Sunday, November 27, 2011

Save Us From Pre-Christmas

[Sermon from Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011]

That sound of the shofar is our wake-up call: Welcome to the first Sunday of Advent. This is the beginning of our four-week season of preparation for the miracle of the Incarnation, the unbelievable reality that God chose to take on our life, the experience of humanity in all its joy and all its hardship. This is the time when we take a breath, and stop, and try to comprehend the incomprehensible: that God loves us enough to enter directly into our broken reality and heal it, coming as the Christ both as a baby in a manger and as our ruler and judge at the end of time.

That’s a lot to get ready for. No wonder we need a season of preparation.

Of course, in our modern lives, we also need a season of preparation because the world around us is giving us very different messages, both about what season we’re in and how we should be preparing for what’s to come. Here in church, we’re lighting candles on the Advent wreath and learning just how slowly we can count to four. But in the stores and on TV, we’ve been charging into Christmastime from the moment we could get the Halloween candy put away.

Now, before we turn our attention to Advent, I’d like to reflect on the holiday we just experienced. And that holiday was…? Well, Black Friday, of course –- our No. 1 shopping day of the year. Actually, that’s not quite right, because now Black Friday has oozed beyond its temporal boundaries and spilled into the day before, a day we soon will know as Black Friday Eve. In a former time, we called this day before Black Friday by another name –- we called it “Thanksgiving,” and we kept it as the holiday. People stayed home with family and friends. They shared time and conversation as everyone worked to prepare the feast. They played football in the yard and watched football on TV. They ate too much and then did stacks and stacks and stacks of dishes together. Finally, blessedly, when all the work was done, they rested –- one of the few moments of Sabbath time left in the calendar of American culture. Well, now that Black Friday has become a two-day feast, we’ve cut to the chase and gone straight to the shopping without having to wait through that pesky time set aside for family, and giving thanks, and rest.

OK, so I’ve now officially become a grumpy old man.

It’s easy to rant about Black Friday, and door-buster sales, and our habit of charging from one disfigured holiday to the next. But I think this is a malady we need to take seriously as people of faith, and the treatment is one we can apply only in each individual heart –- including mine. Even as someone who spends an awful lot of time on churchy stuff, I find it really easy to pay lip service to Advent while I’m actually charging toward Christmas Day. The pre-Christmas season can become consuming, and I don’t mean just in terms of consumerism. There are the cards to send, and the parties to plan, and the events to attend, and the presents to buy, and the kids’ activities to show up for -– not to mention a few pretty big church services to plan. Better get ready, or we might not get everything done before we hit the Christmas finish line.

So I guess this morning I’m trying to convince you that the season of Advent is here to save us from the season of pre-Christmas. Advent is here to turn the rush of the holidays into the blessing of holy-days.

Now, listening to our Gospel reading this morning, you may not have heard a lot of blessing to take home with you. Jesus is talking with his inner circle of disciples, telling them what to expect about very difficult times that lie ahead. Just before this reading, he’s warned them of “wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 13:7), and persecutions of Jesus’ followers, and destruction coming to the holiest of places, even Jerusalem and the Temple itself. False prophets will arise, and Jesus has warned his disciples not to follow them. Most scholars feel these predictions relate to the Jewish revolution against Rome, which happened about 35 years after the Resurrection, when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed and the Jewish people were scattered.

Well, there’s not a lot there to get us into the holiday spirit. But I think the point of hearing about this chaos is that, like all the trials of our lives, it sets the stage for God to act, which is where today’s reading comes in. When the times we live in seem to spin out of control, when we know our own lives are broken and derailed, when we invest every beat of our hearts just to make it through the craziness of one day to the next –- these are the times, Jesus says, when we need to pay closest attention to what God will do next. Ironically, when we feel like we’re on the edge, that’s when divine power is revealed most vividly –- when Jesus enters into our lives definitively, if we’ll pay close enough attention to see it and hear it.

In the broad scope of salvation history, what Jesus is talking about is the end time, when he will return in power and judgment, as we proclaim in the Nicene Creed each week. When the Son of Man comes on the clouds in glory, he will flick aside petty kings and ungrateful nations and hold each of us accountable for the lives we’ve chosen to live.

But that same revealing of divine power holds true in our own lives right now, too. In the private moments of our anxious hearts, as each of us works out our own salvation, the crazy chaos of our lives is the medium in which Christ works best. When the stars that once guided us seem to be falling and the powers of our heavens seem to be shaken, that’s when Jesus enters in. Remarkably enough, the sovereign Lord of the universe does have the wherewithal to rule even our unruly lives, despite how complicated we imagine them to be.

But here’s the thing: We -– and definitely I –- have to pay attention, especially when the chaos of our culture and the chaos of our hearts tell us we don’t have time to pay attention, even to one more thing. When we least expect it, when we’re focused on everything else, that’s when the Master decides to come home and set the household to rights. When life backs us up against the wall, Jesus comes to us and says, “So, how’s that working for you?” And I don’t think we’ll find it very helpful in that moment to tell him, “Hang on just a minute while I finish up one last thing on my list.”

There’s a better way to greet Christ when he comes to dwell within us and among us. As today’s Gospel reading says, “keep alert”; “keep awake”; for “he is near, at the very gates.” (Mark 13:29,33,37). To receive such a guest, we need to ready our hearts with at least a fraction of the time and attention we would devote to readying our homes for a Christmas party.

So here’s my Advent challenge to you, and to me: Stop. Say “no” to something you can’t imagine not doing. And instead of doing it, take some time -– however much you feel you need –- and do nothing productive in the eyes of the world. Drive into the country, and park by a lake, and watch the wind move on the water. Take the hymnal and read the lyrics to the hymns in the Advent section – they’re fantastic. Come to the TaizĂ© Eucharist and don’t make a sound -– really enter into the silence and the sounds of others singing. Take home a copy of Forward Day by Day, and read a lesson each morning, and marvel at what God might have to say. Or, just sit in silence in your favorite chair, and stare out the window at the trees and the birds, and wait to hear what Jesus might whisper to you. Accomplish nothing. Let the brakes of Advent slow down the headlong rush toward Christmas. And then just see what holy days the holidays can be.

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