This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones, on December 2, 2018 at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, is built on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.
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 finally 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… what will finally cause them to reexamine 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…
Trying to imagine a world like that can fill us with a longing so deep that is almost painful…
So painful that we might be tempted to turn away and dismiss it all as a fairy tale.
But we, the church, do an interesting thing in Advent. We don’t turn away. We don’t try to escape or deny our sense of longing. We embrace it. We enter into it. We actually take steps to heighten it, in order to make us lean ever more fully on hope: hope for that moment when all things will be made new, when we will all be restored to one another and to God in Christ Jesus.
To that end we’ve emptied the crèche, taking out the animals, shepherds, Maggi, even the Baby Jesus; all in an attempt to find ourselves in that same place of deep longing and desire for deliverance, that the people of Israel experienced under the oppression of Roman rule.
We’ve taken away the flowers. We’ve removed the altar frontal; all in an attempt to find ourselves in a world where the coming of the Christ is still just a prophecy, a rumor, a promise.
What happens, what does it feel like, in a world like that?
Here today, from the darkness of Advent that we have entered, we look at the world around us and we long for God to do something, to do anything, to rescue us, to change the way the world moves, to bring God’s dream for creation to fruition.
We wait and we cry, “how long O Lord? How long?” And we hope and we pray for deliverance.
But just what is it that we are hoping for? What will that deliverance be like? And how will that deliverance come?
Hard to imagine isn’t it? Our vision has been so distorted that we can’t even see the pain on the faces of the people around us. We are so inured to the way that things are that we can’t even see 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. The life that God offers, that God calls us to; that life infused with, colored by the eternal… has become almost unimaginable.
And then, as if that life itself weren’t hard enough to imagine… it’s even harder to imagine how that promise, that vision might become a reality!
We watch the news and we see how hard those with power work to keep their influence and control. We see people inflicting terrible cruelty and pain on one another in the effort to further their own agenda, to spread their influence, and to gain more power and control. We see people casting aside their integrity, their credibility, their center, in order to further their own ego, and perpetuate their epic, mythical, self-image.
It is hard to imagine anything that would turn this mess around. What could possibly happen to change things so dramatically? It is… truly unimaginable.
But here we are, in Advent, waiting, hoping and praying…
If we are brave enough to tell someone what we’re doing, if we’re brave enough to tell them that the Advent Wreath is marking time as we hope and pray… they might just ask us what it is that we are hoping and praying for. They might just ask us for an account of the hope that is in us. They might just ask us to describe the unimaginable.
If someone asked, what would we say? What would we tell them?
Maybe if we were to attempt to describe the unimaginable world we are waiting for, we would use equally 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 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 world God imagines for us all. Perhaps the best that any of us can do in our attempt to describe unimaginable things is to use unimaginable words.
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 that vision to come to reality? 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 enough to make room for God’s dream for us.
Maybe if we were to look for words to describe this unimaginable occurrence we might, once again, 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 knew how to use unimaginable words to describe unimaginable events.
Were these unimaginable words ever meant to be taken literally, as blow by blow accounts of the way things would happen?
They were poetry, they were hyperbole, they were spoken to impress upon us the incomprehensible magnitude of those events and the change that they would bring. Again and again, 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… Why don’t we take a break and 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! And look, the crèche is out, the frontal and the flowers are off the altar, the color is blue, and we have lit the first candle of the Advent wreath.
That’s just what we need; something familiar, comforting, tangible, real; something to help take our minds off of the unimaginable realities that have become our daily lives!
But you know… maybe we had better take a few minutes to talk about the baby in the manger,The incarnation, Emmanuel, God Among Us.
I wonder what would we say if we were asked to explain the whole “Christmas thing.” How would we account for the faith that is in us? How would we explain our belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah? How would we explain that God, the God who had sought us, even pursued us; the God 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…
How would we explain that this same God, in these last days sent Jesus, to be incarnate from the virgin Mary, to be the savior and redeemer of the world?
Maybe if we were to look for words to describe this unimaginable event we would borrow the unimaginable words St. Paul borrowed from the worship of the early church for his letter to the Philippians:
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)
Really? God, a slave, humbled, obedient even to the point of death on a cross? That sounds pretty unimaginable doesn’t it? God, holy and pure, creator of all that is coming to be with us in the midst of our pain, where we waste away dragging around the chains we have forged in life?
That would be like mixing matter and anti-matter wouldn’t it? How can God become one of us and still be God? How could that happen? It’s almost… unimaginable…
Maybe if we were going to something so 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… Who would dare to use such words, much less dare to believe them?
And yet we are a people bound together and formed by these unimaginable words. We dare to imagine. We dare to believe. We dare to proclaim 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. We dare to hope, to believe, that God will prevail, that Christ will come again. And that the kingdom that was ushered in when Christ came among us will someday come to fruition and be completed.
We dare to believe that we will all finally understand without a doubt that God loves us unconditionally, and that we are bound to one another, brothers and sisters responsible for loving and caring for our neighbor?
And so, here in Advent, we choose to wait in the dark, not in despair, but in hope, longing for, believing in, trusting in the unimaginable….