November 30, 2008
Text: Isaiah 64:1–9 (7There 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.)
Mark 13:24–37 (32But about that day or hour
no one knows, neither the angels in heaven,
nor the Son, but only the Father.
33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know
when the time will come. )
Maybe you didn’t expect it to start this way.
We forget it always does.
Advent is a time to gather ourselves
around themes of hope, faithful waiting,
and trust in what God will do
to heal and renew our lives.
But Advent doesn’t start on a note of mirth or lightness.
It starts on a note of despair and gravity.
Listen to these words from Isaiah again:
7There 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.
We don’t expect that this is where things start,
not just in Advent,
but in any movement towards hope and renewal.
But it starts here,
and these texts are opening up a space for us right now
to enter our own despair and gravity,
so there might be room for hope and renewal
beyond what we can do for ourselves.
Israel abandoned hope in exile
because it appeared and felt like
God had grown distant from them.
It seemed that their failures and faults
had driven God away to hide up above the sky,
distant and uncaring and unmoved by people’s pain and cries.
But without giving up completely on God, they cry out:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
end this dispassionate distance,
this numbing, divine silence.
Come back to us and heal our lives.
Maybe that is part of our felt reality today, too.
Many people know the distance sensed between God and people,
and the distance between one another,
and the two are surely connected.
Isn’t this the cry so many people cry,
and the complaint so many have against any easy faith,
even though they want to believe?
Why are you distant God,
when we have messed things up so badly,
and so many are crying and dying
in Mumbai, India and on the US-Mexico border,
and inside gated communities
and behind lonely, locked doors?
Israel confessed its felt distance from God,
and God’s apparent non-responsiveness.
Israel confessed its failure,
and its fear,
and its powerlessness to fix itself or the world.
And that, strange as it seems,
is the beginning of hope and renewed life.
Coming before God,
even a God you aren’t sure is paying attention,
with utter brokenness and need is the beginning of all new life.
Sometimes you have to figure out how you are powerless to change,
when you have reached bottom,
and honestly say what exactly it is that is wrong with your life...
in order to find out what is right with God
and ultimately hopeful about your life.
It is like AA or a 12-step group,
where the entry point to healing
is a confession of failure
and powerlessness to fix yourself.
It is like a crisis that shocks you,
a death or a divorce maybe,
and stops you short of where you expected to be,
and makes you realize you can’t control it all.
It is like being stuck in a rut
and not knowing where to go next or what to do
and simply sitting there and saying:
I’m stuck! I can’t get out of it!
When I was growing up in Illinois
we had many wonderful, snowy winters.
Wonderful, that is, until you had to shovel the snow.
And if you didn’t shovel the snow on your driveway,
your car would get stuck,
and you’d try to rock it back and forth,
forward and reverse, spinning your wheels,
and the more you’d spin the wheels,
the more you’d turn the snow to ice,
and the more stuck you’d get.
And at some point you stop doing that,
you stop spinning your wheels,
and you just say it: I am stuck!
Somehow, utter honesty about our stuckness,
open confession about our failures,
grief and pain expressed and processed,
all are the starting point for turning to God
and finding hope in what is beyond us,
instead of in ourselves.
You can hear this in Mark’s Gospel
as Jesus talks about the coming days
when God finishes his work of making a peaceful world.
The message is fairly clear and simple
even if the apocalyptic language and imagery is not:
The future is not ours to make,
it is God’s to make.
The future is not ours to claim as our possession,
but it is ours to receive
as a gift of God’s creative power and loving mercy.
Our life of faith is about trusting the future to God,
even as we become useful to God’s future in what we do today.
Our life of faith is about hope in the midst of hopelessness,
expecting what seems too good to be true,
a world at peace and lives healed and whole again,
except that it comes from God,
and so it can be true and too good.
So here are some excellent reasons to be church today:
One of them is to be the place
where utter honesty about life is expressed,
is welcomed, is confessed, is expected,
honesty about you and me and the world we live in,
honesty about failure and powerlessness,
honesty about fear and anxiety,
honesty about the lack of a future we can make on our own.
I believe we need a place called church where truth is spoken.
And let’s face it,
most of what is spoken among us
in TV and news and movies and advertising
is a false hope,
and a covered over pain,
and a hidden despair,
and a fake smile.
And no one is saved or transformed or given deep hope for living
from untruth and fakery.
It might be summed up for us today
in the awful story of a WalMart in Long Island, New York,
on so-called “Black Friday,”
the vast shopping day after Thanksgiving
on which we have come to place
a great deal of our hope about the future.
Maybe you heard the news story:
A temporary worker at that WalMart
was trampled to death
when they opened the doors at 5 a.m.
when 2,000 shoppers barreled in.
And for what?
It’s not just a cheap microwave or a trendy toy
that drives these now familiar tragedies.
It is a hopelessness turned to despair.
It is our whole culture desperate enough
to let the promise of selling and consuming
be a narcotic.
We need to numb our fear and anxiety
and loneliness and pain,
because we aren’t allowed to name it and confess it.
So, yes, there is good reason to be the church.
It matters that we have a place and a text
and a liturgy that call us to honesty about life
as we stand before one another and God
so we don’t have to hide it or numb it with something else.
The other reason we bother being church
is that in the midst of such honesty and confession
there is a holy presence and a hopeful word spoken
of a God who is bigger than us
and beyond our despair
and better than our failure.
There is a message of goodness and healing from God
that brings such hope we can hardly explain:
an inner joy that wells up from where we cannot say,
a strength to live life openly and honestly and fully,
a heart full of love
love for all the other broken people
who also don’t have it figured out,
and can’t fix themselves,
but are part of the good world and promised future
God is bringing.
This is why Jesus talks about being awake,
and keeping watch.
Watchfulness in the text is hopeful waiting for God.
The importance of watchfulness
is that without hope in God
we might be misled,
either to hopeless waiting
and so live in endless crushing despair.
Or we might be misled to no waiting at all
and so we seek to fix the world and bring about
a kingdom of our own making
through our own power
which always leads to victims,
and a return to grinding hopelessness.
Instead of all of all of that,
we can be a community of faith
that invites ourselves and the whole world
to utter honesty about life,
and to do so in the presence of God.
In doing this,
we can create a space where hope in God alone
leads to new life for us and for all people,
a life not of our own making,
but a merciful gift from God
we can only receive in thanks.