This sermon, offered on November 29, 2015 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, is built on the readings assigned for the first Sunday in Advent Year C. You can find those readings here.
What will it be like? What will it be like when God intervenes in the world? How will it come to pass that we all finally understand without a doubt that God loves us unconditionally? How will we discover that we really are bound to one another, brothers and sisters responsible for loving and caring for our neighbor?
What will cause the powers of this world, the people, the governments, the systems, that oppress God’s children, stealing their liberty and exploiting them for their own selfish needs to re examine themselves and to become life giving instead of life taking?
No one going hungry, no one suffering under the threat of war, no one struggling against injustice, prejudice or hatred…
We sit here to day in the season of Lent embracing our longing, our hope for that moment when all things will be made new, when we will all be restored to one another and God in Christ Jesus.
We’ve emptied the crèche, taking out the animals, shepherds, Maggi, even the Baby Jesus in an attempt to find ourselves in that same place of deep longing and desire that the people of Israel experienced under the oppression of Roman rule. We look around the world today and we long for God to do something, anything, to rescue us, to change the way the world moves, to bring God’s dream for creation to fruition. We sit in the dark in Advent waiting and we cry, “How long O Lord? How long?”
But just what is it that we are hoping for? What will it be like? What will life in the kingdom be like and what will finally bring it to fruition?
Hard to imagine isn’t it? We are so inured to the way that things are that we sometimes even fail to see the problems, the faults that lie at the root of the mess in the world around us. We are so used to life in the status quo that it is hard to imagine life in the kingdom. It is unimaginable.
And then, as if the kingdom itself weren’t hard enough to imagine, it’s even harder to imagine the kingdom actually coming! We look around us, we watch the news and we see how hard those with power work to keep their influence and control. We see people fighting and killing one another in the effort to further their own agenda, to spread their influence, and to gain more power and control. It is hard to imagine anything that would turn this mess around. What could possibly happen to change things so dramatically? It is unimaginable.
So what would we say if someone asked us for a description of that longed for kingdom, for an account of the hope that is in us? What would we say? What would we tell them? After all… it is pretty unimaginable…
Maybe if we were to attempt to describe the unimaginable we would use unimaginable words. We might use the words from the sculpture of St Francis that hangs in our entryway, words that come from the Prophet Isaiah:
6 “The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea”(Isaiah 11:6-9).
Wolves and lambs, leopards and kids, lion and fatling, adders and asps… and a little child shall lead them? Those images are pretty unimaginable images aren’t they? But perhaps that is the best that we can do in our effort to describe something that is as unimaginable as the kingdom of God.
We use unimaginable words for unimaginable events.
If that’s what it will look like, no one hurting or destroying on God’s holy mountain, how do we think that will come about? How will it happen? What will cause the changes in the way that the world works that would allow the kingdom to come? It would have to be a pretty dramatic event or series of events for those who hold the reigns of power and authority to bend and give, to enough to make room for the kingdom. Maybe if we were to look for words to describe this unimaginable occurrence we might choose words that are equally unimaginable and say:
“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” (Luke 21:25-27).
Jesus was one of a long line of Hebrew prophets who used unimaginable words to describe unimaginable events. Were these descriptions of things that we can just barely even begin to wrap our arms around ever meant to be taken literally, as blow by blow accounts of the way things would happen? No! They were poetry, they were hyperbole, they were designed to impress upon us incomprehensible magnitude of those events and the change that they would bring. The prophets use unimaginable words to describe unimaginable events that we have to work and struggle to get our minds around.
So this is pretty tough stuff! Unimaginable words for unimaginable things and events that we have to struggle to wrap our minds around… Let’s turn our attention to something a little easier for us to grasp, something that we know how to describe and talk about… Today is the first day of Advent! Look, the crèche is out, the frontal and the flowers are off the altar, the color is blue and we have the Advent wreath. That’s great! Let’s take a few minutes to talk about the incarnation, Jesus, Emmanuel, God among us. What would we say if we were asked to describe the events surrounding the coming of the Messiah?
How would we talk about the notion that God, the God who had sought us, even pursued us, who had made goodness and love known to us in the creation, in the calling of Israel to be God’s people, and in the word spoken through the prophets decided in these last days to send the word made flesh, Jesus, God’s Son, to be the savior and redeemer of the world (BCP p. 368)? We might describe it in this way:
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8)
God, a slave, humbled, obedient even to the point of death on a cross? That would be pretty unimaginable wouldn’t it? God, holy and pure, creator of all that is coming into contact with us, the profane and sinful? That would be like matter and anti matter wouldn’t it? How can God become one of us and still be God? How would that happen?
Maybe if we were going to tell a story that unimaginable we would use words that were just as unimaginable:
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:26-33)
Unimaginable words to describe unimaginable events that we have to work and struggle to get our minds around. Unimaginable…
And yet we a people bound together and formed by these unimaginable words dare to imagine. We dare to believe. We dare to claim the truth of these stories.
We believe that God has intervened in the life of the world, that God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ and changed everything. And we dare to hope, to believe, that God will prevail, that the kingdom that was ushered in when Christ came among us will someday come to fruition and be completed.
And so we wait in the dark, not out of a sense of despair, but in hope, longing for, believing in, trusting in the unimaginable….