Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent 1 - "Are We There Yet?" version 2.0

Much of this sermon first appeared on November 29, 2009. Please reference the link for original sources.  In adapting the text for 2011, I was blessed with the efforts of my good friends J. R. Daniel Kirk and Terry Ramone Smith.

Isaiah 64:1-9
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence — as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind — just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you — so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Mark 13:24-37
“But in those days, 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.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, 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. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake — for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

“Are we there yet?”

It's a pretty universally accepted truth that if you put kids in a car and go on a journey of any length at all, that question (or one of its variations) will be asked about a hundred times per hour per child. The excitement of going someplace, the anticipation of what awaits, and the tedium of long car rides are a pretty bad mix, so it's no wonder so many cars and SUVs come equipped with DVD players.

Now, as a child I'm sure I asked that question a lot when we went places, but I don't remember that. What I do remember is, when we were headed to one set of grandparents or the other, looking for landmarks that would tell me that we were almost there. When we went to Huntsville to see Grandma Hazel, my mom's mom, there would come a point after we passed the Jetplex that you could see, off in the distance, the very tip of a Saturn V rocket. The bigger and closer the rocket got the closer we were to Hazel & Hunt's.

When we went to Tuscaloosa, to my dad's parents' house, my landmark was the “Burger In A Hurry” at the corner of University Boulevard and 15th Street, it was a small building with a v-shaped roof and a big sign promising fifteen-cent hamburgers. That's where we turned, so I knew we were getting close to Hilda and Red's.

Though I may have asked, “are we there yet? How much longer?” and things like that, in fact when I looked at the signs around me, be it the jetplex or the rockets in Huntsville or the miles of kudzu and the long-since-closed burger joint in Tuscaloosa, I knew we were almost there.

This is the first Sunday in Advent, and the first Sunday in the liturgical church year. The Thanksgiving turkey is almost digested, we've just about rested up from Black Friday, and we're entering in to a wonderful season of building anticipation, waiting for the birth of our Savior and King! The Wise Men are scanning the heavens, the shepherds are moving their flocks through the fields, the angels are tuning their harps.

Yet we start this season of new beginnings with a discussion about the end of time – the words of a Savior not very far from the whip, the crown of thorns, and the nails. Because Advent is not just about Christ who has come, but Christ who will come again.

It's a strange mixture, isn't it? The wise men, the manger, the tree and the ornaments, the gifts and the kids who wake before the sun is up to see what Santa's brought them, peace on earth and goodwill toward humankind – and are we there yet?

Signs in the heavens, stars falling, the moon and sun extinguished, and angels gathering the elect to Christ, who returns in clouds in great power and glory… are we there yet? How much farther?

My friend, J. R. Daniel Kirk, who is Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, worries that Advent has become too much about Christ’s first appearance, and not at all about the next, final appearance of Christ. He has a point.

He says that we too often slip into the language of “preparing for the arrival of the Christ child” rather than either preparing ourselves to celebrate the arrival that already happened, or preparing for the future advent for which we actually await. We’re celebrating Jesus, but the idea that we’re waiting for his birth too often takes center stage, so we go around shouting “Jesus is born!” as if it had actually just happened, as though the Messiah we’d been waiting for had finally come. In all the talk of “waiting” we too often use language which indicates a posture of waiting for the birth of the Messiah–something for which we are not waiting at all, it has happened! Worse, to say that we are is a denial of the good news itself!

Could it be that the message of Advent is not so much one of two arrivals, one past and one future, or of a great and glorious beginning and a cataclysmic and permanent ending, as it is about one thing: “God's passion, God's dream, for a transformed earth,” (to quote Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan)? I'm not suggesting just a transformed planet, some political Nirvana where wars have ceased and harmony prevails. This is what Crossan and Borg seem to envision in their book “The First Christmas.” Rather, I am speaking of a world full of transformed people whose needs have been met by God's people, and whose lives are defined and founded upon that Christ who has come, who has died, who has risen, and who will come again.

Are we there yet?

Crossan and Borg suggest that Advent is a season of repentant preparation – not “repentance” in the sense of being sorry you did something, confessing and promising to not do it again, as we have come to understand the word, but “repentance” in the original and most correct sense of the word, where we change something. Where we work to make what is into what should be, yes, personally, but also in a larger sense – in the lives and experiences of those around us and by extension everyone on earth.

When did the Christmas season become a time of stress and traffic jams, of holiday jingles playing and commercials running even before Halloween, of searching store after store for whatever the television tells us is this year's hottest gift, of endless shopping lists and Black Friday predawn sales, where all we're left with on December 26th is exhaustion and credit card bills and a stack of gifts to return? We buy things we cannot afford in order to give them to people who, in the grand scheme of things, don’t need them, often only because they are going to give us something that, in the grand scheme of things, we don’t need.

Where I part a bit from Daniel Kirk’s points is that I worry that this time of year is less and less about remembering the birth of the Savior, and more and more about the biggest gift, the newest gadget, the shiniest trinket. We have become so wrapped up in when and whether the next iPhone is coming out, how big a big-screen TV we can buy, what video game or DVD is the newest sensation, that we forget why December 25 is a special day in the first place.

I want to suggest to you this morning that Advent is not about commerce, but about worship: “It starts with Jesus. It ends with Jesus.” Is this not the approach God had in mind for Christmas? “A season where we are called to put down our burdens and lift a song up to our God. ...a season where love wins, peace reigns, and a king is celebrated with each breath.”

Are we there yet? I can't speak for you, of course, but for me the answer is “no.”
Can we get there from here? Yes!

It begins with a simple statement of faith – one which echoes Isaiah’s plea to the God who brought slaves from captivity into the freedom and prosperity that was Israel – “Yet…” that is, “but, however, nevertheless”… “O LORD, you are our Father…”

With God as our Parent, can we not once again find the balance between honoring our loved ones and friends with gifts, honoring the birth of our Savior, and actively waiting on that Savior’s return in glory?

I use “waiting” in the way that Terry Ramone Smith, one of the facilitators of Atlanta’s “Church of the Misfits” uses it – “waiting” in the sense of working for, attending to, providing for needs. Yes, we wait in the sense of patiently – and sometimes impatiently – watching, but we also actively wait, doing the things that Jesus saw as most important – the activities he himself listed in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew as the criteria for inclusion in the eternal Kingdom: Feeding the hungry, because every hungry person, be they a homeless man in downtown Bessemer, or a malnourished child in Malawi, is Christ. Providing water for the thirsty, because every thirsty person, be they a child on a playground in East Lake, or a mother of three in Mumbai, is Christ. Clothing the naked, because every person without adequate clothing, be they a coatless woman waiting on the bus in downtown Birmingham, or a shivering orphan on the streets of Bogata, is Christ. Visiting the lonely and the imprisoned, because every lonely and imprisoned person, be they on Donaldson Correctional Facility’s Death Row or in a bed in the nursing home down the street, is Christ.

This, more than trees and tinsel, more than gifts and carols, is the real message of Advent. It’s a time when we not only put down our own burdens, but we help others lay down their burdens as well. Where we show that love truly does win, peace most certainly reigns, and we celebrate the birth – and the return – of our King with each breath, and every fiber of our being, singing as one voice, as one actively waiting and celebrating Body, “O come, O come, Emanuel!”

Alleluia! Amen.

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