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Advent 1B-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Happy New Year! Drop the balloons. Shout hooray. Cue the music. Today is the start of the new year in worship. We move from the end to beginning again. Yet, somehow today feels less like a party. Like when you can’t pay the electric bill. We flip on the lights but we’re in the dark.

Advent begins, not with the pop of a champagne cork, but with lament at the hiddenness of God. It is more impatience than patience. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, Isaiah pleads (Isaiah 64:1). “Restore us, O Lord of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved,” cries the Psalmist (Psalm 80:3). In a case of be careful what you wish for, Jesus warns in Mark’s gospel that on the day of the Lord, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken,’ (Mark 13:24).

You might be wondering whether these readings were chosen because of the pandemic. But no, these and others just like them, are what is read every year. The first season of the Christian new year begins with brutal honesty. The world is not as it should be. It is not okay. The morning after frankness of Advent is less of a surprise this year when so many things have disappointed and threatened us at once.

Advent is uncomfortable. But sometimes, rather than rush through our discontent, it is better to sit with our sorrow a while. It is there that wisdom and compassion are born. Our hearts and hands are opened. Lives are reborn.

Impatience with how the world works has led many Christians, in recent years to search apocalyptic readings like these for clues. If the heavens and earth are to be shaken when the Lord comes, we’d sure be pleased to know when. Yet, one thing all end-time predictors have in common is that they’re wrong. The prognosticators all seem to ignore Jesus’ words that no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father (Mark 13:32).

So, we’re left stewing. Funny thing though, when we turn from trying to locate the end-times on the calendar to watching for the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in each other, we can be mostly right. In fact, the moment we stop waiting and watching for Jesus to show up we stop waiting and watching for grace. Jesus called himself the Son of Man. He represents how human beings are truly meant to live, and points to the kinship kingdom that is the original design of the Creator, the Ancient One.

To come out of this pandemic better than we went in, we must let ourselves be touched by others’ pain. We must let our impatience mature into wisdom and compassion, the gifts of Advent. Then we become antibodies to the virus of indifference. Then the true light starts to leak out of us despite ourselves. It is a lamp for our feet and a streetlight for our path. This light has allowed the saints of each generation to make the same great discovery. All Life is a gift. We grow by giving of ourselves, not preserving ourselves, but losing ourselves in service.

Put down your calendar and start looking for Christ’s coming again in your neighbor. This week, the day after Thanksgiving, Pope Francis wrote an editorial which appeared in the New York Times. He wrote, “Sometimes, when you think globally, you can be paralyzed: There are so many places of apparently ceaseless conflict; there’s so much suffering and need. I find it helps to focus on concrete situations: You see faces looking for life and love in the reality of each person, of each people. You see hope written in the story of every nation, glorious because it’s a story of daily struggle, of lives broken in self-sacrifice. So rather than overwhelm you, it invites you to ponder and to respond with hope.” Pope Francis, Pope Francis: “A Crisis Reveals What Is in Our Hearts,” NYT, 11/26/20)

Advent is so consistent in celebrating the light of Christ precisely because we spend so much of our lives dwelling in the star-less midnight of unknowing and hope. The true light revealed in darkness shines from each other’s eyes. It constantly leaks out and shows itself from underneath, and outside, and from deep within us. This light tirelessly transforms lives and changes history.

I’ll give you an example. Years ago, a teenage boy and his parents, were forced to leave home and work in a labor camp during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The boy took up art to avoid doing heavy labor. He won a competition. His painting of Chairman Mao Zedong was the best. You may remember the artist He Qi. He visited Immanuel about six years ago. One of his prints depicting angels hangs in the church today.

One day, He recalled, he encountered some Christian art on the cover of a magazine. It was Raphael’s Madonna and child. He secretly painted that image over and over again at night. “She was holding baby Jesus in a chair. It really touched my heart,” He Qi said. It was the first Christian image He remembers seeing, and it conveyed a peace he still considers the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity. He said, “During the Cultural Revolution in every corner in China, every minute people were fighting. Everything was revolutionary. Horrible. It was very difficult to find a peaceful message. So, in the daytime I painted Chairman Mao; in the evening I painted Madonna.”

Advent is about keeping watch for the light God reveals in darkness. Advent opens us for encounter with the coming Christ even in the most unexpected places—even in a baby in the manger. “Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in the stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.” (Frederick Buechner, sermon entitled, “The Face in the Sky”)
Advent gives permission to tell the truth, even if that truth is laced with sorrow. This truth is forged by the Spirit into wisdom and compassion. As we become less afraid of the dark our eyes are better able to see life as it is, and not as we mistakenly assume our religion requires us to render it. We begin to see each other more clearly and to be called into serving Christ through welcoming one another as Christ. Christ coming again and again is the advent worth waiting for, preparing for, watching for. Let the stars begin to fall and the earth tremble.

All Saints-A20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Ok breathe. Take a breath. Blessed are you, Jesus said. Beloved, remember each day begins in love. Jesus sermon on the mount seems tailor made for me this week, in these restless and fitful days of pandemic, social upheaval, and the looming presidential election. Blessed are you. Just breathe.

The people came on foot, or perhaps, by donkey. I wonder. What propelled those people out from the safety and comfort of their homes and towns into the wilderness to hear and see Jesus? What made them move, clanging and banging, with all their stuff behind him?

Somewhere in the dusty, rolling hills of Northern Israel, near the sea of Galilee, Jesus sat down. The disciples and a great crowd sat with him. They came from regions to the north, south, east, and west. They came from Syria, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. They sat at Jesus’ feet. The dust of those hills clung to their clothes. It was in their hair and on their feet. Blessed are you, Jesus said. Just breathe.

Their lives were not their own under Roman occupation. Paying taxes to Caesar left little to live on. Religious authorities were focused on helping themselves more than with serving God. The people went out of their way to hear and see Jesus because he opened the door to an upside-down world in, with, and under this one which he called ‘the kingdom of God.’ Some today call it the ‘kindom,’ because it is the family of God. All your heart, soul, and strength find their true purpose through being part of this family and in belonging to the one in whom we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28).

Jesus said the kindom is revealed in those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, in those who are merciful, who are pure in heart, who are peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. “Blessed are you,” Jesus said, “when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11). Just breathe. Breathe and know. You belong to the kindom of God.

Jesus’ words are strength for the weary. Jesus embodies hope for the hopeless. Those early followers gathered up Jesus’ words. They treasured them and pondered them. They chewed on them like bread. They drank them like water. Hearing and seeing Jesus restored their soul.

Some years ago, it was popular to wear a wristband with the letters WWJD, “What Would Jesus Do?” It was supposed to remind whoever wore it to keep their minds focused on Christ. Likewise, the sermon on the mount was written so the essential words and teaching of Jesus could travel with us everywhere. Instead of wearing it, early followers memorized it. Instead of WWJD it is WWJS –“What Would Jesus Say?”

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are you.’ Just breathe. Notice, Jesus’ sermon doesn’t contain a single “should,” “ought,” or “thou shalt.” There is no transactional language at all. No commandments. No moral directives. To embrace Jesus’ teaching was and is to live into an upside-down world where neighbor love is the prime and only directive. (Debi Thomas, The Great Reversal, Journey with Jesus, 10/25/20)

Presbyterian Pastor and author, Frederick Buechner, helpfully writes that Jesus’s upside-down kingdom is like this: “The world says, ‘Mind your own business,’ and Jesus says, ‘There is no such thing as your own business.’ The world says, ‘Follow the wisest course and be a success,’ and Jesus says, ‘Follow me and be crucified.’ The world says, ‘Drive carefully — the life you save may be your own’ — and Jesus says, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’ The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’” One way into the kindom of God is through Jesus’ teaching. WWJS, What would Jesus say?

Great works of fiction can offer us another way to see and live into life as part of God’s eternal family. C.S. Lewis, J.R. Tolkien, and George Lucas are modern examples. Ancient apocalyptic writing like we find in the Book of Revelation, or the Book of Daniel are another. Stories of long, long, ago and far, far away help us get deeper inside the here and now.

Somehow, we get terribly confused by this type of literature when we encounter it in the pages of the bible. Less so when we see it on the big screen. (I feel almost heart-sick about the trans-phobic trouble J.K. Rowling has gotten herself into recently. In the spirit of All Saints Day, I pray that one day God will help us sort it all out.) I mention her because in the climatic Book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling paints a scene that seems it could be written for All Saints.

The hero, Harry Potter, walks to certain death at the hand of the evil Lord Voldemort. He intends to sacrifice himself to protect his friends. But something he carries in his pocket, called the Resurrection Stone, enables the presence of four of the saints who have previously died for him to be there with him, and to talk with him. They give him the courage he needs for the task. They are Harry’s personal cloud of witnesses who give him faith to stand against evil with the power of love.
You see, we cannot enter the upside-down world of God’s kindom alone, but as members of one another. Each one of us remains unique and singular, yet also fully belonging to the one life we live in God. The blessed loved ones we remember today are still with us. They struggle with us. Their love continues to bless us. They remind us to breathe.

Rowling’s Harry Potter Saga, like the Book of Revelation, inspires faith in the power of God’s love as the only power in this world capable of ultimately standing against the hideous reality of human violence. They bring the mighty down from their thrones to elevate the outcast and the seemingly least powerful. As we read from Revelation, we have a place beside those who have come through the ordeal of the same oppressive, imperialistic human violence as Jesus did. We are washed clean in the blood of the lamb (Revelation 7:14). (Paul Nuechterlein, All Saints Day, cycle A, Girardian Lectionary, 10/30/20)

This week, of all weeks, the nation stands as if on the great continental divide of the Rocky Mountains. A glass of water poured out on one side of the divide ultimately finds its way to the Pacific Ocean, while water on the other side runs inevitably to the Atlantic. The path forward diverges into two futures. It’s stressful not knowing how it will all play out or where we will be when we meet again next Sunday. We pray. We watch. We vote! Yet regardless, whatever unfolds, we know. Beloved is where we begin. Just breathe. Breathe and know we belong to each other, and to the entire communion of saints in God.

Amen.