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Advent 2B-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Comfort O Comfort my people, says the Lord. Speak tenderly to them (Isaiah 40:1&2). Comfort is hard to come by this holiday season. It’s time to celebrate small victories. Did I tell you? We sat on the back porch for Thanksgiving this year. Kari’s parents came down from Milwaukee. We ate at separate tables wrapped in electric blankets. It worked! What’s more, the day before Thanksgiving, we went out and bought a tree. It must be the earliest day ever for us.

Celebrate small victories. Give thanks for creature comforts. You don’t have to keep it all together after everything has already fallen apart. So, this Friday, December 11th, 2020 at 6:00 PM, I hereby declare, according to the authority entrusted to me as your pastor, theologian in residence, and official keeper of the keys, special dispensation to join us on Zoom to sing Christmas carols despite it still being Advent –and it not truly being caroling for neighbors in nursing homes or shut-ins. I only wish it could be so. You have my blessing to set up your tree, or to wear a silly sweater, to bake cookies and eat them all, and/or to do whatever it is that helps you through these pandemic days with a smile and with grace.

But listen! Incline your ear and hear again to tales from of old of God’s grace and of the voice crying out in the wilderness. This year when our holidays are all messed up, our days tinged with grief, and we shake our heads in frustration and longing, there is an opportunity in it to draw closer to hearing the still-speaking God in this season of Advent.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1). These words resonate today despite being more than 2,500 years old. They are from a time, the Psalmist sings (Psalm 137), when the people lived in exile and could not sing. “By the waters of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept. Our tormentors asked us to sing songs of Zion. How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1 & 4)

Their homes had been destroyed and their families ripped apart. They lived in slavery for 49 years –fully two generations. These words we quote from Isaiah are the tale of a second Exodus. They were like water raining down upon a dry land. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his pathway straight” (Isaiah 40:3). A royal highway would lead them home.

It was the beginning of the good news for the ancient Israelites. For us today, the beginning of the good news of our own exodus into freedom is announced by John the Baptist. It is a gift wrapped in camel’s hair, mixed with locusts and wild honey for when everything has already fallen apart. Because, truly, for most of us it is only after there is no way that we stand ready and open to God’s way. Then, as we sang today, ‘Steadfast love and faithfulness shall meet together; and righteousness and peace shall kiss’ (Psalm 85:10).

“Advent is defined by in-between-ness—the gap between the now and the not-yet-now… It’s the muddled middle between the Annunciation and the “angels we have heard on high”… Or the manger and the cross… This gap is a “liminal” space, from the Latin word “limens,” which means “threshold.””
Standing in the doorway between what is familiar and what we only dare to hope could be a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading us. It is when you have left the tried and true but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you, your ego and the inertia of the familiar are finally out of the way. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer that is Advent. If you are not prepared to sit with anxiety, to live with ambiguity, to entrust and to wait, you will run. Normally we would do anything to flee from what has been called this terrible cloud of unknowing. (adapted from Richard Rohr)

This terrible Advent cloud of unknowing” is pregnant with possibility. Sadly, we seldom grow and mature without uncertainty and pain. This Advent, more than others in recent memory, is collectively our moment in the middle. “There is that moment in the middle…The middle between the old thing and the new thing…The good thing and the better thing…The hard thing and the harder thing… The old you and the new you… And we call that moment in the middle…Fear, Excitement, Dread, Determination, Dependence, Risk, Faith. But it’s true name is…Transformation.” (Transformation and the Muddled Middle of Advent, by Rick Lawrence, Executive Director, Vibrant Faith)

So, we celebrate small victories. Give thanks for creature comforts. Do what you can to get through these pandemic days. Yes. But in the true spirit of Advent stand ready and open to receive the gift of Christ’s return wrapped in camel’s hair, without hype or glitz, to make more perfect your particular version of imperfection.

It is not enough that we survive this pandemic but that we follow the spirit’s prompting to push beyond the boundaries of what we thought possible for our culture, our society, and for our church to forge a more just, more equitable, more sustainable future together.
It is time to return to our roots. Remember, “[Christianity] began as a revolutionary nonviolent movement promoting a new kind of aliveness on the margins of society. . . . It claimed that everyone, not just an elite few, had God-given gifts to use for the common good. It exposed a system based on domination, privilege, and violence and proclaimed in its place a vision of mutual service, mutual responsibility, and peaceable neighborliness. It put people above profit, and made the audacious claim that the Earth belonged not to rich tycoons or powerful politicians, but to the Creator who loves every sparrow in the trees and every wildflower in the field. It was a peace movement, a love movement, a joy movement, a justice movement, an integrity movement, an aliveness movement.” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (Jericho Books: 2015), xvii–xix.)

Comfort O Comfort my people, says the Lord. Prepare the way. Lift every valley. Make the crooked places straight. God who became flesh in Jesus is the hidden God of whom the prophets speak, and the psalmists sing. He shows himself by way of those who are the absent, anonymous people of history. He is revealed in the margins. He has called us out of our houses to stand upon the threshold. We stand there now this Advent. It is the beginning of the transformation. Christ our healer comes. “All earth is hopeful, the savior comes at last!” (ELW #266).

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus said, “I AM the gate for the sheep.” (John 10:7). “I AM the good shepherd” (John 10:11). These are not throwaway lines in the gospel of John. They are like an open door. We are meant to step to the threshold and walk into newness of life with God. Seven times Jesus uses the phrase ego eimi, “I AM.” He connects his identity with the great I AM—Yahweh—whom Moses encountered in the burning bush. Moses took off his shoes because he was standing on holy ground. It was the beginning of a great adventure.

I AM the gate, Jesus said. Step up and walk through. I AM the Good Shepherd. I lead you to a new land. You might think Jesus mixed his metaphors. How can he be both a gate and a shepherd? It helps to understand an ancient sheepfold was like a pen without a gate. Once the sheep were safely inside the shepherd laid down in the opening. His body literally became the gate to the enclosure to protect the sheep from harm. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” Jesus said (v. 11b).

What’s more, sheep belonging to different shepherds could be mixed together in one sheepfold. You’d think that would create a problem when it came time to leave. Yet upon hearing the voice of their shepherd, the sheep sorted themselves out and followed, because they had trust in the care and compassion of their particular shepherd.

In life many things can bring us to the threshold between old and new. Whether by tragedy, or by accident, or by choice, there are times we all find ourselves betwixt and between, confused, disillusioned, or uncertain. It’s no surprise we don’t particularly enjoy this in-between space. Yet, truth be told, this is among those times when we are most open to learning, most humble, most hungry for grace, most open to searching and looking behind an open door.
Moses turned to look and see the burning bush he had only just glimpsed from the corner of his eye. He was ready for change. If there is a silver lining to these pandemic days it is that we are all standing on a threshold. Once again Jesus is an open gate. May grace abound.

Clinical therapy, twelve-step groups, and everyday spiritual practices like praying, meditating, singing, walking, reading and retreats are aimed at getting people into this in-between space and keeping them there long enough to learn something essential and new. St. Francis, Julian of Norwich (whose feast day is this Friday), Dorothy Day, and Mohandas Gandhi tried to live their entire lives on this threshold, on the edge, or periphery of the dominant culture. “This in-between place is free of illusions and false payoffs. It invites us to discover and live from broader perspectives and with much deeper seeing.” (Richard Rohr, “Between Two Worlds,” Daily Meditations, 4/26/20)

American author and poet Wendell Berry (born 1934) affirms this wisdom in a poem he entitled, “The Real Work.” He writes,

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

As these weeks and days of staying at home string out and blur together, we may be tempted to close our borders and lock our gates—let false shepherds and thieves come offering versions of security that have nothing to do with the abundant life of Jesus.

Media marketers know how keenly we seek fulfillment and purpose and how much we’re willing to sacrifice to acquire it. High-concept advertising campaigns promise to sell you what today’s gospel offers for free. How often will we play out the same fairy tale to discover we’ve traded treasure for magic beans? We paid good money to acquire the abundant life and all we got was pair of sneakers, coffee in a paper cup, or a phone that’s out of date the day we bought it?
Jesus said, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. Standing on the threshold between our pre-covid and post-covid life, we realize again our old ways have brought us further and further into death. Essential workers keep the wheels of commerce turning while exposing themselves and their families to the virus without access to healthcare which, in turn, effects families staying at home. The poor are poorer. The rich are richer. The oceans rise. The planet warms. Entire species disappear. Are we tired of being cheated yet?

Jesus has opened the gate. ‘Look not through human eyes but through God’s eyes’ (Kahlil Gibran). Look through your shepherd’s eyes. Venture out by way of the Jesus gate to pass through the valley of the shadow of death. “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25).

Jesus the gate opens to abundant life. “Abundant living is a matter of walking through the right doors.” Standing on the threshold between what was and an unknown future is a time filled with grace, but often does not feel “graced” in any way. Yet this feeling of vulnerability and openness is what allows room for something genuinely new to happen. We are empty and receptive—erased tablets waiting for new words.

Abundant life passes through the grace of God. Jesus is the gate that protects me. He is the door that opens beside still waters. Jesus the good shepherd unlocks my heart and frees my captive mind. He leads me into green pastures. He restores my soul. Let not your hearts be troubled. Set your sight on Jesus. Turn your eyes aside to see as Moses did. Take off your shoes for you are standing on holy ground. Let this be the beginning. Jesus the gate stands open. Jesus the Good Shepherd is ready to go.