Sermon: First Sunday of Advent

November 30, 2014

Does anyone know a musical entitled 1776 which is, as you might imagine, about the signing of the Declaration of Independence? At one point, John Adams is so discouraged by the infighting and inefficiency of the Congress that he is in despair (not a new thing, you see). He hides up in the bell tower and sings fiercely, “Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?”

Now, why am I beginning a sermon on the first Sunday in Advent by referencing a Broadway musical about the 4th of July? Well, it’s no weirder than the assigned texts for today. While all the rest of the world has begun to wish us a “holly jolly Christmas,” what do we make of “The Little Apocalypse” from Mark’s Gospel? Or the lament from Isaiah beginning with, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”? It doesn’t seem all that jarring to me to introduce John Adams into the mix.

Why begin Advent, a season usually associated with eager anticipation for the arrival of baby Jesus in a manger, with texts about God’s coming into the world with the force of boiling water or an earthquake? My suggestion is that it is because the world is a mess! (And I’m not just talking about Congress, although certainly them too! ) We NEED God to come to us! Although the circumstances are different for us than they were for God’s people in the 6th century before Christ when Isaiah was writing, some of the desperation and darkness feel the same. What else could explain the tragedy that is playing out in Ferguson, MO. right now.?

It’s not the only place in our nation where racism and the blatant injustice and ineffectiveness of our criminal justice system are at work, but it is where they are spectacularly on display at the moment. We can talk about how many more young black men are incarcerated in our jails than people of other races. We can remember how Dr. MLK Jr. said “Riots are the language of the unheard” as we simultaneously mourn the destruction of property by unruly protestors. We can weep at the absurd use of force used as a means of maintaining order. We can collectively mourn with parents who have lost a child and for the ways racial stereotypes are used as an explanation for everything that is happening.

But none of that begins to address the deep brokenness of our nation which values white lives over black lives. Even if we don’t want it to be true, even if we personally don’t feel responsible, we white people benefit from the color of our skin in ways that we have not earned or imagined. I do not want to be racist, but I know I am. I know I benefit from a system that is unfair, and I don’t always want to do anything about it because it works for me. I can move to pretty much any neighborhood I want and assume the neighbors will not mind. I can buy Bandaids that are labled “flesh colored” and be pretty sure they will match my skin. I can drive my car in ritzy neighborhoods and not have my simple presence there be considered suspicious. It isn’t fair, it isn’t right, it isn’t just, but it is happening. And I weep for my sisters and brothers of color who bear an unfair burden of automatic suspicion and a much higher probability of rejection and even–as we’ve seen–death.

I just want to scream, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, O God!” I want a way out of this mess! I want to know what it would take to build up my sisters and brothers who are abused by a system that benefits me. I want to know how to show my solidarity and support for them without looking condescending and patronizing. I want people like me who are advantaged in hidden ways to wake up! I want us to truly see the power we wield without knowing it–and share! I want NOT to turn on the TV and see another news story about a young black man being killed for no good reason and no one being held accountable. But I feel like John Adams shouting into the night sky, “Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?”

At the time of our reading from Isaiah, the people were also wailing at the mess they were in. Some even felt so bereft that they suggest that maybe one reason they have fallen into sin is because God is not present! “You hid yourself and we transgressed.” They are able to acknowledge on some level that their sin is a problem–that it blocks meaningful relationships with God and the world God loves, however–and they beg God to remember that they need God’s power and might to rescue them. They know that deliverance will have to come from outside themselves because, left to their own devices, they’ve made a mess of things.

Don’t we wish the same thing? Wouldn’t it be great if God would come down in a way that would shake the rafters, in a pillar of fire and smoke like on Mt. Sinai when God delivered the 10 Commandments? Wouldn’t we rise to cheer as the Righteous Branch shot forth to execute justice? Isn’t it time for the fulfillment of the promise “the wrong will fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth good will to all,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his lovely poem “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”? Don’t our hearts echo Isaiah’s prayer, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

It’s been said that “Hope is what’s left when your worst fears have been realized and you are no longer optimistic about the future.” Where does our nation find that hope right now? Where does the world find that hope? Where do you find it? I know lots and lots of people will try to convince us that we can buy wholeness and happiness this month. We are inundated with promises that if we just have that suit, that car, that doll, that electronic gadget, that item of irreplaceable worth, we would feel complete and at peace. Or if we could just create the right atmosphere with our special foods, our flawless decorating, our family activities, there would be no more pain or anxiety in our homes. But we cannot create peace and fulfillment through selfishness or material goods, any more than we can manufacture it through military might. Instead, Hope might lead us to pray along with the author of today’s Psalm, “Restore us, O God. Let your face shine that we might be saved.”

Peace is a gift that comes to us not because we have done the right thing but because God bestows it. It may not come crashing through the sky like a bolt of lightning, but when it comes, it will change the way things are now. That is not to say that God is not present among us already. Of course God is with us always in Word and in Sacrament. God is right next to you, in the people sitting by you, other members of Christ’s body. But in this season of Advent, we pray for the culmination of our hope, the final coming of God’s peace, God’s reign. Hope does not disappoint. We know that complete salvation is on its way ,and when it comes, it will be so dramatic that people will speak of a time when heaven and earth passed away. Yes, Jesus Christ is present with us now and always, but not as he once was, and definitely not as he will be! “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard what God has ready for those who love God!” How about THAT for a promise!?

To all those who are languishing in this world, beaten up or beaten down by oppressive systems and destructive stereotypes, who long for a good word, a new dawning, this is God’s assurance: I am coming! There is more! There is better! We will one day be face to face with Love, no longer seeing through a glass dimly, but right there in God’s arms! There will be a time when all that is good and right with you and with your neighbors is all that is left. When we will finally look at one another and see not a reason for fear or dread, but the beauty of God’s creative handiwork. There will be a day when all is made new. Such hope leads us to pray with all our hearts, “Come Lord Jesus!”

In the meantime, let us pray fervently for the day when God will tear open the heavens and come down even as we intentionally live in trust and hope in God’s promises. Let us embrace what Paul told the Christians in Corinth: we do not lack in any spiritual gift as we await the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. I assure you as he assured them, we have everything we need to live fully and richly. That may be bad news for the marketing folks at this time of year, but for anyone who feels like they aren’t quite “enough” it is pure Gospel. You are God’s beloved child. You are all that you need to be. You have all you need.

Whenever we start to feel like we are lacking, God will strengthen us so that we can endure. When we call out in agony, “Is anybody there? Does anybody care?” we can rest in the knowledge that the answer is “Yes. ” God is there. God cares. God is with us now and always, just as God has always been. God is with police officers and their families; God is with protestors and their families; God is with Congress and their families; God is with everyone. As Isaiah puts it, we are all the work of God’s hand. We are cherished and valued.

Not only is that good news for now, but also God is coming again in all God’s radical inclusive glory, and will make sure everyone knows that joy! A righteous branch will shoot forth! The wrong will fail and right prevail! Hope will not disappoint us! No matter what else is true about us and our messy world, this is most certainly true: “God is faithful!” Come, Lord Jesus!

~Pastor Susan Schneider

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