This sermon is for the first Sunday of Advent, Year B, given at my internship congregation, St. Peter Lutheran Church in Dubuque, Iowa, on November 30, 2014. The images in this post (and more) were shown during the sermon.
The texts for this week are Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, and Mark 13:24-37. This sermon also draws inspiration from the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and from the hymn, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s has been a tough week for our country. We’re supposed to be in a time of Thanksgiving, but there are people in cities across the country protesting in the streets.
In Ferguson, Missouri, we’ve seen some take advantage of the protests to loot stores, burn buildings, and destroy police cars. It’s a situation with no winners, with people who feel oppressed by racist systems versus laws and police trying to do their jobs.
Keep awake, Jesus says in today’s Gospel. I was awake on Monday night, watching police in riot gear facing burning buildings, watching reporters hiding behind cars from gun shots. Keep awake.
I don’t know if Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown, should have been indicted and put on trial. I don’t know the facts to speak about the case itself, or to try to reconstruct what happened.
I do know – regardless of what happened that night in August – racism is alive and real in Ferguson, in our country, here in Dubuque, and even in the church, not os much in blatant ways, but in more subtle assumptions about other people. But I don’t know what to do about it, other than to be awake to the realities, to keep awake as well as I can.
I can’t put myself in the position of people who feel like their lives matter less than others whose skin is another color, who can’t see a way to be heard other than protesting in the streets, or in the position of public servants doing their best to keep the peace and serve the common good.
And I have a hard time finding God at work in all this.
Yet, here we are, on the first Sunday of Advent, starting a new church year, looking for hope.
On Tuesday right before Thanksgiving, I preached a sermon over at Ennoble Manor about how easy it is to look ahead to Christmas.
I talked about how on TV, the commercials went straight from wall-to-wall political ads to constant ads for Black Friday sales and Christmas shopping. It’s like we skipped straight over Thanksgiving. Well, now we’re past Thanksgiving, and we’re here in Advent.
Advent is a tricky season. It’s so, so easy to jump ahead to Christmas, to skip over Advent. As our ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton pointed out in a devotional for this week looking at today’s readings, “There are no made-for-TV movies telling heartwarming stories about the great and terrible day of the Lord.”
Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas. If you’re able to join us for Wednesday Advent services and meals the next three weeks, we’ll be focusing through drama on some of the characters in the Christmas nativity story. I’ve never been at a church that has midweek Advent services, so I’m looking forward to them. I hope all of you will be able to come!
But the season of Advent is more than just looking forward to the celebration of Christmas.
One way of thinking about the season of Advent is that it is a time to remember what God has done in the past, to hear and trust what God promises to do in the future, and to look for what God is doing right now. Our readings today fit this pattern.
We start with remembering what God has done in the past. Our first reading from Isaiah 64 comes in the middle of a section that began in the previous chapter in Isaiah 63:7 with Isaiah saying “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” Isaiah goes back and reminds the people about what God has done in the past, especially bringing them out of their slavery in Egypt.
In the New Testament reading from 1 Corinthians, Paul begins with a reminder of what God has done. He writes, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him.” That’s a reminder for us too. The entire reason we’re gathered here today worshiping God is because of what God has done for us.
We remember the past in other ways in worship today too. The prayers, the songs, and especially some of the liturgy around communion remind us of the story of how God has acted, of what God has done for us.
God has been our help in the past. We share the story of what Jesus did in the night in which he was betrayed, and we echo words that Christians have used for 2,000 years.
As we remember what God has done in the past, we hear the promise that God will act in the future.
In the Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus focuses on the future. Like we’ve heard for the last few weeks, Jesus talks about this apocalyptic imagery of the Son of Man coming in the clouds, about stars falling from heaven, and the sun being darkened.
Scary stuff. It’s the end of the world as we know it.
But there’s hope there too. In the midst of this apocalypse, Jesus says to learn a lesson from the fig tree. I’m not familiar with fig trees in particular, but it’s true for Iowa plants too. When the branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know summer is near. That’s a hopeful image.
And there’s this incredible promise in verse 31 that even though heaven and earth will pass away, Jesus’ words will not pass away. Even though everything we know may fall apart, God is faithful.
As Paul puts it, the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you. He will also strengthen you to the end. God is faithful.
We live right now in the in-between time. We know how the story ends. Christ has been raised from the dead. God wins. But, right now, we await Christ’s return. We’re not there yet. Advent in particular focuses on this living in the tension, knowing that God has come to us, and yet still living in a messy, broken world.
So what is God doing today, right now, in this in-between time? We confess together our faith that Christ will come again, and we encourage each other with the stories of what God has done in the past, but where is God today, here, now?
How do we keep awake, looking for God in a world that often seems to keep self-destructing? For me, this can be the hardest part of faith, looking for a God who doesn’t just come solve everything the way I want.
This is the same problem Isaiah talks about as Israel is in exile. Isaiah goes ahead and blames God.
Verse 7: “You have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” Keep awake and wait for a God who seems hidden.
But then verse 8 is the turning point for this whole Isaiah reading. Isaiah doesn’t stop with the lament. He continues in verse 8: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
Isaiah still declares his faith in God as Father, even in exile. Like Isaiah, we claim God as Father as we look for Christ’s return.
This complaining to God is in itself a way of expressing faith in God. Even in the complaining, we hear the declaration of faith in today’s Psalm as well.
Psalm 80 is a complaint that God has apparently allowed evil to take over, but there’s this assurance that God can and will come and save them. When we read this Psalm together, we declare we believe God is still at work, no matter what the circumstances. We keep awake, and look for God to act.
We look for the examples of how God is acting. In Ferguson, maybe that’s through the many thousands of people who reject the violence of a few, in the pictures of protestors guarding business from being destroyed.
Maybe it’s through stories like the article I read about the Thanksgiving holiday at Zion Lutheran Church in Ferguson, just 2 miles from the Ferguson Market and Liquor store, where black and white Christians worked together to serve a community Thanksgiving meal.
Maybe here at St. Peter, we can see God acting through children and adults working together last Sunday to tie quilts and put tags on slippers to give to children living in shelters, looking for hope.
Maybe it’s in the article I saw yesterday about a church here in Dubuque that’s bringing in 42,000 pounds of potatoes to distribute to people who need a little help.
How have you seen God acting, even just this week? What God sightings have you had?
My challenge to you during this Advent is to keep awake, to look for where you can participate in being the body of Christ.
To keep awake means to continue living out the Kingdom of God.
It means doing what we can to make the world better, in faith that God is with us, that God has already won the battle.
It means looking forward to when Jesus will return and end all suffering, and working to make that a reality.
To keep awake means to look not just for Jesus coming in the clouds in glory, but to look for Jesus in the unexpected places, in the least of these, in police and protestors.
It means to resist the temptation to jump to judging others, but to instead work to see all people as individuals for whom Christ died.
Keep awake when everything seems hopeless.
Keep awake when you can’t see God working for good.
Keep awake when faith means questioning where God is.
Keep awake, in faith that God has acted, that God will act, and that God is acting, even right now.
Let us pray.
Give us the faith to keep awake, and the eyes to look for how you are at work in our world. Reveal yourself to us in exactly those places where we don’t expect to see you.
Father God, you are the potter, and we are the clay. Strengthen us to the end, and let your face shine upon us and upon our whole world, that we all may see what you have done for us through the death and resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord.