Sunday, December 3, 2017

First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

God is faithful, through whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.

The sun set over Barrow, Alaska on November 18th and will not rise again until January 22nd. That is sixty five days of darkness. Iíve never experienced the endless nights of the northernmost reaches of the world, but I remember what it was like in winter in England. Despite the temperate temperatures, England lies well north of the United States. At that latitude, the sun sets early and rises late in the middle of winter. The days lasted only about four hours; the kids went to school and came home in the dark. That meant, of course, that the summer days lasted nearly 20 hours.

The problem with lengthy nights and the lack of light is that it can affect the human body. We need daylight for our health. The lack of sunlight causes damage to bones, depression, heart disease and even cancer. Vitamin D is recommended for those who live in those places where the days are short. It isnít quite so bad in Texas, but our nights are long as we enter into the days of Advent.

Advent begins in darkness, not only because the sun sets early. It is dark because we have failed God. We have forgotten Him in our comfort. We have ignored the needs of our neighbors. We have followed our lusts. We have succumbed to temptation. We are sinners who live in darkness. Like Isaiah in the Old Testament lesson and the psalmist, we cry out to God to reveal Himself so that we might see Him again. We cry out for His presence in our world, even though we are frightened by His power and judgment. We know the only way we will be saved is if God comes to save. So we cry out for Him to come, to make His name known again to the world.

The scriptures for this week help to remind us that we are entering into a time to prepare for judgment. We have talked about the Day of the Lord for the past few weeks, a time of judgment that is to be feared. Several weeks ago we asked, ďWhy would anyone want to rush that day?Ē Yet, there comes a time when we just canít stand what is going on around us so we hope that something will happen to change everything. I can honestly tell you that I cry out daily for the Lordís return. Come, Lord Jesus.

I can understand why Isaiah would write the words in todayís Old Testament lesson. The people were in darkness. They were following false gods. They were unmerciful and unjust. They were acting shamefully and had forgotten everything the LORD had done for His people. They were lost; they forgot their God. They needed something to happen that would turn them back to Him. In todayís Old Testament text, Isaiah called for God to do something shocking so that everyone would see Him and repent. Sometimes it takes something drastic to change hearts and minds. We turn to God in times of distress. Isaiah was asking God to make that happen.

Isaiah and the people of Israel were feeling abandoned by God. Where was He in the midst of their troubles? Why is Jerusalem in ruins? This prayer begs Yahweh to make Himself known to them and to their enemy so that His authority is without question. We ask the same from our God. Canít He make things right? Canít He stop the violence both at home and around the world? Canít He send His holy angels to take care of our enemies and stop the world from hurting us?

But Isaiah realizes that his cries are out of place. The God he blames for abandoning them has not abandoned them; He has done great things for His people and He continues to do great things. Isaiah asks for forgiveness and reconciliation because he knows that they are paying the price for their own sinfulness. Though Isaiah at first asks God to tear open the heavens to destroy his enemy, he finally realizes that he needs to seek something much different. God will tear open the heavens to bring us something much better than vengeance and destruction; humble acknowledgement of our own sinfulness will bring a God who transforms His people with peace, rather than war. When we realize we are in darkness, God will shine the Light.

We are busy getting ready for Christmas. The Christmas tree is in the house and many of my decorations are in place. I began some of my baking the other day. There is still a lot to do, but it is definitely beginning to look a lot like Christmas. I have done some shopping, although I have to admit that Iím struggling with ideas for presents this year. I have told my kids that there wonít be many presents under the tree this year, but I say that every year and thereís still plenty of packages to open on Christmas morning. I know many people talk about focusing more on Jesus, but somehow we all manage to get caught up in the decorating, baking and buying of this time of year. I have already gotten into the spirit by watching Hallmark movie marathons and listening to Christmas music.

Unfortunately, short days are not the only reason why people struggle during the winter months. Cold, wet weather brings on colds and flu. People struggle with finances and worry about how they will make Christmas special for their families. Others are lonely because of broken relationships or are missing loved ones who have died or moved away. Our schedules are filled with parties, but we are often too tired or stressed to enjoy them. It is no wonder that we often suggest making the holidays simpler. Sometimes our busy-ness makes us miss out on the best part of Christmas: the expectation of what is to come.

Few people really pay attention to Advent, except for maybe a chocolate calendar for the kids and the Advent wreath at church. Some people have probably purchased an Advent devotional to read or will take part in Advent photo challenges as Iíve done in the past. But here are the questions I am asking myself for this first Sunday in Advent: if the Christmas season is well underway with decorations hung and music playing, how do we experience Advent as a season of light growing out of darkness? How do we realize our sinfulness and our need for God if we have already surrounded ourselves with the good things of this world? How will we ever know that we are living in darkness if our world is lit by twinkle lights?

What we, as Christians, must remember as we are going about the business of the holidays is that Christmas does not really begin until Christ is born. Until that day we are journeying through the season of Advent. This is a time for waiting. It is a time for watching. We canít avoid Christmas in the world, but let us remember that during this time we are meant to be preparing our hearts for the coming of our King. It is a time of longing for His return, a time of considering why He had to come in the first place.

Todayís psalm is a song of lament, and it appears to be from the time when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians. It is a cry to God by people in distress. Like those in Isaiahís story, they wanted God to show His face to them once again. They knew that their troubles were because God had turned away from their sinfulness. Now they repented and sought His face, His countenance, upon them. They knew that if God shined in their world and on their lives, everything would be fine. They never realized He was with them all along.

We can respond to trouble in one of two ways. We can look into ourselves and find only despair or we can cry out to the only one who can make a difference. Israel cried out to God. They sought His help in their needs rather than falling into hopelessness. They knew hope was found in their God; Israel sought the comfort of Godís presence. We look forward to Christmas for the same reason. We know that the answer to our hopelessness is found in Jesus Christ, so we prepare our hearts to receive Him. This means recognizing our need for His saving grace. It means realizing that we are caught up in the darkness of this world.

The Gospel text reminds us that we are waiting for the second coming even while we are preparing to celebrate the first. Though Christ has already come, died, and been raised, we still live in darkness. The work of salvation is complete, but it still needs to be completed. We are already there and we still wait to be there. We live in the already and the not yet. Light is in the world, but darkness still plagues us. Our text today makes that clear.

We might be tempted by this text from Mark to look for the signs that are described. Many people have done so throughout time, pointing to stars, blood red moons, comets and other signs in the heavens. They point to natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes as signs that the time is near. They use the newspaper headlines to suggest that every event points to the time when Christ will come again. Throughout history there have been times when it seemed like the warnings were about to be fulfilled.

We need to remember that Jesus is quoting the Old Testament scriptures throughout this text. The people listening would have been very familiar with these words, particularly from Isaiah. They knew what God was promising in the warnings and they knew how to respond. This isnít a time for us to stop and watch for signs; it is a time to turn our focus on the One who has promised to come. ďStay awake,Ē Jesus says, not to be constantly interpreting the signs, but to be actively living the life God has called us to live.

The world is in chaos. People are worried and afraid of what tomorrow might hold. Many are crying out to God to shine His face so that they might be saved. We are His face. We have the message they need. We have the gifts that will bring peace and hope to those who are lost. Each year there seems to be more reason to cry out to God. We can see suffering all around us. People are jobless, homeless and hungry. Our prisons and hospitals are filled to the brink. Last week Jesus called us to meet the simple and ordinary needs of our neighbors. This Christmas will not be wonderful for everyone. But we can make the world a little brighter by sharing Christ in word and in deed with those who are in need.

In Markís ďLittle ApocalypseĒ we see how to respond to the darkness and chaos of our world. We can certainly hang Christmas lights to shine through the night and take vitamin D to remain healthy, but we are called to wait for the One who will come, to watch for the Light which will bring life and hope. We wait, not only for the baby, but also for the King. Here in darkness we begin our journey to the manger. But while this is a time to wait and watch, it is also a time for us to live and shine the light of God. It isnít a time to hide behind our safe walls, but to get out into the world to tell the truth: we are all sinners in need of a Savior. The baby we await and the King who will come is the One who will truly save us from ourselves.

In New York City, St. Peter Lutheran Church shares a city block with the Citigroup Center. As I understand, this church has been built right into the buildingís structure. There are glass windows through which visitors to the Citigroup building can view the worship in the sanctuary. The website for St. Peterís describes it thus: ďThe building is an anchor of serenity in - but not a withdrawal from - the sea of unpredictable turmoil around us.Ē There is an irony that might be lost on the people who work daily in this building. The church, God, is dwelling in the heart of this financial institution, yet most of the people who work there daily watch from the outside, if they even pay attention. These people are blessed because they have a tangible reminder of a faithful presence of God in a world that is filled with uncertainty and disappointment and yet the often miss it.

We miss it, too. We pass dozens of churches in our daily commutes without thinking about them. We are busy with church things, active with programs and regular attendees of worship, yet we rarely think of the God who is in the midst of our daily lives. We forget that God is faithful not only in the spiritual things but also in the real, tangible things we deal with every day. As crises reaches our own lives, we worry and fear about our future, not allowing God to break our worry and comfort us in our fear.

In todayís Epistle lesson, Paul was speaking to a different people in a different time and place, but they were people dealing with their own crises. It doesnít even matter what crisis they faced. Every generation of humans had to deal with trouble. Every generation worries and doubts and fears the future. Every person from the beginning of time has wondered if they will make it through today. We can approach our days blindly, missing out of the God in our midst, or we can live in the grace we have been given.

We know that our life is different because we have faith in Jesus Christ, but do we live that way? God is faithful. We might not always understand His plan for our lives or our world in this day, but as we dwell in Him daily, weíll see more clearly that we are blessed by Godís presence even if we donít think we have tangible evidence. We are the evidence, Godís people living faithfully in a chaotic world. We are called to be the Church in the midst of uncertainty and disappointment.

Donít get so caught up in your Christmas decorations that you miss seeing the God who has done great things. In some ways Advent is like it will be in the end times: darkness, confusion and chaos. Yet, in the midst of all of this, God still dwells among us and we need only stay awake to see Him. We stay awake by watching, praying, studying, worshipping and fellowshipping with other believers even while we are busy doing all the work that will make the season merry for those we love. We need not give up decorating, shopping and baking, but let us remember to look for Christ and shine His light for others to see, for He is with us always, just as He promised.

We wait, not only for the baby, but also for the King. The world needs to know Him, and we are the ones to share Him. The world is in chaos. People are worried and afraid of what tomorrow might hold. Many are crying out to God to shine His face so that they might be saved. We are His face. We have the message they need. We have the gifts that will bring peace and hope to lives that are lost in the darkness. We dwell in this world and it is good that we make preparations for Christmas that will bring joy to others, but let us always remember that there is something more important: God. So, in the midst of the chaos and busy-ness, let be aware of the God who dwells with us. He is faithful. Let us live in that grace each day, especially at this special time.

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