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 27, 2011

First Sunday of Advent 2011


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."

"Advent" means "arrival," and every year the arrival of the new church year begins with the end of all things. Which is also about as close as the church allows itself to get anymore to talk about God's judgment. It's a curious way to begin things, to say the least.

Speaking of curious, take a moment to consider these words of Isaiah:

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.
Not the usual "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" description of sin we are used to. This is not a God who pushed the sinners away because they were unclean; they became unclean, says Isaiah, because God pushed them away. It's a curious thing about the descriptions of God in the Hebrew Scriptures: it's almost always a description of a relationship, rather than of a judgmental almost-unmoved Mover who responds only to failure. God's anger, says Isaiah, caused Israel to sin; God's absence caused Israel to do wrong.

Why don't we think of God that way? Where did we get this Christian idea that God only exists to judge us, and we are only saved from judgment because of Jesus? And our only relationship to God is to stand before God in judgment, a judgment which is hidden from us until the end of time?

It's an odd thing; we Christians insist God is "Father," but we then treat God like an absent, quasi-abusive, almost adoptive, father. We ask for things from God. What we don't look for is a relationship with God; except as God is going to make us happier and happier. Which means: what?

Well, consider the psalm, too:


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.
This is a plea. But it's not a plea for a new job, or a good bargain on Black Friday, or even better weather or a mended economy. It's a plea for relationship. It's a plea for God to come and join us and restore us and return to us. God's return would mend Israel. God's return would restore Israel. God's relationship with Israel is what matters most to Israel.

We are not Israel. What would God's return mean to us? What would God's advent mean to us?

"Advent" means "Arrival." It's the moment we all dread, when family shows up for Thanksgiving or for Christmas, and they threaten to stay longer than we can bear to put up with them. And then they arrive, and maybe it's not so bad after all; and then maybe it is, and when are they going to leave again? We don't expect family to make us happy. But we don't want them to make us miserable, either. We expect family to be related to us, and we expect to have a relationship with them, even if it's one we don't really want. The absence of family makes us sad; and perhaps even strange. It makes us lonely, and cut off. It makes us feel abandoned, even if we never knew a good family. Advent means arrival. It is the moment we are all waiting for, even if we are not waiting for it.

What would it be like to have a relationship with God, instead of to simply expect things from God? Who would God be then?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 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.
The adventus always seems to speak in apocalyptic tones: fire burning wood and mighty warriors coming to save the people. Always a final proof, a final redemption, an end to suffering and doubt. Paul instead speaks of grace and peace that come from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. "Our Father." Do grace and peace come from our Father? Do they come from God? Or do comfort and benefits and all the good things we value more and more and more in this American life? What would grace and peace be? Where would we sell them in the marketplace? Or are they not commodities, gifts given to us, but the results of a relationship, of knowing God as Father? In every way, says Paul, we are enriched in Christ Jesus: in speech and knowledge; and we are not lacking in any spiritual gift as we wait for the advent, the revealing of Christ as Lord. What do we do with these enrichments, these gifts? Do we even recognize them? Did we realize they were ours, already here, already given, no need for a Black Friday sale or a last-minute shopping frenzy on Christmas Eve? Did we even realize we were called into fellowship, the fellowship of Jesus Christ our Lord?

Do we know what that means?

Advent always begins with apocalypse, but we misunderstand that, too. "Apocalypse" is the Greek word, but it doesn't mean "disastrous end to all things" and "dreadful final judgment from which there is no appeal." It just means "revelation." "Lord, when did we see you?" is the apocalypse of the sheep and the goats, the moment just before the revelation when they realize someone was there and they didn't recognize them. Apocalypse is not when all things end in disaster; apocalypse is when you finally know the truth. But if the truth is that God has always been there, and you haven't been looking....?

Chris Hayes said this morning that if the American expectation that the next generation will do better than the prior generation comes to an end, it will mean a major revolution in our politics. What he meant was, it would create a crisis which would end in a completely unexpected outcome. The headline from Black Friday was that retail sales set a record. The other headlines were the assaults on shoppers by other shoppers, by thieves, and by store security; as well as the story of the man who collapsed to the floor with a heart attack, while other shoppers stepped around or over him, intent on getting the bargains they came for. The fact is, in the past 30 years the expectation that this generation would live better than the last has proven to be false. Statistics make it clear the next generations cannot possible live as well as their parents and grandparents, despite the ubiquity of iPads and cell phones. The decline has begun, we are already living in it, our society and our politics are already reflecting the crisis. This is what that crisis looks like, but if we cannot recognize it, how can we even know that summer is near? How do we know it's summer at all without a calendar and someone to tell us? Do we even read the signs of the times, or do we just expect it all to be explained to us by someone at sometime and in the meantime we are busy with living, or blogging, or watching TV, or keeping up with our families?

This is not a Christian nation, and this is not an argument for a Christian society. Reinhold Niebuhr and Soren Kierkegaard marked "paid" to both those concepts some time ago. The call is not for the nation to return to Christ but rather, like the Desert Fathers, perhaps to consider the wisdom of a tactical retreat, of abandonment as salvation, or at least as fleeing the sinking ship for the few available lifeboats. It is a call to consider radical alternatives.

What life have we if we have not life together? But what life have we if we don't even understand what "living" means? What life have we without relationships, but we do even understand what relationships are? Do we have a relationship with God? Or do we just expect something from God? In a relationship, the absence of someone from it means we are missing something, perhaps something that will keep us whole. If we just expect something, absence just means we haven't gotten anything lately; and surely we deserve another gift! But if we have a relationship with God, if we truly want God around simply because God is God, then we are always waiting for God to show up again. And what would that waiting look like? What would that kind of living look like? And what would happen if we recognized, not that God was going to show up someday and really up end things, but that God was already here? How would that challenge things as we know them? And do we even want it to?

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