Sunday, November 30, 2008

First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

We live in Texas and in Texas football is king. Football is a game that mirrors warfare. George Carlin, in describing the differences between baseball and football said, “In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.” So, motivation for the team from the cheerleaders and the fans is often very aggressive. They make loud noises, stomp on the bleachers and yell “Fight, fight, fight!”

In the beginning of the football game, the teams are welcomed onto the field by waiting fans that hold up a sign designed to put fear in the hearts of the other team. These signs have catchy phrases like “Squash the Rattlers!” or “Bury the Trojans!” Different organizations are given the responsibility of making the signs and holding them for team to run through. They work for days after school painting their signs and then gather together the night of the game to hold the sign for their team. The football players gather behind the sign, waiting for the perfect moment to tear through the paper, screaming their battle cry. It is almost heartbreaking to think of how much work went into those signs when you see how they are destroyed so quickly and thoroughly by the anxious football players. They punch holes in the paper and then rip through, ready to face their opponent on the field.

I thought of this when I read the scripture for today. I can almost imagine the fans in the stands screaming for the coming of the Lord while the enemy waits in expectation with fear and trembling. That’s how we want the opposing team to feel when our team comes out on the field. 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. Isaiah asks for forgiveness and reconciliation. In the end, that is a much different reason for tearing open the heavens, one that will bring peace rather than war. Football may be king in Texas, but the King for whom we wait during the season of Advent, which begins on Sunday, November 30th, is a king of mercy and grace.

As I write this, Thanksgiving is just a day away and most televisions will be turned to football for most of the day. Football has become as much a part of the Thanksgiving celebration as the turkey and stuffing. Another tradition has become part of our family: reading the ads for Black Friday sales. Black Friday is, of course, that wonderful or horrific day (depending on how you look at it) when millions of people descend on the stores to get the best bargains for Christmas. I don’t know how the day will turn out. Will people avoid the stores, saving money because of the economic uncertainty in the world? Or will the rush out to buy those ‘gotta have’ gifts while the prices are unbelievable? We hear this year, as we have heard many times before, that people are cutting back this year. They aren’t planning to spend as much money. They are going to make it a simpler holiday.

Perhaps that will be true this year. And yet, I’m sure we’ll still hear stories of shoppers running wild, grabbing for the latest gadget, charging too much on their credit cards and overdoing on the holiday festivities. People don’t change; we are the same today as we were thousands of years ago. Circumstances may be different. Our abuses may be unique to this generation. Our temptations and our obsessions are new, but deep in our hearts we are exactly the same as Adam and Eve and every generation since.

Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent. I’ve heard stories that make me happy—more people want to focus on Advent instead of starting to celebrate Christmas too early. Yet, the radio stations are already playing Christmas music and the stores are full of Christmas displays. One of our neighbors already have their lights up on their house. We can’t complain, we will be starting our own display on Friday and we have been working on the plan for a week or so.

I have a lot of Christmas decorations, both for inside the house and for outside. We have rearranged our furniture and so I’ve had to develop a new strategy for displaying all my pretty things. I’m still not quite sure how I will make it all happen, but I love to do it. It might seem unimportant, especially since so many of us are trying not to focus so much on the secular aspects of Christmas. I think it is important that we remember that the days leading up to the Nativity are a special season of the church year. Advent is more than just preparing for Christmas. We do go overboard during the holidays. We eat too much, buy too many gifts and go to too many parties. We put up too many lights and make too many cookies. In the midst of all of this, we forget that there is more to the season.

Yet, these things that we do, we do with a heart for the God for whom we wait. We put out our favorite nativities and other decorations because they set apart this time as something special. Our Christmas trees may have become plastic pre-lit trees covered with Hallmark ornaments, but that tree has a special meaning and purpose at Christmastime. The evergreen reminds us of the everlasting God. The lights on the tree remind us that Jesus is the light of the world. The first Christmas trees were covered with good things of the earth like fruits and nuts, showing the world the bounty of God’s creation. The star points toward the story of Christ and the wise men who became the first people, gentiles, to worship Him. It is not bad for us to go out of our way to separate this time of year making it very special for the people we love. Our Christmas celebrations are our witness to the One who was born in the manger to our friends and our neighbors. It is good, therefore, to remember that there is more to the season than glitz and glitter.

Advent is not only a time to wait for the Christ child, but also to watch for Christ to come again. It is about seeing God's hand in the world around us, even in the secular aspects of the world. God created the whole world to glorify Him, and He is glorified when we see Him in this world. So, as we prepare, we look for Christ. We watch for Him. We see Him in the faces of the other shoppers, in the hearts of those for whom we are baking the cookies. We live the Christ-spirit so that those who see the greed and evil in this world might also see the light of Christ and know that God still dwells with His people.

We get caught up in the world and do not leave time for God. 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. We will 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 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.

A few years ago I wrote a devotion based on the threat that existed at that time in the world. In August 2004 our world was highly concerned with intelligence that was discovering terrorist threats in the United States. This particular threat had to do with the financial structure, with several major corporations directly targeted. Today we are dealing with a new concern over the financial structure of the world. Major corporations are falling apart and are in need of aid. This week Citigroup was given billions of dollars. Interestingly, Citigroup was also involved with that terrorist threat four years ago.

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 building’s structure. There are glass windows through which visitors to the Citigroup building can view the worship in the sanctuary. The website for St. Peter’s describes it thus: “The building is an anchor of serenity in - but not a withdrawal from - the sea of unpredictable turmoil around us.” 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 notice. These people are blessed because they have a tangible reminder of the faithful and faith-filled presence of God and His people in a world that is filled with uncertainty and disappointment.

Most of us don’t live or work so close to an active faith community. As a matter of fact, too many churches are dark and quiet except for Sunday morning and the occasional council meeting. Most active Christians have reminders around our homes, but do we even notice them anymore? Do our bibles get opened? Do we think about the Christ who died on the cross we have represented on our wall? 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 the financial crisis reaches our own lives, we worry and fear about our future, not allowing God to break our worry and comfort us in our fear.

Even though Paul was speaking to a different people in a different time and place, they were people dealing with their own crises. It doesn’t even matter the type of crisis. Every generation of humans had to face trouble. Every generation worries and doubts and fears the future. Every person from the beginning of time has wondered if they will survive another day.

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, we’ll see more clearly that we are blessed by God’s presence even if we don’t think we have tangible evidence. We are the evidence, God’s people living faithfully in a chaotic world. We are called to be the Church in the midst of uncertainty and disappointment. We are called to be light in the midst of the darkness.

Our current family upheaval is due to some redecorating. We rearranged our living room and painted some furniture. We have done some deep cleaning of the carpets and we’ve dusted every nook and cranny. This upheaval has been difficult for our kitties. Neither one has managed to get much sleep in the past few days, although Felix is dealing with the change much better than Tigger. Tigger doesn’t really mind the furniture moving, but he is deathly afraid of those loud and ugly machines we have been using. He’s very curious about all that has been happening. He wants to know what is going on, but he doesn’t want to be in the room with the machines. So, poor Tigger has been running away as soon as the machines start. But he wanders back soon after they stop.

Tigger is definitely comforted by being in our presence. When things are chaotic, as they have been this week, he is insistent on being nearby. He wants to know that we are here, that we aren’t going to leave him. Now, Tigger has never had to move like Felix, but he’s still very upset by such big changes. He’s already beginning to love the new configuration; like Felix, he’s found a new favorite place to sleep. Through it all, however, Tigger wants to feel safe. And he feels safe when he is near those he loves.

The 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 the people in a time of distress. Like the people in the Old Testament lesson, the people of Israel in the psalm are crying out for God to show His face to them once again. They knew that their troubles were because God had turned away. Now they sought His face, His countenance, upon them. If God shined in their world and on their lives, everything would be fine.

We can respond to trouble one of two ways. We can look inside 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. Somehow Tigger knew that his hope rested in us. As soon as the noise was gone, even though the machine was still in the room, he came to be with us. He sought the comfort of our presence, just as Israel sought the comfort of God’s presence. We too, in these dark days leading to Christmas, can respond to the world in which we live with despair or we can wait hopefully for the One who brings God’s presence into our world, Jesus Christ.

Our scriptures for this first Sunday in Advent are not very comforting. Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” is about darkness and chaos in our world and how to respond to it. It is also about waiting for the One who will come, the Light which will bring life and hope to the world. And it is there we begin our journey to the manger. And 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 isn’t a time to hide behind our safe walls, but instead it is a time to get out into the world to share the message that Jesus came to bring.

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 and dying under the burdens brought on by focusing on the wrong things. Football, shopping, decorating—these are all part of the life we have in this world. But there is something more important: God. So, in the midst of the chaos, let us not forget that God dwells with us. He is faithful. Let us live in that grace each day, especially at this special time.

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