November 27, 2016 Watch, Wait, Hope
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 for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
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.’
The first week of Advent tells us: watch, wait, hope. Now that November 8th has passed, those here in the U.S., no matter their political allegiance, are on high alert: watching, waiting and hoping - for light to shine in the darkness.
Mary Luti, a professor at Andover Newton, wrote in a recent Still Speaking Devotional, “We were solving the world's problems, aided by beer, and making good progress until we came to Syria, flood-ravaged Louisiana, an attack on a trans woman two towns over, and a neighbor whose drug-addicted husband is missing in Chicago.
Somebody sighed, ‘I don't know how people who don't believe in God get through these things.’ Which was a little embarrassing because I'd been thinking more or less the opposite: ‘I don't know how people who go through these things still believe in God.’"
In times of darkness, and there certainly is plenty of that in our world today, it can be hard to feel God’s presence. Where is God in all of this? Those evangelicals who voted for Trump would tell you God had answered their prayers. Many of those on the opposite side woke up on the 9th, after very little sleep, feeling like the country they thought they knew had died.
Neither were right.
The people of ancient Israel were living through a lot of darkness when Isaiah pleaded with God in today’s scripture: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” Kathleen Harris calls this “the cry of a people who realize they have made such a mess of the world that only God can set it right.” They were nearing the end of their exile in Babylon, and struggling to make sense of their experience - seeking to live faithfully. But God seemed so far away.
There are days when I sit watching the news, witnessing the mess that our world is in, fearing for our country and where it is headed, and God seems far away too. It is during Advent that the prophets provide our wake up calls. I yearn for a flesh and blood prophet today - yet I know from history that their voices often fall on deaf ears. We are easy prey to false prophets and prophesies. But still, I watch, I wait, and I hope.
The people of ancient Israel had been watching, waiting and hoping for a messiah for all those years. Through the voices of the prophets we hear their humble acknowledgement of their sins and pleas with God to “make your name known to your adversaries, so that nations might tremble at your presence.” Isaiah reminds God “we are the clay and you are the potter; we are the work of your hand.” We’ve got this relationship going, rocky as it may be. Don’t abandon us now.
Around 70 years after the birth of Christ Mark is also addressing a threatened, marginalized community of believers. At the time of his writing, Christians were experiencing persecution. Jerusalem and the temple lay in ruins. Christians were estranged from their own families because of their new found faith. There was civil strife and false messiahs. How many parallels can we draw from that today?
The Christian liturgical calendar had yet to be developed. The stories of Jesus laying in a manger, shepherds listening to angels in a field, and magi following a star were yet to be written. These early Christians were waiting for the second coming of Christ, which they were expecting and hoping for at any time. 2,000 years later, we know that didn’t come to pass.
Those of us in the Christian community today have differing views on the second coming of Christ. Fundamentalists are waiting with baited breath for the rapture, believing that time is coming closer and closer. Those of us more progressive Christians tend to reject the literalist notion that apocalyptic literature is about a future pie in the sky.
As I was reading Mark’s account of ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory’ I couldn’t help but imagine him arriving the day after Thanksgiving at 5AM in front of Wal-mart, to witness the spectacle of hoards of shoppers jockeying for position in line, fighting over the last of the Air Hogs Star Wars Tie Fighter drone for a mere $79.99. I wonder - what does he think about how we have come to celebrate his birth - it’s meaning for us today?
Apocalyptic literature usually comes out of difficult times. It is bringing a message of hope, that despite present circumstances, in the end God will be with us again, and good will prevail. Mark was bringing that message of hope to the early Christians.
The word apocalypse comes from the Greek for “uncovering” or “revealing,” which makes it a word about possibilities - uncovering the state of the world today - revealing the possibilities of tomorrow. Whether you believe in Jesus’ second coming - or even in an after life - I think this passage begs us to ask ourselves “What would we be doing, how would we live our lives if we believed, as the early Christians did, that Christ was returning imminently? Talk to anyone facing a life threatening illness, and you may gain some insight. So often it is only after the stars are falling from the sky and the ground shaking under our feet that we wake up and see clearly and recognize what is important and what is not.
Jesus gives us a clue in this parable about the man going on a journey, leaving his slaves in charge, each doing his work. He “commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch...Keep awake.” This is a command to come to full attention in the here and now.
This is not easy. In our culture we have a tendency to deny pain, push it away. When we’re feeling bad, what do we do? eat, drink, take drugs, go shopping - escape. I’ve had people tell me they don’t watch the news or read newspapers anymore. “Too much negative news. I can’t do anything about it.” These are the sleeping people that Jesus is commanding to wake up.
This current election has been a wake up call for our country, and a painful one at that. We are waking up to the plight of people who have been left behind on the economic ladder, whose jobs have been outsourced or eliminated, who struggle to support their families.
We are waking up to the racism, xenophobia, homophobia, islamaphobia and misogyny that still exists in a population that continues to grow in diversity, creating fear in both the perpetrators and the victims.
We are waking up to the reality of a country where respect and courtesy has given way to bullying, insults and public derision of the “other.”
Where is God at such times as these?
The scriptures tell us to watch, wait, hope. Those in ancient times were watching and waiting for some miraculous sign from the heavens, or a return of Christ to make all things right.
I don’t believe that Christ is coming back this Christmas to miraculously bring an end to the wars currently raging, to restore peace on earth, rebuild Allepo and other cities destroyed by ISIL, provide food for those starving in Nigeria, eradicate cancer and make everybody love each other.
If we’re watching for Christ to appear in the heavens, then we’re missing him here on the earth, creating beauty in the midst of chaos.
Kathleen Harris tells us “The apocalypse is meant to bring us to our senses, allowing us a sobering, and usually painful, glimpse of what is possible in the new life we build from the ashes of the old.”
Where do we find hope this Advent Season? Where do we see God’s presence at work in our world? I can’t answer that question for you, because it’s different for each of us. I can only speak for myself.
I felt God’s presence, about this time last week, here at Eliot, as this sanctuary filled up with people of different religions, races, ethnicities, nationalities, sexual orientations, physical and developmental abilities, all children of God, coming together to give thanks for the blessings we have amidst the fears and darkness that many of them have been feeling - as we passed the peace, affirming the dignity of each other.
I felt God’s presence in fellowship hall as we shared a meal and conversations about our hopes and fears for the future - as some of us made plans to continue to grow in relationship with each other.
Advent is a time of opening our hearts, as we wait for the birth of a child. It is an active period of waiting, not a passive one. It begins by waking up, in the midst of our hectic schedules, and recognizing the immense human suffering around us. That recognition draws out our innate compassion, a sense of caring and concern - and a gradual opening of the heart, so we are moved to action.
Christ is already in our midst, but we must open our hearts to recognize and let him in. That is what we are called to do in this time of waiting. That is what was happening last Sunday.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it so well: “So long as there are men and women, Christ walks the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls on you, speaks to you, and makes demands on you. That is the most serious and most blessed thing about the Advent message. Christ lives in the shape of the person in our midst. “