December 11, 2017

Advent II Sermon: An Uncomfortable Awakening (+ a bonus song)

The Preaching of John the Baptist. Allori

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’,

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

Our Gospel for today from Mark reminds us of something important about Advent.

It is not like Christmas.

  • At Christmas we emphasize the spirit of comfort and joy. Advent is about repentance and asking forgiveness.
  • Christmas is filled with the sound of singing. Advent is filled with the sounds of people confessing their sins.
  • Christmas is about the tender story of a young woman giving birth. Advent is about a rough and uncouth preacher standing by the river confronting people as a prophet.
  • Christmas is a celebration that our hopes have been fulfilled and the light has dawned. Advent is a lament about the agony of waiting and longing in the darkness for the light to come.
  • Christmas is the joy of welcoming Christ. Advent is wondering whether I am truly ready for Christ to come.
  • In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Christmas story is told as one part of a complex group of narratives that invite the reader to ponder and reflect on the meaning of Christ’s birth. The Gospel of Mark begins without any stories, or even the story of Jesus’ birth itself. Instead it begins with a direct and unambiguous call to repent, to confess our sins to be baptized, to make a stark choice whether we are going to cling to the old ways or turn around and embrace the new ways that are coming.

In other words, there’s no messing around in Mark. He gets straight to the point: the King is coming and it’s time to get ready. One commentator said the opening passage of Mark is like an alarm clock that wakes us out of a dead sleep. Last week’s message was about trying to stay awake when we tend to get drowsy and inattentive. This week’s text assumes we’re asleep and sets off a loud alarm telling us it’s time to jump out of bed, splash cold water on our faces, and get ready to face the new day.

Now I don’t know about you, but I usually don’t like it when that alarm goes off. In my mind that’s exactly why God created the snooze button. I have this deep desire to stay in bed, warm and comfortable and undisturbed. My body, soul, and spirit is overcome by a spirit of inertia. I don’t want to move, except maybe to roll over and pull the covers back over my head.

When Gail and I were first married and serving our first congregation, we lived up in the mountains of Vermont, where winter was real and long, with lots of snow and subzero temperatures. We lived in a parsonage that had been built in 1860. Our bedroom was upstairs and there was no heat up there. The only heat that got up there came through an old stove pipe hole in the floor. We woke up innumerable mornings with ice on the inside of the windows. We wore more clothes to bed than we did throughout the day. We had painted hardwood floors and no rugs or carpeting, so you can guess how cold and uninviting they were. Getting up on those freezing dark winter mornings was agony.

Some mornings I had to get up extra early and go help my neighbor put chains on the small school bus I drove so I could navigate the snowy gravel roads safely. Oh I loved knowing I was getting up to face that!

I think that was when I truly became a night person. Who in their right mind wants to wake up and deal with such things?

I hate to say this, but Advent calls us to an uncomfortable awakening. Especially on this Sunday, when every year we read about John the Baptist and his powerful, direct challenge to the people of Israel before Christ came on the scene. It is not time for “comfort and joy” yet folks. First we have to pass through the agony of waking up, putting our feet on the cold floor, submerging ourselves in the water of death, and being raised up newly alive again, spluttering and shivering with the shock of it all.

All this is not just a silly metaphor. This is as real as it gets. This is about opening our eyes to the truth about ourselves, about the world we live in, and about what we have to do to come clean and make things right. This is about looking squarely in the mirror and facing up to the flaws, the imperfections, the downright ugliness we sometimes see there. This is about taking time to think hard about how I’ve run away from God this year, how I’ve not always told the truth, how I’ve rationalized my words, my attitudes, and my actions, how I’ve not always been the best neighbor to those around me. It’s about cleaning house, clearing away the clutter, emptying out the closets, dusting and scouring using every bit of elbow grease it takes to make my home ready to welcome the most important Guest who’ll ever come there.

Now let me make something clear however. We will never be completely ready for Jesus to come. We cannot clean ourselves up thoroughly enough, we can never make preparations that are adequate for a King. Nevertheless, he is coming, John tells us, and the good news is that when he does, it is the Christ who will make all things right. Our text tells us that Jesus will plunge us not simply into cold water but also into the cleansing and healing power of the Holy Spirit. He is coming to do what we cannot do. He is coming to make us new through and through.

Today he calls us through John the Baptist to wake up from our slumber and to get ready for that.

That is Advent.

And that is what prepares us for Christmas.

• • •

Here is the Bob Bennett song I’ll be listening to this Advent to help me prepare for Christmas.

Advent: A Reminder To Wait for the God Who Takes His Time

Anunciation to Zacharias. Giotto

Note from CM: During Advent, I have asked some of our wonderful iMonk writers to share meditations on seasonal themes each week. On the second Sunday, we welcome our friend Randy Thompson to contribute his perspectives on Advent. I am grateful for each of these friends and gifted people, and know that what they share will help us prepare our lives for celebrating the Incarnation.

✧ ✧ ✧

Advent: A Reminder To Wait for the God Who Takes His Time
By Randy Thompson

Advent is a season of meditation on patience and hope, on expectations past and expectations present. It is a time for reflection on the big picture of God’s little history that often seems in danger of getting lost in the grand current of humanity’s self-importance, a history of rising and falling empires, military adventures, progress, plague, heroism, and baseness. Advent is a time to remember that we have a story that isn’t the world’s story. We forget this at the cost of our integrity, identity and spiritual health.

Advent reminds us first of all that our faith is the fulfillment of centuries of expectation, the hope that God’s promises to Abraham and to David would somehow come to fruition in human history, so that humanity could see God’s purposes in the flesh. Advent is our yearly reminder that Christ didn’t enter the scene of human affairs without context or preparation, but as One looked for and expected, at least by some.

In other words, Advent turns our attention to history. Not to humanity’s history, of powerful men (and they’re almost always men), rising powers, and falling powers. Of great advances and great reversals. Rather, Advent turns our attention to a little history, a history of a people insignificant except for the fact that God called them to Himself and made them His own. A people who began their history as slaves in Egypt, whom God freed and brought to a land He promised to give them. Remarkably, they were a people who more often than not were careless, forgetful, and unfaithful to the God who covenanted with them, Even more remarkably, they are a people who still exist even though they were destroyed as a political and religious entity by the Babylonians two and a half millennia ago. Yet, God’s people survived and returned home to the land God had given them, while Babylon disappeared as a factor in human events.

Through these centuries human voices, speaking for God, articulated God’s warnings, God’s judgments, and God’s promises. For those who had eyes to see through the centuries of political collapse and the decay of righteousness, God was present, involved, and active in history. Those with these eyes to see became a faithful remnant, a starting-over-again-people like the remnant in Noah’s ark.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, God was still on the scene, and had not forgotten His promises. A shoot did indeed come from Jesse’s stump, born to a working class family in Bethlehem, a kingly dynasty reduced to carpentry. God comes in this insignificant but messianic baby, ironically unrecognized by the people to whom a Messiah was promised but recognized by magi pagans from the east.

Despite centuries of expectation and desire, few of God’s people had eyes to see God’s salvation. What God had “prepared in the presence of all peoples,” few had eyes to see, and so God’s Son goes to his cross, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32) . The Messianic King was indeed seen, but not for who he was. He is seen, but not seen.

Advent reminds us how easy it is to have bad eyes, and fail to see God’s light and glory in the crucified Messiah. Too often our healthy expectations give way to cultural or political expectations that render us unable to see the fulfillment of God’s promises, for God’s promises come on God’s terms, not our own. We expect a royal descendent of David, but see only a baby in a Bethlehem manger. We look right at the real fulfillment of our noblest hopes but are blind, and we go our way.

Advent also serves to remind us that God’s purposes work themselves out in terms of decades, centuries and millennia, and that to be distracted by news cycles, election cycles and instant internet information of dubious accuracy is to misuse our eyes, spiritually, so that we “see,” but don’t. God promised Israel a Messiah, but it take centuries for that promise to be fulfilled. 2 Peter gets it right: “with the Lord one day is as thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day.” (2 Peter 3:8) . We always are in a hurry. We want what we want now. Always now. We hate to wait. Yet, Advent reminds us that God’s time and our times are not the same, and in the final analysis, it is God’s time that matters, and so we come to see, slowly and at times painfully, serving and loving God entails waiting, so that in response to the question, “Where is God?”, the answer is, “Just wait.”

If we reflect a bit further, we come to see that waiting is a kind of faith. We believe, and so we wait, like passengers at a bus stop on a rainy day, believing and hoping the bus will come as promised. Advent reminds us that God’s purposes unfold over long periods of time, and that what we do in the meantime is wait and hope and love each other in anticipation.

Advent reminds us that we too, like God’s people of old, are an expectant people. The fulfillment of the Old Testament hopes and expectations created for us a new hope and a new expectation. The One who ascended into the heavens will return, someday, to earth. Advent is about this expectation too. It reminds us not only of our past history; it also reminds us that history will continue, that there’s a future we can look forward to. In the face of hydrogen bombs, bio-chemical weapons, disease, and environmental crises, Advent’s focus on the future–that there will be a future–is a great comfort. The future is Christ’s, the Divine Logos and gravitational force drawing all human history to its fulfillment in himself, whether we like it or not.

To observe Advent is to be aware of human history, but more importantly, to be aware of the real history of human history, a history of God’s activities unobserved by humanity’s political, military, intellectual and even religious elites, too busy with their own concerns to notice “little” things.

God’s little history played out in a little, weak country amid super-powers and in a crucifixion on a hill outside of a city doomed to destruction under Roman rule. It continues on, mysteriously to us, awaiting a finale at the feet of the Risen and Returning One. Advent jolts us out of our short-sighted socio-political obsessions and refocuses our attention on the big picture given us by this little history, to which our contemporary elites are oblivious. The lighting of each Advent candle reminds us that it took millennia for God to bring the Gospel to us, and that it may well be millennia before Christ’s Second Advent. Above all, the lit candles remind us that in a world that seemingly teeters weekly on the brink of chaos, God is present and at work, slowly.

Very slowly.

Waiting is the calm, patient confidence that God is present, whether we can feel His presence or not, and trusting the godly vision expressed by St. Julian of Norwich against all apparent odds: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

And so we wait, our waiting a fearless glimmer of the true light shining in the darkness, full of grace and truth.

The Saturday Monk’s Brunch: December 9, 2017

Welcome to the refectory, iMonks! Time for another edition of our Saturday Brunch. We are in the Advent season and just marked St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6. But beware! There are many imposters out there —

RUN! He doesn’t know the difference between homoousios and homoiousios! He’s NOT St. Nick!

• • •

THE POPE WANTS TO CHANGE THE LORD’S PRAYER?

Andrew Perriman reports that the Pope has a problem with the traditional wording of the Lord’s Prayer.

The Catholic Church is unhappy with the line “lead us not into temptation” (mē eisenenkēs hēmas eis peirasmon) in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:13; Lk. 11:4). The problem is that it appears to attribute responsibility for a person falling into temptation to God. Pope Francis has said: “It’s not a good translation…. I am the one who falls. It’s not him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen. A father doesn’t do that, a father helps you to get up immediately.” If anyone leads us into temptation, he suggests, it is Satan. So an alternative translation is being considered, something along the lines of “Do not let us enter into temptation”.

I’m with Andrew on this one, however. I think the Pope (like most Christians I’ve ever met) misreads this line and fails to understand it in the context of Jewish eschatology. I’ll let him explain:

What Jesus has in view is not general moral failure (the modern theological assumption) but the “testing” of the faith of his followers by persecution. The word peirasmos in this context refers to an “evil” or painful situation that tests the validity of a person’s faith.

The Lord’s prayer is not a piece of routine liturgical supplication. It is an urgent missional prayer, best illustrated by the parable of the widow who prayed for justice against her adversary. Jesus concludes: “ And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk. 18:7–8).

The petition not to be led into a time of testing has a very specific eschatological purpose—to keep suffering to a minimum. When it came, as it inevitably would, testing was the work of the devil, aided and abetted by sinful desires. But even then it had a positive value: it proved the genuineness of their faith, and if they passed the test, they would gain the crown of life, which is a reference to martyrdom and vindication at the parousia.

For years, I’ve prayed a version of the LP that says, “And lead us not into the time of trial, but deliver us from the Evil One.” I think that captures it. In the case of the disciples, it was the troubles surrounding the Fall of Jerusalem and the devastation of the Jewish nation. In our case, we look forward to similar times of trouble throughout the “last days,” which by my reading will increase at the end of the age.

The entire Lord’s Prayer looks forward. Even as we pray for daily bread and forgiveness, we anticipate that living in this world will be hard, and we ask God to spare us from the troubles to come.

• • •

CONGRESS MAKES LOVE OUT OF NOTHING AT ALL

Drew Broach reports at NOLA:

Meat Loaf, the Wagnerian pop-rock singer who hit the charts in 1977 with the “Bat Out of Hell” album, must have wondered, “Who am I? Why am I here?,” this week when four successive U.S. senators at a Banking Committee meeting quoted Jim Steinman-penned lyrics that he made famous. It made for some light moments in the otherwise heavy discussion of the proposed Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act.

Referring to the title of the bill, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said: “As Meat Loaf used to sing, ‘Two out of three ain’t bad.’ But this bill doesn’t even meet the Meat Loaf minimum.”

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., chimed in: “Meat Loaf also said, ‘There ain’t no coupe de ville in the bottom of a Cracker Jack box.’ In other words, we live in a real world.”

“In that same song,” added Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., “he said, ‘Baby we can talk all night, but that ain’t getting us nowhere.’ So I’m looking forward to processing the amendments.”

Not to miss an opportunity, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., objected: “Meat Loaf also said, ‘Life is a lemon, and I want my money back.’ So on behalf of all the consumers who [got] the short end of the stick from Wells Fargo and Equifax, I want to have a bill to make sure they get their money back.”

Yessiree folks, Congress has descended to the level of Meatloaf. Well, at least they cited an appropriate song for these days, and here it is in all its over-the-top glory:

• • •

AND THEN THERE’S THIS POOR GUY (with the great ‘stache)…

NPR reports that Richard Klose from Laurel, Mont., got a surprise phone call this week. He had been elected to the city council, even though he didn’t run.

It wasn’t a scam. Nobody else ran for the position, either, but some people wrote in his name. In fact, Mr. Close got three write-in votes out of the 52 votes cast, more than anyone else. So, he’s on the city council.

He told the Billings Gazette that since he’s retired, he may as well give back to the community. I guess that’s what you get for being the popular guy in a small town.

And hey, with a mustache like that, he might as well be sheriff too, right?

• • •

A MAGNIFICENT 100-YEAR ACHIEVEMENT

WASHINGTON (RNS) — The largest Catholic church in North America is now complete.

After 100 years of construction, thousands of worshippers Friday (Dec. 8) witnessed the blessing of 24 tons of Venetian glass that embellish the dome of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate ConceptionCalled the “Trinity Dome,” the glass mosaic is the final architectural element of the church, a shrine to Mary which sits next to the Catholic University of America and is visited by nearly 1 million people a year.

A 10-minute procession of cardinals, bishops, and priests preceded the two-hour ceremony and Mass to mark the dedication of the dome. Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl who celebrated the Mass called the basilica a “modern-day masterpiece.” Faith, he said, was the reason why so many people, for so many years, sacrificed to finish the church.

Here are a few pictures of the church. Check out THIS SITE where you can see 50 photographs of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. You can also go the Basilica site and take virtual tours.

• • •

MEANWHILE, BAD CHRISTIAN ESCHATOLOGY IS AT LEAST PARTIALLY TO BLAME FOR THIS WEEK’S BIG STORY…

Diana Butler Bass hit the nail on the head with her tweet this week: “Of all the possible theological dog-whistles to his evangelical base, this is the biggest. Trump is reminding them that he is carrying out God’s will to these Last Days.” She was speaking, of course, about the President’s announcement that the U.S. will now recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Julie Ingersoll at RNS explains the theological component in this decision and why many evangelicals are cheering it.

For many of President Trump’s evangelical supporters this is a key step in the progression of events leading to the second coming of Jesus. There’s an interesting story as to how that came to be.

The nation of Israel and the role of the city of Jerusalem are central in the “end-times” theology – a form of what is known as “premillennialism” – embraced by many American conservative Protestants. ​

While this theology is often thought of as a “literal” reading of the Bible, it’s actually a reasonably new interpretation that dates to the nineteenth century and relates to the work of Bible teacher, John Nelson Darby.

According to Darby for this to happen the Jewish people must have control of Jerusalem and build a third Jewish temple on the site where the first and second temples – destroyed centuries ago by the Babylonians and Romans – once were. In Darby’s view this was a necessary precursor to the Rapture, when believers would be “taken up” by Christ to escape the worst of the seven-year-period of suffering and turmoil on earth: The Great Tribulation. This is to be followed by the cosmic battle between good and evil called Armageddon at which Satan will be defeated and Christ will establish his earthly Kingdom. All of this became eminently more possible when the modern state of Israel was established in the 1940s.

Ingersoll goes on to trace the popular dissemination of this teaching through fundamentalist and evangelical groups that began in the 1960s and 70s, particularly with the release of Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth. It became even more a part of Christian and conservative culture through Jenkins and LaHaye’s Left Behind series. We’ve explored this often here at Internet Monk. HERE is one example.

But just know that we are not simply talking politics when our country makes a decision like this. There are many “prophets” who have the ears of those in power and who are spreading this stuff. Bad theology can have real world consequences, and things could get pretty scary. Might be time to break out the “save us from the time of trial” version of the Lord’s Prayer.

We are already beginning to see some of the fallout.

• • •

THIS WEEK IN ADVENT/CHRISTMAS/WINTER MUSIC

I just discovered a marvelous album of piano, chamber ensemble, and choral music by Ola Gjeilo, a U.S. based Norwegian musician, called Winter Songs. Here is one of the instrumental pieces, a meditation called “Home.” A blessed Advent week to all of you.

 

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