Monday, November 28, 2011

The First Sunday of Advent, Year B - November 27, 2011 (Isaiah 64:1-9, Matthew 13:24-37)

Let me tell you a story of failed expectations. It is a story of failed expectations on a grand scale, of monumental proportions—not small-claims disappointments like the Christmas wish list item that didn’t get fulfilled or the Thanksgiving turkey that got burned in the oven. These are failed expectations that affect every outlook on life and infect every possible view of the future.

The year is sometime in the 5th century, B.C., and it is the story of the people Israel’s return from two generations in exile to their Promised Land and their beloved holy city, Jerusalem. For approximately fifty years the people of Israel had been forced to live far outside of Jerusalem with its awesome and ornate Temple in the heathen city of Babylon. As they struggled, day by day and week by long week, to live there as a displaced people, with only their stories and what they could remember of their traditions to keep their faith and community alive, they longed for the day they might return. They hoped and prayed for the day when God would actually do something profound and unbelievable that would enable them to move back there, resettle their old olive groves and re-farm their old sheep pastures and, most of all, rebuild their old Temple in Jerusalem.

And just when it looked as if they would always be a people separated from that homeland, just when it looked like they might get assimilated into the great melting pot that was Babylon and forever disappear as a distinct people from the face of the earth, that profound and unbelievable thing happened! Cyrus, the King of Persia, and then his successor, Darius, conquered the Babylonian Empire and—unpredictably—practically pave the way for Israel’s people to return home. It was a miracle!

Yet, when the people of Israel finally get there—after crossing the wide wilderness—and start to re-settle those olive groves and, most importantly, re-build that Temple, disappointment settles in big-time. All kinds of factions form within their own people and begin to pull them apart. Families and houses quarrel with one another. Competing visions of the future of their people rise up amongst them, and no one can seem to agree on which direction their reborn nation should take. Selfishness and greed take over and, before they realize it, their hopes for a grand restoration are dashed to the ground. They are face-to-face with their utter inability to control their destiny, their incapacity to put back together what was broken, their powerlessness to form something beautiful—anything!—out of the wreck around them. These are failed expectations on a grand scale. Such high hopes had become such shocking loss and disorientation.

Israel's return from exile
And that utter frustration is precisely what gives voice to our Scripture from Isaiah this morning: Standing before their priest at the Temple they cry out to God above,“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, that the mountains would quake at your presence!” In the case of ancient Israel, mountains were a metaphor for everything that was beyond their control, everything ominous and oppressive and overbearing. Israel looks around and sees nothing but its own failures. They look at their neighbor and see little but his own ineffectiveness and stubbornness. What’s more, they look inside and see little but their own sinfulness: “We have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” The translation of the Hebrew there is perhaps a little too lenient. A better translation is “soiled underpants.”  “Our good deeds” the people of God realize, “are like poopy diapers.”

In other words, the mountains are everywhere—both within and without—and they have led to failed expectations. At this point, only looking above, to God Almighty, will bring any hope. The mountains will only quake now if God decides to do something. Their expectations of grand restoration—living as the people they had been created and redeemed to be—will only be fulfilled if God decides to take action, if God tears open the heavens and comes down to get directly involved.

We don’t have to look too hard to know that we still live in a world with plenty of failed expectations. We don’t need ancient Israel and its poopy diapers from 2500 years ago to remind us of the disappointment in our human condition. Whether it’s the European debt crisis and the potential break-up of the Euro currency, or the tents of the Occupy Wall Street movement, or the ongoing protests in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, or the hyper-partisanship of U.S. politics at the moment, one gets the sense that there is a palpable, if not increasing, level of frustration and disorientation with the way things are.

And, despite the voices of optimism about the humancondition that ring out every once in a while (especially at this time of year), we then realize the other facts of the state of our race: there are, for example, still something around 3 million children who die every year from issues related to hunger or food stress that we could prevent. There are still going to be 70,000 new AIDS orphans this year, added to the roughly 20 million that already eke out their sad living. While millions of people worldwide find themselves throwing elbows in order to have access to clean water, holidayshoppers here will throw elbows to get discounted electronic goods. Thumb through the newspapers, catch some of the news, listen to the cry of the victim and it’s there: heaps of failed expectations. Mountains of worry and disaster and sorrow.

Advent is, perhaps more than anything else, a time for blunt honesty. We often think of it primarily as a time to get ready for Christmas, when we’re asked in ways subtle and strong to reflect on the inherent goodness of humankind and the determination of the human spirit. But, really, like ancient Israel, we need to be brought face-to-face with our failed expectations, our utter inability to control our destiny, our incapacity to put back together what has been broken. We need to look both around and within and come to terms with the mountains that loom large on every horizon. It helps to join our voices with those that cried out so long ago: “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

Because when we do, we realize that if there is a way out of this mess it will not come from inside of us. We cannot even put our hope, as many often do, in the generation that comes after us. Despite the vigor and idealism we see in their eyes, their diapers will be just as poopy as ours are (trust me, I live with two of them in my house). In fact, the prayer of the day for this first Sunday of a new church year does manage to phrase it with appropriate Advent bluntness: “awaken us to the threatening dangers of our sins.” It is a plea that our eyes actually be opened to what we read in the newspapers, and what we hear on the nightly news, and what we understand from the cry of the victim, and to pay attention to what those things say about us—that we are creatures of failed expectations. It is a petition through which we acknowledge that things cannot continue on like this forever. This is not the way God wants the world—it is not how we want the world, either—and that we await a change.

Thankfully, however, we await the act of a God who is all too acquainted with failed expectations. We must not forget that our salvation from amongst all of these mountains comes from a God who has chosen to work already once before with the stuff of utter disappointment. As ancient Israel also had to admit: God is a potter, and therefore he works with mud.

For a brief moment yesterday I watched the Epiphany quilters piece together another quilt in the fellowship hall. They worked in silence—no Christmas music playing in the background for them—steadily piecing together the portions of cloth to form a piece both of beauty and function. On a day when they could have been getting good deals in the stores, they were working with scraps of cloth so that people on the other side of the world might have warmth or shelter. And the thought occurred to me: if God is a potter who forms things out of muddy people like you and me, then God is also a quilter who works with scraps and leftovers, the remnants who feel, quite honestly, destined for the garbage bin.

The beauty God comes to fashion is made, then, from the most tattered parts of the human experience. For the last time God opened the heavens and came down he was born into a cattle feedbox. In his ministry, he surrounded himself with relative disappointments, people who never could quite get it together, who deserted him in his hour of greatest need. The culmination of his ministry was not on a throne or in a palace or even valedictorian of his rabbinical class, but rather on a cross, arms spread open in agony and with parched lips breathing words of loneliness and rejection. And he entrusts this legacy to the hodge-podge likes of you and me. His Spirit enriches even us with gifts of every kind.  He nourishes us with a meal that, on the surface, does not look all that extravagant, but which changes us out of our poopy diapers each and every time. This is how God has opened the heavens once already and come to us. And we have his word that he will come again.

Michaelangelo, "The Last Judgment"
And so, just as our Advent began with blunt honesty about our human condition, it also begins with a promise of wonderful hope about God’s desire to do something about it. It begins not only with a story of our failed expectations, but of a story with great promise: Jesus says, “heaven and earth may fall apart altogether—but my words will never pass away.” As they stood there before the disappointing rubble of Jerusalem, its faded glory a mere reflection of what it once was, the ancient Israelites essentially wanted God to resort to his old ways of working. Some of them were so dumbstruck by their disappointment that they were unable to see the new way that God was calling them to be his people in the world, a people whose faith would not be centered completely in that Temple and its religion, but in the hearts and lives of God’s people everywhere.  As we wait for God to come down once more, as we wait for the return of our Lord, we should remember ancient Israel’s lesson: we are still God’s people, called to be that tapestry of warmth and shelter—salvation and resurrection—he is stitching in the world.  We have the Spirit's gifts.  We have been washed and fed.  We know the mountains loom, but God calls us to work through these failed expectations to trust more on him and that, because one day—rest assured—he will put that final stitch in this amazing quilt.

In the parable Jesus tells to his disciples and everyone else about his own promise to come again, the chief error of those slaves who are caught off-guard is not their lack of knowledge about the end times or when it will occur…or their incorrect doctrines about God…or even in their evildoing. Jesus warns them chiefly against falling asleep, against not using the gifts that have been given to them in the tasks that he had commanded.

At a time of the year when it is so easy to fall back into routine, when the Christmas Muzak heard in the background of every department store serves to lull us into the sentimentality of this holiday season and deafen us to our filthiness, let us not fall asleep on our job of being God’s people in the world, of God’s people amidst even these failed expectations. And let us neither stand dumbstruck at what we’ve become. Let us, instead, sobered by the threatening dangers of our sins, place our hope on him whose words will never pass away, on God the potter who works with mud—or a quilter who works with scraps—on the promise of a day and age coming soon when the scraps of all our lives will finally be knit together into a holy fabric that spans eternity…all according to God’s wonderful expectation.

Now that is a view of the future for which we can be hopeful.  Get to working!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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