Message for Advent I, November 30, 2014
For: the people at Knox United Church, Vancouver, B.C.
Based on: Isaiah 64: 1-9 and Mark 13: 24-37
Opening Prayer: Dear God, in the changing seasons of life, help us to acknowledge your presence within, between, and among us, especially when its hiddenness might easily be mistaken for absence, so deep is our doubt and despair.
Creator God, help us to learn the discipline of learning to trust and seek you in all times and in all places. Amen.
As I was going about the business of preparing this morning’s message after yet another extremely busy week here at the church, I found myself wondering how there could possibly be any good news to be found in either of the readings on offer today! Wouldn’t it be great, I thought to myself, if we could have a different kind of Advent, one that emphasized all the good news stories from scripture, that we could clearly say we find uplifting and comforting! Or would it?
You see, while we can take comfort in knowing that on, this, the first Sunday in the season of Advent, we gather, anticipating the ritual of Advent candle lighting, knowing that each week, we will build on what has happened the previous week, we are perpetually tempted to get all our ducks in a row, to get the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible, and hopefully, to find the shortest quickest way to make sure all that we want to have done happens and sooner than later.
In fact, next week, I know that those who would like to join in, are invited to gather to decorate the sanctuary and the narthex for the festive season. Are we pushing on the edge of what’s acceptable? Well, of course, we are. But then, we are the United Church of Canada. Are we unique in this quirkiness here at Knox of wanting to have it all-that blend of secular with the sacred?
Ah no, there is this lively tension apparent in all of the United Churches I have served to date between what is and what might be, between concentrating on the present moment and making certain things keep moving along.
This UCC personality trait is one that I find highly instructive for my ministry dating back for quite some time now.
In fact, I recall one of the most instructive lessons in conflict resolution I ever experienced happened in the context of a CBC Radio Dickens Evening of live readings of “A Christmas Carol” that happened, you guessed it, in the church sanctuary where I was a student minister. It was a huge fundraiser that filled the church right to the gunnels. With all proceeds going to the local community and a full house, everyone wanted to show the church off at its best and even though the event took place on the Saturday night that immediately preceded the first Sunday in Advent, it was decked out in at its finest Christmas best.
More than enough hands on deck were needed to decorate for the event but no one had thought of what that might mean for the following morning which we had agreed on would be simple and sparse in honour of it being the first Sunday in Advent.
Picture this: a huge sanctuary beautifully decked out a la Christmas Eve-you know festooned with Christmas ribbons and bows, Christmas presents, Christmas banners, a Christmas Tree, and so on and so on. Picture too, my personal need as a ministry student wanting to do the right thing-to help set the right tone for the season-that is the staging of the season of Advent, the one that emphasizes simple, slow, and intentional anticipation and building towards the arrival of the Holy Child into our midst.
Picture further, the key leader hosting the evening following me around after everyone had gone home re-attaching ribbons as I unwound them.
Needless to say, our relationship became a little frayed around the edges as we each tried our level best to understand where the other party was coming from at the same time as getting on with our clashing hopes, dreams, and tasks for the church. Ah, conflict-don’t you love it?
Put together some deeply committed United church people who already do more than less with their volunteer time; throw in some widely divergent needs; limited time and communication practice; and et voila-what do you have?
This brings me back to our readings for this morning, which hardly seem to add to a sense of festive anticipation of the Christmas season, do they?
Put more seriously, however, our scripture readings are what they are-stories about people getting on with what needs doing; stories about people trying to be faithful in difficult times; stories about people whose needs are widely divergent; and stories about people who often feel deserted by God when despair overtakes faith.
This is what I see as the good news in our reading from the voice of the prophet, Isaiah, this morning as he holds both God and the community to account in his lament Susan read for us a short while ago.
Speaking in a context of disillusionment the peopled restored to their homeland are experiencing, Isaiah invokes God to first show God’s power.
The prayerful movement of the reading is interesting to consider as Isaiah begins with telling God what he, Isaiah, thinks needs to happen. “Tear open the heavens and come down”, he commands God. Once he has got that off his chest, Isaiah takes a different tack. Acknowledging the people’s behaviour born out of dislocation and disappointment, his prayer moves in a different direction. Ultimately pleading with God for forgiveness of their bad behaviour, Isaiah’s tone and language shifts as he, representing a community longing to be at one with God, calls upon God’s parental nature to support and challenge and to mold and shape our faith character and our faith will.
Speaking of God first as father and then as potter and we, the clay, the passage concludes on a more hopeful note.
Moving from there into our Psalm for this morning, I like how the sung refrain: “Restore us, Oh God, let your face shine, that we might be saved” echoes Isaiah’s plea and at the same time acknowledges the community’s longing for restoration, restoration that only comes through having faith in right relationship with God and in each other.
Then we have our challenging reading from the gospel according to Mark for our prayerful consideration this morning.
Set in the context of Jesus knowing that he is about to enter fully into his passion-his giving over to the political authorities of the day and his death on the cross, there is a sense of urgency here. Pay attention, Jesus tells the disciples, for you do not know when I will return. Be ready, he tells them, divine judgment will happen, we just don’t know its timing. Like the fig tree, bear fruit and be attentive to in the in breaking of God’s grace within, between, and among us.
This is the good news for today: we have the honesty of scripture to guide our actions-to tell the truth in love, to wait for God’s revealing love in the middle of living life just as it is in this very moment, and to cultivate the discipline of attentive waiting. Our abilities to respond, our giving over of “yes” to the opening of the Holy Spirit are as diverse and as richly varied and full of potential for us as followers of the Way in this time and in this place as there are people gathered here this day.
All we need do is gather, engage with our ministries in hopeful ways, and like Isaiah, bring our laments to God knowing that God hears every prayer in all circumstances and all situations.
The selfsame God may not always give us what we want when we want it but I know this-God gives us what we need in the fullness of God’s time. Not our time, God’s time. As we enter into our Advent preparation this year, may all this and more be acceptable in God’s sight. Let us pray:
God of all times and all places, today on this first Sunday in the season of Advent, we honour hope. Hope that rises when people stand up for what they know to be true. Hope that rises on a crisp clear morning and we haven’t yet remembered all the troubles that exist in the world. Hope when people show us that they are always more than just people. Today we remember hope that has been broken by violence and hope lost to fear and anxiety. We remember our joy-filled hope that was alive yesterday and we accept the despair and pain that replaces it today. May the light of your hope keep us afloat when our candles refuse to burn. Today we celebrate hope that begins as a small spark and slowly, and that, with your care and attention becomes a warm fire burning in our hearts. Hope that comes from sharing our time and our talents, our sense of hospitality, and the offering of your grace and peace which passes all understanding. May it be so and thanks be to God, amen.