Something is Coming: Sermon for December 3, 2017

The past few days have been full of seasonal celebrations in Exeter. We had our Christmas open house on Thursday night, which is always one of my favorite nights of the year. The live Nativity is going on out front, the carols are ringing inside, the crowds are streaming through the doors to look at the gingerbread houses, and everything in the church is in a sort of joyful chaos.

Last night we also had the town holiday parade. We walked down to the corner by the bank at around 5, and we staked out a spot. The parade doesn’t even step off from way up on Portsmouth Avenue until 5:30, so we were very early, but the crowd was already swarming. So we stood there, bundled up in our jackets, looking down Water Street, and watching and waiting.

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The parade route, lit up for the season. 

Every year we do this, and every year around 5:45 or so, we start to hear that the parade is almost here. They’ve almost made it to the other end of Water Street. And then, maybe ten minutes later, way down at the turn, we start to see the signs. The blue lights from the police car start to reflect on the buildings. Maybe we can start to hear the band play just a little. And finally, they turn onto Water Street, and it’s there. The waiting is over…the joyful parade is marching into town.

I love Christmases here in Exeter. I love how we celebrate. I went home feeling the joy of Christmas last night. But this morning, here we are in church. And this morning, we are contrasting all that Christmas joy and anticipation with today’s Scripture reading. And let’s be real…today’s Scripture reading is a doozy. Let me read you one of the lines again:
“the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken”
So, if you are looking for a good line for your Christmas cards this year, there you go.

The things is, every year on this Sunday, we read a Scripture lesson with a message like this. Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the first day of a brand new church liturgical year. Every year on this day we start the cycle of stories once again, with these four Advent Sundays where we watch and wait for the birth of Jesus Christ.

This name of this season, Advent, literally means “coming” in Latin. Something is coming, just as surely as that parade was coming last night, something that we cannot yet see, but that will not be stopped. Something that is about to command our full attention.

If Scripture is to be believed, it sounds a bit scary. Everything is about to be shaken up. The sun will stop shining, the moon will go dark, and stars will fall. Even the heaven will tremble. This isn’t the kind of seasonal merry-making we are used to this time of year.

And yet, something is indeed coming. Something that is going to change everything.

You and I know how this story plays out. The “something” that is coming is nothing less that Jesus Christ. Advent is the story of waiting and watching for Christ’s birth. During these four weeks we retell the story of what happened just before then. We talk about John the Baptist, and of his mother Mary, and of a trip to Bethlehem, And on Christmas Eve we gather here, and we talk about his birth, and about how it changed the world.

It’s worth repeating the story each year just for the fact of remembering. But it’s important to remember that this isn’t just about recreating a historical event. It’s not that Jesus was coming and now he’s here. It’s that Christ did come into this world, and that Christ continues to come into this world, time and again, through our own hearts and our own hands. Advent has sometimes been a season of the “already, and not yet”. Christ is already here…and yet in so many ways, Christ is not yet here…not fully anyway.

If you don’t believe that, look at our world. We are living in a time when so much is at stake. This week North Korea launched a missile further than ever before, and the saber rattling between our two countries grew louder. Meanwhile, major decisions are being made in Congress that will impact generations. And across the country, years of silence are giving way to a chorus of “me toos” as people tell their own stories of sexual harassment and assault.

We are standing on the edge of a new day, one that could either be very good, or very bad. We can enter a more enlightened time, when justice and peace and respect for others prevails. Or, we can enter an age where war, and poverty, and inequality regain their footing.

In other words, we are living in a time that was a lot like the one in which Jesus was born. And just like the people back then, we are looking for hope. We are watching, and waiting, and straining to see signs of what is to come.

Jesus tells his disciples “keep awake”. He tells them they do not know the hour in which something new is coming, something that will topple the order we know and usher in a new era, and so they must stand watch. They must be ready.

All these centuries later, we retell the story of Jesus’ birth using his own words: keep awake. Watch and wait. Something is coming. The theme of the first Sunday of Advent is traditionally “hope”. It’s about the hope that we have that something is indeed coming, and that this something is good.

The Christian church has traditionally believed that Jesus was more than just a really good guy. We believe that Jesus was God in human form. We sometimes call Jesus “Emmanuel” which literally means “God with us”. And so when we sing on this first Sunday of Advent “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” we literally are saying “o come, o come, God…and be with us”.

O come, o come, Emmanuel…come into this world that teeters on the brink, and push us into something better. O come, o come, Emmanuel, and bring us hope.

I believe that hope is coming, just as surely as I believed the parade was coming last night. I believe in that hope not because I have seen the fire trucks and floats of hope come down Water Street yet, and not because I’ve heard the band at full volume. I believe because, when I use all my senses, I can observe the signs that it is drawing near.

They were there on Thursday night, when the cookies that were made and donated by so many of you brought in hundreds of dollars for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. And they were there yesterday afternoon, when Pastoral Counseling Services began setting up their new offices upstairs in the parsonage, using our space to provide some healing to those in our town who need it. And they were even there yesterday, at Wes Burwell’s funeral, when we gave thanks for the life of a man who was good, and kind, and brave enough to do the right things.

Sam Cooke wrote a song during the Civil Rights era when the signs of hope were beginning to be visible. Unfortunately, that also meant that the backlash against that hope was starting to come too. One night in late 1963, Cooke showed up at a hotel in Louisiana where he had made reservations. When he got to the front desk, the man there saw him and said that suddenly there were no vacancies. He was turned away.

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Sam Cooke, photo from Billboard Magazine

He knew why, and he was angry. And so he went away, and he began to write a song about how he felt, but also about how he hoped. It was called A Change is Gonna Come. He ends the song with these lyrics:

There been times when I thought I couldn’t last for long/
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long time coming
/But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.

A change is gonna come. Just as surely as that parade was coming last night. But unlike most parades, you don’t just wait passively for this one, watching it pass you by. This is the kind that you dare to join. It’s the kind that you get in front of, before it even makes it to you. It’s the kind that is driven by hope, and that grows stronger with every soul that enters it.

A change is gonna come, and that change is named “Emmanuel”. As the parade rounds the corner, now is your chance. Will you stand to the side? Or will your hope make you jump in?

God is Still Breaking and Entering: Sermon for November 30, 2014 (First Sunday in Advent)

Mark 13:24-37
13:24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,

13:25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

13:26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.

13:27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

13:28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.

13:29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.

13:30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.

13:31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

13:32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

13:33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.

13:34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.

13:35 Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,

13:36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.

13:37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

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Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the start of the church season when we begin to prepare for Christmas, and the coming of Christ. And like I was telling the kids when they came up here this morning, our sanctuary shows that we are getting ready for something new. Our paraments have switched over from greens to blues and purples. The Advent wreath has been lit for the first time. And the manger is here, waiting for Jesus’ birth.

And this first Sunday in Advent, like all the other Sundays in Advent, has a traditional meaning and theme. The first Sunday is focused on hope, and the next three on peace, joy, and love. And so over the course of this month, we are going to be thinking about those things and praying about them in the hopes that as we wait for Christ, hope, peace, joy, and love will surround us, and transform our world.

And so, knowing that we are thinking about hope today, you might wonder why most churches are reading the particular passage from Scripture that was just read. Because, it doesn’t sound so hopeful. Listen to part of it again: Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.

It almost sounds like a threat: Jesus is coming, and you better not be slacking off because Jesus is like the boss who comes in and finds you sleeping on the job. Not exactly hopeful, right? There’s an old joke: “Jesus is coming! Look busy!” When I read this text I think, “Maybe that’s not a joke?”

But then I think again. Because I don’t think that Jesus is the horrible boss hiding around the corner waiting to sneak up on us and catch us in the act. I don’t think Advent is about that at all. But, I do think that Advent is about waking up, and being prepared. But not because we are afraid. But because something big is about to happen, and God is behind it.

And that’s because Christmas is a bit of a both/and holiday. It is both about something that happened 2,000 years ago, but it is also about something that is happening now. Because 2000 years ago Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and that alone is worth celebrating and remembering. But Christmas is more than just a historical event. Christmas is something that keeps happening in our lives. And each year this celebration can help us to remember that.

Because Christmas is all about God becoming one of us. Not like one of us, or pretending to be one of us, but God choosing to be one of us. It’s God loving us so much that God came into the world not in power, or wealth, or prominence, but as a little child who had none of those things, and yet who changed everything. And it’s about the fact that God has never stopped being a part of our world.

Christmas is about God breaking into this world, and God breaking into our hearts. And, in a strange way, Advent is the season where you and I help God get ready to do pull off the ultimate break-in.

We do this by preparing ourselves to be the first to be broken into. And so, we unlock the doors of our hearts and minds, the ones we keep sealed up so much of the year out of fear, or anxiety, or pain, or hatred. We shut off the alarm systems that keep us on edge, and keep us from opening ourselves wide. And in this season, somehow, we find a way to be just a little more loving, just a little more joyous, and just a little more hopeful.

And the hope comes where we least expect it. Because contrary to what the ads on television might tell you, hope does not come in a Black Friday or Cyber Monday sale, no matter how much you will save. Hope is not dependent on whether you get everything on your Christmas list this year, or even whether your kids do. It doesn’t even come from having the perfect Christmas cookies, or lights, or tree.

Instead, the hope comes when God breaks into our hearts, the same hearts which are so often broken by this world. Because you can be the most positive and optimistic person in the world, and yet you have to admit that there is a lot in this world that can break your heart.

And yet, the true meaning of Christmas is God saying it doesn’t have to be that way. And the true meaning of Advent is us saying, “We agree, and so we are going to get ready for another way.”

So this year, how are you going to help God’s love to break into this broken world? How are you going to prepare for something better, not just for a few weeks every December, but for always?

Our tradition in the UCC is fond of the phrase “God is still speaking…”, used to describe our belief that God is still revealing God’s self to us. But maybe a better phrase might be the odd sounding “God is still breaking and entering…” God is still breaking into our world, and entering our hearts. And thanks be to God, literally, for that.

And so, where do we hope God’s love breaks into and enters this December? Afghanistan? Syria? Washington, DC? Ferguson, Missouri? I hope for all of those places. But before I can hope for any of those places, I have to first hope that God’s love breaks into my own heart, and changes me.

I have to be ready to let God’s love do that. I have to be willing to be transformed. And I have to accept that fact that once God is in, everything is going to be different. I can’t hope and also cling to the way I want things to be all at the same time. Because if I want to choose God’s hope, I also have to choose to let go of what is comfortable, and certain, and easy.

That’s true of all of us. That’s even true of God, who chose to become one of us, that came in a newborn’s weakness, in order that we might learn what it is to really hope.

And so, on this first Sunday of Advent, we can choose to live into that hope. And we can choose to help to welcome Christ into this world by preparing a place for him that we have lined with our prayers.

During the children’s sermon I was telling them that each week we are going to be doing just that, in a symbolic way. This manger has been brought to the chancel, and you have in your pews strips of yellow paper. You might not know it yet, but that’s straw. That is the straw that we are going to use to line this manger, and to get it ready for Jesus’ birth.

So, here’s the interactive part of the sermon.

Each week you will have the chance to write a prayer on that straw. This week we are asking for your prayers of hope. Next week of peace. The following of joy. And the final week, of love. And after today our kids are going to collect them as they come forward for the children’s sermon, and they are going to place them in the manger. And by the time we get to Christmas Eve, this manger will be full. And when it is we will be saying this to God with our prayers: “We are in…we are ready…break into our world, God, and break it open with your love.”

And so, take a moment now. Take one of those strips of paper, and write your prayer for hope. It can be simple, just a few words. And in just a few minutes, as we sing our next hymn, the youngest members of our community are going to collect those prayers from you, and they are going to bring those hopes up to the front here, and lay them in the manger.

And as they do, we will be singing a hymn that you have probably sung many times before, the classic hymn of Advent. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, which means, literally, “O come, O come, God-with-us”. It’s a prayer in itself. An invitation to God to break into our hearts, and to change everything this Advent.

And so my first prayer of hope this Advent is for all of us, and that is that we will sing that hymn and mean it. It’s that we will be ready to ask God to come and change everything. And it is that we will hope.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel…we are ready for you. Amen.

There Will Be Signs – Sermon for December 2, 2012

531347_584509721564509_303926534_nLuke 21:25-36
21:25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.

21:26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

21:27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.

21:28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

21:29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees;

21:30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.

21:31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

21:32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.

21:33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

21:34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly,

21:35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.

21:36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”I’ve talked before about growing up in the South, and having friends who went to very fundamentalist churches. My friends often went to churches that preached that we were in the “end of days” and that the time was coming when the world would face an apocalypse and violent end times. And sometimes on the side of the road there were signs that said things like “repent, the kingdom of God is coming” or “Jesus will return soon to judge us all.” All around us was the idea that something really bad was about to happen, and Jesus was the reason.

So, as a child I always found that Christianity to be a little scary. It’s those childhood fears that get stirred up when I read passages like the one we have today. It’s never comfortable to read about destruction, and this passage is no exception. Here we have Jesus foreshadowing for his followers the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and, even more disturbingly, the end of the world.

This happens every year. Every first Sunday in Advent those of us who are in churches that subscribe to the lectionary, the calendar of Scripture passages that is used by Roman Catholics and most Protestants, are assigned a passage from one of the Gospels which features Jesus describing the end of days.

Now, that’s a lot different from what we’re getting elsewhere in the world, isn’t it? Here we are, a little over a week after Thanksgiving, and already in December, and for many of us the preparations for Christmas are well underway. Maybe we already have our tree, or are well into our Christmas shopping. Maybe we’ve put up lights or gone to Christmas concerts. In short, maybe we’ve spent this Advent doing all the things that make the Christmas season so different from the rest of the year.

I’m not a Grinch. This season is actually my favorite time of year. But I am aware that Advent didn’t always used to be an elaborate run-up to the day itself. Advent used to be second only to Lent as a time of preparation and prayer in the church. Traditionally churches didn’t celebrate weddings during Advent or have any other major celebrations. Advent was about preparing for the celebration that was to come. And, more importantly, Advent was about learning how to wait, and how to watch.

It’s been said that Advent is really about two different Advents. We are waiting and watching for two different comings. The first is the one that happened over two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. It’s the story of the birth of Christ in a humble manger. It’s the Son of God come in the most unexpected way to perform the most extraordinary of missions. It’s a story that in and of itself is worth commemorating year after year.

But there is a second coming that we’re waiting for too. And that’s what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel passage. Jesus is talking about the time when he will come, not for the first time, but for the final time. And he is talking about how everything is going to change. Hear the words of Christ again:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”

We will know, says Jesus. There will be signs. They will be all around us. And when we see them we will know that Christ has come again. Jesus goes on: “stand up, raise your heads” for when you do you will see what is taking place. Jesus says that the signs we see will be slight at first. They will be like the new leaves on a fig tree that foreshadow the coming of summer. They will be subtle, but they will be there.

So what are the signs around you? And what are they pointing towards?

Some see what is happening around us as a sign. War, hunger, financial disaster, and all the rest. There are some churches that are using what is happening in the world as a way to pray upon the fears and anxieties of those who are at a loss as far as what to do next. They say that we are in the last days, and that the violence and conflict and crises in the world are all the indications that we need. But put your faith in Christ, as they understand him, and on the last day, in the final judgment, you will be saved.

It’s very much like the message I heard down south growing up. The world is going to hell, and the best you can hope to do is save yourself. So believe as we believe, and you will be saved.

I don’t think that this is what Jesus meant, exactly. Now, make no mistake, Jesus is talking about things changing completely. Jesus says directly that “heaven and earth will pass away.” But, despite the anxiety that comes from this text, this is not a text that is finally about destruction. There is something here that is much deeper than that.

Here we start the church year in darkness. Here we start the watch in gloom. Here we begin our preparations for a joyous season in a time of anticipation and worry. But we don’t remain there. And we don’t remain alone.

This morning we lit the first candle on the Advent wreath. This first Sunday in Advent, like each of the other Sundays in Advent, is given a larger theme. Next week, the second week, is all about peace. The third week is about joy. And the final Sunday before Christmas, fittingly, is about love.

But today, this first Sunday, the traditional theme is hope.

It’s an odd theme for a Sunday that focuses on these texts about the end of the world, isn’t it? We’re told to be on watch at all times for signs that Jesus is coming for the last time, and that when it comes we will faint and shake. Hope? It sounds more like terror.

But maybe it doesn’t have to.

Unlike all those churches that preached about the scariness of the end of days when I was growing up, the ones who tried to scare you into faith, Jesus does something different here. And he’s not talking about those “Left Behind” books or “end of days”. Yes, he says, things will change. And, yes, it will be different and it will shake us up. But, ultimately, this isn’t a text about judgment and destruction.

Listen to how Jesus tells us to look for the signs of his second coming. He doesn’t tell us to look for destruction and violence. He doesn’t tell us to look for pain and death. He tells us to look for signs of life. He tells us to look for the budding of fig trees. He tells us to look for the churning of the oceans. He tells us to look for him and his kingdom.

The reality, and this is a reality that I believe is born out by the story of the Resurrection, is that it is our darkest times that come right before the brightest days. I hear stories in my work a lot. Stories of people who have hit an absolute bottom in their lives. Maybe it was that they finally hit their bottoms with drugs or alcohol. Maybe they realized once and for all that they were in an abusive relationship. Maybe they found out that they had a medical diagnosis that they never expected. Their world had never seemed darker. It was the end of the world for them, or so they thought.

But then, something happened. They got sober. They walked away from the person who was hurting them. They found out they could not only live with their illness, but they could thrive with it. And, in much the same way, that’s how Jesus’ vision of his second coming is different too. We hear about the second coming of Jesus, and we might think of those fundamentalist churches that say it’s the end of the world. But maybe it’s not just the end of the world, but just the end of the world as we know it.

I thought about that yesterday at Liz’s memorial service here. None of us knows exactly what happens when we die. We know that the world as we know it ends, but we don’t know what happens next. And Liz was no exception. And yet, even in her final days, Liz did have hope. She didn’t know what came next, but she knew that she would be in God’s care, and she trusted in God’s love. At the end, that hope gave her peace.

And that’s the great promise of the Gospel, and the great promise of Advent. Everything is going to change. Even life itself. But the wars, the pain, the death, the suffering…they are not signs of the reign of Christ. They are signs that the reign of Christ is yet to come.

The real signs are all around us. Some are as subtle as a new leaf on a fig tree. Others are as unexpected as a baby being born in a lowly manger. Or a person we love who feels peace in her final days. They are there, but they are not obvious unless we stop and we look. And that is what Advent is all about.

“Be alert at all times” Jesus tells us. Be alert for the end of the world as you know it, because you’ve never seen anything like what is to come. Be alert in all the glow of lights and the sound of carols for what they represent. Be alert for hope, and in hope. And when you are, and when those small signs are seen, that’s when you know that Christ is about to change the world. May God bless us in this Advent as we look with hope for Christ’s arrival. Amen.