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“Hope…and Dread”– Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37– Nov. 30, 2014

 

When I was growing up, I had an Advent calendar, which I would open one window at a time in anticipation of Christmas Eve, but that’s about all I remember of Advent. We may have sung “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” at the beginning of December, but then we sang Christmas carols. Maybe we didn’t need the season of Advent 50 years ago, though the wisdom of our tradition has known better than that for centuries. Today, with the Christmas Machine growing more powerful, more ravenous, more ruthless by the year, Advent is like David and his slingshot standing up to Goliath and his massive armor. “Hold on a minute–or a month,” Advent demands. “Yes, our economy depends on these 4, 5, 8 weeks of consumer spending, but is our economy the god we really want to worship? What’s it done for the majority of us lately?”

Debie Thomas writes that four weeks ago a 16-year-old boy in her town walked to the railroad tracks on the edge of town shortly after midnight, waited for the train, and stepped in front of it. Since 2009, she says, 7 teenagers have done the same thing. Fearing a cluster of copycats, the town has stationed police officers on the spot. “I pass those officers several times in the course of a day,” Thomas writes, “and each time I glimpse their faces, I wonder: when they signed up to become cops, did they ever dream they’d spend their days like this? Keeping watch so our children won’t die of despair?” (D. Thomas, journeywithjesus, 11/24/14)

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” Isaiah cries to God, “so that the mountains would quake at your presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil…When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.” What we need is a Big God to do Big Things, Israel cried in the face of the Babylonian armies, as the elite were marched off to Babylon and the rest of the population were left behind in a devastated landscape. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

The residents of Ferguson, MO–and Afrrican Americans all over the country– are crying out too for a Big God to do Big Things. “Black Lives Matter!” they cry, whether or not the specific case of Michael Brown’s death warrants an indictment, for the pain and prejudice go far deeper than any one incident. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

“Black Friday” sales begin before Thanksgiving is over. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” is heard on our tv’s well before that. Nora Gallagher writes that she is “hungry for the ‘counterweight of liturgical time,’” [cited by Thomas, op cit.] the weight of a season of pausing, of praying, of repenting, of discerning, set against that other time of rushing, of partying, of indulging, of mindlessness that our culture demands.

And so our altar and pulpit and lectern are draped in purple and blue, the colors of remorse, penitence, and pre- dawn, “a ritual warning us not to greet God prematurely or presumptuously,” as James Brenneman puts it. [cited by Kate Huey, weeklyseeds, 11/30/14] Most of the hymns we will sing this month are Advent hymns and many are in a minor key. We may want Christmas to feel the way it used to feel, and so would prefer to skip directly to Christmas carols and red and green streamers, but we need this time, if we are ever to come to genuine hope, which must be “aligned to reality, not to our own deadly self-delusions,” as Kate Huey puts it so wisely. (Ibid.)

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” Isaiah begged. “But in those days,” Jesus warned, “after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” These are images of a world utterly in need of a new beginning, of a total “do-over.” As much as we may want to cling to the God of love whose mercy is boundless and who is able to clean up all our messes, that is not the full portrait of the God whom Isaiah and Jesus addressed. “The biblical God refuses to do nothing,” OT professor Matthew Schlimm writes.

“Our God opposes all who harm other human beings or creation. Our God grows angry when children suffer, when people live in mansions while others are homeless, when corporations pollute God’s beautiful world. A god who responds to evil with nothing more than calm I-love-you’s: that’s the very definition of an evil deity. If our theology is going to work amid the rubble of Gaza, the beheadings in Iraq, and those gunned down by racism, then it needs a God capable of growing angry.” [Christian Century, Nov. 26, 2014, p. 20]

Slow down. Take a minute–or a month–to prepare. Don’t let your preoccupation with Christmas gifts prevent you from receiving the gifts that Advent has to offer. Debie Thomas suggests there are at least three such gifts–

The first is “permission to tell the truth.” The world is not okay. Yes, there are still good people doing good things, the earth is filled with amazing beauty, but my friends, all is not right with the world. Grief is a far more honest and ultimately helpful response than denial. The color purple that calls us to repentance is justified. “Confession” means telling the truth. Advent gives us permission to tell the truth, so take some time to look deeply at your own life and the life that we have all bought in to. Go deep, instead of wide, this month.

A second gift of Advent is the “gift–and discipline–of waiting.” We now have at our fingers instant information. Our technology makes buying, doing, communicating, knowing mind-bogglingly fast. For just a few extra dollars, you can get what you want delivered to your door overnight. And all those lists that we make during December–lists of things to do, things to buy, …–just beg for us to cross items off them. Get Christmas tree–check. Order fruit for Aunt Martha–check. Find the cookie cutters–check. Wrap presents–check. Advent reminds us that there are some things that are still unfinished, unformed, and there are lessons for us in the “powerlessness of waiting.” (Sam Wells, Faith and Leadership, 11/27/11) Eugene Peterson des- cribes the Christian life as “a long obedience in the same direction”–talk about counter-cultural! Advent reminds us that things worth waiting for happen in the dark…

Thirdly, Thomas says, “Advent prepares us for the God who is coming, who may be very different from the one we expect or even hope for.” Isaiah prayed for a Big God to come and do Big Things. Who would have noticed a baby being born to a peasant couple? A healer living among the poor? A man hung on a Roman cross?

“We enter this season,” Walter Brueggemann says, “in a spirit of yearning for that which would be too good to be true: some new and unique expression of God’s intention to save a world gone wrong.” (Cited in Kate Huey, op cit.) Are we hopeful enough, alert enough, to perceive it?

“But about that day or hour no one knows,” Jesus said, “Neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert. For you do not know when the time will come…And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

The world as it is right now–comfortable for many of us, absolutely deadly for so many others–the world as it is cannot stand. We cannot go on ignoring the God of justice or the laws built into the fabric of the web of life on our planet forever. Our nation cannot continue on its greedy, voracious path which benefits the few at the expense of the many. One modern day prophet writes:

If allowed to continue, this process will turn the Untied States into a declining, unfair society with an impoverished, angry, uneducated population under the control of a small, ultrawealthy elite. Such a society would be not only immoral, but eventually unstable, dangerously ripe for religious and political extremism. (Charles Ferguson, cited in W. Brueggemann, Reality, Grief, Hope, pp. 35-6)

The world is already ending for many of our brothers and sisters–the world that they have known, as they grieve the death of loved ones or relationships, or the world as it is. Our hope, if we are to have any, must be deeper. Our imagination must be richer than Christmas commercials. Let your imagination roam in this blessing by Jan Richardson, who marks the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death–

Blessing When the World is Ending

Look, the world

is always ending

somewhere.

Somewhere

the sun has come

crashing down.

Somewhere

it has gone

completely dark.

Somewhere

it has ended

with the gun

the knife

the fist.

Somewhere

it has ended

with the slammed door

the shattered hope.

Somewhere

it has ended

with the utter quiet

that follows the news

from the phone

the television

the hospital room.

Somewhere

it has ended

with a tenderness

that will break

your heart.

But, listen,

this blessing means

to be anything

but morose.

It has not come

to cause despair.

It is simply here

because there is nothing

a blessing

is better suited for

than an ending,

nothing that cries out more

for a blessing

than when a world

is falling apart.

This blessing

will not fix you

will not mend you

will not give you

false comfort;

it will not talk to you

about one door opening

when another one closes.

It will simply

sit itself beside you

among the shards

and gently turn your face

toward the direction

from which the light

will come,

gathering itself

about you

as the world begins

again.

– Jan Richardson ( http://adventdoor.com/2014/11/23)

So this Advent, “Be patient. Be still. Hope fiercely. Deep in the gathering dark, something tender is forming. Something beautiful–something for the world’s saving–waits to be born.” (Debie Thomas, op cit.) May we keep alert–and wait. Amen, and amen.

Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark

 


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