"Happy New Church Year - We're All Dead"
Preached at Bethlehem Lutheran Church
Fairport, New York
27 November 2011
The First Sunday of Advent
Day Texts: Isaiah 64.1-9
Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1.3-9
"And death is at your doorstep
And it will steal your innocence
But it will not steal your substance
But you are not alone in this
And you are not alone in this
As brothers we will stand and we'll hold your hand
Hold your hand..."
-Mumford and Sons, "Timshel"
-"Oh that you would rip open the heavens..." For life is hard. Israel feels abandoned. Jesus skipped town. The world is broken by our sin. We’re all screwed.
- Happy New Church Year!
-That’s basically where our lectionary texts drop us as we come once more to Advent. And that’s what I love about the faith of Israel and the Church. No punches pulled. No holds barred. No excuses. If there is one thing our tradition has handed on, it’s the gift of getting real with God. Especially when God seems to have foreclosed on God’s promises.
-Take our Old Testament texts. In both Isaiah and the Psalm, Israel has strong with her God. See, God had promised the Jews that he would deliver them from slavery and sin and make them a light to the nations. A messiah may have been promised. And yet, after Egypt, Babylon, Rome, the Christians, and the Third Reich, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still waiting for God to make good on his word.
-So when the prophet demands to know “how long will you hide your face from us, O God?” this is not a polite theological inquiry. And when the people lament, “we all fade like the leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away,” we hear, not lip service to some doctrine of confession, but the anguished cry of a people who have suffered, and continue to suffer. Who long to know that God is still with them. Still for them.
-And then, our Gospel. Christ promises that one day, He will return to set all things right. But does he have to do it so…apocalyptically? A darkened sun and stars. Judgement and destruction. Language that seems to vaguely allude to some sort of rapture. Oh, and of course, NO ONE – not even Jesus – knows WHEN this will happen. So while Jesus did do the whole “coming-and-dying-for-our-sins-and- then-resurrecting-thing,” it’s hard not feel a little…stood up. Left alone with only another article in the Apostles’ Creed to show for it. If I said, "honey, I'll do the dishes but not even I know the day or hour," I have the feeling it just wouldn't fly.
-At the end of the day, our situation doesn’t feel much different than Israel. Still waiting. Still wondering. Still suffering. Still struggling to keep watch and stay awake.
-And if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s hard to stay awake. Hard to hold on to the promises of God in the midst of a world that doesn’t feel much different than the chaos and confusion named in the longings and lamentations of scripture. We may not be in slavery to foreign powers or face martyrdom by being served as lion chow in Frontier Field. But I know as I think what it means to baptize my son Matthias today, it's been really hard for me to hold on faithfully to God’s promises. They just don’t seem to hold a candle next to the deep darkness of a reality where God can feel so absent.
-Because our world indeed feels shrouded in deep darkness. We sin, we fail, we hurt ourselves and others as easily and as frequently as we draw breath. We see loved ones claimed by cancer, crippled by car crashes, stricken by strokes, withered away by age and dementia. We raise children the best we can, trusting in God’s claim on their lives, only to see them counting down the days until Confirmation is over so they can get the hell out of church. We continue to show up in the pews and in the pulpit, hoping God will show His face. Even though, deep in our hearts, we feel only emptiness, weariness. And disappointment.
-And, when it feels like God is too long overdue in doing God’s redemption thing, it’s tempting to take matters into our own hands. We get tired of suffering. Tired of waiting. And so we step in to fill in the gaps left by God’s felt absence. Maybe our drug of choice is getting all churchy and theological (guilty!). Coming up with nice answers and systems and church growth programs so we can feel successful or right or relevant. Or maybe it’s replacing the Black Friday of the cross with the Black Friday of November 25th, turning up at 6am…er, midnight…er, 10pm the night before, making sure we get our hands on the right gift, so we can guarantee a good holiday season.
-Or maybe we get political, and find something to occupy. Or someone who promises a better hope, a change we can not only believe in, but touch and see. Or maybe, we simply shut down. Withdraw. Pretend nothing is wrong. We stop caring, because we no longer have the energy to sustain our hope. Or, to fuel our outrage. We abandon the promises for proxies; the protest psalms for Playstation.
-No matter what your poison, we find some way to do something so that we can avoid or medicate the pain of disappointment. And in so doing, we extinguish the fire that burned in the bones of the prophets. We forfeit the rush of life that can only come in coming close to death. We sacrifice wisdom and grace, and the wonder at the reality of God’s promises that is given to us. Wonder and wisdom that come, not when we avoid or flee. But when we are willing, like Israel, to stare God down. Look death in the eye. Get real. With God. Get real about our world. Get real with each other.
-Because you see, when we stop running away from the pain – stop trying to control or contain or clean up the chaos - when we take up the gift of relationship God has given us, which includes the permission, even the necessity, of naming that pain, and holding God to God’s promises – when we allow ourselves to suffer, it is then, especially and only then, that we discover the true reality, the deeper magic, of God’s promised faithfulness and companionship.
-Because we don’t believe in a God who makes promises from a Santa Claus throne at Eastview Mall. We don’t follow a God who asks us to make the world perfect and just before His Son will deign to return. We don’t baptize children in the name of a God who demands that we fix all the damage our sins cause before we can enjoy God’s love and claim on our lives.
-No, the God in whose name we baptize is the God of Jesus Christ. The Crucified God. The God who does not flee from death. Does not flinch in the face of our sin. Does not rush towards a quick fix. This is the God who became Incarnate not in a palace, but in a stable on a pile of dung. This is the God of the original Black Friday, the God who suffers and dies, the God nailed to the cross. The God who descends into hell. The God who fulfills God’s promises, not in some far-off utopian future, but constantly, here and now, in our midst. And especially, in the midst of our failures. Our sins. In the midst of our doubt, our dirtiness, our desperation, our darkness, our death, and our despair.
-This is the God who saves us, not by taking away the difficulties of the world, but by showing up in the very midst of the world’s brokenness. This is the potter who takes delights in shining light through the cracks of His imperfect creations. This is the lover who embraces us in our ugliness, kisses us tenderly, looks us in the eye, and sees only beauty. This is the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ.
-Which is not to say that this God magically makes the sufferings of life disappear, or easier to endure. But then, this God never promised ease and comfort. We do not baptize our children so they will merely be nice and clean. St. Paul tells us that, instead, they are baptized into death – Christ’s death. When Matthias goes into the waters today, we watch him die. It’s why one Brazilian bishop says not, “I baptize you,” but, “I kill you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!” God knows our propensity to avoid the truth that all real tranformation begins with death. And so, our Christian lives, like our church year, must begin on Calvary, with Jesus.
-But when Matthias emerges from the waters today, he will also be radiantly alive. He will be clothed in the gifts and the power and the beauty of Christ. He will be given new eyes in the Spirit. Eyes that no longer seek to blind themselves to the realities of sin and death in the world. Eyes that are no longer deceived by the empty promises of Wall St or Eastview or our own human pride. Eyes that instead see Christ, broken, suffering, and present with us, in the midst of the hells of our lives. Eyes, only for the One who is real in our suffering, and so, enables us to be real about the suffering of our own lives.
-In light of this God, perhaps one of the most profound ways we can live out the promises we make (Matthias) in baptism today is not by trying to save (him) from suffering. Maybe, instead, we can give the gift of being real about it. Of crying out with him. Of hurting, and lamenting, and doubting, and struggling with him when he struggles, doubts, hurts and laments. The gift of challenging ourselves to embrace God’s promised presence for ourselves, seeing the world with our own new eyes, living bold and risky lives of faith along the edges of the darkness where grace delights to dance and dwell. Unafraid of death, because, let's face it - we're all already dead.
-And when we do so, when we are present with, and grieve with, and suffer with, and wait with, each other, we are not only honoring our baptismal vows. We are holding the Christ-light for one another in the midst of the darkness. We make it possible to see the Crucified God, present with us, transforming us, in the midst of our hells. We enable one another to see God’s faithfulness, God’s making a way, where no way seemed probable or possible. We become ourselves the body of Christ, the living embodiment of the promises fulfilled, a witness to God’s faithfulness. For each other. And for the suffering, watching, waiting world.
-God, in Christ, is faithful to God’s promises. God, in Christ, has not abandoned us. But God, in Christ, fulfills His promises in ways we never expect. Not only in blessing us. Not merely in successes and in celebration. But also, most especially, in being present in the midst of out most painful losses, our most tragic failures. God in Christ, using our sufferings to transform us into people who can then be present to the sufferings of others. Walking with us through the darkness of hell, so that we as Christ’s body can walk with one another.
-This is the God of Advent. The God of Israel, and the God of the Church. The God of the cross. The God who is Jesus Christ. God for us. God with us.
-Happy New Church Year. Amen.