December 1, 2019, Advent 1
Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44; Romans 13:11-14; Revelation 7:9-10, 16-17
The message this morning goes against all my natural inclinations. I count down to the first Sunday of Advent. We started listening to Christmas music weeks ago. We got our Christmas tree Friday and decorated yesterday. This coming week we’ve scheduled a Christmas shopping day and I have my Christmas baking day on the calendar too. I love all the cultural trappings of Christmas so much, my inclination is to carry the festivity into the church and treat Advent as a beautiful and nostalgic prelude to Christmas. This poses a problem, for as much as we might dislike the fact, Advent in the church is much more akin to Lent than it is to Christmas. Advent is a time of reflection, self-examination, confession. It is a season of remembrance and anticipation.
We remember what the world was like before the Christ child was born. The Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” gives voice to these memories and I will be lifting out these lyrics repeatedly in this message time. This hymn is all about how terrible things were in that time leading up to Jesus’ birth. In verse 6 the writer closes the hymn with this prayerful plea, “Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease. Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.” We honor the light that came into the world when we spend time remembering how dark the world was when that heavenly light broke through.
But we simultaneously spend these weeks not only remembering, but also anticipating a time coming when Christ’s light will once again break through the darkness and redeem his creation. Anticipation tempered by the darkness we face daily in this fallen world. The deeper we are able to go into the penitence and reflection of the Advent season, the greater our joy will be in the holy birth come Christmas. And this will be a joy that lingers much longer than a fleeting day in time. Too often our tendency is to neglect the weight, the sorrow of Advent and when we do, Christmas skates by on the level of superficial and material – not lived, but here and then gone, packed away for another year.
We’re going to honor this church season of Advent and go deep. Our theme this Advent season is, “What are you waiting for?” This can be interpreted in a few different ways, but for today our worship material suggests this is a question we ask God. The theme is “frustration”. We call out to God. Over and over again, we cry out to God and we just can’t seem to get through. It’s like we come to this road block that says “No entry”.
This morning I’m going to offer a series of four personal laments intertwined with scripture and lyrics from “O Come, O Come, Immanuel”. These are issues that have been weighing heavy on my heart for some time now and I’m guessing and hoping they intersect with some of your own frustrations and concerns. Let’s begin…
God, I read this beautiful text in Isaiah about nations streaming to Your holy mountain, sitting and learning the law at Your feet, beating their swords into plowshares. But as I study this text, I can’t help but think about all the churches where emptiness looms large each Sunday – where pews are vacant and people remember with longing a time when families and friends were all crowded in together. I listen in my pastor peer group as a colleague offers her own lament. She confides, “We have 150 regular attenders, but only around 80 show up on Sunday mornings.” A week later a pastor from a local ministerial speaks with the weariness of a troubled heart when he shares that regular attendance in his church has come to mean showing up only a couple of times a month.
So much competes for the church’s attention outside these building walls. A recent article [by Carey Nieuwhof] offers these compelling reasons – weekend activities with children offer a more attractive option, travel opportunities multiply, online services compete, self-directed spirituality allows more convenience, societal guilt over skipping Sunday morning church declines, our culture shifts in earth-shaking tremors we are slow to understand. God, this rapid decline is upon us and we don’t know how to respond. I don’t know how to respond. It feels as if Your church, along with Israel, “mourns in lonely exile”. What are You waiting for, God? O Come, O Come, Immanuel.
We read in Matthew that no one knows the hour or day of your return. This text is a warning to keep watch and be prepared so that when Your Son returns, we will be ready. Usually these words send a tingle of fear and apprehension down my spine. Are we ready? Am I ready? This feels like a hard question to answer sometimes. But today my response is different. I see Your church being assaulted, losing pieces of itself to time and I want you to break in and rescue her. God, Your church, it’s a bunch of amateurs banded together doing their best to serve You. We are imperfect. We put together these shaky structures bound together by good will and faith. And for generations that has been enough. But our society is changing so fast. And what I keep hearing about when pastors gather are new stories about church members from within exploiting the vulnerabilities of their church, wreaking havoc, leaving brokenness in their wake. Boundary violations of all stripes and sizes keep emerging and it feels like good will and faith are suddenly terribly inadequate to stand up to the improprieties and accusations, the humanness of your body. It’s Advent, God. Your text tells us to keep watch. We are watching for you God. Your church needs You in the most desperate way. “From the depths of hell your people save and give them victory o’er the grave.”. What are You waiting for, God? O Come, O Come, Immanuel.
Paul’s Roman words pick up where Your Matthew words leave off. He writes, imploring us to wake from our sleep state because the time of our salvation comes closer every day, indeed, is almost here. Paul asks us to clothe ourselves in Jesus and turn our backs on sin. It seems like an awful lot of our lip-serving Christian politicians need to be reading these words and taking them to heart. What in the world is going on in this country? In Galatians, You give us nine fruits of the spirit. The children in this congregation can sing for us these nine fruit. But in Washington D.C., a different ethic is shaping the hearts and minds of our country’s leaders. It goes by the creedo, “The ends justify the means”. There is nothing of you reflected in these words. Therefore, we do not see love, joy, peace and kindness. No, we see animosity, cruelty, division and ugliness. Our faith is to shape our politics. But there is a sickness afoot here wherein our politics are shaping our faith. Our actions and words indicate an allegiance to party over country and daily, party takes priority over Your Word as well. Repeatedly, over the pages of history played out in our Bible, we see You intervening when Israel goes too far off the rails. This is a dangerous prayer, but please God, intercede. Shake us awake before we do even more injustice to others, to ourselves, to You. “Disperse these gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadow put to flight.” Help us get dressed, God, in your Son’s clothes. What are You waiting for? O Come, O Come, Immanuel.
This passage from Revelation is one of my favorites. The promise it holds revives my shaky hope. John writes about this great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and tongue gathered around Your throne, celebrating salvation. And John is careful to include these words, “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst.” A time coming when all basic needs will be met. And God, before I’m even consciously aware, my thoughts have flown away to children in need your world over. Children starving, trafficked, neglected, wounded. Even here, in our own communities, children are silently suffering. We’re working in this congregation to keep food in the bellies of three innocent ones. How many more are out there? A teacher at a meeting I attended last week shared they now hand out blankets at the school and she sees kids with not enough warm clothes, not enough period, wrap themselves in these blankets as they walk down the halls. In fact, she sees one of these ‘not enough’ kids at Wal-mart over the weekend, hanging out there because the store is warm. And yes, she is wrapped in a blanket she picked up at school. This makes me angry. We have so much. How is it even possible that children, Your children, know such want? God, we need You wiping tears from eyes right now, right here. We need You “closing each and every last path to misery”. What are you waiting for, God? O come, O come, Immanuel.
God, thank you. Thank you for receiving us as we are. Thank you for hearing our frustrations, our confusion, our doubts, our sorrows. Thank you for allowing us the grace to ask You our heart rending questions. Thank you for not leaving us in a place of despair. We ask You this morning, “What are You waiting for?” I suspect, deep inside, maybe we know Your answer, at least in part. But that’s for another Sunday. It’s enough today to gather up all our laments, large and little, and offer them to You, taking faith and seizing joy in the truth that on a long ago first Christmas night, Your grace came into this world in the form of a baby, a child in need who, in time, would offer himself up for us. We sing some of our sorrows today, gratefully aware the final note is not trial but triumph. “Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”. O Come, O Come, Immanuel. Amen.