“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” Isaiah 61:1
A small brook formed the border between our property and the Buckman’s. The Buckman’s had three children, the youngest of which, a boy by the name of Peter, was a constant companion to my sister and me. We did not have a lot of companions, so his presence was precious to us. Living up to his famous literary namesake he was our default leader, whisking us off to adventures in Neverland where the only thing to be feared was the inevitable loss of youth. My parents were not too keen on my sister and I spending all our time making mud pies, having grand stick sword fights, and role playing great adventures under Peter’s direction, so they restricted our time with the ‘boy from next door.’
“No crossing the brook!” they would say. And so we didn’t.
Peter’s border was more permeable, and sometimes he snuck across and we hid him from site. Most of the time, however, we honored our parent’s restrictions. Nevertheless we spent countless hours on our side of the brook, while Peter stood on his side of the brook planning the stuff of childhood legends.
In the hot part of the summer the brook would all but dry up. Just a small trickle of water wound its way down an otherwise parched brook bed of leaves and sandy earth. The border was blurred then. My sister and I made our way down into the creek bed and met Peter in the middle. Up and down the creek bed we would walk–it was a neutral zone. As long as we stayed between the banks of the brook we were not violating, so far as we could tell, any parental directives.
At one end of the creek bed was a cement culvert that ran the span of eight feet to provide a convenient ‘walk over’ at the beginning of the property line. The culvert was a favorite place to gather. On the exit side of the culvert the cascading water formed a deep pool. It was where we floated our homemade boats, and dangled our feet, and kept our pet turtle for a season. The culvert, a rather narrow enclosure, was also an invitation to perform a daring act of childhood bravery.
“You’ll be in an’ out in a jiffy.” Peter said.
“You go first.” I replied.
“Why should I?”
“‘Cause I’m not no dummy, and it was your idea.”
“What’er you frightened of?”
“Nothing, so long as you go first.”
“Fine, scaredy cat, I’ll show you the way.”
Peter did not fear the culvert. His wirey, athletic body easily navigated the cold curves of the cement tube. He made it look easy. In ten seconds he emerged on the other side, wet drown the front of his shirt and trousers, smiling in triumph. It was my turn.
Intense fear is hardly strong enough a description to tell you what it is like to be inside a cement culvert that is collapsing all around you. It wasn’t collapsing of course, but I would have never believed it. Each second I lay stuck the passageway constricted. It closed in around me like last year’s Christmas sweater that was now two sizes too small. My heart pounded against my lungs and ribs. I couldn’t take in enough air. I started to sweat. A calmer child could easily have backed out, or continued on. I was not a calm child. I was a child prone to hysterics who was normally careful, cautious, and sensible so as to never get myself into trouble. It drove Peter foolish. So he egged me on, like a mother bird pushing her reluctant young out of the nest. This time he really had me in a jam. I hated being in Jams and was in the throws a deep and utter panic.
The culvert was plenty wide enough. I was in no danger. Nine out of ten kids would easily have made it to the other side. But I was the tenth. I knew I would be; it was a self fulfilling prophecy. The culvert would not fail me, I would fail me. I closed my eyes and cried embarrassing sobs of fear and anger.
The whole ordeal lasted no more than thirty seconds. My sister and Peter grabbed my legs and drug me out. As soon as my elbow joints cleared the opening and my arms gained lateral movement I rested my hands against the beveled opening and launched my body free. I was breathless, sitting in two inches of muddy water, dirty tear trails streaking my face. Peter was laughing. My sister stood quiet. I should have been embarrassed. I should have been angry and ashamed. But all I could feel was the glorious feeling of deliverance. I was liberated. I would not die inside that round cement coffin. Thank God I was free. Laugh all you want Peter Buckman. I had my life again.
It’s the third Sunday of Advent. On this Sunday we light the pink colored candle–the joy candle. Our psalm lection catches the feeling best, “When the Lord restored our fortunes, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.” It is time to shout church! Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her king; let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.
There’s only one problem. There are a bunch of good advent church folk who showed up this morning stuck half way up a culvert, and in sheer panic. It’s not that they have their eyes closed and are missing some grand vision that God is freely offering. They hear and live by the same promises we all do. That’s the frustrating thing about being stuck in a culvert. It’s not for lack of vision. You can see the other side. If your arms were free you could stick your hand out into the sunshine. The light is there, it’s just getting to it that’s the problem. Some are born with wiry athletic bodies who can propel themselves just about anywhere, and some of us are the one out of ten. Life is not an even dealer.
I don’t know what your culvert looks like. Some of them are smooth cement tubes, others are corrugated metal, still others are thick ribbed, black plastic. Your circumstances are different, but the same. You got yourselves in a fine mess, and you can’t move an inch. Or maybe it wasn’t all your doing, maybe someone egged you on, maybe circumstances were out of your control. It doesn’t matter, the result is that you’re stuck. What’s worse is that your whole world seems to be collapsing in on you. You’re the ones shouting Loudly, “Maranatha”–Come, O Lord. If only you had obeyed your parents and not fraternized with that “boy from next door.” But would it have made any difference? Only God knows.
Who among us isn’t confined in some way this morning, with our hands pressed to our sides, and our hearts beating against our lungs and ribs, unable to breath, sweating. In panic we await the advent. It is such a frightening thing to be held captive. I can name the oppressors. I think it is good to name the oppressors. As a matter of fact part of what we do in these days of preparation and anticipation is to identify the prisons that hold us. The Jews had the Babylonians, much of our present world is imprisoned by political oppression, hunger, poverty, violence, ignorance. We are free of most of these prisons. Free enough to grab hold of our brother’s foot, and drag him on out. But there are other things that hold us back. We can name these too: addiction, materialism, debt, pride, boredom, anger, guilt, self loathing, mental illness, physical illness, hurtful families and relationships, broken heartedness because someone we love has died, poor allegiances, corrupt systems. They are all so constricting. Suddenly we are no longer climbing through a culvert, but the eye of a needle. No wonder we get stuck.
There are things we do to calm ourselves down in the meantime. We close our eyes and count to ten. It’s a decent strategy, for with our eyes closed we can imagine ourselves just about anywhere. But something will jar us out of it. Our left foot will go numb and get that prickly feeling, or our nose will have an itch, or the temperature will drop and we’ll catch a chill. Suddenly we’re right back in that culvert, stuck in the same mess. Further, when you close your eyes you lose sight of the end. It’s almost as if you’re stuck in just this way so you have to face forward, so you have to stare at the light.
Others of us just shift the meaning a bit. Perhaps it’s not so narrow a passage. Our way is broad. Christmas has other meanings too you know. There are forces at work outside the church. In here Advent tethers us down and force feeds us the apocalypse and crazy John the Baptist, and asks us to take inventories of our lives, and to mourn, and repent, and prepare his coming. Only in here are we told to take a hard look at the culvert that imprisons us. Out there people are shopping! They’re going to parties! They’re drinking hot cider, and cocoa, and eggnog, and eating sugar cookies. They’re singing our carols three weeks early! Why do we have to be so different?
The cultural celebration of Christmas is not wrong, it’s just misleading. It’s a thin veneer. It’s a dirty cup. It’s a white washed tomb. Even though, in many ways, it is nice and in a lot of ways fun, it will not ultimately live up to its promises. It will not make you happy forever. I don’ t know if Jesus Christ was born on December 25th or not–odds are he wasn’t. But I am glad we celebrate it when we do. Because right after December comes the ice cold of January, and the heart of winter, and a scale that reads five pounds more, and a really big high interest Visa bill. And all that veneer gets scraped from our world like the early morning frost off a car windshield. And every one of us is right back in our culverts.
Let me tell you one thing about being in a culvert since I have firsthand experience. There isn’t a thing you can do about it. You can’t wish it away. You can’t ignore it. You can’t reinterpret it. It is what it is. I want to take it all away from you, but my arms are pinned down a bit too you see. What I can give I offer to you. It is my confession that Christ came, Christ died, Christ rose, and Christ will come again. Every time Christ has acted, Christ has set us free. His presence this Advent is like arms pulling at our legs. He comes with a love strong enough to make us free again and to teach us to do unto others what he has done for us. If we follow him we will know the deepest meaning of human life.
But you need proof. What is my testimony worth? Would you hear the testimony of another? I have mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer before, a German, educated at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, who went back to his homeland in the middle of the second World War to lead the church resistance against Hitler’s regime. He was imprisoned in a concentration camp, and eventually executed just a few short days before his camp was liberated. It would have been better if he was stuck in a culvert. Bonhoeffer had a love interest, a fiancé Maria von Wedmeyer. Recently correspondence between Bonhoeffer and Maria was discovered and released for publication by Maria’s family. In the weeks leading up to Advent Bonhoeffer wrote:
By the time you receive this letter it will probably be Advent, a time especially dear to me. A prison cell like this, in which one watches and hopes and performs this or that ultimately insignificant task, and in which one is wholly dependent on the doors being opened from the outside, is far from an inappropriate metaphor for Advent. (p.118)
Later, when Advent had arrived, and Christmas was on the doorstep, and the world sang their carols and ate sugar cookies, Bonhoeffer wrote:
Dearest Maria, let us celebrate Christmas. . . . Don’t entertain any awful imaginings of me in my cell, but remember that Christ, too, frequents prisons, and that he will not pass me by. (pp. 133-134)
How much more will Christ stoop low and come to you in the culvert that surrounds you? There is no January Visa bill that can take that promise away. So in the Spirit of Isaiah, and in the Spirit of Advent, let us proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. Let’s light the joy candle, for we will all have our lives back. This is Christmas. Joy to the world! Christ came, Christ died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.