There's a Crack in Everything -- Don't Panic

The whole world has gone Christmas crazy! And here we are, the Church, just getting to the first Sunday in Advent. All around us it’s Jingle Bell Rock and the twinkling of Christmas lights and Kurt Douglas as Santa Claus on Netflix, and here we are talking about the Apocalypse, for goodness sake. 

Beloved, do we have a communications problem here? I mean, has the world gotten the messaging of the holidays right while the church is just stuck in the past? What’s the point of four weeks of Advent, anyway – talking about apocalypse and repentance and waiting, waiting, waiting, when we could have it all right now? If we wanted, we could rush to the carols, to the sweet babe in the manger, to the shepherds, the wise ones, the angelic choir, the light shining in the darkness! Why don’t we? To the world outside, Advent is just the calendar countdown to waking up to a pile of presents, but the rest of the season arrives without any waiting at all in a frantic mob of shopping as soon as Walmart opens its doors after Thanksgiving dinner. What the heck are we waiting for?

This past week Rev. Will Crtizman the new pastor at our neighbor UCC church, West End Collegiate, nine blocks south, invited me over to get to know one another. When I arrived he gave me the dime tour. We walked into the sanctuary and it was one of the most beautiful, warm, inviting sacred spaces I’ve ever seen – I took a deeeep breath, it caught in my chest, and I soaked it in. That is Christmas. Advent was the walk down West End Avenue, 9 blocks, in the cold. Who needs it?

Advent is a time for imperfect people, living in an imperfect world, to wait – to wait with expectation – and to prepare – to prepare with repentance (for the things we have had control over), and to prepare with hope (for everything else that is beyond our control) – to wait and to prepare for the coming of Christ into the world. Yes, that includes the baby who will arrive in a little more than four weeks. But we also prepare for the Mysterious presence of Christ in all of Creation and Christ’s rebirth into our hearts. And we prepare for the final Mystery – Christ’s apocalyptic arrival – our assertion that the one who was there at the beginning of time and through whom all that was created was created will also be there at the end of time and will be the one who sorts out all the last details of life, the universe, and everything. Christmas is arrival, realization, and a time of joy. Advent is pregnancy, not-entirely-sure, a hopeful time.

Our Advent theme here at Broadway this year is “Light Gets In.” We ripped the line off from the chorus of the late, great Leonard Cohen’s song entitled, Anthem. The chorus goes like this:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

At Christmas we ring ALL THE BELLS. At Christmas we come bearing gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. At Christmas the only cracks showing are the rosy butts of the chubby cherubim flying around the nativity scene. And the light comes from the Star in the East, from Mary’s flushed face, from the halo around the baby Jesus’ sweet head. “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” is not very Christmasy. But it’s perfect for Advent – if you’re into that sort of thing.

In fact, the whole process of creation for this particular song, Anthem, was ten years of Advent and one moment of Christmas. Cohen once said about Anthem:

 “It's hard to do a commentary... for this particular song because it took ten years to write… I delayed its birth for so long because it wasn't right or appropriate or true, or it was too easy, or the ideas were too fast or too fuss, but the way it is now it deserves to be born. I've been playing this song for many years and I knew that I was on the track of a really good song. I knew it stood for something clear and strong in my own heart. And I despaired of ever getting it and I was playing it on Rebecca's synthesizer, and she said, ‘That's perfect just like that.’ And I said ‘Really?’ She said, ‘Yeah, let's go down to the studio now!’”

Ten years of Advent, ten years of waiting and preparing this song, and then BOOM it was born. I’ve read some older versions of Anthem – versions from five or ten years earlier. They weren’t so different from what you’ll hear now. But they don’t carry the kind of emotion and depth that the version that got recorded contains.

After ten years of Advent, Cohen knew that song inside and out, and he stripped away all the pieces that didn’t need to be there until there was no more “fast” or “fuss,” and then, suddenly, after years of preparation and waiting, there it was – the real thing, the true song, not the song that Leonard Cohen wrote, but the song he birthed, the song that always was. That’s what Advent can do.

Cohen said about Anthem that the key to understanding it is in the chorus and that, in fact, the chorus was the underpinning and the philosophical ground of the whole album:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

He explained it further this way:

This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, nor in your work, nor anything, nor your love of God, nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect. And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together: physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that's where the light gets in, and that's where the resurrection is and that's where the return, that's where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation with the brokenness of things.  

And that’s what Advent is. And that is why Advent always begins Apocalyptically – with imagery that is a mix of beginnings and endings, world shatterings and redemption. One way of reading the apocalypse is that soon – maybe in this very generation – mad Jesus is going to return to judge us all. The world will end and it will be a bad end for everybody except the Christians (the real Christians. Me and you – it’s gonna be bad) – there will be wars and flies and bloody moons, boiling seas, cats and dogs living together – mass hysteria! But we’ve been reading apocalyptic visions for thousands of years and in every generation, we recognize the signs and the symbols. We read about wars and rumors, natural disasters, and distress among the nations and we know that these words describe us and our time. And two thousand years ago, the very first Christians heard them as a perfect description of their time. A thousand years from now, I anticipate that our descendants will understand these words every bit as well as we do. There is a crack, a crack in everything.

Does Jesus want us to despair? To PANIC? To duck and cover? When disaster strikes, should we become doubly afraid that it’s a sign Jesus is coming back to finish us off? No. Instead, when the signs of the brokenness of the world come, as they always do come, Jesus tells us, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. The images of the apocalypse – terrible as they are – are not images of a terrible end. They are images of a coming great redemption even in the midst of our current despair.

And look at how quickly Jesus moves from apocalyptic “end-times” imagery to apocalyptic beginnings imagery. First, both the Gospels of Mark and Matthew refer to many of the “end-times” signs as “birth pains” or “labor pangs.” And in our reading this evening Luke talks about the fig tree budding in spring being the sign of the coming fullness of summer, the sign that figs will soon be heavy on the branches. “So,” says Jesus, “When you see these things taking place, you know the kingdom of God is near.” When you see the cracks in the imperfect world, don’t focus on the cracks, focus on the light just behind them. When the world suffers because of disaster, that does not mean that God has abandoned the world. The promise is that even in the midst of the worst trials, God is coming into the world.

I don’t know about you, but (at a time like this) I need that reminder. There are so many Christmas movies about the world running out of Christmas Spirit and Santa and some precocious kids have to do something to bring the joy back or else the world will descend into darkness again or something. But the real promise of Christmas, the promise that comes to us through Advent is the that no matter the Spirit of the times, God’s Realm is waiting, waiting, waiting, just behind the cracks – waiting for us to peek through, offering us redemption, promise, hope – that Christmas Eve will come, whether the world is jolly or not. In the midst of brokenness, Christ comes. That’s good news.

The final lesson of our Apocalyptic first Sunday of Advent is not to let ourselves despair, don’t get totally drunk, says Jesus, don’t get overwhelmed, don’t self-medicate and check out – you may be tempted to escape the pain of your life and the world’s state, but Jesus asks us to Stay Alert, pray, don’t panic, pay attention, respond to the world. The rush to too much Christmas too soon – shopping ourselves broke, too many sugar empty calories, too many glasses of Prosecco, too many Hallmark Christmas Specials, the overwhelm of busy-ness and obligation – these things too are a means of escape, of turning our heads away from the world’s cracks while we try to make everything “PERFECT” and wear ourselves out in the impossible process. We cannot cover up the cracks in the world or in our lives. We can only pay attention to them, respond to them, watch. We can wait and prepare and repent in the season of Advent. We can...

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget our perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

Amen!