Shock and Awe

(sermon 12/3/17)

manger

Isaiah 64:1-9

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.

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Mark 13:24-37

“But 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.”

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He looked around and saw a world turned upside down. Living under a government that had taken away people’s rights, their freedoms, their wealth. Every day the news chronicled yet another way that things were going wrong, and every day he thought this was rock bottom, things couldn’t get any worse, and yet, every day, they did. People were filled with uncertainty and dread, and coming to believe that things would never get any better, they lived their lives in the hell of lost hope.

That was what the prophet Isaiah saw as he and his fellow countrymen were living in exile as slaves serving the Babylonian Empire, which had conquered Jerusalem and Judea, destroying the Temple and life as the Judeans had known it. They had believed that in a very real and special way, God dwelled in that Temple, and the only way the Babylonians could have captured and destroyed it, they felt, would have been if God had left the Temple, abandoning them to the Babylonians – and if that was the case, then what hope was left? Many of the Judeans were angry at God. Many of them gave up believing that God had ever existed and been present at all. No all-powerful and loving God would have ever let something like this happen.

That was the situation that prompted Isaiah to write the words we heard this morning, calling, begging, even demanding that God return and save them – and to do it in a big, dramatic, decisive way. Shock and awe. Earthquakes, fire, nations trembling in fear; make sure there’s no doubt who’s in charge, and that the good people would be vindicated and the bad ones punished. God, if you really exist, come down here and set things right.

Today, we start the journey of Advent, week by week considering a different aspect of the meaning of Jesus’ birth, and the incoming of God into our world and our human existence. This morning, we think about the particular aspect of the hope that Jesus’ birth offers. Hope is essential to us. It’s the water that sustains our roots; without it, our life itself withers and dies. In the facing of the biggest challenges and setbacks, when people were the most discouraged, the gay-rights activist Harvey Milk used to say “You’ve got to give ‘em hope!” because he knew that without it, everything was lost, and he was right.

Hope is what makes it possible to see past the hard realities and setbacks of the present, to the goodness that can, and will, eventually follow. And it’s hope that enables us to somehow see God in the midst of all of it.

Many times, when we’re struggling to have hope for something better than our present, for things to be set right, just like Isaiah, we want God to come with a big, bold show of force, something that won’t leave any doubt about what’s going on – something like a literal playing out of the words Jesus uses to describe his return, the end of the age, in today’s gospel lesson. Darkened skies, clouds rolling back, ominous events better than any Hollywood special effects team could come up with. However each of us imagines that culmination of this age, we have to realize that in some way, literal or otherwise, what Jesus describes is going to happen eventually, and because of that we can have hope.

He sat in the assisted living center that he’d been living in for the past couple of years. All of his life he’d been in control of his own life. He’d always been on the go, physically and mentally. Now, he spent his days in this little shoebox of a mini-apartment, and it might as well have been a real shoebox – he felt as if someone had just put him up on a shelf in a stockroom, out of the normal flow of daily life, left there and largely forgotten. His physical abilities had definitely declined, but mentally he was as sharp as ever, and it made his furious when the staff, and just as often, his family and friends, talked at him – and it was *at* him, almost never actually *with* him –  they treated him as if he were a helpless little child. The whole system seemed to be designed to strip away every shred of human dignity he had left. And at some point almost every day, the prayer entered his mind: “God, where are you? Do you even exist at all? I want to have hope, but right now I’m so mad at you that I wonder if you are even there, or if I’ve just been wasting my breath all these years. I deserve better than this! God, if you really exist, come set things right.”

In Jesus’ birth, God has come to set things right. In his birth, we see that God loves us so much that God actually chooses to live among us, as one of us – knowing all of our joys, sorrows, fears, doubts, suffering, and eventually, while on the cross, even experiencing the feeling of being completely abandoned by God, and the hopelessness that comes along with it. Understanding this about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection allows us to know that when we experience the same things, God hasn’t abandoned us any more than Jesus was abandoned. And that just as God vindicated Jesus through his resurrection, God will vindicate us, too. Looking at Jesus’ birth, and everything that followed, we can be assured, and have hope, because we can know that even in our darkest moments, God hasn’t abandoned us at all, but is actually right there in the midst of those moments right alongside us.

In Jesus’ birth, God entered the world not in the dramatic way that Isaiah wanted, or the way that we might want intervention today, or the way that people often imagine Jesus’ return. Instead of shock and awe, when that intervention actually happened, God appeared humbly, in the middle of nowhere, out of the spotlight, born to nobody parents that the world would consider losers; not with trumpets blaring and riding in on clouds of glory, but with sheep bleating and lying helplessly in hay in a manger surrounded by animal manure. The thundering voice of God now the frightened whimper of a newborn.

Maybe entering the world this way actually makes it easier for us to find hope, because now we know that we can find God in the everyday. We can find the face of Christ in the face of anyone, without having to wait to see him in the clouds, in the sweet by-and-by. We can find the love of God in the love we receive, and give, to one another.

In Mark’s gospel lesson today, Jesus doesn’t tell us why we, or he himself, would have to endure hardship and suffering, and why God wouldn’t spare us from it before the culmination of all things. He just promises that whatever the actual details of it happening, when it’s all said and done, it really will be all said and done. Things will be set right. And it will be good, and just, and peaceful, and loving, and reconciled, and it will be forever. And it all starts to unfold with the birth of a child in a stable. And whenever and however it does finally come to completion, it will be so dramatic and different that people will understand it as being a time when the current heaven and earth actually passed away. Speaking just for myself, that will be all the shock and awe I’ll need.

Thanks be to God.

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The Longest Night (Evening Sermon, 12/21/14)

longest night

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. – John 1:1-14

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If you’re here tonight, you know that this time of year, so filled with happiness and joy for so many people, isn’t so joyful to everyone. The odds are that you’ve suffered some loss, maybe this past year, maybe longer ago, that you’re still wrestling with. Maybe your loss occurred at this time of year, and its anniversary has brought it to the forefront of your mind again; or maybe the memory of that loss, or separation, or disconnect, or just plain loneliness, is just brought more sharply into focus during this time of family and friends and togetherness. For whatever reason, whatever the details, there’s an aching in your heart, something that just doesn’t correspond with the overriding emotion of the Christmas season. The Book of Proverbs warns us not to sing songs to a heavy heart, but in fact that’s exactly what you feel every time you turn on the television or radio, or see friends gathering together and laughing and having a good time, apparently without a care in the world. It can make us feel disjointed. If we aren’t acting happy like everyone else, we gradually get pushed to the side of all the festivities. We can start to feel like we and our pain don’t matter; not to the people around us, not even to God.

We aren’t alone in this. A lot of the Psalms are songs of lament –  outpourings of pain, sorrow, anger, even accusation against God. After laying out the pain in the psalmist’s heart, some of them turn around toward the end, conceding that God is really good and in control, and the psalmist is confident that everything is going to be alright. But some of them don’t do that. There isn’t any neat, tidy resolution to the problem like a TV sitcom where everything’s resolved by the end of the episode. There’s no acknowledgement of God’s goodness or compassion. There’s only the anger, the sadness, a sadness that’s hung in the air and in our ears for some 2,500 years.

I think it’s important that these Psalms are a part of our tradition. They show us a number of things, but tonight, they’re especially important because they show us that in our faith, we take pain and sorrow seriously. We don’t sweep it under the rug and try to act like it doesn’t exist. We don’t try to prescribe some quick-fix for it. All of those psalms of lament, and the other places throughout the scriptures that paint pictures for us of the sorrow and suffering of people, show us that we are not alone in our sadness. We’re in the company of all of these people from the past – and we’re in the company of each other here tonight as well. This evening, as we look around, we can see that we’re not alone in our feelings; there are many of us here who are experiencing the same thing And it isn’t unnatural, it’s perfectly normal, and we don’t have to apologize, or feel guilt or shame over the way we feel. Instead, we can honestly recognize and acknowledge our feelings, and we can honestly share them with God. This evening, we can look around us, and see faces of good friends who can offer us understanding and comfort for our feelings, because they know those feelings themselves. And as we look around, and we see those faces, we see people who we can offer that same kind of comfort and support too in return.

People coming together on this night, the night of the year that has the least amount of daylight and the most amount of darkness, looking forward to the coming of greater and greater light, is something that predates the Christian faith by thousands of years. As Christians, we’ve borrowed the same idea, through our observance of Advent, as we gradually light more and more candles, symbolically increasing the light until the arrival of Christmas – the birth of Jesus, and the entrance of the ultimate, true light into the world. And we continue to observe this service, as we ask that the light of Christ, the light of God, would increasingly break into our existence, and into our own heavy hearts.

As hard as it might be to believe while we’re in the midst of our grief, that really is possible. We can see that possibility when we think about God’s light breaking into the world through Jesus, in the weakest, humblest way possible – a man who knew near-constant sorrow and setback. He didn’t know any of the benefits of wealth or power or prestige, but all of the pain of rejection from family and friend alike. A man who seemingly never had any real security or stability in his life, and who eventually paid the ultimate price while being persecuted by his enemies. So even while we suffer, and mourn, we can know that God, through Jesus, knows and understands our loss and suffering. Jesus walked this same path. And he walks it together, with us, now.

Christmas is the time that we observe God’s light breaking into the world, to shine into its darkest places. In a little while, we’ll invite you to come forward to light a candle to remember and acknowledge your loss, your sadness, whatever it is. And when you do, imagine that you’re coming into the very presence of Christ, presenting your sadness to him, and asking him to heal you of its pain and to remove that burden from your shoulders. And after you’ve lit your candle, take it, and the candle holder, home with you. Put it somewhere in your home that you’ll see it often. And whenever you wrestle with your sorrow this coming year, light your candle again, as a reminder that Christ, the light of the world, is with you always – especially in the midst of your suffering. Christmas is a time of joy, certainly. But a big part of that joy is that God has come into the world to set the captives free – especially those who, like us, are held captive by the pain in our own hearts. Amen.

Isaiah Lit a Candle (sermon 11/30/14, Advent 1B)

holding candle - vigil

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.  – Isaiah 64:1-9

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Isaiah was a prophet; he understood and spoke deep truths about God and us.

And as he stood in the streets, seeing the terrible injustice being suffered by his people at the hands of others, the pain in his heart bubbled up and spilled out in his prayer to God that we heard this morning. Tear open the heavens, O God; come down here. Make your presence known and set things right. Bring your justice, real justice, to your people, and deal with those who treat us so harshly.

In the depth of his pain and sorrow, Isaiah, like so many others, felt that God was angry at them; that God had abandoned them and left them to their own devices; that even God had turned away from them. Most of Isaiah’s people found peaceful, constructive ways to put voice to their suffering and to express their hopes for a time when they would be treated with justice. But a handful of them, in their pain, in their suffering, in their anger, felt that if God wasn’t going to come down and set things right, they were going to take things into their own hands, and fight back against the power of the empire that was oppressing them. Someone once called violence the language of last resort for those who were unheard. Isaiah knew that was true. But he also knew that the same person had denounced violence as counterproductive, that it never brought peace or justice; it only created even more problems. Isaiah knew that was true, too. With pain in his heart, Isaiah, the prophet, proclaimed that those people who had taken things into their own hands because they couldn’t see God anywhere in their situation, only grieved God all the more. Isaiah recognized that even in their suffering, even in the midst of the injustices they were enduring, that they had only made matters worse.

And as he continued to pour his heart out to God, he realized it wasn’t just those other people; the ones oppressing his own people, and it wasn’t just that handful of his own people, who had displeased God. Isaiah realized that, in different ways, undoubtedly, and certainly in different measure, everyone had lost sight of God. Everyone had lost hope in God; everyone had displeased God by going off in their own different directions.

So as Isaiah spoke from the heart, asking God to come down from the heavens and restore justice, he also asked for God’s mercy. He asked God to remember that we’re all clay in God’s hands, and that God is the potter, and he asked God to shape us and mold us all into creatures that are pleasing. In his wisdom, Isaiah, the prophet, asked God not to be angry, and to forget all the divisions and failures – those of his own oppressed people, and those of their oppressors as well. All of them.

Isaiah was a prophet; he understood and spoke deep truths about God and us.

And as he stood in the street, in the middle of all the shards of broken glass and debris on Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri, seeing the injustice, and the frustration and anger boiling over and into the streets, Isaiah, the prophet, began to cry – not from the clouds of tear gas wafting through the air, but from the heart. His heart ached, longed, for justice and mercy. So as he stood there in the street, Isaiah lit a candle, a single, solitary candle, and he held it out in front of him, a symbol of calm in the midst of chaos. And somehow its single, small flame cut through the darkness more brightly than all the fires burning around him. It was a candle of hope. Hope that someday soon, God would return and restore all of creation. Hope that soon, God would finally bring goodness, and justice, and mercy to a world and to people who so desperately needed them. Hope for him. Hope for them. Hope for us. Hope for oppressed and oppressor alike. Hope for everyone, because, as Isaiah pointed out as he continued to pour out his heart to God, and as he held his candle high in the darkness of the night, “Remember, God, we are all your people.”

Isaiah was a prophet.

Thanks be to God.