Isaiah 64: 1-9 and Mark 13: 24-37
We live in a world where it’s often easier not to believe, than to believe in God. In our secular time and place, there’s a pervasive, even in many ways now socially-supported sense that we are all alone, here to fend for ourselves, left to our own devices.
And there seems always to be an abundance of bad news!
I know, most North Americans still say they are believers, at rates that make us look like an incredibly religious country, especially in comparison to our Western European counterparts.
But in surveys and polls, we also report we go to church at a rate that, frankly, would make our churches fuller every Sunday than they are at Christmas and Easter…
I spent a lot of time last week, while I was away, with Conference Ministers in the UCC– of Indiana/Kentucky, South Dakota, New York, and Kansas-Oklahoma. And among the many things they had to say, I kept hearing about congregations struggling, declining, closing… so many, it seems, that it’s threatening the current way we have organized the United Church of Christ into 39 conferences.
Certainly, God can break in and do something totally new, different from how God’s worked before, and even more likely outside of how the church has been doing things, or even completely outside of the church. Maybe that’s what’s going on…
But, as I listened, it made me realize: though we certainly haven’t figured it all out here at Old First– in fact, we’ve got some significant challenges: communication (intra and extra mural), competing mission agenda, money to name just a few… But we also have a lot to be thankful for. New people. New programs. New traditions. (With all the confusion that trinity of newness can bring!) We need to appreciate our relative accomplishments, particularly in comparison with what’s happening to the rest of the church. Is all this a sign that God is breaking in here?
But, beloved, there are a lot more neighbors out there still, people who say they believe, but aren’t participating in a church community. We’ve got even more to do. More to get our arms and minds around. More to improve and more to serve.
Maybe the question isn’t simply belief, but a disconnect between faith and practice …or how or whether we translate our beliefs into commitments and into actions. Perhaps more people than we can see do believe, but their faith… it gets lost somewhere in translation…
The issue… could it be not just having faith, or believing in some interior, personal way, but actually getting around to realizing one’s faith publicly, living it out. Whether or not we let our faith show? Does it change the way we live? Does it determine how we behave? Influence what we decide to do or to refrain from doing?
And is the church is acting to help or to hinder that translation?
Into our increasingly secular world, each year about now, there comes this strange message… a promise floating over the mountains and valleys and the ages. Or a warning as dire today as when it was first received…
What’s this message offer or threaten?
…That quite independent of us and our lives, free of all our expectations or any room we have or might make for such a possibility… God is coming near. That God is continually breaking in to our hearts, our relationships, our churches, our communities, our world.
I guess, the next question is how you feel about it. Think for a moment: if God’s not absent or distant or even looking the other way… Instead, if God’s on a crash course… some Divine way that leads right to our doorsteps, directly to you and me. No matter where we are. Or who or how or why we are. God’s drawing near, coming close, right to us.
How’s that make you feel?
Some will respond with a flood of relief: “it’s about time; help at last; I could really use it.”
Others might not be so willing to get their hopes up: “Yes, I’ve heard this before, at least from time to time, and more often from certain people. Maybe I’ve missed something… Maybe it’s my fault… But I always seem left waiting…”
A few might experience a sense of caution or even foreboding: “what’s this going to be like; how’s this going to change things?”
One person told me that such prophecies cause him outright dread: “Now I’m in trouble: I’m gonna get called up short on all the wrong I’ve done, and on so much good I’ve left undone.”
Maybe, no matter how we find ourselves responding, it makes sense to follow what the Gospel reading suggests– first step: start looking for where God is breaking in.
My colleague, Patricia de Jong, pastor at First Cong’l. in Berkeley, says “at Advent, God’s people summon the courage and the spiritual strength to remember that the holy breaks into the daily.”
Last year about this time, one of our church families showed me their wonderful children’s advent calendar. Each day of Advent, the 28 days before Christmas, there was a little door to open.
Inside, the kids would discover one of the characters from the Christmas drama, with a bit of inspiration about the role she or he played or how they were important in God’s great arrival.
By the end of the season, those kids had a full nativity tableau. And a more detailed understanding of the Christmas story… much more than our world offers as it barely gets past snowmen and evergreens, or Santa and gifts.
I want to offer a adult option for a Advent Calendar this year. Simple. DIY. But with a bit of attention, you might find yourself prepared to experience the birth of the Christ child and to welcome God in a way that other years you have missed.
Each day, for the next 28 consecutive days… try and identify one way you perceive God coming into the world.
Where’s God showing up?
How’s God noticeable and making a difference?
Set aside a time to reflect upon, to pay attention to the last 24 hours. If you struggle, here’s a tip: play the closest attention to where you find your life most unmanageable (because that’s how God is).
And when you come up with a sighting, just jot it down — wherever you think God is breaking in. You can write it all out, or just scribble a phrase to remind yourself on your calendar, or in an e-mail to your inbox. You might be very surprised by how different your world looks by Christmas. How the extraordinary is forever interrupting the ordinary.
If you notice some in-breaking that’s really wonderful… you might share it with the rest of us: telling us during Community Life announcements before worship; or posting it on the church’s FB page, or sharing it with me so I can pass it on…
Maybe we can come up with our community’s own Advent Calendar by next year — the witness of our lives, all the places we see God coming into the world.
Beloved, God’s not going to put up with all the bad news we too often and easily grow too weary to fight anymore. Instead, God’s on the way to remake, remold, transform us in ways that we could never manage ourselves.
God”s coming is about reshaping or reforming you. “Repentance” — the spiritual mood of this Advent season — is getting realigned to reality by a force outside of ourselves (rather than going along merrily according to our own deadly self-delusions).
Come quickly, Lord Jesus! Amen.