waits, hopes, and does this, that or the other—things that are really of no consequence—the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.”

That is a breathtaking image. Here we are this Advent, in a time like a jail cell, waiting for the door to open, a door that can be opened only from the outside. Advent asks us to wait in the hope and expectation that Christ will open the door, whether into a new life on this earth or a life that waits beyond this life. Either way, the door will be opened from the other side into greater love and light.

  1. S. Lewis has an image for this in the final book of his Narnia series. A foreign army has invaded, and in the last midnight battle the few Narnians still resisting are being captured and held prisoner in a small stable. They enter expecting to find themselves in a cramped, smelly, dark space, but instead a door has been opened from the other side into paradise.

The faithful Narnians who have tried their best to follow the Christ-like lion, Aslan, can see that they are walking in a sunny meadow in perfect spring weather, with the scent of blossoms in the air. There are other Narnians, though—a circle of dwarves—who have given up all hope and faith, who have been lost in bitter negativity, and all they can see is the dark prison they dreaded. They do not see that the door has been opened from the outside. They do not realize that they are free and surrounded by light and beauty and abundance. No matter how hard the others try to persuade them, the dwarves cannot change their perspective.

That is the tragedy today’s scriptures urge us to escape.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said something in his letter from Tegel Prison that troubled me at first. He said that in a jail cell and in Advent, “one waits, hopes, and does this, that or the other—things that are really of no consequence…”

How could Bonhoeffer say that what we do is of no consequence? He managed to write hundreds of pages while he was in prison and smuggle them out thanks to the help of a sympathetic guard. Those writings were of tremendous consequence to him, to those who loved him and to millions of Christians who have read them and been inspired and changed by them. His courage, faith and urgent sense of what matters most in life made a huge difference. Like the stable in the Narnia book, like the stable where Jesus was born, Bonhoeffer’s jail cell was bigger on the inside than on the outside. Every day the door was opened for him by the Holy Spirit who took what he found within and released its light into the world.

It was of tremendous consequence what people did in the Narnia story, too. People saw the door opened into the realm of light because they had lived awake and ready and looking expectantly for the presence of Christ (Aslan) in every moment, even when they were lost in darkness. People stayed stuck in the darkness who had actively chosen against hope and faith.

I have seen at many deathbeds the consequence of how the dying had lived. Light and love radiated from those who had cultivated it in their lives. Despair seeped out of those who were unprepared.

Bonhoeffer could not have meant that waiting with hope was of no consequence, he could not have meant that fighting on the side of the resistance against hate and oppression was of no consequence, he could not have meant that doing acts of love with our remaining time was of no consequence, because he was living proof that they made an enormous difference, and were worth risking everything to do.

What I think Bonhoeffer meant by “of no consequence” was that the door can be opened only from the outside, and all that we do to prepare for it opening has no effect on when it will open or on what is waiting on the other side.

Advent, like a jail cell, teaches us humility. It shows us the limits of our power, it reminds us that we are not in control, and if we are wise and have faith, we can see that this is good news. It is the best of news, because what is coming is far greater than we are, and far better than we can imagine. Our preparing opens us so that we are ready to walk through that door when it opens.

But even if we are not prepared, the door will be opened for us! Sometimes we suffer trauma or tragedy or depression and cannot see any light or even believe it still exists. Christ comes especially to us then and opens the door and helps us through it, often without our knowing we have passed through until much later.

The Prophet Isaiah shared this best of news with a deeply traumatized and depressed people who were captive in a jail cell of exile, whose homeland had been utterly destroyed:

For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you
and his glory will appear over you.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice.
Violence shall no more be heard in your land,
devastation or destruction within your borders.

Isaiah’s vision came true, and has come true again and again. His message is for us. It is for you. It says, prepare and rejoice, for the door will be opened from the outside for you.

Paul said, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now… the night is far gone, the day is near.”

Paul’s message is for you. Prepare and rejoice, for the door is about to be opened.

Whatever stage of life you are in, whatever you long for, whatever door you desperately need to pass through, wait and hope, prepare and rejoice, for the door is about to be opened.

The message for this beloved congregation this Advent is to wait and hope, to prepare and rejoice, for sometime in the months ahead at an unexpected hour a pastor somewhere out there is going to see your profile and feel the Holy Spirit moving her or him in this direction. That pastor will reach out and place a hand on these great doors and swing them wide from the outside, pouring new love and life and light into this beautiful sanctuary.

Let us pray in silence, preparing our heart to be opened by Christ, and yearning for the light we need to come streaming through the door…