Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sermon - 1st Sunday of Advent Nov 30 2014

Who says weather forecasters are never right?
I don’t know where you were this past Monday morning,
but I was in my study, trying to get prepared for two services in a short week,
when I heard it.
Just as the weather forecasters had told us,
at 11 a.m., the wind picked up and began to blow and began to shriek
so that the Christian education building creaked and groaned,
and the wind chimes on the porch began to sound.
I took a walk around the building
and saw the oak leaves coming off the trees,
driven in mini-cyclones and through the space between the buildings,
and smashed and held against the wire fence.

I remembered another wind, at another time,
back in Williamsport.
We had three old large pine trees in the backyard.
Annette put a tiny little door at the base of the one nearest the house.
where there was a little space between the roots,
and we told the children that gnomes lived inside.
Well, there were things living inside,
but not the friendly woodland sprites.
Instead the tree had been hollowed out by hungry ants,
and when the gust of fifty miles per hour hit it in just the right way,
that was enough.
The tree fell onto the roof of our neighbors’ house.
Thank God no one was hurt.
There was no good way to get to this fallen tree,
with no good way to get to it.
So they had to bring a crane in,
set it in the street in front,
dangle a cable over the house,
pick the sections of the tree up,
and carry them over our neighbor’s house.
Soon after that our neighbors moved.
I hope it wasn’t because of us.

In any case,
whenever I hear a strong wind,
I think about that tree.
But perhaps now I will think of Isaiah chapter 64, verse 6 as well:
‘We all fade like a leaf;
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.’

The prophet Isaiah describes the condition of his people,
of God’s people.
They are dry like leaves in autumn;
to be honest, like leaves of late November.
No longer October leaves or even early November leaves,
full of the glory of the twilight of the year;
green still mixed with the gold and russet.
These leaves are last days of November dead and brown;
only a few barely clinging to the trees which nourished them,
and ready at the slightest breath to be taken away.
How much more, then,
will a strong wind, a tempest,
tear the leaves from the branches
and drive them across the fields and yards and streets,
and whipping them around in circles,
lashing them until they come to rest,
even breaking the dead branches themselves,
and toppling the hollowed-out trees
with a great crash.

The sins of the people have dried them out,
they have faded like a leaf.
there is no life in them.
Their iniquities take them away as the wind would,
driving them, out of control,
until they are scattered everywhere.
Isaiah is brutally honest about the situation
in which God’s people find themselves.
Where are the tidings of comfort and joy?
No tidings of comfort and joy here;
at least not yet.

Some of you may remember the days
when the color of Advent was not a deep royal blue,
but instead the purple which we now associate solely with Lent,
the color of sorrow for sin.
The Eastern Orthodox have a fast for Advent
as well as for Lent.
Advent is a season of penitence.
Not because we need to feel guilty some more.
If that is the only reason,
then bring on the Christmas carols now.
But there is no honest assessment of the situation in which we find ourselves,
then the comfort and joy God offers will make no sense.

Advent is a season of penitence,
for, unless the Church deeply knows the trouble of the world,
unless we deeply know the trouble we’re in,
we cannot turn to God.
When people don’t understand their own trouble,
they try to buy comfort and joy,
putting it on a credit card.

Or they think that because they have maxed out their credit card,
they can’t have comfort and joy.
Or when real troubles come into their lives,
things you can’t cure with things,
they wrongly presume there is no comfort and joy to be had.
When the world does not understand its own trouble,
it seeks bumper-sticker slogan solutions
for deep problems which cannot be solved by bumper-sticker slogans.
It speaks when it ought to listen
and acts when it ought to pray.

If we do not know or understand our own trouble,
we cannot be ready to turn to God;
who offers a far different kind of comfort and joy
than any we would create for ourselves.
God offers his comfort and joy
wrapped up in a child
born in a backwater town of a backwater province
of an erstwhile Empire many centuries ago.
If our Advent is wrong,
our Christmas may end up being very wrong indeed.

The prophet Isaiah, speaking for the people,
turns to God because there is nowhere else to turn.
The prophet Isaiah calls for God to act,
not based on his own faithfulness as a prophet
or upon the faithfulness of his people,
but based upon God’s own faithfulness,
which he showed for God’s people at Mount Sinai.
He calls upon God to remember
that it is because of God’s own faithfulness
that the people can be called ‘God’s people.’
The prophet reminds God that it was God
who made the people his own,
indeed who made the people,
and therefore he can remake them.
‘You are the potter, we are the clay,
we are the work of your hands.’
You are our Father.
We are your adopted children.

‘Stir up your power, O Lord, and come,’
we pray.
‘Protect us by your strength
and save us from the threatening dangers of our sins.’
This is a prayer of deepest need,
for far beyond simply praying out of personal trouble or guilt.
Advent is a time of deep introspection,
it is a time to acknowledge the reality of our situation
as individuals, as the Church, as the world,
so that we may call God into reality.

And it is a time of expectation.
The prophet actually does expect God to act.
He is not dictating how God is to act,
but in his pleading there is a note of certainty,
a note of confidence.
Again, not because either the prophet or the people
especially deserve God to act,
but because of God’s promises.
Perhaps this is the readiness to which Jesus urges us in our Gospel lesson;
the expectation that God indeed will act for his people,
and that he is acting for his people even now.
Especially at Christmastime,
I associate readiness with having bulletins ready
and sermons prepared
and finding just the right proper preface to chant on Christmas Eve.
You may associate it with having all the food ready to cook,
or the presents wrapped,
or the house decorated,
or even the church decorated.
But the readiness to which God calls us may not be this
have-you-checked-everything-off-your-to-do-list readiness.
Perhaps the readiness is possessing in our hearts and minds
the simple expectation that God will act,
and the readiness to be carried away with his action
no matter how unexpected it might be.
For when God’s Spirit breathes upon the world,
he breathes life back into us,
revivifying us, restoring us.

Let the Church of Advent
be a Church that is penitent,
deeply understanding the brokenness of the world,
seeking no other comfort and joy
but that which God offers.
And let the Church of Advent
be a Church that is expectant;
because our God has acted,
is acting,
and will act to restore all things,

in the Advent of Jesus Christ our Lord.