St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon First Sunday of Advent(November 30, 2014)

Liturgical Color: Blue

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


Beginning in the Middle

Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Let's see. Let me get the liturgical details right this morning. Thursday was Thanksgiving, one of my most beloved holidays. Friday was—oh, yes—Black Friday. Something like Ash Wednesday I believe. Yesterday was Small Business Saturday. And tomorrow is, according to our blessed church year calendar, Cyber Monday.

So, welcome to—now, what is it?—Self-Concerned Sunday? I have trouble keeping my "liturgical" days straight as I get older.

Sorry. I couldn't resist having a bit of fun with all the hoopla that poorly masquerades as proper preparations for the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ into the world at Christmas.

I did try to find out if there might be some kind of commercial label for the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Some folks in cyberspace refer to it as the day after SBS (Small Business Saturday), as if the idea of the Sabbath were entirely foreign. It was somewhat refreshing to discover several bloggers expressing some relief that Sunday offered itself as a day of rest from all of the shopping. That's not exactly what I was hoping for, but it moves in the right direction.

Now, having said that last line, it strikes me that this is pretty much how I feel—and you might react as well—to the readings from scripture that we just heard on this First Sunday in Advent. I mean, really! These aren't exactly what I was hoping for as we start a new year of walking with Jesus through the fields and forests of Mark.

Isaiah expounds on how disappointed he and the people of Israel are in God. They had returned to their homeland after many years in exile, and things just aren't as rosy as they had hoped.

We do get that really fine line that has become a beloved staple of Advent: "that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down?" It's not unlike the somewhat more familiar line from Psalm 80: "Stir up your power, and come." And Paul expounds on the desperate need for "the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ." (v. 7)

In their sanctified wisdom, the church scholars have given us the end-of-time weirdness of Mark 13 to chew on today. And it seems only to reignite the fearful tinder upon which all too much modern apocalyptic fiction constantly blows.

What gives?

We certainly seem to be starting a year not at the beginning, but in the middle—or at the end. Jesus launches us not merely on beyond his birth to his crucifixion here, but all the way to his return at the end of time. It's an odd thing for the church to do to us.

Or, as you may have guessed I might say, maybe not.

I think the church and Jesus are reminding us that our yearnings for our God to stir up God's almighty power and be present to us are ever new. No matter where we stand, we seek a living and active God who is palpably and powerfully with us. Whether in ancient Jerusalem after the exile or in first century Judea under the thumb of Rome or in western Africa afflicted with ebola or in a western culture threatened by violence, racism, and terrorism—we want our God to come straighten things out. Our hearts aching, our minds benumbed, and our spirits frustrated and fragile, we call out to the God upon whom we rely: "Please Lord, stir up your awesome power. Rend the very heavens if you must. But get yourself right down here among us in this muck, and act decisively for the sake of your long-suffering people."

Isn't that something of the sense that comes from those who protest in Ferguson, Missouri? Aren't their cries ones that sound—at least many of them—like those of Isaiah, hurting deeply for the loss of a young man and in the context of a system that does not yet conform to our vision of God's righteousness.

(pause)

I'd like you to listen to the prayer offered by our Bishop, Bill Gafkjen, this week in solidarity with the future-leaning angst of so many in these days:

"Holy Spirit, use this moment in our life together to transform us. Teach us what it means that there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, Republican nor Democrat, police nor citizen, white nor black. Knit us together in a unity that will endure tear gas and broken glass, shattered hearts and belligerent righteousness, frail legal systems and self-protective fear. Make us peacemakers, form us as children of God, humble us and raise us up to something new, a new community, beloved and loving, walking the way of the cross, giving ourselves to your promise of new life, resurrected life, abundant life, on the other side of every death-dealing day. Along that way, make us aware of your constant companionship and empowering presence. Good Lord, deliver us. Set us free to be what you have made and called us to be. Use me, even me, today, tomorrow, and the day after the next, to make a difference, to be an ambassador of your reconciling love, to live and offer new life, a new way, pioneered by Jesus, crucified and risen for the life of the world. Make it so. Now. Today. With morning's light. Amen."

You will hear an abbreviated form of that prayer in the ones we offer together as a congregation in a few minutes.

As I have read many essays and news stories on the events in Ferguson, Missouri, it is hard to find much more than rhetoric. Certainly, there is tragedy in the death of a young man. The tragedy is compounded when the one who did the shooting was a police officer and white, when the victim was a teen and Black. Tragedy is furthered in our recognizing the racism that continues to afflict our nation, our history, our institutions, and our ways of living in often-divided and mutually tense communities. These events bring again to the surface matters about which we are hesitant to speak and for which we hold often deep feelings. Wisdom is hard to come by.

And yet, Advent is a profoundly apt time for seeking guidance and grace. We live in a time between the times—looking back to the advent of our Lord in Bethlehem (even as we anticipate that event in this season) and looking forward to the return of our Lord to the Earth in order to establish a reign, a realm, and a rule that sets things right in ways for which we now only hope and only vaguely envision. We live in and begin Advent in the middle, with foretastes and glimpses of what might be, perhaps chiefly in the life and ministry of Jesus Messiah, but also in the blessed interactions of daily living that occasionally and blessedly bring moments of sanguinity or peace or even joy.

These times may have come to us even in our gatherings around various forms of table at Thanksgiving. Yes, I know that some among us gathered in hospital rooms or rehabilitation centers or group housing situations of differing kinds. Some were blessed to be at home, or in a family home, with the beloved and obstreperous relatives that also remind us of our beginning in the middle, both frustrating and challenging as well as delighting and encouraging.

(pause)

By the time Jesus speaks the words of today's gospel, he has entered Jerusalem and no one has noticed. Mark proclaims to a world that awaits signs from an absent God that God slips into the world almost unseen, not with lightning, thunder, shock and awe, as our culture craves. Rather, in the silence and darkness of God-abandonment, the son of God comes to join us, cry out with us, die with us. (this paragraph from Niedner, "Sundays and Seasons Preaching," 2015, p. 19, adapted)

(pause)

Here's what our national bishop has to say about Ferguson:

ELCA News Service, November 25, 2014

For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility. - Ephesians 2:14

A Pastoral Word on the Grand Jury Decision in Ferguson

In response to the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri, I offer a word of prayer and hope.

As a nation, we are struggling with and divided by the decision. It has affected so many of us in so many different ways. We want the assurance that all of this means something. We want to know that someone cares. Has not God created all of us to have inherent dignity, value and worth?

Despite the anger, violence and injustice connected with this sad and horrible tragedy, we should not abandon our hope or our neighbors. Let's join Michael Brown's father and call for peace.

The reconciliation we have with God in Christ leads us to our neighbors with the hope that we can engage one another in a common cause. We come together at the cross. It is our only hope. And, resting in the conviction that we are redeemed, we can begin the hard work of confronting the reality of systemic racism in our country.

Because of the cross, we have peace; we have hope; we are loved. I join with you in prayer for the Brown family, Officer Wilson and his family, the prosecutor and his family, the grand jurors and their families, the community of Ferguson and all who work for justice and peace.

In Christ,

Elizabeth A. Eaton, Presiding Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

At the beginning of Advent, we stand in the middle. But we do so not as people without hope. We look back to the Garden of Eden and the Farm in Bethlehem and the Tree of Calvary, knowing of God's gracious care in creating us and benevolent willingness to become one of us in order that we might be saved. And from those vantages, we may look with confidence in these middling times to a future that is in God's heart, full of promise and purpose.

It is a future that is in our hands. We are called to "Keep awake," to do what we may, to side with those who cannot yet be heard, and to seek the peace and justice that comes with the advent of our Lord. Even in Ferguson. Even in the Middle East, in the land we call holy. Even here. God will match our longing with surprise. Amen.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.

 

 

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