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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Wake, Awake!

Matthew 24:36-44
Blessings to you this season of Advent, in the name of the one who was, who is, and who is to come. Amen.           
            Today begins Advent, the season traditionally marked by the twin themes of watching and waiting. But what, exactly are we watching and waiting for, and what are we supposed to do while we watch and wait?
            When I was little, my cousins, Debbie and Donna, frequently came over to visit on Sunday afternoons and on holidays. Those were the best times. We kids, all about the same age, would play for hours while the adults talked, and drank coffee and sometimes played cards. I loved those days. And so, when I knew company was coming, I would sit at this big window we had in our living room, and watch, and wait for them.
            At five or six years old I might have trouble sitting all the way through a church service, or all the way through arithmetic class (that’s what we called it then) but I could sit for the longest time, with my little nose pressed up against the window, looking for my uncle’s car to pull up and park and my cousins to come running up to our front door.
So, when I think of the watching and waiting of Advent, it is that image that forms in my mind – my nose stuck to the window, still as a mouse, watching and waiting in breathless anticipation for our company’s arrival.
            Sometimes, that is what our watching and waiting is like – we create a kind of sacred stillness around us as we eagerly watch for something to happen, afraid that if we get distracted we might miss its advent – it’s arrival.
It can be likened to the longing for the return home of a sweetheart who has been away at war or an adult child who is returning home from college or from their own home, now thousands of miles away from ours. Such waiting can be like so many other kinds of reunions for which we might yearn.
There are those other times of watching and waiting as well – the ones that fill us with a different kind of anticipation, like what we experience as we await test results or a diagnosis; or when we’re waiting for the boom to fall, perhaps bringing a big change in our job or in a relationship.
And then, of course, there is watching and waiting that happens in its own unique, sacred space, when we sit with a loved one on their final journey in life.
We can all probably name our own associations with the twin experiences of watching and waiting, some of them wrapped in sweet memories, and others accompanied by sadness and pain.
During this Advent season, while we wait in anticipation of Christ’s coming, at the same time we remember that Jesus has already come. So we ask ourselves, what is our watching and waiting about? Are we waiting for Christmas or for something else? While Advent is often treated as a season of preparation for the birth of Christ, what place do the twins, watching and waiting, play in this season for us today, living two millennia after that holy birth?
This morning, I would like to think about the difference between the passive activities of  watching and waiting which are prominently encouraged during this season, and the call to action which we find in the scriptures today.  
The words from our gathering hymn this morning, and the choir anthem that you will hear in just a few minutes reflect the preliminary kind of action that Jesus calls for in the gospel text I read just now. These hymns together with Jesus’ words implant a repeated refrain in our hearts today – Wake! Awake!
Listen to these words: “Wake, awake, for night is flying the watchmen on the heights are crying, awake, awake, Jerusalem. Arise!”
This definitely sounds more like a call to action than an invitation to quiet observation or waiting. It is a call to leave our complacency behind. The texts this day are intended to wake us up, to disrupt this comfortable, ordinary season of life.
Our Gospel reading was written to Christians living more than a generation after the life and death of Christ. Matthew, the Gospel writer, knew that the longed-for return of Christ was an expectation, but not yet a reality for the community. And so they were struggling…
They had been waiting a long time for the return of Jesus, and at least some of the people were losing hope that the promised realm of Christ, a realm that would bring about justice and peace would ever come.
Jesus had promised to return, but they now debated whether this was ever going to happen, and if Jesus wasn’t going to return, what did that mean for them? What did it mean for life?
            They were losing hope, they were losing faith in their own witness, divisions were growing between them about what following Christ even meant. How should they proceed if maybe, just maybe, Jesus really isn’t coming back at all?
            Here we are over 2000 year later, still with our noses up against the glass, waiting for Jesus to pull into the proverbial driveway and bring about his reign of justice and peace. The world is yearning for peace, for life, for justice, for …….. something, we may not even understand what.
            We live in a day and age when perhaps more people are unchurched than churched and have therefore never heard the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is a very good chance that people you know – neighbors and friends and coworkers and even family members have never heard anyone witness to who Jesus is for them.
Rather than simply waiting and watching like I did for our company all those years ago, these texts today are a call to action. They are a call and instruction to go about living during this time of waiting; to go about doing. They are encouragement to not give up hope. And they are for you and me and all of us who are challenged to have faith in the midst of the waiting, because on our own we can’t even begin to imagine what the transforming power of God’s future will be like.
But we know about today. We know that all around us God is present and at work in the world, and we see God present in so many ways, and through so many of the people who surround us. Jesus accompanies us through each day. And we have work to do, to prepare the world for the Jesus’ return.
Isaiah’s timeless message is encouragement to trust in God, knowing that we are to be the beacons of hope and justice and healing for a world that has gone awry, and knowing that there is much to do to prepare the world for Jesus’ return.
We are gifted and called to break the chain of violence in our homes and schools and on our streets. We are gifted and called to reject the vitriol that has taken over social media and conversation. We are gifted and called to be the ambassadors for Christ’s healing peace, to begin by rejecting the obscenity of weapons and creating tools of healing, caring, compassion and safety for those who are most vulnerable.
In the everyday activity of our lives – working in our fields, or offices, or volunteering in the community; caring for our families and our communities, we are blessed to show who we are as God’s holy people, and what difference it makes that Jesus is the embodiment of God for all people, for all ages.
            This is not a message that encourages passivity or complacency. Twice the prophet calls to the people, “come, let us go!” Let us go be the people of God, let us go do peace and justice, ridding ourselves of weapons and turning them instead into tools of hope and harvest. Isaiah’s parting words from this passage are, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
            The apostle Paul also issues a wake-up call, as he instructs all the followers of Christ to put on the “armor of light”. Again, the command leaves no room for passivity or complacency, but calls all within the community to action.
            There is something that followers of Christ do; first, we fulfill the fundamental command to love. And now, Paul commands, wake up – to the reality that God comes like the dawn, and in the light of the new day, with love at the core of our identity in Jesus, we are to live in the light of Christ!
            God only knows when Christ will bring an end to this age, coming with all the saints and angels to bring the final justice, peace, the complete rule of God into the world, accomplishing health, blessing, full reconciliation between people, between God and humankind, between the created world and all its creatures. Only God knows or can bring about the total realm of the divine kingdom on earth.
            But through the incarnation of Jesus, God is present in the world today; is with you and me today; is blessing the world today; through our acts of compassion, feeding, clothing, justice, accompaniment. God is present working in us as we challenge the status quo, combat the evils of hatred, sin, greed, bigotry and blind self-interest.
God comes to us in the word and sacrament of each Sunday, through the community gathered and empowered for God’s mission and ministry today and tomorrow, and in the future at the end of all things.
In Advent we are called to ready ourselves to receive the disorienting God. We resist the temptation to see Advent as only being about God arriving as a baby on Christmas Eve.
Rather, we embrace God’s everyday presence with us as we answer the call to action, and  we embrace God’s promise to come again as judge. We do not shiver in fear, but watch and wait with great and wonderful anticipation for the Advent of the all-encompassing love, mercy and grace God has already enacted and will one day bring to fullness in the coming of Christ.


Expectations be Damned

Christ the King Sunday 2016
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God the Father and from Jesus Christ our ever-living King. Amen.
            I haven’t written our family Christmas letter yet, nor even thought much about the Christmas cards we still send out each year. But Thanksgiving is coming this week. And that means that Christmas is coming, my friends! Have I gotten your attention yet? And I know without a doubt that at our house we will begin to receive Christmas cards on the day after Thanksgiving, or perhaps the day after that.
I predict that the first Christmas card to arrive as always, will be from a good friend who lives in South Carolina. Ginny is an artist, and over the years hers has always been the first to arrive. The cards we have received from her have evolved from hand-made works to commercially reproduced pieces of hers, usually detailing a scene from the story of Jesus’ birth.
Other cards we receive will include the ones beautifully illustrated with doves proclaiming peace on earth, and cute wild animals preparing to either cavort with snowmen or celebrate the newborn king. There will be peaceful snowy scenes of country churches shining with glittered snow and warmly lighted windows. We might receive a few greetings from Charlie Brown and the Peanuts or from other contemporary Christmas revelers. There will be cards that weigh in toward the more “politically correct” Happy Holidays greetings and those that stubbornly declare that Christ is the reason for the season.
We will receive plenty of cards bearing the traditional fairy-tale scenes of the nativity, with a gorgeous Mary and sweetly smiling and very cleaned-up newborn Jesus.
Then we will receive cards that boldly declare what Christians have always claimed about the divinity of the Christ-child, the Messiah, using descriptions from the Hebrew Scriptures about the expected nature and characteristics of the long-awaited anointed one. You see, these cards and the expectations they express contain the titles we wish to apply to the one we call our king.
It is these expectations that I would like to talk about today, on this Christ the King Sunday.
What were these expectations, and did Jesus fulfill them? The most familiar claims about the nature of the messiah come from Isaiah 9:2-7. This well-known oracle, made even more familiar through the works of Handel’s Messiah, performed by choirs the world over, reflect our expectations for a divine king: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
This oracle, while well-known and claimed by Christians as a reference to Christ, did not actually anticipate or predict the person of Jesus. Written in the eighth century BCE, it was likely used to announce or celebrate the birth of a new royal prince in Jerusalem, perhaps Hezekiah, or even the coronation of the new king: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of peace.
As in any transition in national rule or leadership from the beginning of kingly rule to present-day elections, there was great anticipation and hope for the well-being, peace and prosperity of a nation. Isaiah 9:2-7 anticipates such a change in fortune, a coming of “great light,” to dispel the “darkness” of the imperial exploitation and oppression known by the people of Judah under the governance of the empire of Assyria. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Early Christians transferred this focus on hope, power, might, victory over tyranny, and the coming of promised peace, to Jesus.  They saw verse 6 as containing exactly the kind of characteristics they needed from the Messiah, who they now identify as Jesus Christ, the Son of God: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
In the readings of the scriptures this morning, however, we see a dichotomy form between expectations and reality.
The very first reading we heard reflects the ancient Near East metaphor of king as shepherd – and the promise that the Lord would provide a leader who would restore the justice and righteousness that have been all-but-destroyed by a series of bad kings and rulers who have scattered the flock of the Lord, sending many off into exile, and preventing the remnant from fulfilling their destiny as God’s people. There is a promise here of coming reconciliation, justice, righteousness and peace: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
The reading from Paul to the Colossians raises up characteristics of Christ, who is Lord over all. The images are powerful: reflecting the glory of God, the firstborn of all creation through whom all things came into being, powerful enough to defeat even the death, the one through whom God fully dwells in, with, and among us, reconciling us forever to God.
Once again we see absolute conviction in one who is a wonderful counselor, fully divine, everlasting creator and savior, reconciler to and for all nations. On this Christ the King Sunday as we read these scriptures, we too apply these characteristics to Jesus. These two readings are consistent with our expectations. They fulfill for us our ideal for the kind of king we want, even today: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
But – there always seems to be a “but”, doesn’t there? Then comes this morning’s gospel reading, the one seemingly belonging to Good Friday.  That’s when we expect to hear about Christ on the cross. Not on a Sunday when we proclaim his kingship and majesty.
We quickly go from images like this [Christmas cards] to this [paintings from the Stations of the Cross]. Something isn’t quite right. Something doesn’t fit. There is a huge contrast between the reading of Colossians or the prophecy of Jeremiah and this gospel.
Jeremiah assures us of a righteous Lord who will heal the brokenness of the nation.
This Gospel, however, is what we need to hear. While together these readings create a kind of balance, still, the vulnerability of Christ on the cross troubles us. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace? How can Jesus be those things for us while hanging, powerless, from the cross? How can Jesus, hanging from the cross, vulnerable, his body broken and humiliated, be for us a King?
We live in a world where people claim for themselves greatness while demonstrating through their actions true poverty of character and justice. We claim that we are the most powerful and virtuous nation in the world, yet we read each day about the angry and desperate acts of so many who feel victimized, rejected, discriminated against, or threatened because of the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, disability, their gender, age, or religion.
We as Christians frequently claim our own righteousness, and superiority, while at the same time forgetting Christ’s mandate to advocate for and love the weak, the marginalized, the prisoner, the poor, the hungry, and the vulnerable. We make ourselves judge and jury over our neighbors while we ourselves have trouble even seeing past that very large log in our eye.
Such paradox.
Today, however, we celebrate Christ the King who shows us the way to true greatness, who demonstrates his greatness in suffering and in great vulnerability. From the cross, Jesus demonstrates extraordinary power as he embraces our humanity through his suffering, and offers full reconciliation for all sinners. On the cross, Jesus is the fullest expression of human powerlessness while at the same time claims the divine power to forgive sin and bring hope and reconciliation to the powerless.
The power that Christ claims is not for himself. The first criminal derides him:  “save yourself” is a challenge to act in accordance with the world’s expectations – our expectations; it is a challenge to exercise the kind of power every political authority knows best and claims for himself or herself.
The good news for us is that Jesus refuses. The only power Jesus exercises in Luke’s crucifixion account is to forgive sin and invite sinners like the criminals beside him, sinners like us, to embrace the hope and new life of God’s reign. While fully identifying with all those so easily rejected by the world, Jesus embodies the life, hope, and reconciliation desired by God, to bring the whole world into the relationship God desires for all of creation, as only Jesus, the divine King can do.
With his reign, Jesus brings about an entirely different way of being in relationship with one another and with God. It is a way of being that reveals complete vulnerability that breaks down barriers and gives life to those who are suffering and in pain.
Once again, Jesus proves to be not the kind of king we want but the kind of king we need. One born in the most humble of circumstances and settings, not in a glowing, air-brushed beautiful Christmas nativity scene; one not wielding the sword but instead hammering the sword into an instrument to bring food for the hungry; one not embraced by the masses but betrayed into the hands of tempters and torturers; one not sitting upon any earthly throne, but hanging from a cross.
Jesus is the kind of king we need, not feasting to excess while his people languish, but one who feeds us with his own body, given for us, and his own blood, shed for us, for the forgiveness of our sins, and for the promise of resurrected life with him for all of eternity.
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace at the last – our hope, our joy, and the lifeblood of the world.