Sunday, November 27, 2011

First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 64
6 All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
7 No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have given us over to[a] our sins.
8 Yet you, LORD, are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be angry beyond measure, LORD;
do not remember our sins forever.
Oh, look on us, we pray,
for we are all your people.

Mark 13
30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[a]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

There is no snob quite like a book snob.

I say this, even in the afterglow of bibliophiles swapping and selling books just last week. So I say this with respect, because when I look in the mirror, I just may see a book snob too. A typical conversation goes something like this:

“You like book x, so you must really like book y.”
“I haven’t read book y.”
“You haven’t read book y? I can’t believe that you, of all people, haven’t read book y.”
“Well, I have read book z.”
“Book z? Everyone has read book z. Still, I’m frankly shocked that you haven’t read book y.”

I think you get the picture. And if you think I’m making this all up, just head across the street to the library and wait. This may explain the popularity of Amazon, all the books and less bibliographical shaming.

One of the unlikely side-effects of just such a shaming is a strange resistance to reading the book. There seems to be odd equation whereby the numbers of “I can’t believes” is inversely proportional to the likelihood that I’ll actually picking up the book. The more often you tell me to read a book the less likely I am to read it. Case in point: Ron Heifetz’s book “Leadership Without Easy Answers.” Just now I see you shaking your head and thinking “I can’t believe he hasn’t read that book: it’s a classic.”

It is a classic, and just in time for Advent I picked it up. And I’m not even out of the Introduction, and already Heifetz is a well of ideas for the season of Christ’s coming. I know, you still can’t believe I haven’t read the book before now.

Advent, of course, is a season of preparation. And true to the spirit of preparation, the readings for four Sundays in Advent reflect that theme. Today, we reflect on the apocalyptic, world-ending nature of our preparation. And for that reason, lots of ministers book this Sunday off. Next week, we meet John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness, and never considered polite company. Advent III goes deeper into the message of John the Baptist, which is why we do White Gift instead, and the Advent IV is basically the same reading as Christmas Eve, minus the birth, which is why we have a Cantata. Now that all secrets are revealed, we can get on with Advent.

Heifetz’s book is about adaptive leadership, leadership that can change course in the midst of change rather than repeating the mistakes of the past. It is about entering the complexity of a problem rather than reaching for easy solutions. And it’s about understanding the life of the mind, and the way our thinking effects the way we act. For you see, when Heifetz isn’t teaching leadership at the Kennedy School at Harvard, he’s also a medical doctor and a psychiatrist, and did I mention he’s also world-class cellist, trained at the Juilliard School?

And it’s a musical idea that he points to in his Introduction, an idea that speaks to the project we call Advent. Heifetz begins with dissonance, naming it an integral part of harmony. “Without conflict and tension,” he says, “music lacks dynamism and movement.” And this tension creates longing for, or interest in, the way this tension will be resolved.

So too with Advent. “But about that day or hour,” Jesus said, “no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.” Mark records his “little apocalypse” in chapter 13, where Jesus is describing the end of time and also describing his own return. The tension begins.

In the ancient prayers of the church, this tension is called the mysterium fidei. During communion we will repeat together the words, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” And we cannot know how this is possible. It is a mystery of faith, one that finds a close parallel in the season of Advent. We will mark Jesus birth once more, but we won’t do it with cake and candles, we will mark it as the end of the old and the birth of a new. It has a world-altering quality, not just once, but for all time.

The church is to practice watchfulness throughout the year, but most particularly in Advent. Look for signs, we are told, look for the signs of the times, signs that we are on the cusp of a world made new. Again, there is tension. We are mired in the old, surrounded by examples of anything but the hope we long to see, but still we are told to look for signs. We live with the Risen Christ in our midst, but we long for his return, both at the end of time and every year at Christmas. Mysterium fidei, the mystery of faith.

Heifetz’ next idea, still on page 6, is the interplay between musician and audience. The audience and the performer are in a relationship, and the result—greater creativity and energy—is an essential part of the music. So too with Advent. The season is foremost about the interplay between God and humanity, and the creativity and energy that comes through his relationship. Consider Isaiah 65:

7 No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have given us over to our sins.

The prophet laments the sinfulness of Israel, the extent to which the people have strayed from the path set before them. “Like shriveled leaves, we blow away” the confession goes, but then there is a purposeful shift. “No one calls on your name,” Isaiah says, “because you have hidden your face from us.” What God would name ‘free will,’ he labels the hidden face of God. Seeking direction, seeking a word, it is easy to see how this can quickly become anger and disappointment. Then another turn:

8 Yet you, LORD, are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.

It is difficult to determine, from the context of the passage, if this is a profession of faith, or more blaming. ‘You made us,’ the prophet says, ‘what we do must be your fault alone.’

It sounds like a troubled relationship, and it is, but it is primarily a relationship. Like orchestra and audience, God and humanity need each other in the working out of what it means to be God and humanity. Can God save us? Is that the meaning of Advent? Jesus is born again and again, Christ is always coming into our midst, but still finds only brokenness. Is it God’s absence that causes us to fail? It hardly seems possible when God returns to our midst so frequently, and with such meaning.

“We are the clay, and you are the potter.” God creates us, we crumble on the wheel, and God remakes us yet again. This is the meaning of time as we find it in Advent. It is the continual unfolding of a relationship, love and judgment, faithfulness and disobedience, happening in real time.

Heifetz’s last point (still on page 6) is the need to search for implied meaning. This is the difference between what something means on the surface and what is the implied (or hidden) meaning. And to uncover hidden meaning, we usually look at the context. Mark begins his little apocalypse this way:

30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

The context of the little apocalypse, and each “world-ending” statement from the lips of Jesus, is the assumption that his return was right around the corner. “I will come again,” he says in John 14, “and will take your to myself. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” Mark and the other evangelists believed that even before they finished writing their Gospel, Christ might return.

So the end did not happen, but it remains part of the implied meaning of Advent. We are to prepare like the world may end any moment. It may not happen, it almost seems certain it won’t, but we return to this theme year by year in the off chance it does. Advent, therefore, is a dress rehearsal for the end of time, a way to remind ourselves that we live in the here and now and the not yet.

“Heaven and earth will pass away,” Jesus said, “but my words will never pass away.” We think we see simple things like the passage of time and the commemoration of Jesus’ birth, but underneath there is so much more happening. There is the reality of human sin and God’s ongoing and inexplicable capacity to forgive. There is the mutual dependence between creature and Creator, and all the creativity this brings, and there is the hidden meaning in the season, that what we see is not really all there is.

We long for God, we wait for Christ’s coming, and we seek the Spirit: to be watchful, and perceptive, and above all patient. This is Good News, thanks be to God. Amen.


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