Sunday, November 30, 2014

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

For we are all become as one that is unclean, and all our righteousnesses are as a polluted garment: and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

My mother worked at a shopping mall when I was a kid; she was manager of a fabric store. I remember going with her to work on the days when I did not have school; I would run around the mall, eat at the Woolworth lunch counter or watch a movie at the theater. When I was tired or bored, I would hide in my mom's office with books or homework. Sometimes I helped her around the store, but I mostly went on adventures.

Not to get too nostalgic, but things were different back then. Black Friday was a very specific event; it was, literally, the official start to the Christmas season. The mall did not decorate until the night and then morning before thanksgiving, so there was a dramatic change in the mall when it opened Black Friday morning. Santa Claus arrived to great fanfare with a parade that began in the parking lot and ended at his workshop in the mall. The children received gifts of candy canes as they trailed after him with joy. The stores had sales, certainly, but there weren’t doorbusters to make shoppers all arrive at the same time, too early in the morning. There was excitement about the day; it was filled with wonder and expectation.

Black Friday is still considered the official start to the Christmas season, but many stores began their Black Friday sales weeks ago. Santa Claus is already in the mall, having arrived quietly and without fanfare one day. The decorations were up after Halloween and the Christmas music has been playing. The Black Friday events—those doorbuster sales meant to draw the crowds—begin earlier and earlier every year. Some stores are even opening up on Thanksgiving evening with unbelievable savings on electronics and other must-have items, all in limited supply, of course. Instead of invitations to the grand opening of Santa's Workshop in the mall, the news reporters are warning shoppers to beware of angry crowds and possible violence. The chaos of Black Friday is tempting for criminals who will break into cars filled with shopping bags or steal credit card numbers with stealthy technology.

I've heard all the complaints; Facebook has been filled with posts denouncing the early start to the commercial aspects of the holiday season and vowing not to fall for the temptations. Yet, there are some who so desperately want to save a few pennies on that new TV they don't need that they have been camping outside stores just so they can be the first in line. Two women began their vigil on November 7th; they didn't even know what was going to be on sale, yet. Some have suggested this is just a publicity stunt by the corporation, but in the past few days many others have lined up outside stores around the country.

We can rant and rave about the commercialization of Christmas, about the greed of corporate America and about the foolish actions of people (who are also greedy,) but this is not what bothers me most about what's happening to Christmas. To be honest, I'm pretty much finished with my Christmas shopping, I'm anxious to begin decorating and I've watched a few of the Hallmark channel Christmas movies already. I am bothered because Advent will slip by unnoticed, and more so than in days gone by.

It isn't that many 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 I've done in the past. But there's the thing, 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 if someone has already turned on the light?

Advent begins in darkness. 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.

But 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?

I know, I'm being too literal here, since even in the 'old days' Santa was in the mall and we put up our Christmas lights the day before the first Sunday in Advent. But there is no longer a definitive break between the seasons. We are coasting into December having already experienced so much of what set it apart. There probably won't be much difference between today and next week. We should be shocked by the reality of our need for God's forgiveness but all we will seek is the best recipe for Christmas cookies.

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, “Why would anyone want to rush that day?” Yet, there comes a time when we just can’t 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 Lord's return. Come, Lord Jesus.

I can understand why Isaiah would write the words in today's 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 today’s 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. Can't He make things right? Can't He stop the violence both at home and around the world? Can't 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 bring the Light.

Today's 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 Isaiah's story, they want 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 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 God's presence.

We are about to enter into the Christmas season; many of us have been there too long already. We will get very busy with the preparation for the festivities. There will be shopping, baking, wrapping and decorating. There will be parties and gatherings with family. TV and radio will be filled with Christmas themed shows and music. Unfortunately, we have all seen the signs of Christmas already, but it will begin in earnest after Thanksgiving. 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 can’t 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.

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.

Here's the thing: 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 isn't 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. "Stay awake," 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 Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” we see how to respond to the darkness and chaos of our world. 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 isn’t 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.

See, we don't realize we have fallen asleep. Oh, there are many people out there complaining that Christmas has started too early. There are many who are fighting to hear the words "Merry Christmas" and to keep "Christ in Christmas." There are many who are committing themselves to a more humble celebration, with fewer presents and more charity. It is good to stand for Christ and to be the people He has called us to be.

But we have "fallen asleep" in the worst way possible, because we refuse to tell people the true reason Jesus Christ was born. We forget that Christmas was just the first step toward the cross and that it was our sin that required the birth and death of Jesus. We've stopped talking about our sinfulness. We have pointed our fingers at everyone else who has done wrong in the world, but we don't speak the truth that we are all sinners.

That's why we begin Advent in darkness and why it is important that there be a stark line drawn as we enter into this time of year. Jesus is certainly the reason for the season, and I'm happy when I see beautiful nativities decorating the yards of my neighbors and the public spaces in my town. However, I sometimes wonder if we shouldn't include a crucifix in our decorations to remind us why Jesus came in the first place. We all die, but He was born to die.

We will see the Light growing in the darkness over the next four weeks as we await the coming of Jesus, and we will live in the hope that He brings. That hope is not just for peace on earth and goodwill toward men, but it is for forgiveness and mercy. We have, sadly, dropped the ball when it comes to telling our neighbors why they need Jesus.

Have we stayed awake? Or have we been coasting along with the world, accepting as the truth is whitewashed to make it more palatable? Have we accepted the god the world created to appease faith while rejecting truth? Have we been fighting battles that seem important when the truth is that we've forgotten what really needs to be said? Are we really awake, or are we sleepwalking in a slumber that looks for signs but misses the truth?

In today's epistle lesson, Paul was speaking to the Corinthians, a different people in a different time and place. They were people dealing with their own troubles. It doesn't matter that we our crises are not like theirs; every generation faces some sort of suffering. Every generation has worries and doubts and fears about the future. Every generation has lived in darkness. Every person from the beginning of time has had a need to cry out to God. Every generation is tempted to blame our enemies, to point fingers, to seek God's vengeance on those who do us harm.

But as Advent begins we are reminded by the words of Isaiah that we are sinners in need of a Savior. "For we are all become as one that is unclean, and all our righteousnesses are as a polluted garment: and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away." We have forgotten God's promises; we have stopped humbling ourselves before the One who will be our Judge.

God has not turned His face from us, we have fallen asleep. We have forgotten that we are blind; we ignore the grace that is ours because we refuse to acknowledge our sin. We look forward to the coming of Christ, but seek the baby in the manger without realizing that He is the man on the cross who paid our debt to God. We are excited about Christmas, but do we really know why and are we willing to tell our neighbors what it really means?

We will continue to experience darkness until the day Christ comes again. But we can live in the knowledge that the Light has come and is coming. We can be a source of Truth for others. We might not always understand His plan, but as we dwell in Him daily we will be blessed by God’s presence even when it seems like He has turned His face from us. Our lives of faith are the evidence of God's grace; we are God's people living in a chaotic world, called to point to the God who can and will make their lives new if only they acknowledge the reality of their sin.

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