Sunday, November 27, 2005

Sun, Nov 27, 2005 - Advent 1 - Waiting for the Lord

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
1 Cor. 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Well, it's here. Advent, that is - not Christmas. Although if you believe the advertising we're bombarded with these days, you'd think that Christmas was happening tomorrow and that you better get your shopping done Right Now. But, no, it's not Christmas yet - it's only the first Sunday in Advent, and that means that for church-goers like us, we are about to embark on a tension-filled four weeks.

Now why would I say tension-filled? Well, for one thing, Advent is one of the only times when we as a church are so completely at odds with the culture around us. Here we are, making preparations for Christmas, reflecting on the life-changing event of the Messiah's birth two thousand years ago, looking forward to the coming again of the Messiah, getting ready for the big day while, as I already mentioned, culture is telling us that that day is already here; Christmas is upon us now. While we are busy singing Advent hymns, lighting our Advent wreath, opening our Advent calendars and steadfastly trying not to rush towards Christmas too soon, we are bombarded with Christmas messages, Christmas hymns, and yes, Christmas decorations. So we are in Advent on one hand, while society around us is already in Christmas, having no idea that there is even an Advent. There is reason that there is some tension.

But it's there for another reason, too. And that is the tension between looking back and looking forward that we experience in Advent and also in Lent. You see, Advent is not just about preparing to celebrate the coming of our Lord two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. It is partly about that, which is why we have partly filled in nativity scenes, and calendars that open finally on the 24th with pictures of the baby Jesus. But if Advent and Christmas are only about the past, we would be celebrating a dead religion, where we do not expect God to make any changes in our lives now. But Advent is also about looking forward to the coming of the Lord in the future, the coming of the kingdom of God fully on this earth. Advent is about Christ coming again, into our hearts, into the world, and changing things in a very real way. So, again, on the one hand we have the celebration of the past, while on the other hand we have the anticipation of the future. There, again, is reason that Advent carries some tension.

And finally, there is the tension that comes from the fact that we are waiting for the promised kingdom to come - we are told to stay awake for it - and yet we have no idea when it's actually coming. We are in a perpetual state of waiting - two thousand years now, and we don't know when it's going to happen. So, naturally, talking about this great day that's coming, focussing on it, getting ready for it - and having no earthly clue when it will be - we have some tension.

Because this is a big day that's coming - the day of the coming of the Lord. It's a day that echoes throughout our entire Bible, Old and New Testaments - and it has a profound influence on almost every single Biblical writer. In Isaiah, the day of the Lord is a day when God will come down with all power and might, causing the earth to shake and the nations to tremble - poetically speaking, of course - but more important than that, it is a day when God will come down and right all wrongs. God will carry out the justice that is long overdue, rescue the victims of oppression, bring the people of Israel home from their exile, and make the world the way it is meant to be. Although mountains quaking and heavens tearing open sounds frightening, for the listeners of Isaiah, the day is something to be looked forward to, something to yearn for, because it means that nobody will suffer any longer under the hands of someone else. It means that people will finally be rewarded for their good deeds, and not laughed at and scorned by the people around them. For the people of Israel at Isaiah's time, this day is a good day.

It is, as our Psalm says, a day of restoration with God. The long, painful, tear-flooded days of alienation from the Lord will be over, and we will be reunited the God who is our light and life. If you've ever been separated from someone you love and who loves you for a long period of time, you'll have experienced the anticipation and yearning for their return that the Israelites felt as they thought about the return of their Lord. That day is nothing about a good day.

And then, of course, there's the day of the Lord according to Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. Again, poetically speaking, it is described as a day of awesome natural display - the very cosmos - the sun, moon, and stars, will be affected by the Son of Man coming again. The world will see how truly glorious he is, and with the power of God, he will send for his angels to bring the faithful together in his care. For the faithful, that is for us, it will be a good day.

But - but Jesus warns us, as Isaiah and the Psalmist and Paul in his letter to the Corinthians already know, there is no way of knowing when that day will be. Not even Jesus knows - a line that has, admittedly, been a source of great confusion for people. This isn't like Y2K, or Christmas Eve always falling on the 24th of December, or when taxes are due. The fact is that we don't know when this day is coming. The Bible writers didn't know when the day was coming. They made guesses - the writer of Mark thought it would be soon, Paul initially thought it would be in his lifetime but then had doubts when that didn't seem to be happening. Throughout history people have thought the day was coming when it wasn't. Martin Luther thought it would be in his lifetime, influential Christians called Millenialists thought it would happen at the turn of the last century - in 1900. But they were all wrong. For two thousand years they have been wrong. And that makes us all a little anxious.

Because the secret thought that lurks in the back of people's minds - the thought that they worry about but would never admit - is what if that day never comes at all? What if God has abandoned us? What if God is so disgusted with our behaviour that all deals are off and we are left to our own devices? It's a terrible thing to think - because we all know what the world would look like if God left us to ourselves - but it has been thought, by faithful people, for as long as this day hasn't come. The people of Isaiah's and the Psalmist's day, the faithful children of Israel, really were concerned that God would abandon them in exile in Babylon and not return for them because they were so sinful. And so they cried out to God to remember them, and to forgive them, and not to leave them to die.

We might wonder the same thing - is the Lord returning? Will we really have justice on this earth, will the oppressed really be free, will the marginalized really be welcome, will the hungry really be fed? Will our Advent hope for Christ's return be fulfilled?

Well, all we have to rely on that that will happen is the past acts of God and Christ's promise to return. It doesn't sound like much to people who have been waiting for two thousand years, but that's actually all we need. Because the past acts of God and Christ's promise to return are pretty darn overwhelming, too much in fact to go over all of it now. But I will highlight two moments in particular.

The first is the return of the Israelites from exile. Aside from the saving of Noah and his family from the flood, aside from the rescue of the Israelites from Egypt, two very well-known stories, we also have the rescue of the Israelites from Babylon. Isaiah did indeed cry out to God on behalf of the exiles, begging that God would remember them and return them to their home and to their temple, and God responded. God brought them back, restored them to the land God had given them, and rebuilt the relationship with them that they had broken. God did indeed act, as God promised, coming to God's people through Cyrus of Persia who liberated them, giving them a glimpse into the kingdom of the Lord.

The second moment is one of pivotal importance to us Christians - and that was the moment two thousand years ago when a baby was born in a stable in Bethlehem. I won't get into the story because, of course, we all know it, and I don't want to pre-empt Christmas Eve, but here again we have God's promised act fulfilled - to come to us, to be with us, in the flesh, undeniably God-among-us. It didn't happen the way it was expected to happen, or involve the people one might expect to be involved, but it happened nevertheless - the fulfillment of God's promise, and the beginning of the coming of the day of the Lord.

But it's not just moments in the past that convince us that God is trustworthy and that Christ will come again. While it's true that we're waiting for one big day, for the day, it's also important that we not overlook the small, yet still meaningful, ways that Christ comes to us today, and tomorrow, and every day of our lives. In quiet, humble ways, the Lord comes to us in our baptism, blessing the vulnerable, fragile bodies of infants. The Lord comes to us in Communion, in those brief few seconds of receiving the undeserved gifts of bread and wine, body and blood. And the Lord comes to us in the acts of graciousness and mercy that take place everyday in the community of believers. In those moments when you forgive someone without them asking, or are forgiven yourself, the Lord has come. In those moments when you donate money or food or clothing to charity or a person in need, the Lord has come. In those moments when you reach out to the stranger across from you and offer a smile, the Lord has come. Just as he promised he would.

Now, we are still waiting for the unmistakable arrival of the Lord, and while we wait we live in the tensions that Advent brings. We celebrate the past and look to the future. And we wait without knowing for how long. But we have seen God fulfill God's promises, and we know that we do not wait in vain. So we live with the tension, and we proclaim with hope the anthem of Advent, "Come, Lord Jesus." Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Sun, Nov 13, 2005 - How Will You Live?

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90:1-12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

"For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ." Well, that’s a nice way to start out the day, isn’t it, what with all the verses in our first reading about the day of the Lord being at hand, being a day of wrath, and the second reading talking about it coming like a thief in the night. It’s nice to know that God is looking out for us and that, when the day of sudden destruction comes, God has already planned for us to be saved from obliteration.

At least, that’s what Paul’s letter tells us, but how can we be so sure that he’s right? It’s pretty serious stuff he’s talking about - the end of the world and our very existence - so we want to be darn sure that he’s right about all this, that God’s wrath won’t fall on us. After all, knowing where we stand when the end comes makes a big difference to the way we live our life in the here and now.

Well, Paul reassures his listeners by reminding them that they are "children of light and children of the day." Now, the Thessalonians to whom Paul was writing may or may not have known the opening to the Gospel of John, but we certainly do, and Paul’s use of the word "light" brings back for us "what has come into being through [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it." For us, when Paul calls the Thessalonians children of light and children of the day, we know that he is, intentionally or not, calling them children of Jesus Christ, the light of the world. And certainly, the light of the world would never destroy light’s own children.

We are these children, too, because of our relationship with Christ. Or maybe I should say because of Christ’s relationship with us. Just as Jesus died for Paul and the Thessalonians, he also died for us, and in our baptism we are made sisters and brothers of Jesus, children of light - yes, I know the exact relationship is a little fuzzy - and we live and die and will one day live again in Christ. As Paul indeed said, God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Which is a darn good thing, because none of us know when the day of the Lord is coming. Zephaniah tells us that the day of the Lord is near, at hand, even. Paul says that it comes like a thief in the night without any warning whatsoever, or like unescapable labour pains, which personally doesn’t make me feel too happy. Jesus describes it as a master who went away on a journey and suddenly returned to settle accounts with his slaves. It’s true, none of these references are particularly date-specific, and in fact, we’ve been hearing them for almost two thousand years, so we do wonder how near it is, but whenever the actual date all of our readings warn us that there’s no way for us to know when that will actually be. There’s no way to stop it from happening, and we better get used to it happening when we least expect it.

But that is something we’re used to living with, actually. I suspect that not many of us worry about when the day of the Lord is coming, but I know that more than a few of us wonder when our day is coming - that is, we wonder when our last day is coming. After all, none of us know when we might die. Sure, we can make predictions based on our health and our lifestyle, on our weight and our eating habits. But there’s no way to know for sure what might happen - we have no way to predict accidents - no way of knowing for sure when our time is going to run out. So, like I said, it’s a good thing that God is looking out for us.

So, since we don’t know when we’ll die, even though we’ll be in good hands when we do, how do we live? How do we go through each day, never knowing if it will be our last?

Well, one way is to live carefully, fearfully even, hiding away from the unavoidable day. That’s how the third slave in Jesus’ story lived. He knew that one day his master would return wanting to know what he had done with his time, whether he had been industrious with the money entrusted to him, and he was afraid. He was afraid that when his master came, when the judgement was made on how he had spent his time, it would go badly. And so the slave avoided all possible risks, he hid his money in the ground, he lived his days in fear, waiting for the end to come, waiting for the wrath of his master to fall.

Some of us live that way - we play it safe, we choose the path that has the least amount of risk, we hide from anything that might take us out of our comfort zone, that might challenge us. Rather than risk loss, and incurring the master’s wrath, we hide ourselves, and what the master has given us, away. We look at what the master has given us, our lives, our abilities, our possessions, our family, and afraid of losing it all, afraid that the master will come and take it away, we bundle them all up and hide them in a hole in the ground. We don’t risk them by following a dream, we don’t endanger them by following a path our heart says is right even though our head questions it, we don’t run the chance of losing them by answering some radical, inconceivable call God’s made to us. We’re too afraid of God’s wrath if we fail.

But living that way shows a lack of trust that God really does mean us for salvation and not wrath. When we doubt God’s intentions for us, we live in fear, like the slave, and we hide away what God has given us to use. And if anything’s going to make God unhappy, it’s not failure and risk-taking, it’s that we are afraid to use what God has given us, that we’re afraid to live out the life God has given us, that ultimately we’re afraid to trust God and God’s promises of salvation. There is no entering into the joy of the master if we’re too afraid to trust God.

But, God has a different way of living in mind for us, one built on trusting that God is a God of salvation and not of wrath, one where we take full advantage of what God has given us, one that does bring us joy instead of fear. Now I didn’t know this until I did some research, but apparently the only way for the first two slaves in Jesus’ story to have doubled the money they were given was to gamble with it - the parable says they traded with it, but that means gambling. Surprising, I know, that a parable of Jesus would highlight gambling as model behaviour, but the point is that the only way for the slave to double five talents - which, by the way, was 75 years’ worth of wages - was to do something risky with it. The slave had to put aside his fear of losing it all, he had to trust that the master wouldn’t punish or even kill him if he made a bad investment decision, and he had to go ahead and take bold action. And he was rewarded.

We are encouraged to live that way as well. To live without fear of wrath or death, not so that we’ll live lives of irresponsibility and selfishness, and not so that we’ll take unhealthy and life-endangering risks, but so that we can fully believe in God’s goodness towards us. The end is coming, sooner or later, but how we live in the meantime determines whether or not we enter in the joy of our master - that is, whether we live lives fearing our future with God, with the result that God is unhappy because of our lack of trust, or whether we live lives trusting in God’s promise of salvation, with the result that God, and we, are joyful because of it.

So what is it that you’ve been afraid to do? What gift or ability is God calling you to use that until now you’ve been shy of using? What path is God calling you to that until now you’ve thought was too risky to walk? What hope has God instilled in you that until now you’ve been afraid to count on? These are the "talents" you are called to gamble with. God is encouraging you to risk using that gift, to risk following that path, to risk acting in that hope. To risk trusting God.

So be bold, trust God, and step forward. We don’t know how long we have, or when the day might come when we will come face-to-face with the Lord, but we do know that we are destined not for wrath but for salvation, and so we can live joyfully, using the many gifts God has given us, trusting in God’s good will towards us. Thanks be to God. Amen.