Happy New Year! I know the rest of the world thinks New Year’s Day is Jan.1, but according to the church calendar, the first Sunday in Advent is the beginning of a new church year. And since the church is expected to be at least a little bit out of step with the culture around us, I got to thinking about how we should honor this new year. It can’t be with noisemakers and champagne, because that’s what everyone else does. What if we made New Year’s resolutions, not for ourselves exactly—like quitting smoking or losing weight—but for us as a Church? What would they be?
Most new year’s resolutions have to do with starting a healthy habit or stopping an unhealthy one. What do you see in this congregation that you think needs to be changed, and how might we go about doing that? Is there something we could and should be doing that we aren’t? Or is there something we are doing that we ought to stop doing?
Or, if you don’t feel like you know enough about Trinity to assess our need for change, what unhealthy practice do you see in our city, our state, our nation, our world that needs to be changed? How might a community of Jesus-followers be a part of that change?
It has been a big year for change, both within the community here at Trinity and in the world at large. On the local scale, Trinity has called a new pastor, and we’ve been making some major and minor adjustments as we learn how to live together. We’ve had to say goodbye to some familiar faces and hello to some new ones—demonstrated perfectly by our welcoming Noah into the church family today and bidding farewell to Fran tomorrow.
On a larger scale, the state of Wisconsin has experienced dramatic struggles among those supporting and opposing laws that bring about changes. Even more broadly, the Arab Spring has brought sweeping changes to countries like Egypt and Tunisia and Libya and economic collapse is bringing change of another kind to European countries like Greece. Our own nation is still trying to navigate the waters of contentious differences regarding how to address our economic problems. The long-term effects of these waves of change are yet to be determined.
What is our role in the face of all these sweeping changes? I know some people might be thinking that the last thing they want is more change! Maybe some of you are wishing our new year’s resolution would be just to sit still for a bit, and not have any more changes for awhile.
But that is one thing we simply cannot have, even if it were a good idea, which I’m not sure it is. Jesus points out in today’s reading from Mark that one truth of which we can be sure is that change is coming. He shows his followers the buds on a fig tree and reminds them of a very basic biology lesson—buds appear on a branch after winter is over, and what comes next will be their development from tiny sprigs of green into full-blown leaves. Then the fruit will appear. This will not happen overnight, but it will happen. And then he urges them to stay awake and alert, to be prepared for the time when everything on earth will shift out of its normal pattern into something entirely new—the kingdom of God. Things we thought were stable, like the sun and the moon, will suddenly lose their constancy. The whole cosmos will be so jolted out of its rhythm that the very stars will fall out of the sky.
For those who aren’t excited about change, this text may sound terrifying. But hold this promised change up against the things that worry you—all the things you wish you could reform about the world, about this country, about your life. And then think of how we, as Christian people, pray for peace and justice every week, though we live in a world that is very short on both. Are we not begging God to bring about a radical change in the world as we know it? Are we not lifting our voice alongside Isaiah’s agonized cry from exile, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” As a Christian congregation, we not only pray that God would tear open the heavens and transform the world with the force of an earthquake or fire, we actively work toward that very seismic shift!
We give a portion of the money we collect at church to organizations like Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Disaster Response that bring clean drinking water and medical and building supplies to places where these essentials are scarce. We align ourselves with movements and groups that strive to empower the voiceless and bring comfort to the sad and hopeless in prisons, hospitals, refugee camps. This congregation’s partnership with the Canopy Center, a nonprofit organization that strengthens families and works to prevent and treat victims of abuse, is an example of exactly the earth-shaking, system-shattering change for which we pray. Every time they meet here; every time we collect surprisingly large sums of money at a potluck for ELCA World Hunger Relief program, every time we house families in our Sunday school rooms who would otherwise be homeless, we align ourselves with the budding fig tree, and the hope of the changes Jesus will bring about when he returns in power and glory.
This is why the church turns on the idea of Advent, which means COMING. It is not a threat, as popular end-of-the-world doomsayers try to spin it. It is a promise that even while dreadful things are happening every day, even as children still die of malaria and AIDS, though mosquito nets are ridiculously cheap and anti-retroviral drugs are becoming more and more readily available—even as women are still beaten by men who say they love them and senior citizens are still neglected and taken advantage of…. Jesus promises that he is returning, and his return will bring about ultimate cosmic CHANGE.
It is why we stay alert and awake, longing for this promised second coming of Christ into a world in darkness. It is why we look with hope for signs that the day is drawing nearer when God will again disrupt the universe as we’ve come to understand it by entering into our reality and turning it upside down. It is because we long for a world where everyone and everything has worth and dignity that we pray so fervently as we enter this new year, “COME LORD JESUS!”
~Pastor Susan Schneider