The emaciated body of my friend was difficult to see. He sat in a recliner but was not comfortable. There were gaping holes in his hair as the chemotherapy was taking its toll. The radiation had left burn marks on his skin. He was a relatively young man with a family. He was athletic, strong and active; always healthy—until this—until this cancer had ravaged his body and was hammering away against his soul.
“There is one thing I don’t understand, preacher,” he said with a pained and weary expression on his face. I waited a moment. He was in deep thought. The silence was pregnant with the somber fact we both knew he was in his last days.
“I’m on prayer lists all over this country. People I don’t even know are praying for me. I’ve always tried to be a good Christian. I have lived my life doing the right thing. So many people are praying for me—and I’m not getting any better. I just don’t understand.”
As an old preacher who has been around for a long time, I don’t understand it either. A few weeks after my friend shared this with me, he was dead. Some people would say he didn’t have enough faith. (That’s baloney!) Others might say that it wasn’t God’s will for him to live. (Really!) Some well meaning people even said God needed him more than we did. (What kind of God would do this?) But people of the deepest faith acknowledged that our finite understanding will not allow us to comprehend this great mystery. We simply do not know why.
Many of you will listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah in the morning as you worship on the Second Sunday of Advent. You will hear how animals who are natural enemies will lie down together and a small child will play with them. Last Sunday we heard about the day when swords would be beaten into plowshares and nations would not lift up swords against other nations, neither would they learn war any more.
The season of Advent poses a big dilemma for us that in many ways relates to my friend’s situation. During Advent we hear these Old Testament prophecies of the coming one who will defeat the powers of evil, reign triumphantly over his people and establish peace and harmony in our troubled world. He will be the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.”
Well, he came. Christ was born. The Son of God came and lived and preached about the Kingdom of God. But 2,000 years later we continue to be plagued by wars and the forces of evil. There is much suffering and pain. People continue to die of cancer even though they are on prayer lists all over the country. How do we reconcile this dilemma?
The coming of Christ was the beginning of hope. His advent propelled us into a world of promise which is understood in terms of expectation. Yes, our world is full of pain and suffering and death, but it is also full of hope and promise and life because of Christ. As people of hope we are constantly drawn toward the future as we walk on that narrow ridge between the disappearing “now” and the ever newly appearing “not-yet.” Paul wrote that if we hope for what we do “not-yet” have, we wait for it patiently.
Every Sunday of Advent we light a candle to signify the light that shines in our darkness. No matter how desperate the situation, no matter how dark the night, there is always light, there is always hope. We look to the “not-yet” of fulfillment, healing, love, and peace.
I didn’t have an answer for my friend that day. All I could tell him was that even though I don’t understand, I do know that this is not the end. There is more, there is always more. Cancer, sickness, suffering and death are never the final answers. There is more that we will experience one day, but “not-yet.” Simply knowing this makes life better. Our hope of the ‘not-yet’ in the future transforms life today and gives us reason to keep on believing. No, I didn’t have an answer for him that day—but he has the answer now!