Sunday, December 04, 2011

All Shall Be Well

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
December 4, 2011 - Advent (B1)
Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well..."

Julian of Norwhich wrote these words in the 1400’s after a near death experience in which she claimed to have received them from God in a series of revelations. I believe these words to be a summary of the scripture lessons we have read today.

"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well..."

One of my favorite examples of this phrase in action is from a scene from the movie Men In Black. A giant alien cockroach has just grabbed the female lead and jumped up into a window that is a good 20 feet off the ground. Will Smith’s character holds up a gun and tries to sound authoritative while saying, “Don’t worry - everything’s OK!” She responds, “What part of this is OK?!” He readjusts, “It’s gunna be OK!”

How many of us have looked up from a miserable situation and wanted to slug someone for telling us that everything will work out alright, when we know it wont. Kind of reminds me of a friend telling me the other day about being seasick. He said, “At first you ask God to keep you alive, and then you become afraid that he will.”

And yet we have this message of hope today that says, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well...”

Mark’s Gospel gives it to us straight. Here is where the good news begins. It begins with herald of the Messiah. It begins with an unorthodox itinerant Rabbi baptizing people in public, outside of the city, outside of Holy places - but in the river that Elijah parted with his robe before being swept into heaven by a chariot of fire and wearing an Elijah costume (2Kings 1:8)!

First Century Jews receiving this Gospel would have had trouble not seeing John as Elijah - the prophet who was supposed to return and announce the Messiah, God’s anointed One, the One who would save them from the bondage and oppression of the Romans. Surely this is the one spoken of by Malachi.

"Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse." (Malachi 4:5-6)

And so, "John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." (Mark 1:4)

Repentance - literally to turn around or away - from sin. That is the beginning of the Gospel. Our hope begins in our ability to turn away from sin. Who would not agree that turning away from doing bad things would be good? But that is not exactly what is meant here. Sin is an orientation toward self and away from God and others. Usually that results in doing bad things, but the core - the deeper issue - is the direction of our hearts.

The purpose of the prophet is to turn parent's hearts to their children and children’s to their parents - to prepare us for the coming of God. The purpose of the prophet is to announce that something better is on the way, and we must be prepared to receive it or we just might miss it!

It makes me wonder, what preparations are you making for Christmas? Have you decorated - put up a tree? We’re in a different house this year and I have not yet figured out where to put the tree! The holiday village may just have stay in boxes this year. There just isn’t enough space - or time. But maybe that doesn’t really matter. Maybe preparing for Christmas has nothing to do with boxes and bags or presents and tags. It is not simply about love and affection either.

Preparing for Christmas is about examining your life and deciding what needs to go - deciding what is in the way of knowing and experiencing God. Sometimes that has to do with stuff. We have hundreds of gift baskets upstairs to prove it - and we’ve already given away quite a few. I spoke with a lady the other night who was receiving a basket. She said that she’d had a terrible day - and I could tell that she meant it. Her body and her voice trembled as she spoke. One of our elves simply encouraged her to receive - honoring her frustration and offering providence. The really marvelous thing I noticed between our elves and our guests last night was that those who gave were every bit as grateful for the chance to give as those on the receiving end were in receiving.

Sometimes the barriers to experiencing God have to do with stuff, and sometimes the stuff can also be an opportunity. Sometimes the barriers have to do with attitudes, relationships, and commitments. Sometimes they have to do with the way we deal with our basic reality of being limited creatures.

That’s the place that repentance seems confusing. When difficulties are thrust upon us - illnesses, job loss, friendships and relationships that are filled with tension and pain, the memories of times shared with a loved one - how can these be connected to repentance?

Perhaps an English Mystic who was never fully recognized by the church but beloved by Christians might shed some light. Julian of Norwhich is said to have believed that sin was not so much about being wretched creatures as it was a product of being finite, limited beings. For her, sin was part of the process by which we learn of God’s love and providence.

Suffering, then, is simply a means to understand that God was with us in the suffering of Jesus. Suffering is simply an indicator that things are not yet what they will be.

"And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well..."

Now, I’ll admit that 2 Peter’s version of “all shall be well” is a little more intimidating - the idea that everything is going to be dissolved. Yet I think the important thing is not to get caught up in the fear but instead be consumed by the hope of a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness will be at home. For that, we are both waiting and hastening.

I think the “bumper sticker version” of that text would be something like, “Everyone look busy - Jesus is coming!” That’s what religious practice feels like sometimes. We form committees. We complain that we can’t form committees because no one will step up. We lament not being able to do what we once did - and we completely forget what we are doing here and now to glorify God.

And so we wait...

We wait for God to do something, for God to come and set things right, for coming of the Lord. This Advent, I pray that you are able to wait with patience for the gift God has given! This Advent, I pray that you might find ways to live as a person filled with the hope of restoration that has been promised by God! This Advent, I pray that your actions of generosity, your prayers for and with others, and your relationships with others - from chance encounters to deeply meaningful - will hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God!

Where "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well..."

May it be so with you. May it be so with me. And to God be the glory, now and forever. Amen.
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