12.03.2017 Preaching Text: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…” (Isaiah 64:1)
The senior pastor in the first church I served had the well-earned reputation for lengthy sermons. A member of the congregation, in fact, once made a proposal: “If you ever preach a sermon under 5 minutes,” he announced tongue-in-cheek, “I’ll buy you dinner.” Neither ever happened.
On another occasion, in the receiving line, a church member complained that the service had gone over an hour. Without skipping a beat he came up with this little gem: ‘Well it’s not a TV show, you know.”
During that same time period, I took our youth group to a Hispanic church in downtown Worcester. During a question and answer period, one of the kids asked the pastor how long their services last.
“We don’t think like that,” the pastor replied. “We meet as long as the Holy Spirit allows, and then we stop. It could be hours.” The kids were dumbfounded, if not a bit mortified.
Now I’ve never been known for short sermons either, but given today’s re-dedication of our Memorial Garden, I thought I’d try to shorten it a bit! (Of course, by offering this lengthy introduction, I’m already halfway toward failing my stated objective!)
In any event, I wanted to talk today about the various moods of the Christian life. Today, as you know, is the first Sunday in Advent, which marks the beginning of a new liturgical year within the church calendar. It’s our New Year’s Day.
The theme of Advent is preparation, waiting, and hoping. All of our readings this morning carry this theme. So too do they seem a bit dark and foreboding. At least that’s the way we experienced them in Bible Study this past week.
Each assumes adversity, one largely brought about by human sin. Advent, in fact, rather than reflecting the celebrations of Christmas, has been called a “mini-Lent.” Be it noted that Advent’s purple, a color that symbolizes pain and suffering as well as mourning and repentance, is the same as Lent’s.
That Advent takes place during the darkest time of the year is instructive. The idea is that when life seems its bleakest, hope can carry us through.
As we wait for the birth of Jesus, we prepare for his arrival by “getting our house in order,” by repenting of those behaviors and habits that would make us less receptive to his arrival, less capable of receiving the gift of his presence.
Thus Advent only anticipates something glorious. Yet its uneasy present is defined always by the contours of hope, that God’s exultant light shall indeed break forth into the darkest of human places, even our beleaguered hearts.
In the meantime Advent’s description of life, at least based on today’s readings, remains rather grim. It presupposes a state of rampant, unrepentant sin, even as it looks to a future of impending joy.
Then again, the Bible is nothing if not realistic about the human condition. In fact, if everything were hunky-dory, there’d be no need for scripture’s “Good News.” It’s only good news to those in need of good news, to those yearning to be rescued from life’s shabbier realities.
But, it’s essential to note, the liturgical voice is not monotone. It’s not stuck on the downside of human life. As the year progresses, it takes us from the deprivations of Advent to Christmas, a time of feasting and celebrating – for God has heard our cries.
We then move to Epiphany, which chronicles how Christmas’ lighted candle, flickering vulnerably amid the manger’s surrounding gloom, becomes an ever-burgeoning light as Jesus – and all that his life portends – moves inexorably out into the world.
From here we again enter a period of waiting, introspection, and preparation (Lent), in anticipation of Easter’s Resurrection and the culminating defeat of all vestiges of darkness and death. In this God’s purposes are revealed in full.
During the season after Pentecost, the Resurrection Spirit spreads out to the furthest reaches of the planet, carried by the nascent church, a movement that, as we well know, eventually was to arrive on these very shores.
At the conclusion of this seasonal movement of the Holy Spirit, we encounter finally the majestic imagery of Christ the King on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, as he holds forth in heaven in preparation for welcoming all his people therein. At which point we return to Advent, and start all over.
Within the sacred rhythms of the liturgical year, we experience not just times of adversity, confusion, pain, suffering, and yearning. We also experience moments of revelation, insight, and jubilation. We know times when God appears hidden but also times of spiritual luminosity, comfort, and peace.
Again, the point is that our biblical faith, and the liturgical year that reflects its themes, relates to the human condition, not in a superficial or “Pollyannaish” way, but in a clear-eyed, honest way. It does not sugarcoat or explain away life’s challenges, for to do so would betray a God both distant and removed, one who abandons us to face the vagaries of this fallen world on our own.
Instead we are offered a palpable hope and blessed assurance, and a way through life’s inevitable difficulties and travails. It pronounces eternal life as life’s greatest truth, wherein God’s unstinting love for us is revealed.
No matter what life-circumstance in which we find ourselves, our biblical faith offers a corresponding mood. Its sheer humanity reveals a God who respects and takes seriously the truth of our lives, offering us not a diffident, unmoving cosmic being, but a steadying, authoritative, merciful, gracious, and loving God who is both personal and wholly responsive to the deepest human need. Amen.