Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Sunday, November 30, 2008

First Sunday of Advent-2008


The readings:
Isaiah 64:1-9
64:1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--

64:2 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!

64:3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

64:4 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.

64:5 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.

64:6 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.

64:7 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.

64:8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.

64:9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
80:1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth

80:2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!

80:3 Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

80:4 O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people's prayers?

80:5 You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.

80:6 You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.

80:7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

80:17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.

80:18 Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.

80:19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9
1:3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

1:4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus,

1:5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind--

1:6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you--

1:7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

1:8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

1:9 God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Mark 13:24-37
13:24 "But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,

13:25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

13:26 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory.

13:27 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.

13:28 "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.

13:29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.

13:30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.

13:31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

13:32 "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

13:33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.

13:34 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.

13:35 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,

13:36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.

13:37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."
We don't like the ordinary, the everyday, the concrete. We understand it too well. Take the current financial crisis. Nobody really understands finance, except a few people who speak the language; and the rest of us secretly believe they are kidding themselves, because we don't know what they are talking about. So when the news starts throwing around adjectives like "exotic" and talking about "financial instruments" like "derivatives," we tune out, because we simply have no idea what they are talking about and the money, never discussed in amounts less than billions, is so large that it's abstract too, so we just let it all go by.

But let the automakers ask for help, and suddenly this we understand. Automobiles! Who doesn't understand automobiles! We know what those are! And we know they are made by labor! Labor! Now we understand! And we smell a cheat, a rat, a sweet deal for somebody else who isn't us! Now we prick up and say "Wait a minute! Why do they need any help?" Stocks and bonds we don't really get; but a paycheck for building something, that we understand.

Finances and Wall Street are abstract. Cars and labor are concrete. When problems are abstract they're safe, they're comfortable, we can let somebody deal with them for us. When problems are concrete, we understand them, or think we do, and then we get personally involved; or think we do.

Which is what makes Advent so wonderful and terrible all at once. It's abstract: we're waiting for something. It's concrete: we know exactly what we're waiting for, or at least we think we do. And we grow impatient, sometimes; we're like Isaiah, sometimes:

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.
And the terrible thing is: we know that isn't going to happen. We know, in fact, the just the opposite will happen. And even then, only Herod will tremble and cry; and when Herod cries, small children die in the streets.

But that's after Christmas; this is before, so let's get back to Isaiah. Is there anything more wonderful and terrible than what those words describe? Oh, God, that you would make your presence known so that no one would doubt you! This is an age of skepticism, we're told; an age of non-belief, unlike the simpler ages in the past, when everyone everywhere believed in gods. But if that were true, what are words like this doing in our Bible? If there was never any skepticism in human history until today, why does Isaiah sound so frustrated? And why does he connect God's awesome deeds to what Israel did not expect? It's like God is playing with us. It's like God is playing with our expectations. Could God be that cruel? Could this all be just play? Are we truly just the sport of gods, as flies to wanton boys?

But if it isn't play, why is a child involved? What else could it be when we know the command to "keep awake" will be answered at midnight by a baby's cry, by angels singing to shepherds, by strange outsiders coming from a long way off to tell us what we should know already? Isn't the whole Nativity story one big game of hide and seek?

Could it be that it's only when we don't expect God, that we get the awesome deeds of God?

No, that can't be right. It's a terrible thing to wait for God to appear, and it's a pleasure to play a game. Well, a pleasure as long as you know it's a game. When my daughter was a toddler she ran off in a department store to play a game. She hid herself among the winter coats, so we would come to find her. We did, but we weren't having any fun, because we only knew she was lost; we didn't know it was play. It makes all the difference, doesn't it? What you see is, sometimes, what you get.

But it's a terrible thing to wait for God to appear; and when will that be? And how will that be? And why must it be a little child, over and over and over again? People are dying. Jdimytai Damour, may his name be preserved by us all in blessed memory, was killed in a stampede of people trying to start the Christmas shopping season. What will Christmas be to his family from now on? People are being killed in Iraq, in India, perhaps in the house next to you, or a few streets over, right now. Anticipation this year is not only for Christmas presents, but for jobs in the present. People are losing houses, losing everything, the future is not hopeful, it's scary! Christmas is a time for children, and there's nothing in the world right now that's even remotely childlike. Play?! This is not play! This is serious!

So is the nativity; deadly serious. The best kind of play is the kind that really matters.

"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.
Which is good, of course; what fun is the game if you already know the outcome? What fun is a game if it's ordinary and everyday? What fun is it if the game is like our real lives, if it's something we understand? Much better if it's something we don't really understand, right? Like children playing hide and seek, when they know they won't be lost; when lost is not something they really understand.

What fun is a game if you already know the outcome, but you have to play it again? That's what Advent is, isn't it? Playing the same game again, when we know it ends in Christmas? Isaiah didn't know that much, and he was going to be disappointed if he really expected God to come down like thunder and lightning and set fire to wet wood and present a sign so overwhelming and definite no one could doubt it. After all, what we are waiting for is not fire from heaven, but a baby; a baby in a manger, visited by shepherds, later visited by wise men who have to sneak away to save their lives and to save the live of the helpless infant. What sign is this? "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." But this is the sign we are waiting for! Is God playing with us?

Yes. God is playing hide and seek; and expecting us to join in the game; expecting us to take up the spirit of play, not the fear of being lost, or of losing God.

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth

before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!

Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people's prayers?

You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.

You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.

Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved
Those are the words we need to hear right now. If play is pleasure, and pleasure is rejoicing, then play is rejoicing, too. If the present is dark, then we need to look forward playfully to the future. If life is difficult, we need to ease it with laughter. If life is a burden, we need to lighten it with play. Hope is a kind of play; it is the game of eternity.

Jesus came as a little child, and later will tell his disciples to let the little children come to him, because they are the kind found in the kingdom of God. What can the disciples make of this, except that Jesus is playing with them? What can Isaiah make of the nativity, except that once again God is playing with him? When are we going to realize this game of hide and seek is meant to be fun, is meant to be a game, and that the risk of our being lost, of our taken away, the risk of danger that terrifies parents when the child decides to play and they don't know that....is zero? When do we begin to see this game of hide and seek is part of the pleasure of the anticipation? "Grace to you and peace," says Paul, "from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." Those are not just polite words; they have real meaning. What can we do in the face of such reality except rejoice? How can we respond, except to join the game? After all, it's the game that blesses us. Just listen to Paul again:

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind--just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you--so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
This is not abstract; this is very concrete. But we think it's abstract, because we don't understand it at all. But it's real; it's as concrete as the car you drive. Maybe we shouldn't think too much about it; maybe we should just rejoice in it. If we are enriched with every spiritual gift, if we lack nothing that we need as we wait for the revealing of our Lord, if Jesus will strengthen us to the end and God is faithful....well, what else can we do but play? If God is not coming in a thunderclap and a bolt of lightning, if God is coming as a little child, and because of that wants to play hide and seek with us, why should we refuse? And if God tells us we really, really, really should stay awake, why don't we make some coffee and have an all-night party?

After all, what child ever wants to go to sleep, especially as Christmas approaches?

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