1 Advent 2017: Birth or Death?

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Isaiah 64:1-9

Oh, that you would rip open the heavens and descend,
make the mountains shudder at your presence—
As when a forest catches fire,
as when fire makes a pot to boil—
To shock your enemies into facing you,
make the nations shake in their boots!
You did terrible things we never expected,
descended and made the mountains shudder at your presence.
Since before time began
no one has ever imagined,
No ear heard, no eye seen, a God like you
who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who happily do what is right,
who keep a good memory of the way you work.
But how angry you’ve been with us!
We’ve sinned and kept at it so long!
Is there any hope for us? Can we be saved?
We’re all sin-infected, sin-contaminated.
Our best efforts are grease-stained rags.
We dry up like autumn leaves—
sin-dried, we’re blown off by the wind.
No one prays to you
or makes the effort to reach out to you
Because you’ve turned away from us,
left us to stew in our sins.

Still, God, you are our Father.
We’re the clay and you’re our potter:
All of us are what you made us.
Don’t be too angry with us, O God.
Don’t keep a permanent account of wrongdoing.
Keep in mind, please, we are your people—all of us.
Your holy cities are all ghost towns:
Zion’s a ghost town,
Jerusalem’s a field of weeds.
Our holy and beautiful Temple,
which our ancestors filled with your praises,
Was burned down by fire,
all our lovely parks and gardens in ruins.
In the face of all this,
are you going to sit there unmoved, God?
Aren’t you going to say something?
Haven’t you made us miserable long enough?

“The Divine Dream” by Abraham Heschel

There is a divine dream which the prophets and rabbis have cherished and which fills our prayers, and permeates the acts of true piety. It is the dream of a world, rid of evil by the grace of God as well as by (our) efforts…to the task of establishing the kingship of God in the world. God is waiting for us to redeem the world. We should not spend our life hunting for trivial satisfactions while God is waiting constantly and keenly for our effort and devotion.

The Almighty has not created the universe that we may have opportunities to satisfy our greed, envy and ambition. We have not survived that we may waste our years in vulgar vanities. The martyrdom of millions demands that we consecrate ourselves to the fulfillment of God’s dream of salvation. Israel did not accept the Torah of their own free will. When Israel approached Sinai, God lifted up the mountain and held it over their heads, saying: “Either you accept the Torah or be crushed beneath the mountain.”

The mountain of history is over our heads again. Shall we renew the covenant with God?”

Mark 13:24-37

“Following those hard times,

Sun will fade out,
moon cloud over,
Stars fall out of the sky,
cosmic powers tremble.

“And then they’ll see the Son of Man enter in grand style, his Arrival filling the sky—no one will miss it! He’ll dispatch the angels; they will pull in the chosen from the four winds, from pole to pole.

“Take a lesson from the fig tree. From the moment you notice its buds form, the merest hint of green, you know summer’s just around the corner. And so it is with you. When you see all these things, you know he is at the door. Don’t take this lightly. I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for this one, too—these things will happen. Sky and earth will wear out; my words won’t wear out.

“But the exact day and hour? No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father. So keep a sharp lookout, for you don’t know the timetable. It’s like a man who takes a trip, leaving home and putting his servants in charge, each assigned a task, and commanding the gatekeeper to stand watch. So, stay at your post, watching. You have no idea when the homeowner is returning, whether evening, midnight, cockcrow, or morning. You don’t want him showing up unannounced, with you asleep on the job. I say it to you, and I’m saying it to all: Stay at your post. Keep watch.”


I love that graphic image
in this morning’s translation of Isaiah:
“Our best efforts are grease-stained rags.”

The straight-talk from Isaiah helps us deal better
with that excerpt from the great 20th century American rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Christians get squeamish when it comes to
tough-talk about God.
“Either you accept the Torah
or be crushed beneath the mountain,”
is a threatening interpretation of God that modern Christians, particularly liberals, usually object to.
But Isaiah’s lament about a God that is nowhere to be found,
when a loving, faithful God should be active,
is pretty clear and understandable.

Jesus has more of the same.

In the preamble
to what we heard from the gospel this morning,
Jesus warns his buddies:
“…In those days there will be suffering,
such as has not been seen from the beginning of creation
that God created until now, no, and never will be…”

The worst suffering ever!
That is saying something,
because human beings have known an awful measure
of suffering.

Jesus is warning them that they are going feel pain,
and it is going to be awful, so watch out for the signs:
The sun will fade,
the moon will cloud over,
fire will fall to the earth,
and the cosmos itself tremble.

Not good. Welcome to Advent.
Advent, remember, is the little four-week season
before Christmas.
It is a ‘get ready’ season.
The days are surely coming,
when God will fulfill the promise,
says another prophet (Jeremiah).
And the way he says it,
it sounds a heck of a lot more like a ‘threat’ than a promise.

In the popular imagination,
that time that will surely come,
that Jesus and other prophets predict,
is known variably as
The End Time
The Apocalypse
The Rapture
or the Eschaton.

It is almost always imagined as a violent ending.

The end of human history
is also imagined by many Christians today
to be the defining moment that will reward their faith,
while punishing or condemning
the absence of faith or the ‘wrong’ faith,
in a multitude of other people.

I prefer to imagine these and other calculations
by prophets whom I hold in high regard,
as a birth instead of a death –
the first breath of bountiful air
rather than the last draw of a snuffed-out life.

To be honest, I do not expect God to suddenly
put a zipper on it and wipe us out.
I prefer Isaiah’s other image of God, read elsewhere,
that God will wipe away every tear.

On the other hand,
like most moderns who have been taught
at the knee of Carl Sagan and Neal deGrasse Tyson,
I also expect that one day,
the Earth will be reduced to a cinder cooling off in space
after our sun dies –
which all stars finally do.
Sooner or later
the end will arrive
and whoever is around in those days
will have to contend with what it all means.

But on this first Sunday of Advent,
as we receive these Biblical readings
about a violent end-of-the-world,
it is worth thinking about WHY
those ancient people expected such violence.

It is because,
when you have little knowledge about the environment,
and your sphere of control is tragically narrow,
then a sudden apocalypse
would be consistent with the rest of your experience.

Think about it:
those ancients did not get much warning
about a storm like Irma or Maria –
our satellites watched those storms sweep across the ocean
before finally crossing the threshold of human habitats.

In Isaiah’s or Jesus’ day, storms just hit – BAM!

So did the Roman army – BAM!
The ancients never saw the legions coming
as they came marching ant-like over the horizon.
There was no warning about the cohort
who raped your daughter
or cut off the hands of your son
or took your bread and goats – BAM!

No warning about the Bandits who attacked;
or the lion that ate your neighbor;
or the famine that swept the population;
or the disease that only began
as a little rash
and ended with internal bleeding
that finally gushed blood from every orifice.

Our existence, yours and mine,
obscures how raw the lives of our ancestors were.
It is said that all of us here,
regardless of how much or how little income we have,
enjoys a quality of life
better than historic kings, like Henry VIII.

You and I often know about social mayhem
and natural disasters long before they arrive,
and our day-to-day existence is so sanitized and anesthetized,
not to mention protected,
that we create violence in movies, television, and video games
because somehow, scaring ourselves is entertainment.

It is little wonder that those ancients
anticipated the end of the world,
and that it would arrive with a rush of violence,
because that was their everyday experience.

Also…if God does not use the end-of-the-world
to finally reverse their fortunes,
for which they had long been on the losing end,
then when was the scale of justice going to get balanced?

And if it was not going to be God cleaning up in the 9th Inning,
then who, what, or when?

So, it is not so difficult to see why the ancients
envisioned apocalypse at the end of time –
and maybe even longed for it.
But what boggles my mind,
is that so many modern recipients of consumeristic privilege
also hope and pray for apocalypse!
I don’t get it.

But as I said, I want to put a different twist on Advent.

But let me also interject here,
that we will be missing most of our normal observation
of Advent this year.
Because we have invited the community into Trinity
for a concert next week,
and it is a Christmas concert;
and because the non-churched
and the non-liturgical churches do not recognize Advent at all;
and because that is much of the audience
we hope is here next week;
we are greening the Church for Christmas today.

We will not put up all of our Christmas decorations,
but we will do a lot of it
in the name of hospitality and welcome
to the wider community for the concert.

And…we will also miss the dramatic conclusion of Advent this year,
because the fourth Sunday of Advent falls on Christmas Eve.
So Advent is getting short shrift here this year.

Even so, we can practice the spirituality of Advent.

We do not need the color purple
or the absence of Christmas decorations,
or graphic apocalyptic threats,
to practice Advent.
We need only imagine we are awaiting a birth, not a death;
painful yes, but joyous beyond words.

In Advent, together, with one another,
we become a gaggle of slightly anxious
friends and family
watching the maternal belly of expectation
expand…waiting, waiting, waiting.

It is not even our belly,
not even our baby,
but we know that when it comes
will suddenly be different.

It is not even our belly,
not even our baby
but we know that when it comes
will be different.

And you know what else?
We don’t even know its name
We don’t even know the name of the thing
that is coming,
that is gestating in the womb of the universe.

Here at Trinity we are experiencing that pregnancy
with great intimacy.

It is clear we are in a womb about to be delivered –
being born into a world we do not know yet,
and about to become a creature
we are not yet certain about.
Change is coming,
the cervix is thinning
and we know something is about to change.

It is the kind of change
about which we can never be certain what it will delivered;
the kind of change we cannot manage;
the kind of change we cannot usher.

A Harvard professor named, Ron Heifetz,
who writes about leadership and change,
has a nifty little way of distinguishing
between categories of change.
He says there is, “Continuous Change”
and “Discontinuous Change,”
and they are very different.

Continuous change is the one we like, if we like change at all.
It is the kind we can anticipate,
manage, and plan.
For example, we can plan the renovation of a building;
we can anticipate stuff wearing out
and requiring replacement;
we can manage a rainy-day fund
to pay for unanticipated events.
We can count on our body aging and so exercise,
eat right, and manage how much of the unhealthy stuff
we will allow ourselves to indulge.
All of that is continuous change,
and its main descriptor
is that is comes out of what has gone on before.
We know what to expect because of the past.

Then there is the other kind of change.
For example, we were getting so good
at anticipating and managing
the economic cycle of recession and inflation,
that many very smart people
actually began to talk about how there might
never be another
unanticipated change in the cycle.
No more recessions
or inflation, they were saying.

Then, all of a sudden,
something called the “Housing Bubble” happened.
Chaos ensued.

That is the kind of change we hate –
the chaos of discontinuous change,
or something that happens
that has never happened before.
Such change does not come out of previous experience,
it comes out of nowhere – or seems to –
and we are caught with our pants down (so to speak).

In the midst of discontinuous change,
the skills and know-how
we have used before to fix things,
does not work.

We instinctively try harder and harder and harder
using what we know has worked before,
but it does not help.

Old ways of doing things do not work
because things have really changed,
and our previous know-how
simply does not work.

We are suddenly out beyond the boundary
where we have never been before,
and we get the creeping feeling
there are things out here around us
that are very, very dangerous.

Because we get scared about not knowing what will happen,
and because we hate being out of control,
our first inclination is to reach for technology to fix it.
If we just have the right gizmo
or the perfect way of doing something
or a better program
or a new image…
But there is no fix, not yet,
and not with anything we have at our disposal.
And you know what?
Advent is a season intended to open us up
to discontinuous change –
the kind of change we hate.

Advent is a season
that invites us into discontinuous change
where the best thing we can do is wait…
wait and listen,
wait and observe,
wait and see what, if anything, God is doing.

Now, I know that a lot of us
do not believe God is doing anything
or ever does anything.
We inherited that kind of Deism
from Thomas Jefferson and the Enlightenment smarties.
It embarrasses us to talk about what God is doing
because we can’t prove it even if we knew it.

But Advent is a season to listen
and observe
and see what God is doing,
because we are in fact
surrounded by a time of discontinuous change.

We would be hard pressed
to think about an institution in this country
that is not cracking open,
falling apart,
or on its way to becoming something very different.
It is not just organized religion that is falling apart:
Health care,
Journalism, and Entertainment…
In all of them, the familiar scaffolding
that has held them up and made them work,
is disintegrating
well before we know what will replace it.
Those who keep applying
the same old fixes
as if doing so will make things better,
look and sound increasingly loony and even pathetic.

But nobody else is looking especially brilliant either –
as if they have the answers.
The reason is, in times of discontinuous change,
there are no experts
because the answers haven’t been named yet.

You and I may have imagined
that we were just entering the season of Advent,
the one that would take us
through the four weeks before Christmas.

But in fact, we have been entering Advent
for quite some time now,
and we are going to be in it
for quite some time to come.

There are no experts.
There are no gurus.
There are no answers.
To pretend there are,
and to follow those who promise them,
is to risk becoming deaf and blind
to what God is actually doing in our midst.

We may think we know what to hope for,
just like all those Christians who hope
for the end of the world to come.
But our vision is too small,
and our imagination is too limited,
and our hope is too flimsy
to unveil what God has in mind for us.

We need to wait instead…
wait and listen,
wait and observe,
wait and see what God is doing.

So, I invite us into a quiet little Advent
in which we wait…
wait for the baby that is coming any minute now,
next month,
or years from now.
Wait for the scaffolding to collapse
and reveal the phoenix
that will rise up from the ashes.

I invite us into a quiet little Advent
in which we wait…
knowing that the best gift we can receive
is one we can’t even hope for
or anticipate
because right now,
in this time of discontinuous change,
we do not even know
what we do not know.

In invite us into a quiet little Advent
in which we wait…
wait and listen,
wait and observe,
wait and see
what God is doing – and expect
that God is doing something…even
if we do not know what.