Sermon for 11/29, Caution: A Peace Alert!

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1 Advent, 29 November 2020 B

Ps. 80: 1 – 7, 16 – 18; Isaiah 64:1 – 9; I Corinthians 1:3 – 9; Mark 13:24 – 37

Restore us, O God of hosts, show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

—Psalm 80:9


In years and decades past, preachers lamented the liturgical season of Advent because the secular world, the world of commerce, appeared to overwhelm us with its clarion call “shop until you drop!”  This year 2020 shall be different because of Covid-19, so predict economists; but that slogan lurks still in the folds of our thought.  And this interpretation of Advent, now as then, so declared speakers from our pulpits of yore, distracted/distracts us from the “real” reason of Advent, which was, according to the preachers, to prepare for the second arrival of Jesus of Nazareth, not that the preachers ever produced an ETA.

Have preachers not forgotten, I used to think as I sat in the pew, that the world into which Jesus was born and eventually ministered was one of mercantilism?  How could we have so swiftly forgotten the reason why Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem?  It was not for a family vacation.  Caesar needed funds for his wars and other projects, and those funds he would collect were called taxes.

And then preachers bemoaned, sometimes silently and sometimes sotto voce, the liturgical season of Advent because Advent signaled additional work.  There were the pageants and decorations that had to be planned (more committee meetings) and executed (managing and solving the unCEBJodygreeningLadderexpected).  That was all hard work.  As the designated leader in our parishes, “the buck stopped with them.”  And, of course, thirdly, at the foundation of it all, lay and lies a conundrum—the preparation for the Second Advent of Jesus Christ, which few, whether in the secular or the ecclesiastical world, believed was imminent.  “Thy Kingdom come,” we pray, but just not yet!  All this made for a puzzling and often conflicting atmosphere for people of faith.

However, accepting all that, I suggest that Advent is difficult for another reason, which is too often given short shrift.  Advent is, in its basic premise, about peace, an ever sought-after but elusive peace, a peace which is more than the mere absence of war.  What makes Advent all the more difficult for me, if Advent is truly about peace, is why in the world we announce Advent with such Alfred Hitchcock-esque images?  Think about it for a moment.  On the one hand, there is the Prophet Isaiah, living in and reacting to a theocratic society, and who, in order to reverse the fortunes of Biblical Israel, calls on a god who is to come with a vengeance: “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence…and that the nations might tremble at thy presence!”  (Isa. 64:1ff.)

Then there is Mark’s record of Jesus’ pronouncement regarding the final reckoning, that dreaded Day of Judgment: “But in those days after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light…and the powers in the heavens will be shaken…and then he [will] his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”  (Mark 13:24ff.)  It is no less Hitchcock-esque.  And this is [the] means by which we, the people of faith, announce the second coming of Jesus, the Bringer of Peace?

Scriptwriters for made-for-TV sci-fi movies could have a field day in creating an elaboration of this scenario.  And the special effects people would have enough work to last days, if not months.  And we adults, if we were able to attend movie theatres, would react instinctively with fear, just as we did when we viewed the Steven Spielberg film “Jurassic Park,” (1993).  But now, as then, we would leave the cinema relieved that it was only a film about the Advent, the Second Coming of Jesus of Nazareth, not the real thing.  And we would get on with our daily machinations and activities.

How radical is it of me to state that the Second Coming of Christ is, as was the first, to establish peace, and that that peace will demand a change in attitude and behavior?  How radical of me is it to state that the prophets of yore recognized that as well, and that to express “the peace of God that passeth all understanding,” a language was required that was laced with images that would shock and awe their listeners from their routine?  How radical of me is it to suggest that the peace which the reign of Christ brings, in whatever form it comes, shall in all likelihood not conform to our limited imagination?

For me, it is not the commercialism of our times, no!, not even during our months of natural darkness in our hemisphere, no!, not even during our months of psychological and emotional and physical challenge due to Covid-19 that makes Advent difficult for us Christians. For Advent will work its way through our calendars and Christmas, the remembrance of the birth of Christ, will occur.  What problems me most about Advent is how I should prepare for or contribute to “the Peace of God that passeth all understanding.”

Like the little boy in the story who cried wolf, we proclaim peace, but no peace has come, and Christ has not returned, at least not in the form described in our Book of Record.  So, it seems to me that our task today is think deeply and earnestly about what the advent of peace could mean for us.  And obviously, our thoughts will be as tempered by our very own cultural environment and language, while not having the flavor of an Isaiah, as limited as was his.Somerville Sunset

First, it would be appropriate to acknowledge that whenever God interacts with us human (and for me that is a constant and a given), things do not and will not fit the usual order to which we are accustomed.  Change will prevail, and that change can and will be unsettling.  Second, it would not be inappropriate to acknowledge that we are often given signs of pending events, and sometimes we are receptive and sometimes we are blinded by our own self-induced, or by others’ imposed, limitations.  The writers of the Bible, our Book of Record, used resources which were familiar to them—sun, moon, earthquakes, tsunamis—as indicators of God’s wrath, or of the pending advent of God.  Whatever our sophistication may allow, it is clear that if God is to get our attention, something out of the ordinary will have to occur: a personal revelation, a thought of a loved one, an inexplicable urge to reach out and touch someone.

No matter what images may be thrown at us in the four Sundays in Advent, as we consider the lesson of the four Sundays in Advent, no matter how far-fetched they may appear according to our understanding of the natural order, consider the possibility of the following, a ticker tape that scrolls across our liturgical screen:  Peace Alert.  Advent.  Peace Alert predicted for your area.  Beware of strange language.  Peace Alert!  That is our Times Square ticker tape message.

The Apostle Paul, living in the heady times of post-resurrection, wrote words of encouragement to the Christian group at Corinth, to be sure longing for a union with Christ, and encouraged them to pray for God’s grace to sustain them until such time should be realized: “as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ; who will sustain you to the end…” (I Cor. 1:8)  In the interim, the task before them was to live a life which gave credence to their faith.

There is nothing wrong with Advent that a dose of realism and a mature understanding of what God is asking of us would not cure.  If we are courageous enough to take such a dose, then we would not appear to others and to ourselves as the boy in Aesop’s Fables.  We shall not avoid the demand of witness, as set forth in the Gospel, by allowing ourselves to become distracted about the time or nature of “an end” to the world, as we know it now.

Rather, we shall concentrate on our preparation for and service to God’s reign in our lives and the world, which Jesus asks of disciples.  As people of faith, the message of Advent is to never succumb to or be numbed by the frightening events that occur in nature, or the wars between nations, so as to weave them into a web that inhibits our ability to live into the peace of God!  How much harder—but more important—it is to do the essential things, like teaching and living the truths which Jesus gave us, proclaiming God’s forgiving mercy, and joyfully sharing our talents, gifts, and vast wealth with all people, especially with those in need!

We stand, then, at Advent’s door 2020, we 21st Century Christians, faced as we are with the scientific understanding of the earth that seems to some to make the first century’s worldview obsolete, and may even lead to ignoring the “Son of Man” presence in our lives.  As a person of faith, I have learned, that choosing to ignore God’s presence does not mean that God is not present.  We worship a God unseen, but still a Creator God.  The Advent of Christ is not limited to a mere four weeks, but is timeless, as Catherine Cameron has captured poetically, for the entirety of the Christian year and life:

God, who stretched the spangled heavens infinite in time and place,
flung the suns in burning radiance through the silent fields of space:
we, your children in your likeness, share inventive powers with you:
Great Creator, still creating, show us what we yet may do. 

Proudly rise our modern cities, stately buildings, row on row;
yet their windows, blank, unfeeling, stare on canyoned streets below;
where the lonely drift unnoticed in the city’s ebb and flow,
lost in purpose and to meaning, scarcely caring where they go.

We have ventured worlds undreamed of since the childhood of our race;
known the ecstasy of winging through untraveled realms of space;
probed the secrets of the atom, yielding unimagined power,
facing us with life’s destruction or our most triumphant hour.                                                                                      

As each far horizon beckons, may it challenge us anew,
children of creative purpose, serving others, honoring you.
May our dreams prove rich with promise, each endeavor well begun:
Great Creator, give us guidance till our goals and yours are one.

(The Hymnal 580)

This is Advent.  These are the true challenges of today’s warning against being too much concerned with the end of the age.  And so it is that I worry not at all about the Alfred Hitchcock-esque nature of our lectionary this week, or of those in the weeks ahead.  Advent’s message is a simple one: peace through witness and faithfulness.

Advent is not a time of fright or horror or uncertainty, and nor is Advent a time of retreat from the world around us.  Rather, Advent is a time of contemplative action and a time of restoration.  While observing the mandates of science during this pandemic, we should and can be creative in our thinking and actions that will keep us active in the world around us.  Thus, I can conclude with a bit of slang: “Good people, hang in there; tell it like it is, and then leave the outcome to God!”  Amen.