Dwight Moody taught me that every good sermon asks a question. Last Advent, I took Dr. Moody’s advice a step further. I created a sermon series called “Advent: Living the Questions.”
For many of us, the more we grow in our faith, the more questions we seem to have. The deeper we go, the more complex our questions become. Where is God in the midst of the pain and brokenness of the world? Why did God let that happen? How can God possibly make a way out of this mess? Can God really make a difference anyway? Why does my life look nothing like what I thought it would be? What questions do you find yourself asking in this season of your own faith journey?
If you find yourself asking some big questions these days, know that you’re in good company. All throughout the Bible, people have felt the freedom to ask honest, compelling questions about their faith. The Israelites quarreled among themselves and asked, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” (Exodus 17:7). The Psalmist asked, “How long, oh Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1-2). Even Jesus asked, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In the midst of realizing that our souls can’t be satisfied by cookie-cutter answers, we learn that part of the journey of faith is learning to live in the midst of our questions. As author Anne Lamott says, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”
The focus of this Advent series was on learning to wait in the midst of our questions until the light comes. Below is a brief outline of my series:
Advent Week 1
It’s significant to me that in the midst of the wilderness – the Israelites feel the freedom to ask this question: “Is the Lord among us, or not?” But notice that it’s Moses who is upset by their questions, not God. Instead, the Lord responds immediately.
Even in the midst of our own wildernesses, our Lord goes before us and stands with us. Advent reminds us that even in the unexpected spaces of the wilderness, there is water. Even in our despair, there is hope. Even in our weariness, there is new life, just waiting to be born.
Advent Week 2
Inspired by the Choral Anthem “Who But the Lord?” by Craig Courtney
Advent is a season of waiting on God’s light to break into the darkness of our world. As Courtney’s anthem says:
“Who but the Lord can give the shadows light,
can break into the dark, draw morning from the night?
Who but the Lord will hear our cry and answer, “Here am I”?
Our sacred task this Advent season is to turn our attention toward the light, even in the midst of our many unanswered questions, and to look for those unexpected places where God says, “Here am I.” Where do you see God breaking into our world this Advent season?
Advent Week 3
Mary stands there with Gabriel upon hearing the news that she will give birth to a baby boy and asks “How can this be?” It’s a biological question and a theological question, and both are appropriate, aren’t they? As the spiritual makes its way into our physical world, as God makes a way to become one of us, as the extraordinary meets the ordinary….how can it be so?
Oftentimes, we skip over Mary’s question and go immediately to part at the end of today’s text where Mary says, “Let it be,” and while those are beautiful, profound words, if we rush to them too quickly we miss out on the journey that leads Mary to this point.
Advent Week 4
I’m sure that the shepherds had plenty of questions that night as they were keeping watch over their flocks in the fields. They had never seen or experienced anything quite like the angels who appeared to them. If I were to take some liberties with the biblical text, I can imagine the shepherds saying things like, What in the world was that? Did you see what I saw? Did that really just happen? What are we supposed to do we do next?
But they are not held back by the questions, Instead, without hesitation, they immediately go to “see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” They pursue their questions – and they are met with amazement.
In Matthew’s gospel, the magi are the ones who ask “Where is the child?” and go searching for Jesus. And they continue to follow the star until it stops right over the place where Jesus is. From the outside looking in, it may seem absolutely crazy. But then again, following Jesus is never logical or comfortable or even normal, is it?
May we, like the magi, be brave enough to follow where our questions lead us. And may following Christ in the new year take us on unexpected journeys we never would have traveled otherwise.
I hope these ideas might spark some questions within you in your own Advent sermon writing. Like Mary, may we learn to live in awe and wonder as we ask, “How can this be?” May we learn to wait expectantly in the midst of our questions as we anticipate the birth of our Savior this Advent season.
About Mary Alice…
Mary Alice Birdwhistell serves as the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas. She is a graduate of Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky and Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco. Mary Alice received the Robert Jackson Robinson Award for Preaching at Truett, and she has preached around the country through her involvement in the Academy of Preachers.