The Advent: Humanity's Zero Hour

A Christmas Sunday Sermon
by the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, December 21, 1997


Matthew 2:1-12 The Birth of Jesus
Isaiah 35 They will see the glory of the Lord
True Christian Religion #538.2 God himself came into the world

The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. . . . They will see the glory of the Lord--the splendor of our God. (Isaiah 35:1, 2)

Good morning, everyone! It is so nice to see all of you here this Christmas Sunday! There is special joy in our church this Advent season as we look forward to the rebuilding of our steeple, and as we begin to reach out into our community in new ways through our recent Angels workshop, our special Christmas Eve service, and the small group on Angels that we will be starting in January. This is a season of new births!

Of course, the most special and joyous of those births is the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. No matter how commercialized Christmas gets, still, at the heart of our celebrations, there is this unique spiritual event. Our Lord's birth remains the center of Christmas, and its genuine focus. It is a birth that those of us who call ourselves Christians celebrate with great love and joy in our biggest festival of the year.

However, there was little joy in the world on that first Christmas, when Jesus was born. It was a dark time for our world, and for the culture through which our Lord chose to enter the world in human form. The Jewish nation was a conquered and subjugated people, subject to the iron scepter of armed Roman occupation. Jewish leaders such as Herod ruled either as figureheads or as puppets of Rome.

As dark as the political situation was for the Jews, the spiritual situation was even darker. As the Old Testament story attests, the ancient Jewish people were often rebellious against their God--just as we rebel all too often against what we know is right. From their splendor under King David, through disobedience and backsliding, the Jewish people had experienced war and exile, captivity and, for many, assimilation into other cultures. The few who remained loyal to their ancestral and religious roots had lost much of the spiritual power of their religion; they were mired in a shadow its former greatness--one that emphasized pious formalities and ritualized observances over the spiritual substance of human love and kindness. Their religious leaders had lost touch with the living source of spirit and life, and were leading the people astray.

We have all experienced this in our own way. We have all had times in our lives when we have lost our direction--when we are lost and confused, lonely and depressed.

Personally, if I look back fifteen or twenty years to my late teens and early twenties, I was in exactly this frame of mind. When I left home for college, I had my life all mapped out. I knew I was going into the ministry, and I knew exactly what course I would take toward it.

Before my first two years of college were over, that clear vision had crumbled around me. I was left adrift in my mind and heart--in other words, in my spirit. I was just as much adrift as the ancient Jews were in those four dark centuries before Christ came, when the prophecies stopped, and the sacred text was put on hold.

I recall vividly a Swedenborgian retreat for young adults held at Fryeburg New Church Assembly in Maine. As each of us that was present at the retreat considered our life and its meaning, I realized that my life had lost its meaning. I felt hemmed in and controlled by outside forces, just as the Jews were hemmed in and controlled by the earthly empire of Rome. I remember the tears that came freely to my eyes as I expressed to the group how lost and out of control I felt--how I was unable to follow the path I had chosen; how I no longer had a path.

That was the low point of my life, when everything I had hoped and dreamed for seemed to lie in ruins around me. I felt lost and defeated. It was my personal zero hour.

I suspect that each one of us in this church can look back over our lives and find times when we reached that zero hour . . . times when our whole life seemed to have come to nothing--to one big zero. Some of us may even be experiencing it right now.

Yet despite that big zero, a "zero hour" is not a point where things end; it is a point where things are just beginning. In its military usage, it is the beginning of a new operation or attack. In human terms, it is the beginning of a new phase of our lives.

As I look back on that particular zero hour in my life, as dark at it seemed at the time, I now see that simply by experiencing that low point, the healing process had begun. The evil forces (if you will) that were trying to drag me down had lost their cover. They were out in the open now, where I could see them. I saw the fallacy of those voices telling me that there was nothing I could do about my life--that I might as well give up.

From that moment forward, I have known that I am the one--with God's help--who will determine whether my life has meaning and direction or not. I have known that even though I cannot control all the circumstances that affect me, I can take control of my own life, and make choices that will turn it in a better direction.

As I look back on that zero hour of my life, I also know that it was the Lord who made it possible for me to come to that realization and begin to turn my life around. I know that my faith in the Lord--as weak as it may have been--was what gave me the ability to turn that zero hour into a beginning of a new phase in my life rather than an ending in depression and despair.

As we approach the birth of our Lord, each one of us can have this same assurance about our own lives, wherever we happen to be on its winding course. For we can look at humanity's zero hour, and see what happened then. We can look at that low point in human spiritual and moral history, when all was dark in the minds and hearts of humankind. And as we hear the familiar story of the birth of our Lord, we can know and feel within us that it is exactly at our zero hour that our broken hearts are open to a new birth of the Lord into our lives. In that darkness, there is space for a great light to shine: the light of the Lord our God, come to earth, and to human hearts, to live with us forever.

This new birth is a quiet and gentle one. We may barely notice it when it is happening--just as I did not realize through my tears that my life had just turned around. But if we allow that simple, gentle birth--that birth of new love and light and strength from the Lord--to grow within us, we will soon begin to feel its power. We will feel the power of the Lord beginning a new operation and a new phase in our lives. To use the words of Isaiah, our inner desert and our parched land will become glad; our personal wilderness will rejoice and blossom. We will see the glory of the Lord--the splendor of our God.

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©Robert Meyers, entitled, Oh Holy Night