Advent III; December 17, 2017
Sift through today’s readings and we hear of good news, rejoicing, liberty, release, comfort, gladness, blessedness, laughter and shouts of joy.
The prophet Isaiah promises that God will make everything new as God rejoices with the people of Israel albeit in the midst of their fear and anxiety. We are encouraged by Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica to rejoice always, holding fast to God’s promise of the coming of the Christ among God’s people. Thus we have a shift in tone today from the air of foreboding and warning of recent weeks to a sense of joy in the waiting and anticipation of what is yet to be. Thus the rose candle – Gaudate Sunday – from the Latin, to rejoice and be glad.
I remember a seasonal middle school concert a few years ago when the school chorus sang a version of “Jubilate Deo.” Those two words were sung over and over in the choral piece and I remember being drawn in, like a mantra piercing my very soul, finding myself deeply moved. Unexpected grace came, of all things, at a middle school event! Afterward, as we were filing out, I overheard a conversation between two teenagers in front of me as one said to the other, “What in the heck is a ‘jubilate deo?’” Ah, an opening was being given to me – sometimes I get it – so I said, “It means rejoice in God!” They gave me an odd look that only a fourteen-year-old can give an adult, and we went on our way.
We hear in the 126th Psalm today: “Our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy.” Why? The Lord had restored the fortunes of Zion, God’s people, from a time of hopelessness and devastation. Once again they had hope. It continues, “We are glad indeed” for “God has done great things for us…Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy!”
Even severe John the Baptist, a killjoy if ever there was one, in pointing the way beyond himself says, “Among you stands the one you do not know, the one who is coming after me. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” Thus we see an attitude of humility, adoration, even worship.
What is the constant theme thorough all of this – the concert, Isaiah, Psalm 126, John the Baptist? All are focused on joy and gladness, not mind you, because life is always so great and everything is easy and good. Indeed, the times were rough. The economy of Isaiah’s day was in a shambles. Israel was in a precarious place of exile with no temple to assure them of God’s presence. They were wondering if God would be faithful in the midst of their oppression. The early Christians of the new Thessalonian church were being dominated by an oppressive Roman government and persecuted by some religious groups. They had joy not because of the circumstances around them - there wasn’t much evidence there. They had joy because of their faith that God was in their midst and that God’s promises of restoration were true.
That evening at the choir concert as “Jubilate Deo” was sung, I became clear once again of who God is, who I am as God’s, and it evoked joy as I found a renewed trust right in the midst of my heartache, even soul-anguish, over dioceses in conflict, families in crisis, nuclear sabre rattling, climate change, extreme partisanship, institutional racism, the lack of good care of the downtrodden and marginalized of our country, and all the other ills that plague our communities and world. The evidence around me would indicate otherwise, but I found myself wrapped in the wonder, glory and hope of God who in Isaiah’s words calls for a great reversal on behalf of the oppressed, the broken-hearted and those experiencing captivity. Participating in this movement of God to restore the creation is what those receiving the laying-on-of-hands are committing themselves to today.
This is what was emanating from the Psalmist who was so expectant of God restoring Israel it would not stay closed up inside of him and it became a song of the synagogue and church for over 2000 years. The thing about Advent, if we are paying attention, is that it invokes a single-minded focus. It is a hunger, a yearning, from deep within one’s heart for God alone, for we know that given the condition of the world, nothing else will satisfy us. It is the peace that passes all understanding – it makes no sense based on the data, but we find ourselves in a place that knows that “All will be well,” as Julian of Norwich so famously said, even as she said so in the midst of The Plague of the 14th century.
Of course, we are in that place all of the time, for in Jesus heaven and earth are always joined, but we are often too inattentive or fearful to notice that very thin place. You’ve experienced it in significant moments like the birth of a child, a first step, a graduation, a special moment with a good friend, falling in love, walking in the woods, looking at a brilliantly clear night sky, at the bedside of a dying loved one, even in Bread and Wine. Recall the amazing sense of focus, total attention, sense of wonder, the clarity of the moment when you know you are connected to something infinitely beyond yourself.
Our call today is to once again sing the song of the angels, to know as St. Vincent is to have said, “God thirsts to be thirsted after.” We are called to have such an integrity of life and soul that we know we stand on holy ground each moment of every day, to be aware as John the Baptist said in today’s Gospel, “Among us stands the one who is coming.” A middle-schooler’s question of what the heck is a “Jubilate Deo.” beckons us to rejoice. May such joy be yours.
Advent II – December 10, 2017
Someone is coming! John the Baptist tells us the one coming is more powerful than he and is coming after him. When the Sunday School class was asked, “Who is coming,” they responded, you guessed it, Santa Claus, with obvious glee and delight.
Perhaps I am getting a bit soft in my old age, but that response really doesn’t bother me too much. Certainly we want to be clear that Santa Claus is not the Christian symbol of the fullness of God and the hope of humankind. In the extreme, and with a profound “bah, humbug,” one might say that Santa is a crass corruption of the real St. Nicholas remembered on the Christian calendar last week, and is even the antithesis of Christian values and stewardship. We can, however, learn much from children who unabashedly show delight, excitement, even joy, for the one who is coming.
It might serve we who are adults well to rediscover that special eagerness with which children wait and wait for a wonderful thing that has been promised by those they love and trust. Advent gives us this permission, to desire what we anticipate. It was C.S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory, who said that, “Nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we follow Christ contains an appeal to desire…Indeed it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.” Do we, for example, truly “thirst after righteousness,” or say our “Amens” with heartfelt gusto? Out of a deep spiritual hunger, can we not wait to come to the Lord’s Table?
Desire is what Advent preparation is about, but if we are not careful we will squash any possibility for desire, even glee, to bubble to the surface. For one thing, we are often taught that desire is bad and surely it can be misplaced and misused. But rightly seen, desire is a gift of God. As St. John of the Cross teaches, all desire, at its root, is a longing for God. Furthermore, depending on how we approach it, we can make Advent itself squash desire. We are told to get ready, and as if in a “Blondie” cartoon, become like Dagwood who is always on the lookout for his boss to come in and catch him asleep at the desk.
Today, center stage is taken by John the Baptist, the preacher who is often seen as an outlandish, “one who eats bugs,” as my boyhood friend Ricky used to say when we were kids. John the Baptist can come across as an abrasive, unkempt fanatic who keeps telling us to clean up our act. The Baptist’s prophetic message becomes one more version of someone is coming to town, so make a list, check it twice, find out who’s naughty or nice, and shape up. If you are not good you won’t get presents easily becomes, if you are not good God won’t love you. I’ve actually heard parents use a version of such a ploy to punish their kids. What a way to squash desire and delight for the One, Jesus, who is to come. Who wants to be waiting with anticipation for one shaking his finger at us?
Perhaps Advent can give us an alternate vision. I wonder if it can be with expectation and hope? The Collect for today prays that we would greet with joythe coming of our Redeemer. And as Advent always does, it calls us to see time differently by taking the long view. II Peter suggests that the reason the final coming of Christ has not occurred is that God is being patient while waiting for us. Listen to Isaiah, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” says our God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Encourage the people of God’s peace. Tell them they have suffered long enough. The penalty is paid. God is coming to lead them home!”
Rather than hearing John the Baptist or Isaiah scold us into getting our life together, not crying or pouting, knowing when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake, we hear today cries of glad tidings! It is to prepare for a future without fear for the promise is that God will not abandon us. God has acted to save us and now comes to care for us like a shepherd, gathering the lambs in his arms to gently lead us all.
This is the God to whom our confirmand Carol is giving her life today—the God taught by Jesus who does not rail on us, but who patiently waits. Even John the Baptist is saying that God knows we get lost and is sending One to look after us, seeking us out in the ruts and mazes of life. As Isaiah recognizes the frailty of human beings, “all flesh is grass…too quickly dried up and withered in the heat…” The promise of God therefore is comfort. In this sense it means literally, “one who stands with.” It has little to do with ease or luxury and everything to do with the strength given to do the work God calls us to do.
Until that final coming we wait with hope as we actively participate in making the world ready to receive the gift of God in Christ. With delight embrace this One who is coming to you, the One who first loved you, and be filled with a holy desire for the good news of God’s justice for all. For the One born in Bethlehem is the greatest gift of all.
Advent I: December 3, 2017
So, we begin at the end. That’s what Advent asks us to do. It throws linear time down and sideways. We look at the end and let it interpret and give meaning to the present.
I saw an attempt at this perspective a little while back in an advertisement in an airline magazine I was perusing while on a flight. The title was: “Timisis: Biological Clock with a twist.” It began with, “Think time is on your side? Think again. Chicago inventors show just how quickly life slips away with the Timisis Lifeclock.”
What you do is program your age and sex in the memory, and this $100 clock shaped like a 3-D isosceles triangle counts down the hours, minutes and seconds in your life-time, assuming 75 years for men and 80 for women. If that’s too depressing, every minute the clock also flashes one of 160 motivational messages designed to inspire productivity and creativity. They range from the pragmatic “All resistance begins in the mind” to “Eat your vegetables.” It sold 15,000 in 8 months the article said.
A hydraulic operator, 62, in Glacier, Washington, knows this. His clock on his refrigerator, says he’s got 152,078 hours left (set on 80). But he’s not complaining. “Boy, I really do hope I have that much time,” he laughs. It’s a sharp jab in the ribs once in a while to remind you that, hey, you’re mortal.”
The attempt then, is that by a stark reminder of the end, in this case death, one is to be inspired to live life more fully now, in the present.
There is a point here, not unlike what we hear in our scriptures for today on this First Sunday of Advent. The people of Isaiah around 550 BCE are completely disoriented in the wake of a devastating exile. The temple is in ruins – the desolation of Jerusalem. Nothing is the same. The community’s religious foundation has been shaken to the core and they want to know where God is! Their plea is “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down…to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” The hope of God coming again changes the present.
In Paul’s letter he is encouraging the faithful of the first century Corinthian church to use the gifts given them to grow in faith as they wait “for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will strengthen you to the end.” And when that church gathered for Eucharist, they did so in anticipation, expecting the Lord to come at any moment and usher in the fullness of God’s reign. Again, a vision of the end changes the present.
Even in Mark, the people are in fear and uncertainty. Jesus dismisses the desire to cling to the temple for God is not in the temple made by humans. God will not be in the place where we look, where we worship, where we try and grasp onto old forms. The Son of Man is coming with power and great glory as the Kingdom of God is here right in the midst of the uncertainty - “We remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.”
So the end and how we view the end changes the now, even a now of uncertainty and anxiety. On the clock, time is running out. Our faith is much more than that, however, and gives a very different perspective. My guess is that the clock is not enough of a motivator. We change the now, as the people of God, so that it more clearly reflects God’s vision of the future. We make, if you will, the future-present. The Kingdom of God is already a reality among us and in us. Our motivation is the love of God and his vision in Jesus to make all things new, on earth as it is in heaven.
Henri Nouwen once said, “You are a Christian only so long as you constantly pose critical questions to the society in which you live – so long as you stay unsatisfied with the status quo and keep saying that a new world is yet to come.” Christian hope always views the reality of the present world from the perspective of the end – and sees the present through the eyes of God’s desire for the creation. The end judges the present and is why we pray “Thy Kingdom Come.” The Christian is never satisfied until the new heaven and new earth have arrived. In this sense we are always an Advent people, unsatisfied with the way things are that are less than God’s hope for the world.
Yet, having said that, we also discover that our hope is not in our own human ability to change ourselves or the world. If we could, we would have done so by now. What we are about is not merely becoming a little better, a bit more good or moral; we are not here only to create a better behaving child in order to be a better citizen or even merely to instill a healthy value system. All of these are good things to be sure. Jesus, however, is calling forth a whole new creation – changing the world order and its people as a part of it. Jesus comes not to make us good, but to make us holy. To wake up and be on watch is to act as if it all depends on us, but believing and knowing that in the end it all depends on God. Our hope is not in our ability to change the world. Our hope is in One whose birth we celebrate in 3 weeks.
You and I, as affirmed in our baptism, belong to a God shown forth in Christ who promises that the end is already secure. We live now and seek to change the world now, as an act of thanksgiving for the promised life to come. The promise changes the present. Our hope, past, present and future, is held in Christ Jesus. His call to us now is to “Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come…and what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.