First Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 3, 2017
Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Ah, December. That wonderful time of the year when churches and homes are decorated with beautiful nativities and pictures of baby Jesus … and in worship we read about the end of the world. Like in our Gospel reading, where Jesus talks about the day when he will return in power and glory, and our first reading, when the Israelites call for God to come to earth and renew them, showing his power in earthquake and fire and storm. It seems an odd juxtaposition, contrasting sweet baby Jesus with apocalyptic readings, but it’s actually on purpose. You see, December is a time of waiting. We are waiting for Christmas to come; we are waiting for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem … but we have to always remember who we are waiting for. The beautiful baby that is the center of so many sentimental songs and Christmas cards and nativity sets is also the one who sacrificed himself on a cross for the redemption and renewal of the world, and he is also the one who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
It’s all too easy, in this season of parties and homecomings and sentimentality, to trivialize Jesus, to sentimentalize him into a warm fuzzy “oh, wouldn’t it be nice if everyone got along over the holidays.” Yes, it would be nice; but Jesus did not and does not come for a superficial niceness and getting along with one another. Jesus comes for something deeper, something better. The peace that Jesus brings requires that all the root causes of injustice and harm be ripped out and done away with. This peace is not just a truce; this peace requires us to face the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves and our world and acknowledge all the hurt we have done to ourselves, our world, and our neighbors, because only then can true healing begin. Jesus came to bring love; but not the kind of superficial love that pastes a smile over deep disagreements and old hurts. Jesus came to bring the kind of love that is open and honest even about the unpleasant things, and that works to heal brokenness and bring new growth, better growth. That’s what Jesus was born to do; that’s what the judgment that he is coming again to bring will do again, finishing what he started in his death and resurrection.
And there are a lot of things in us and in our world that just aren’t compatible with that kind of love and peace and justice. Stony ground is going to have to get the rocks picked out. Hard ground is going to have to be tilled up. Weeds are going to have to be pulled. Dead branches pruned. Ways of life and ways of thinking and ways of doing business that add to the pain and hurt in the world are going to have to end. The world as we know it, ourselves as we currently are … there’s just too much selfishness and greed and hate. That’s all going to have to end. And it will. There will be a new heaven, and a new earth, and we shall all be changed. We need to be ready, and waiting, for that change to come.
But the literal-end-of-this-world-and-beginning-of-the-next isn’t the only kind of world ending we need to be alert for. Worlds end all the time, in good ways and bad ones. When somebody’s life crumbles, they lose their job and their spouse divorces them and everything they worked for and counted on crumbles to ashes, that’s the end of their world. When a child who’s been passed around the foster system for years gets adopted and a fresh start with a family that loves and supports them and helps them heal and grow, that’s the end of the world as that child knew it. And sure, a better one is coming, but it’s still the end of everything they know. Peoples’ worlds end all the time. And there’s a lot of pain and grief involved in it. But even in the pain and grief, God can do a new thing.
Our first reading from Isaiah comes from a people who know about the world ending. The people of Israel and Judah had spent centuries giving lip service to God while building unjust and idolatrous societies. They had ignored the words God sent to the prophets warning them to reform their ways. So God had stepped aside and allowed their enemies to conquer them, and lead them off into captivity. When that happened, their world ended. Everything they knew or loved was gone. After a few decades of slavery in Babylon, God allowed them to return—and coming back to their ancestors homes, they found that there were strangers living there and all the buildings and roads and cities lay in ruins. They were free, and home, but rebuilding was a massive task. Their parents’ world had ended when the Babylonians captured them; their world had ended when the captivity ended and they returned to a ruined homeland they had never seen before. This reading comes from the third part of Isaiah, as the prophet comforts and guides people whose world has ended twice in as many generations.
They long for God to come. They long for God to make God’s power known in earthquakes and fire, something that nobody can mistake. They long for God to take all the pain and misery and transform it, to take all the broken things and make them whole. They know that even as screwed up as things are, God can and will make all things new.
But they look for this promised day of the Lord with clear and open eyes. They know that they themselves will have to face a reckoning, that at least some of their problems are caused by their own bad behavior, their own selfishness, their own iniquity. They know that they will have to change; that God’s presence will change them and mold them into something better as a potter’s hands mold formless clay into beautiful and useful pottery.
They know that God was with them generations ago, before they were exiled to Babylon. They know that God was with them while they were captives in Babylon. And now that they are home from captivity, God is still with them. And they know that if they turn to God, God can and will save them; God’s power will re-make them, and their world, better than they ever could on their own. They don’t know when God is coming, but they know he is acting, and they long for his presence. They know that even though it will require change on their part, that that change is a good thing. They are not sitting in their sins and pretending they’re doing well. They are open and clear-eyed.
That’s a hard thing to do. It’s not easy to live with one eye peeled for God’s presence and coming. It’s not easy to acknowledge the things in ourselves that need to be mended and healed, the ways in which we hurt ourselves and others. It’s so much easier to accept everything in us and in our world as normal and just the way things are. It’s certainly a lot more comfortable! To just go with the flow, do what everyone else is doing. It doesn’t take much thought, and it doesn’t take any soul-searching. You can sit there like a bump on a log and you don’t have to think about anything hard. Or maybe you know things should be different, but shaking your head and making disapproving noises is all that’s required to salve your conscience. It’s simple, it’s easy. It doesn’t require you to take any risks. It doesn’t require you to change.
We were not created by God our father to sit there like bumps on a log. We weren’t given eyes to see so that we could turn them away from the dark places in ourselves and in our world that need God’s light. We weren’t given brains to think so that we could just go along with whatever the world around us wants of us. We were created to love one another—true and deep love that acknowledges pain and hurt and works towards healing and new growth. We were created to help one another, to work for a God’s kingdom. And we can’t do that if we’re not paying attention, if we’re not looking for things in ourselves and in our world that need to be changed, and we certainly can’t do it if we’re not looking for the places God is working in us and the ways God’s kingdom is breaking into our midst.
We are flawed, imperfect people, who live in a world broken by sin and death. We need God’s presence and God’s guidance to see the way the world should be. We fall short of the good people God created us to be, which is why we wait in hope for the day Christ will come again to make all things new. We can’t make the perfect world of God’s kingdom on our own; only God can do that. But while we wait, we have work to do. Work that begins with keeping awake.