Sunday, December 07, 2008

First Sunday of Advent: Hope in the Midst of Despair

On this first Sunday in Advent we begin to look forward to the coming of Christmas. For weeks now the world around us has told us it’s time. Holiday songs play from every intercom; tinsel, ornaments and lights flicker and shine in the aisles of each store. Even our local coffee houses have told us it’s time. Out with the pumpkin spice and in the peppermint! “It’s Christmas time,” shouts the world! And we confess, we too are lured by the glamour of the holidays.

Yet, this week’s readings bring anything but tidings of good news…at least on the surface. Far from images of a silent night, the texts for today are dominated by apocalyptic images of a dramatic coming with cosmic disturbance:

The heavens are torn asunder, mountains quake, fires rage and water boils. The sun darkens and the moon sheds no light, stars fall and the heavens quake.

Cheery and bright, the readings are not! Yet, these readings are essential to our understanding of Advent and yes, even Christmas. These readings help us re-orient our understanding of the reason for the season.

It is important that we understand these texts in their context. Both Isaiah and Mark were writing to beleaguered and oppressed communities: peoples who had experienced great suffering and despair, peoples who had been promised deliverance only to experience disappointment and despair. The reading from Isaiah comes decades after the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile. The author lives with the deep disappointment of all the failed prophecies of a triumphant return offered by those who went before. The people have left Babylon, but the legacy of captivity remains. The hope and optimism of the previous generations were never fully realized.

You see, the return did not go as expected. The journey from Babylon was long and difficult. And then, once they exiles arrived they faced even more daunting challenges of rebuilding their homes, their neighborhoods, their communities, their lives. And all of this was under the oppressive Persian regime who monitored and controlled their every move. Life was hard and the promises of prophets past seemed long gone.

The section which we read is a lament…a prayer offered in despair as people search in vain for the presence of God in their lives. The prophet speaks the longings of the community for the real presence of God among them. “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.”

Having returned home to Jersualem, the people expect for life to be as it was before, but generations have passed and life has moved on without them. The promises of second Isaiah loom empty and the people feel utterly abandoned by their God.

We, too, I think can empathize with the Israelites. We know what it is like to at times feel abandoned by God. We know what is like to feel exiled from the Divine presence…to feel alone, alienated and abandoned. There have been moments in each of lives when we yearn to see just a glimmer of God and are confronted with nothing but what seems like an endless void.

In the movie, The Devil’s Advocate, Satan calls God an absentee landlord, and the image, well at times rings true. What of the promises of comfort, success and triumph we read in scriptures? Do you see evidence of that in the world around us? What of this God who we proclaim to be good…all the time…yet apparently sits enthroned in heaven and watches as the world crumbles under the weight of despair, hopelessness, violence, war, poverty and hate? What of the assertion that all we have to do is pray and God will answer our prayers…has that always been your experience? Sometimes, it makes us wonder.

In high school, I had just begun to attend church. I was new to the idea of Christianity and a little cynical, but I wanted to believe. I really did. Every week our youth group would sing our theology… “The Banner Over Me Is Love,” “Jesus, I Adore You,” and “Seek Ye First.” Do any of you know “Seek Ye First?” The words are from Matthew 6:33 and proclaim that all we have to do is ask God and we will get what we pray for.

It was during this time that a close family friend was diagnosed with cancer. He was 40 years old with five children ranging in age from 2 years to 20 years old. He was like a second father to me as our families had practically grown up together. I was shocked by the news, but convinced that if I just prayed hard enough, he would be alright. “Ask and it shall be given unto you.” I prayed and prayed every night, yet just three short weeks later, Mr. Smith died and I was devastated. How could this have happened? I asked. I knocked. For God’s sake, I begged and pleaded and yet God seemingly did not care. I, like the Israelites, was quick to blame myself. Maybe I hadn’t prayed hard enough. Maybe, I didn’t believe enough. Maybe, God did not love me as I thought. Perhaps, had I known the text, I too would have cried the same words as Isaiah.

Theologian Dan Clendenin says in his article, Drinking Tears by the Bowlful, that this feeling of alienation from God is more common than we think. He writes,

“The disconnect between what we sometimes experience and what we pray for that results from God's apparent silence is a source of understandable anxiety and frustration. Praying to God for mighty acts of deliverance is an entirely human and genuinely Christian response to the pain and suffering of the world, of our neighbors, and of our own lives.”

And it is true. We all need hope in a God who listens and responds. But what Clendenin goes on to point out is that this Christian expectation is tempered by the message of Advent.

“The season of advent that we now enter ads an important qualification. God is not a Cosmic Concierge... Sometimes we must wait. We wait in patience knowing that not every act of God reverberates like a pounding sledge hammer. In Isaiah's metaphor, God does not always split open the heavens. Whereas even Jesus’closest disciples longed to call down fire from heaven and to brandish swords, Jesus compared his coming kingdom to tiny mustard seeds and to the imperceptible but certain fermentation of yeast.”

Of course we want the loud, unmistakable wildness of God’s presence that shakes the very foundation of the world. Of course, we long for real proof that God is as powerful as we hope the Divine to be. Of course, we yearn for a sign that the God we pray to actually cares.

Yet, the wildness for which we long, is not the wildness that Advent offers. Don’t be fooled by the cataclysmic, apocalyptic images of which we read. If we read them as literal signs, we miss the true wildness God has in store for us.

While many interpret this week’s lectionary as a literal depiction of the end times, Mark’s gospel and Isaiah’s lament are meant by the authors as calls to hope to a suffering, oppressed and despairing people. They are reminders of God’s power and presence in the world despite all signs to the contrary. Remember, Mark is also writing to a people disappointed and disillusioned by the failure of what they took to be God’s promise. Jesus was supposed to return in their lifetimes and yet they were growing old and time running short.

For Mark, Jesus’ words are not meant as a literal depiction of times to come, but rather a reminder to watch in expectation of the light to come. William Loader in his commentary on this text from Mark has said,

“The mandate is then not to ignore what is happening in the world, but to think about it, to watch, to live in the light of it and in the light of the hope which is beyond it....Watchful living has less to do with speculation about the end of the world and more to do with carrying out our trust in a way that finally makes the date of the end a matter of irrelevance.”

Watchful, patient living is what we are called to in the season of Advent. For the wildness that God promises comes not in literal cataclysmic acts of Divine power, but rather in the quiet contemplation of the very idea of the kin-dom of God. What is wild about Advent is not that the sun and moon and stars shall fall and the heavens quake, but rather that we proclaim in this season the coming and breaking in of the kin-dom itself. The idea that God is dwelling among us and the kin-dom come is a wild idea…for the Israelites, Greeks and Romans then, and no less for us today.

The wildness of Advent is our claim that peace will reign – in a world of violence? That healing will happen – in a world plagued by the HIV-AIDS epidemic? That the earth shall prosper – in a time of unprecedented environmental degradation? That love will conquer hate – in an era of seemingly increasing prejudice and discrimination? That the rich and the poor shall feast together – in a world of growing disparity? Yes, yes indeed!

Like our faith ancestors, we have a hard time believing God is present without the cataclysmic, cosmic signs. Yet, what is cataclysmic if not the wild promise of the coming kin-dom in a time when all evidence points to the contrary? The very fact that we continue to proclaim the coming kin-dom is wild!

After Mr. Smith died, I didn’t go back to church for a long time. When I finally did, I found that all the anger and sadness and guilt I had kept at bay came flooding over me. I knelt at the altar during communion and pleaded with God for forgiveness and acceptance. I had been bad (for what I did not know), but I desperately wanted to be back in God’s favor. And so I prayed again, long and hard and begged for a sign that God was still present, that I was still loved. And nothing came.

And then, a friend came to the rail and asked me what was wrong and if she could help. I brushed her aside because I was waiting for God. A second friend came, and told me how worried they were about me, how sorry they felt about my deep sadness, how they wished to make it better. And, I again brushed them away, because I was waiting for God. A third friend came, knelt beside me and embraced me. They whispered in my ear, “No matter what has happened, no matter what you think you have done, God loves you and so do I.” And in that moment, I knew God was present. It wasn’t the cataclysmic heaven shaking sign I wanted, but it was just the sign I needed.

What Advent teaches us is a patient waiting and a watchful living that helps us discern not just the coming of the kin-dom, but the kin-dom in our midst. When we learn to discern the signs of the times, we find that no longer are our eyes focused heavenward. Advent teaches us to look all around us for the presence of God, even if not especially, in the most unlikely of places: in a tiny mustard seed, in the embrace of a friend, in an infant lain in a manger. The fact is God is present, we just need to train ourselves to look in the right places.

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