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Monday, November 21, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, I Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

We sometimes complain about how early the commercial interests of the world try to overwhelm us with the sights and sounds and products of Christmas. As I write, it’s not even Thanksgiving yet and I’ve been hearing Christmas music for at least two weeks, most recently in my favorite Chinese restaurant yet. (Not that all Chinese follow some other religion or ignore Christmas, but it somehow seems a little incongruous.)

But that time has come in the Church Year. This Sunday begins Advent—and a new Church Year. Now it’s Advent, mind you, not Christmas. It’s a time of preparation, not the beginning of the celebration. Some pastors and congregations refuse to sing the actual Christmas carols until the Christmas season of the Church Year begins on what we call Christmas Day.

I lean a little in that direction because it forces me to live through a time of waiting. Advent is about, among other things, waiting—but waiting in high anticipation. Remember the stereotype of the young child who tries to stay awake all night on Christmas Eve. Maybe you were such a child, or parented one. It may be that the motivation for staying awake is to catch a glimpse of Santa, or maybe it is just the excitement and impatience associated with tearing the wrappers off all those gifts under the tree. In our household, one always had to wait until a parent gave the all clear to come running out to see what was under the tree. Now everything is usually out there for weeks for all to examine the shapes of the packages, perhaps even shake them a little. And, of course, family customs vary—some opening presents on Christmas Eve, some on Christmas morning. Some family gatherings don’t get to it until later in the day—or spread it our through the entire day. Some open one a day for several days.

Advent stretches that one night of anticipation to four weeks. I don’t imagine many, if any, of those children stayed up all night praying, but that may be closer to the spirit of the Advent season that all the glitter that fuels our wide-eyed wonder these days.

Being wide-eyed, though, is an appropriate way to approach Advent. This week’s Gospel lesson ends with the words, “Keep awake.” (Mark 13:37) The wakefulness is not because there are presents under the tree. This reading is another of those lessons about a coming time of judgment and the fulfilment of history. It is something that Jesus and his followers seemed to expect any day now. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (vs. 30) The images stun, perhaps frighten us. Maybe we just read them in disbelief, tempted to laugh.

A darkened sun, stars falling from heaven (vss. 24-25)—well, even science has predicted the demise of our sun in some distant future—with far more immediate destructive “natural” occurrences as a result of our treatment of the environment. But a person (“the Son of Man”) “coming in clouds”? (vs. 26) What’s that? A space ship from another planet?

As I read most biblical treatments of such coming events, the main point is that of verses 32-33. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father . . . you do not know when the time will come.” People sometimes got into a frenzy, did strange things, when they lived in fear or in the hope that the end would come soon. Some quite working; some decided to eat, drink, and be merry while there was still time. In every age, there have been those who have tried to put a specific date on it—some groups more than once. I’ve never heard them express any embarrassment when the predicted day came and went while history continued and people woke up and went to work as usual the next day.

Our Gospel lesson calls simply for being “alert” (vs. 33), keeping “awake.” (vss. 35-37) Advent is a time for keeping awake. Can we take that as encouragement to be wide-eyed in appreciation every day of life we are given? Can it be taken as an instruction to live every moment in anticipation of what life (and God) is doing? Can we move beyond an attempt to map out the details of future events and realize that each day is a wonder? Such wide-eyed wonder is appropriate all year. Advent can be a time with we let it loose, staying awake all night because we know not what possibilities the new day may bring.

The other lectionary readings for this Sunday offer some additional perspectives on waiting. In Isaiah we read about a people who feel abandoned by God. “For you have hidden your face from us . . .” (Isaiah 64:7) They are waiting, so to speak, for their relationship with God to be restored. The reading from Psalm 80 is similar in tone. “Restore us, O God; let your face shine . . .” (vss. 3, 7, & 19)

Holidays can be lonely times. We nostalgically remember lost loved ones. The wounds may be especially raw if there has been a recent death. Those who are going through divorce lose some of the rituals they may have known for years. Even many years later, divorced families know how complicated holidays can become. We look for a new reality in which meanings are made whole again. There are no easy answers, but the biblical perspective is that there is always hope for healing and new beginnings. Advent is a time to be wide-eyed, awake, ready for such new possibilities, new beginnings.

Perhaps the most hopeful verse in the reading from Isaiah 64 is verse 8: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of you hand.” Advent is a time when the forces of history are grinding away. It is like a time of labor before a new birth. Maybe, at times, all we can do is yield to those forces, let them work away reshaping us and bringing something new into being, marveling (even if there is pain) at the wonder of those workings.

The context of the Epistle reading is waiting “for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,” for “the end,” “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 1:7-8) Paul reminds his readers that he gives thanks to God for them. (vs. 2) He speaks of the way they have been strengthened by Christ, who “will also strengthen you to the end.” (vss. 6 & 8) I particularly notice that he speaks about one of his favorite topics—one developed at length later in I Corinthians—the gifts we have been given. “ . . . you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait.” (vs. 7) Is he implying something similar to the clay and potter image of Isaiah 64:8?

Overall, the point I make is this: Rather than get bogged down trying to describe final events in detail, rather than cringing in fear or going to excess in the pursuit of pleasure while we have a chance, we are to continue living each day no matter what may come. We are to move ahead wide-eyed, using our gifts, talents, abilities as fully as possible, flexible enough to be molded by the circumstances and opportunities and challenges that may be part of an uncertain future. “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Marks 13:37)

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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