Sermon #209 St. James the Less #116 11/29/20
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 forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
Jesus said, “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.”
Well, I hope you all had a wonderful and safe Thanksgiving. I do find it amazing how much we look forward to Thanksgiving—the food and traditions that we love, and then how quickly we’re ready to move on from it.
Within an hour after the meal, we’re already planning for Christmas. Many of us have already switched out our decorations around the house, and we may even have been listening to Christmas carols for well over a week by now.
We’re primed for Christmas by this point, and that’s why it may be jarring to walk into the church this morning and hear the second verse of our processional hymn, which goes: “Ev'ry eye shall now behold him,/robed in dreadful majesty;/those who set at naught and sold him,/pierced, and nailed him to the tree,/deeply wailing, deeply wailing,/shall the true Messiah see.”
Dreadful majesty? Deeply wailing?
What about Christmas joy and cheer? What about all the nice memories of Christmas’ gone by with family and friends? I’d even be fine with some reference to peppermint and hot cocoa somewhere.
Unfortunately, Advent is not about any of those things. I may sound like Debbie Downer from Saturday Night Live or Scrooge saying “Bah Humbug” to all the Christmas cheer, but that’s not my point.
The Church and the American consumer culture are at odds about what the four weeks before Christmas really mean. The culture is quite persuasive with their idea of what the season should be like, and it’s hard for us to get out of that mindset. We are bombarded with advertisements on TV and the internet telling us what we should feel and think (and especially buy) in the coming days.
It’s proof just how linked Christians are to the larger culture—which may be harmless in some respects, but it can be quite dangerous in other ways lest we forget that Christians were never to be wedded to the culture around them.
Even something as innocent as how we mark time is different from the world around us. Advent is the beginning of a new year on the Church calendar, and by turning to a new page, we must also recognize a dramatic shift in the season’s tone from the prior weeks.
The true themes of Advent are sobering and complex, but they are at the heart of Christianity. As we said a few weeks ago in the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids the themes include darkness and light, waiting and watching, judgment and forgiveness, and even the silence and hiddenness of God.
Christians are always in a state of waiting for the Lord’s return—in what many call the Time Between: the age between Jesus’ first and second coming. Karl Barth said, “What other time or season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent?”
The hymns we sing, the readings and prayers we use throughout this season are not about preparing to celebrate Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem—as if we’re trying to recreate his first coming—but rather they are distinctly apocalyptic, looking forward to the end of the age and the day of the Lord’s return. We are an Advent people no matter what time of year it is.
But let’s be clear: Advent begins shrouded in darkness.
We must reckon with the darkness in this world to know why we should yearn for the Lord to return in power and great glory. Our opening collect hits on this point, “Casting away the works of darkness…in this mortal life…until the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead.”
Advent begins this way because the world is shrouded in darkness. Tucked away this week on one of the last pages of The Washington Post, one article began, “Hundreds of people in a town in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region were stabbed, strangled, and hacked to death in an apparent ethnically-based attack that may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
The murderers were mostly made up of teenagers who were assisted by the then-local administration. Can you even imagine? Teenagers…and over 600 men, women, and children dead.
In Syria, Bashar al-Assad is inviting the country’s five million-plus refugees who have fled from the bloody civil war that began nine years ago to return to their homeland with no consequences.
Those who are considering his offer are not so sure. There have been reports that some who have returned have disappeared while others have died while in the government’s custody.
And here in the U.S. over 264,000 Americans have died from the virus. Countless others have died from loneliness or depression; suicides are up nationally, especially for teenagers. No matter what your political persuasion is, that is a staggering and heartbreaking figure.
This virus has devastated us on multiple fronts: emotionally and psychologically, and it is only by the grace of God that frontline workers still have the will and energy to get up every day and head to the hospital.
Ignoring these important and disturbing issues and going straight for a more jolly, festive note would be irresponsible and heartless as the Church. We would be sugarcoating other people’s pain, but Advent forces us to reckon with the world’s pain.
One writer put this way, “Advent is designed to show that the meaning of Christmas is diminished to the vanishing point if we are not willing to take a fearless inventory of the darkness…The authentically hopeful Christmas spirit has not looked away from the darkness, but straight into it” (Rutledge 252 & 253).
Mark & Isaiah
The early Christians wrestled with these tough themes as well. They longed for Jesus’ return—they were convinced that he was coming back at any moment within their lifetime. But it became clear that he was not rushing back to the world he just left, and in the meantime, humanity would continue to suffer, including them personally.
Our parable from Mark this morning had an important message for them to hear: though Jesus’ arrival is delayed, like a doorkeeper looking for his master’s return, you must keep watch and stay alert.
There is tension in the story that we feel too as the modern church: we wait for his return though it seems like he won’t return. We proclaimed last week that Christ is King, yet there is so much evil happening around us. How do we keep watch and why do we watch for his arrival when there is so much darkness in the world? Is he really coming back?
On top of those questions, which seem to be plenty for a Sunday in Advent, the prophet Isaiah adds, “You have hidden your face from us.”
So God has not only delayed his coming, but he is a hidden God—at times we cry out and all we hear is silence. Many of us have prayed our hearts out to God during some of the lowest moments in our life only to be met with deafening silence.
Advent addresses these tough issues that the first Christians wrestled with and that all of us still ask at different times of our life. Advent names the darkness in the world, names the silence of God. Hopefully, we come away longing for Jesus to return as urgently as those early Christians—to set the world right and to bring us into his glorious presence.
The truth is we don’t know why God delays his return, we don’t know why he hides his face but he has promised us that he will return.
The reason the Doorkeeper in Mark’s parable doesn’t leave his post is because he is convinced the Master will return. The Master himself told him so. It’s not a matter of “if” but “when.”
And for Isaiah, though the prophet recognizes the hiddenness of God, he nevertheless intimately speaks to him, confidently knowing that God is listening. He ends by saying “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are the work of your hand.” In a holy mystery that we cannot fully understand, God is absent though somehow present, and present though absent. Yet he is still the God of the Covenant, and he will keep his promises.
Our prayer as we wait for the Lord’s second advent should be that we “are given the grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” We are to resist the darkness at all cost, come what may.
Sin and Evil in this world are to be challenged and fought, and by fighting the darkness of the world we point people towards the coming light of the Kingdom of God.
There is darkness all around but stay awake and strain your eyes for the first glimpse of the dawn, and there you will see the One who has died, who is risen, and who will surely come again.
1st Sunday of Advent. Year B. Isaiah 61:1-9. Mk 13:24-37. Advent by Fleming Rutledge. “Report: At least 600 killed in Ethiopia” by Lesley Wroughton 11/25/20. “Unrest in key city undercuts Assad’s control” by Sarah Dadouch 11/25/20 The Washington Post. Hymn: “Lo he comes with clouds descending.”