Those little Advent candles sure have a lot of darkness to overcome this year. I see them glowing from church windows and on TV, in homes and at midnight vigils, here in Dayton and in Sandy Hook. Their stubborn flames represent the divine promise that even the smallest light can chase away the shadows lurking in this world, that even in the darkest places, God can’t be kept out.
It’s a hard promise to believe right now, I know. The children in the pictures are just too young, too familiar. Our hearts ache; the darkness seems so heavy and thick.
We all grieve in different ways, and we must be patient with one another as we do, but there is a rumor floating around among the people of God that is so vile, so dangerous and untrue, it simply must be called out. It’s a rumor that began long before the shots rang out at Sandy Hook and long before this Advent season.
It’s the rumor that God can be chased out.
You might have heard it from Bill O’Reilly and those who, every Christmas, work themselves into a frenzy over the “War on Christmas.” They storm checkout counters to demand that clerks issue them a “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” crying persecution when inflatable manger scenes are moved from public courthouses to private property. They demand that every gift purchased, every mall opened late, every credit card maxed out must be done so in Jesus’ name…or else Christ will be taken out of Christmas. They do it because someone told them that God needs a nod from the Empire to show up, forgetting somehow that God showed up as a Jew in the Roman Empire.
In a barn.
As a minority.
After a genocide.
To the applause of a few poor shepherds.
If the incarnation tells us anything, it’s that God can’t be kept out.
Or you might have heard the rumor from a red-faced preacher who insists that if we can’t keep God’s name in our pledge, on our money, and on our courthouse walls, then we can’t keep God in our country. He has convinced his congregation that the fight of faith is a fight for power, that we win when we see God’s name on our cash, on our statues, on our idols, and in our legislation. He thinks that the removal of God’s name is the removal of God’s very self. He has forgotten that when God showed up, God was executed by the government.
On a cross.
Emptied of all power.
Only to rise from a borrowed grave three days later because God can’t be kept out.
Or, most recently, you might have heard the rumor from Bryan Fischer, from Mike Hucakbee or a friend on Facebook, saying that God abandoned the children at Sandy Hook because, though children have every right to pray in public schools, those schools cannot sponsor prayer events out of deference to religious freedom. When asked where God was on that awful Friday morning, these Christians have said that God did not show up at Sandy Hook because “God is not allowed in public schools,” because “ we have systematically removed God” from that place.
Brothers and sisters, let’s call this one for what it is: bullshit.
God can be wherever God wants to be. God needs no formal invitation. We couldn’t “systematically remove” God if we tried.
If the incarnation teaches us anything, it’s that God can be found everywhere: in a cattle trough, on a throne, among the poor, with the sick, on a donkey, in a fishing boat, with the junkie, with the prostitute, with the hypocrite, with the forgotten, in places of power, in places of oppression, in poverty, in wealth, where God’s name is known, where it is unknown, with our friends, with our enemies, in our convictions, in our doubts, in life, in death, at the table, on the cross, and in every kindergarten classroom from Sandy Hook to Shanghai.
God cannot be kept out.
And although my doubt and anger make it hard for me to believe today, I will keep lighting those little Advent candles like a religious fool until they help me in my unbelief. May their flames be a reminder to all of us that we don’t have to know why God let this happen to know that God was there….
and in those swaddling clothes,
and on that cross,
and in that grave,
and on the throne.
For no amount of darkness can overcome the light.