Don’t Make Me Come Down There!

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
November 27, 2011 - Advent (B1)
Isaiah 64:1-9
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Well, I am told that this is the most wonderful time of the year. Decorations of red and green have been in the stores since Halloween. Christian radio stations have been offering Christmas music on line since mid November for those who just can’t wait to go fa-la-la. Fundamentalist Christians and Atheists have drawn battle lines and announced add campaigns to slander one another. And so begins our annual preparation for the Advent of Christ.

I wonder what that means to you - preparing for the Advent of Christ? So much of our culture and even our religious tradition seems bent toward celebrating the Advent of Christ’s birth. It makes me wonder, is that what we have reduced Christmas to - a birthday party for Jesus?

Don’t get me wrong - I do think it is important to celebrate the reality of the birth of Jesus. I think remembering the birth of Jesus is essential to our understanding of God revealing God’s self through the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

Nativity sets have always been important to my preparation for and celebration of Christmas. My own children have a hand crocheted nativity set that has always been as much of a play set as it is an object of reverence.

Still, a phrase like “preparing for the Advent of Christ” is quite different from “getting ready to celebrate the birth of Christ.” I think that is why I like the car magnets that come out around this time of year that say, “Keep Christ in Christmas.” Of course, people can have a wide variety of intention behind those magnets. My hope is that the majority are making the public statement that Christmas is not simply a culturally appropriate time to be nice. It is a time to become aware of God’s active presence while we await the final return of Christ.

That’s what Advent means, you know. It means “coming.” Jesus is coming. Salvation is coming. Freedom is coming! Resurrection is coming! Our scripture texts today are intentionally chosen to push us beyond the crèche and into the expectation of a people who live after the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus!

Now, that being said, the Isaiah text was not written to refer to Jesus specifically - rather the human condition of need and our relationship with God. It’s interesting that this portion speaks not for God so much as for the people returning from captivity. They have returned to the promised land and found that it has been used up and left in shambles. Some of them were returning from desperate situations, but some had been allowed to prosper in captivity. All of them wanted to be home, and most of them were still working out how they felt about this God who had allowed them to go through so much.

It starts with a plea for support. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”

Then there is the memory that the last time God “came down” they were conquered. Perhaps there is even the memory that God used foreign nations to purge them of the sin of not caring for the poor. That was the biggest complaint of the prophets, you know - economic disparity and its relationship to idolatry.

Yet even in their admission of guilt there’s the accusation that God turned from them and caused them to sin. But sin they did, and they are aware of being claimed by it. And so it ends with a plea. “Don’t be too angry. Don’t be exceedingly angry. And don’t forget that we are your people - all of us.”

And so the preparation for the return of God’s active presence begins with confession. And so the experience of God’s active presence begins with proclamation. It begins with a claim of identity and purpose that is connected to God’s activity above and beyond our own.

Once upon a time I took a group of high school students on a mission trip to Belize, and they taught me what it means to confess weakness, proclaim God’s presence, and become caught up in what God is doing. Actually it was the girls. Never underestimate the power and wisdom of a teenage girl.

We were there to build a church, or so we thought. These girls were every bit as motivated to climb scaffolds, pound nails, and mix cement with the boys, but it thoroughly confused the village foreman. At first they tried to trudge forward in true ‘Merican grit to prove what women can do. Then they realized that it was becoming a barrier to the project. We had a wise woman guide - an advisor with our group - who took the girls on a trash scavenger hunt.

Then they went to find the women of the village and join in their tasks. They attempted to make flat-bread over wood fired ovens. They tried to wash clothes in the river. Nothing worked. Nothing except the care they expressed to women who had never had a single missionary in over a generation truly appreciate their burden, their skill, and their contribution to the community. In the end, we built as much of the roof as we could - but those girls built people. They proclaimed a brilliant and beautiful type of acknowledgment and freedom by telling women of another culture and language that they were willing to fly a plane, ride a bus, and paddle a canoe to get to their village and fail at making flat bread because Jesus cares about them.

Ever since then, I have been trying to match the proclamation of those silly, skinny, awkward, perfectly imperfect teenagers. It’s pretty easy to do in a village in another country, but it’s pretty hard in your own back yard.

I think that is why Paul wanted to start his letter by affirming the good he saw in the Corinthian Church. I think that’s why Paul was so clear about the source of that goodness. Paul was certainly looking ahead to a time when God will correct all the things that we can’t do anything about, but he was very clear about the fact that God’s actions do not depend on ours. God acts through us, and when we pay attention to it and join our efforts with others we can do amazing things.

And guess what else - other people hear about it. More and more people are realizing that this congregation of 60-70 worshipers, 30 + homebound or inactive members, and a handful of volunteers from other congregations are going to give out 1,000 Christmas gift baskets, a small forest of trees, and a hallway full of wreaths and other decorations! People ask me “How? Who pays for all of this?” and “Where does all of this come from?”

I tell them that it comes from God. It comes through you, and it is a sign of the coming reign of Christ. As subtle as fig leaves in the Spring or as grand as the opening of the heavens - if you keep watch - you will see that Christ has come, just as he is yet to come.

As to the apocalyptic language of the text, I can’t tell you for certain that God’s ultimate and final judgment will happen the way it seems to suggest. After all - this was written before we knew the world was round and people lived on every curve. Personally, I have no need to disagree with dispensationalists or millennialists who say there will be phases of rapture, tribulation, and a thousand year reign before clearing the deck chairs for good - even though these ideas are a product of the 1700’s and not in keeping over a thousand years of Christian history.

I have no desire to say that God cannot or will not do these things. I also have no need to believe that God will. What I do believe is that God loves me. I believe that God loves you, too. I believe that God chooses to act through you and me and even in others that I do not expect God to act through. And I believe that Christ’s return will be sooner than we expect if we can allow ourselves to confess our need for God, open ourselves to God’s activity, and join our efforts with one another for a more effective witness!

You know, as I think about the way we approach Christmas in these United States, sometimes I think it is more about keeping God out than inviting God in. It reminds me of the billboard that imagines God saying, “Don’t make me come down there!”

Really? Is that what God wants - for us to huddle in fear and hope our fig leaves are covering the right parts? No.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down! O that we would realize that you already have! O that we might await with expectation for a sign of your activity! O that we might stay awake through the present darkness of this world and live in the light of your active presence! And to you - the God of grace and mercy - be all glory, dominion, and power both now and forever. Amen.
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