Sunday, December 3, 2017

Phil Kniss: We are ready. Bring it on!

Advent 1: Let it be
Mark 13:24-37; Isaiah 64:1-4, 8-9

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Do you know how it feels to be utterly desperate for change?
for something or other to be radically transformed?
made new? restarted?
be that change in your personal life?
in your family?
in your church?
in our country?
in the world?
I imagine you do know what that sense of yearning feels like.
I imagine if I polled all of you this morning,
and asked what kind of deep change you are looking for,
and how intense your longing is for that change,
I would get a whole range of answers.

But answers, I would get!
That strong and hopeful, yet fearful, longing for radical change,
is common to the human experience,
and is our focus in worship this morning.
That is where these scripture readings take us.
Isaiah the prophet, the psalmist, the Gospel writer.
They all give powerful voice to this basic human longing
for all that is wrong in our world,
to be made right . . .
and soon!!

Isaiah put it in the strongest terms.
The prophet’s language is the most bracing, the most vivid,
the most disruptive, and even violent,
in the images it conjures up.
He expresses his own deep longing,
and the longing of his people,
when he asks God to break in and interrupt
what had become, for his people, a new normal—
a horrible, oppressive, new normal.

Verse 1: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!”

Isaiah is asking God to rip open the sky,
and shake the earth.
He is asking God to come down like fire
that burns up everything in its path,
to confront all the enemies of God with God’s fiery wrath,
to make the nations of the world shake in their boots.

Verse 2: “As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!”

I confess, these last few years, months, weeks,
I’ve had that sort of spirit in my prayers.
As I see terrorist attacks and extremist ideology
keep growing and expanding around the world.
As I watch powerful rulers
turn a blind eye to the suffering of the vulnerable.
As I take note that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
As I grieve the tidal wave of revelations of sexual violence.
As I see political cooperation,
and a basic trust in human goodwill
go down the tubes . . .
the more I am drawn to this prayer of the prophet,
“Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
Make it stop!
Make it new!
Shut down the workers of evil!
Heal this land!

We are approaching the end of autumn.
Winter arrives in a few weeks,
at least as measured by the calendar,
and the movement of our earth around the sun.
Measured in some other ways,
I could say we are in the dead of winter.
Those elements that make for a fruitful and joyful life together,
seem to be in a deep freeze.

That’s why this prayer of Isaiah speaks so powerfully to us.
Our situation is not too far removed from theirs.
The people of Israel were also stuck in winter.
This prayer comes toward the end of the book,
when the Exile is over, or nearly over,
and restoration is almost at hand.
But they have been through generations of back-to-back winter,
generations of suffering,
of being displaced and dislocated.
They have not known a fruitful season,
in their lifetime.
“If only,” is their prayer.
“If only you, Yahweh, would become our ally again,
instead of the God who left us to our sorrows.”
“If only you would tear open the heavens,
and show yourself again . . . For real.”

We, and they, in the midst of the long winter,
are praying for a great thaw.
Praying for the light and life and warmth of God
to break through.

But the question, of course, is not,
“How shall we pray, when the winter is long?”
We know how to pray, how to plead for a change in seasons.
Rather, the question is,
“How shall we live when the winter is long . . . and live well?”

How shall we live when the God we pray to seems to fall silent?

The first clue, is in Isaiah’s prayer itself.
Isaiah prays not with despair, but with hope and expectancy.
The prophet does not hide his bitter complaint,
“you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” —v. 7
But in virtually the same breath,
he praises God’s great faithfulness over time.
“There is no God like you, since the beginning of the age,
no God has worked for his people, like you have.
You meet those who seek you.” —vv. 4-5.

Expectant . . . but still empty-handed . . .
the prophet prays to a God who will come,
but whose coming is still hidden from view.

It’s a little like the simple visual element you see here on the pulpit,
and on the cover of the bulletin.
This represents a bulb underground,
before anything noticeable has happened to it.
Only a plain brown orb . . . of potential.

Yes, we know what it will become.
A preview of what’s coming is on the poster in the foyer,
but here in this worship space,
on this Sunday,
we are reminding ourselves that part of our calling,
is to wait . . . through the long winter.

We trust spring is coming.
Even when any evidence is still in hiding.

Sometimes our fervent prayers for spring
just echo in the darkness.
Sometimes, when we plead for God to rip open the heavens,
the skies stay gray and overcast.

So how do we live in the winter?
How do we live now, during a long hard winter?
Yes, we do believe, deep down,
that winter will someday give way to spring.
But we don’t know when,
or even if we will see it in our lifetime.

Here’s the advice of Jesus, from today’s Gospel.
“Stay alert . . . beware . . . 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.”
Mark 13: 33ff.

The end of the winter that moves into spring,
the restoration of life as it should be,
the day of God’s great salvation—
it’s a surprise we know is coming.

It’s like when someone is throwing you a surprise birthday party,
and you accidentally overheard some whispers about it.
You didn’t hear when, where, or how it will unfold.
You only know something is going to happen.
So you go through your days with your antenna up.
Alert. Aware. Looking for clues.
It will be a surprise.
But you know it’s coming.

By using this image of the bulb during Advent,
we are proclaiming, again and again,
that God’s intent is clear,
God’s purposes are persistent.
Like a spring flower that pushes itself out of the hard earth,
with unstoppable strength, and a fragile tenderness,
God’s purposes will be fulfilled.

The force of life in the spring can be counted on.
In the same way, God, in the winter of human suffering and distress,
can be relied on to be present, to be active,
with tenderness and strength,
moving us toward life and fruitfulness.

The coming of the light of God into our darkness
can be counted on,
but it can be missed if we are not alert.

Advent is a time to remind each other not to doze off.
We can’t afford to be found sleepwalking.
It’s a time to live life on the edge of our seats,
to live life with eyes wide open.

what passes for life, especially this time of year,
in our consumeristic self-oriented culture,
are things that do the opposite . . .
things that put us into a dazed, semi-conscious stupor . . .
like the Christmas retail frenzy
that is not as advertized.
Yes, the ads tell a certain story—
that the world will be full of beautiful smiling people,
embracing, laughing, talking, crying,
long-lost friends will be suddenly reconciled,
when someone gets a great price
on the newest electronic gadget, tool, game,
fragrance, jewelry, or clothing.

Christmas shopping has devolved into emptiness.
Anyone who is paying attention to the bigger story of God,
will notice the sheer deceit going on there.
Buying trendy Christmas gifts is not
about strengthening ties to the people in your life,
or about building relationships.
It’s about giving a boost to the retail sector.

Living attentively, in the middle of the “winter of our discontent,”
means being the gift, not buying the gift,
means slowing down, not speeding up,
means spending real time with our children,
or sitting down with a neighbor,
means taking in the latest dire news
with a spirit of heartfelt prayer, instead of despair,
means taking a real personal interest
in the way people on the fringes of our community
experience the holiday season—
those living alone, in poverty, with chronic illness.

Seems to me that our responsibility in this world,
during Advent, and during any season of the year, for that matter,
is much the same as the responsibility
of bridesmaids and groomsmen in a wedding party.
For a good reason, these persons are called “attendants.”
They attend the bride and groom, literally.
They pay attention, which is the meaning of “attend.”
Their main job is to pay perfect attention
to the activities and words
and everything happening there at the center,
with the bride and groom.

Even their physical posture is an act of attending.
They stand facing the couple,
watching, waiting, paying full attention.
They serve as a powerful visual demonstration
of what the rest of the congregation should be doing.

The attendants are ones who are closest,
paying attention publicly, front and center,
while the rest of us in the congregation
are also attending,
but at a greater distance.

The congregation in the pews can get away
with not paying as close attention.
Congregants can get distracted,
and no harm will come,
no embarrassment to the couple.

A congregant can whisper to a fidgety child.
Or blow their nose quietly.
Send a text or tweet.
The wedding attendants can’t do that.
Their job is to attend
fully, completely, without interruption.

In the life God gave us, that’s our job.
In Advent, and all year long,
we are Christ’s attendants,
paying full attention on behalf of the rest of the world.

When we come together like this to worship—
we who believe in the God revealed to us in human form—
our job is to attend, fully,
to pay attention to what God is up to now
in God’s ongoing ministry of reconciliation and redemption,
to assume a posture of readiness to participate,
to keep our attention on Christ,
the one at the center.

That way,
when God does break through into our earthly reality,
in whatever form that takes, we will be ready.
We will be in a position to point it out to those who didn’t notice.
So that more might be ready to receive God’s good gift
of presence, of peace, of making all things new.

In fact, we will be more than ready.
We will be willing it on.
We will be hastening the day
(to quote a phrase from next Sunday’s scripture).

The title for this worship series is “Yes! Let it be!”
It comes from Mary’s words to the angel
who announced she would bear the Messiah.
Mary said, “Let it be with me, according to your word.”
But that’s no passive, “Let it be.”
It’s not a “whatever!”
It’s a strong, determined, “Let it be!”
That’s the force of the verb used there.
It’s as if Mary said, “Bring it on!”

Part of living out our role as attendants to God,
is the act of saying “We are ready,”
and praying, “Bring it on!”

This is why we engage in age-old Christian practices,
like gathered worship,
like reading scripture,
singing psalms,
This is how we do our job as attendants for God.

We invite God to break through the overcast sky,
rip a hole in the heavens, and come down.
Because we are ready for you.
We are ready to participate in whatever you have for us.
Bring it on!

As soon as we say that, however,
a predictable response is to pull back in fear.
We are never quite sure what God’s inbreaking will demand of us.
We say we are ready,
but are we, really?

And that brings us to another age-old Christian practice,
that of confession.

Let us now acknowledge both our anticipation of God’s coming,
and our fear of what that might mean for us.

Join with me in this prayer of confession.
one   O God of power and might,          we say, “tear open the heavens and come down!”all   yet we tremble at the   We confess that though we know the glory of your light,          we resist the dark, empty voidall   where your Spirit hovers over the   We shake like leaves in the wind,          fearful of what you might ask,all   afraid to trust you   Caught up in the swirling of our worldwe struggle to “let it be.”all   Forgive us, O God.
(pause for silence)
one   O God, Emmanuel,all   in Jesus the Christ you have come among us;          help us not to be afraid.

Let’s sing together from Sing the Journey 105 . . . Don’t be afraid.

—Phil Kniss, December 3, 2017

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