Date: December 10, 2017
Title: “The Art of Christmas – Hope”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
This morning, I’d like to begin by telling you a story…This story involves Gavin Bryars, a leading British musician and composer. But it’s not really a story about him. And, the story involves Bryar’s friend, Alan Powers, an innovative film and documentary maker. But it’s not really a story about him, either. And, it’s a story about a nameless, faceless man who lived on the streets of London, near Waterloo Station. But… you guessed it.. it’s not really a story about him, either.
Because it is a story about you. And it’s a story about me. And it’s a story about the Art of Christmas hope. The story goes like this…
Several years ago now Gavin Bryars agreed to help his friend Alan Powers with the audio aspects of a film Powers was making about street people.
Powers filmed various people living on the streets – some were obviously drunk or high, some were mentally disturbed, some were just down on their luck. Some were articulate, and others seemed totally incomprehensible.
As Bryars made his way through the audio and visual footage, he became aware of a constant undercurrent, a repeating sound that always accompanied the presence of one older man. At first, the sound seemed like muttered gibberish. But after removing the background street noise and cleaning up the audio tape, Bryars discovered the old man was in fact singing.
There was something about that singing…
From the film crew, Bryars learned that this particular man did not drink – but nether did he engage others in conversation. His speech was almost impossible to understand, but his demeanor was sunny. Though old and alone and filthy and homeless, he seemed to retain a certain playfulness.
And then there was that song. The song he sang under his breath was a simple, repetitive Sunday School song, and for him it was a mantra. He would sit and quietly sing it, uninterrupted, for hours on end.
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet… never failed me yet… there’s one thing I know for he loves me so…
Like a film loop, the song’s final line fed into its first line, starting the tune over and over again. The man’s weak, old, untrained voice never wavered from pitch, never went flat, never changed key. The simple intervals of the tune were perfectly maintained for however long he sang.
As a musician, Bryars was fascinated. He began thinking of ways he could arrange and orchestrate around the constant, repeated lines the old man sang. One day, while playing the tape as background to his work, Bryars left the door to his studio open when he ran downstairs to get a cup of coffee.
When he returned several minutes later, he found a normally buzzing office eerily still. The old man’s quiet, quavery voice had leaked out of the recording room and transformed the office floor.
Under the spell of this stranger’s voice, an office of busy professionals had grown hushed. Those who were still moving around walked slowly, almost reverently around the room. Many more had taken their seats and were sitting motionless at their desks, transfixed by the voice. More than a few were silently weeping, tears cascading undisturbed down their faces.
Sitting in the midst of an urban wilderness, this John the Baptism voice touched a lonely, aching place that lurks in the human heart, offering an unexpected message of hope …
It took Bryars 21 more years before he finally released what he felt was a proper accompaniment to this simple song of hope…
My friends, this is the Advent experience. Each of us has our own broken song. Each of us has our own quavery voice, our own frail pitch when confronted with the heartaches and the disappointments and the evil of this world. But Advent reminds us of another homeless night, a night when God wrapped all our broken songs and shattered chords in the hope and the beauty of the music of all creation.
The Art of Christmas Hope is found in remembering not only the baby lying in a manger but Jesus rising from the tomb. Practicing the art of Christmas hope is like Charlie Brown forever choosing that most pathetic of all Christmas trees. Christmas hope allows us to see beyond the straggly branches and the falling needles, it draws our attention away from the problems to the possibilities in the world as it is and the world as it could become. The prophet Isaiah points to possibilities for his own people … and for us when he writes:
Comfort, oh comfort…God is about to restore us…what could be more hopeful than that?!
Prepare for God’s arrival!
Make the road straight and smooth
Make a highway fit for God…
Level off the hills, smooth out the ruts, clear out the rocks
And John the Baptist echoes this when he tells the people:
The real action comes next. The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism – a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit – will change you from the inside out.
People are drawn to John – not only because of what he says, but mostly because of what he offers to them – a chance to come clean, a way to see beyond problems to possibilities. John’s message is all about the freedom to stop pretending and to simply practice the art of Christmas hope.
Every one of us probably has some idea where our own wilderness lies. We know that it feels like to be in that space where we are so utterly vulnerable to the grace of God because we are so utterly in need of it. And we can probably come up with a whole long list of good reasons to never leave town, never to risk that wilderness if we can help it. We think we are comfortable here. We know what our problems are; it’s easy to see them and much harder to recognize our possibilities. We know the ropes – we’ve learned to pretend – so why go out looking for God? Why even attempt to practice the art of Christmas hope when we know it’s going to shake us up, change us, maybe even set us on fire?
I cannot imagine… unless it is that voice crying out there in the wilderness, that voice which carries a tune that never ends, whose last line becomes the first line in a continuous loop of hope, as broken songs and shattered chords are wrapped with the music of all creation. It is that voice which invites us even today to begin to sing along.
When we practice the Art of Christmas Hope, we understand it is a hope which does not rely upon hopeful circumstances but only our participation in it. I am reminded of this prayer from the Celtic tradition, which may help us remember how to sing along…
May this eternal truth be always on our hearts…
That the God who breathed this world into being,
Placed stars into the heavens
And designed a butterfly’s wing
Is the same God who entrusted his life
To the care of ordinary people,
That we might know
How strong is the power of Love…
A mystery so deep it is impossible to grasp
A mystery so beautiful it is impossible to ignore. Amen.