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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Like the Melting Snow

Advent 2B; Isa 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8 St. Paul’s Smithfield, 12/10/2017
Jim Melnyk: “Like the Melting Snow”

I discovered The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis during the fall of my sophomore year in college.  In fact I’m sure that getting engrossed in the seven-volume work between late November and early December had a lot to do with the precipitous drop in my GPA that term.

The first story I read was The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. And though I realize I’ve mentioned the plot in the past, it seems fitting to revisit it briefly as we move through the season of Advent.

In the story an evil queen – the White Witch – has held power in Narnia for a long, long time, enslaving all.  The narrator tells us that during her reign it has always been winter in Narnia, but never Christmas.  The citizens of Narnia – talking animals and other mythical beasts – all live in hope that one day the prophecies will be fulfilled and the Great Lion Aslan will return and free them from their cruel ruler.

As the story unfolds four young siblings from our world find themselves called by Aslan to Narnia.  The group is comprised of two sons of Adam (that is, young boys) and two daughters of Eve (or, young girls).  Their arrival signifies the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy – that when four such humans arrive in Narnia, Aslan will return and set all things right.  The winter of Narnia’s discontent – the winter of their slavery to evil – will end.  They will be set free.  With the arrival of the four children the winds change and a warmth begins to creep into Narnia.  The ice and snow, which are hallmarks of the queen’s terrible rule, begins to melt.

It doesn’t take an overactive imagination to tie this time of waiting in Narnia – this time where it’s always winter but never Christmas – with our season of Advent.  “Advent symbolizes…the period of expectant waiting in hope. It is [indeed] like C.S. Lewis’ land of Narnia, where melting snow signals that Aslan is on the move” and that indeed the world will be made new (Reta Halteman Finger, Sojourners Online, Preaching the Word, 12/10/2017).  For Christians, Advent symbolizes the hope that God is always on the move – always seeking to break into human history and make things right.

In ancient Israel, God speaks words of comfort through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah: “Comfort, O comfort my people.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid…” (40:1-2a). Even after all the brokenness, after all the betrayal, God still loves.

“Mark…announces good news by weaving together lines from Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3. ‘In the wilderness’ John the water-baptizer announces the coming of one who ‘will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’ (Verses1-8).  

Decades later, [the author of Second Peter] addresses believers who wait for Jesus’s final return that never seems to come. Hang on—God’s timing is different than ours, but ‘the Day of the Lord’ will come!’ (Verse 10)” (ibid). 
In other words, as Christians we have lived with nearly 2,000 years of waiting for the unfolding of the fullness of God’s kingdom here on earth.  Our Jewish sisters and brothers have been waiting even longer.  Advent reminds us of our hope that this new reality will continue to unfold around us and within us – transforming us, and transforming this world, into the dream of God.  But, as we said last week, our hope must be an active hoping – a hoping that calls us to live and breathe the teachings of Jesus as followers of the One we call Christ.

The truth is, that while loving God with all our heart, and loving our neighbor as we hopefully love ourselves, is a vitally important part of our witness to God’s dream for this world, there is more.  That’s where the third part of our stewardship theme for 2018 comes into play.  Do you recall the theme?  “Love God, Love Your Neighbor, Change the World.”  It’s that last part – the part where we include the words, “Change the world” – that takes us beyond ourselves and into the world.  Our desires – and our attempts – to help change the world are every bit as vitally important to our witness as the part about loving God with our whole heart and loving our neighbor.  We may recall that the author of the Book of James writes, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17). 

If that is so, it only stands to reason that love – whether we’re talking about love of God or love of neighbor – without at least a desire on our part for some form of corresponding action – is as good as dead.   As it has been said in light of today’s passage from Isaiah, “We are not meant to get comfortable, but to be comforted so we can then be moved into action” (Casey Cross, The Rules of God, For Us).

The melting ice and snow in Lewis’ great work signifies the Great Lion Aslan being on the move in Narnia – with all faithful Narnians summoned to follow.  Our work at loving God, our work at loving our neighbor, and our working to transform the world around us, signifies Christ on the move in our world – signifies that the Incarnation of God is once again at hand – signifies that the Incarnation of God continues to take place within the human heart and soul – within our hearts and souls.  And when God is on the move in our world, all who dare to claim the name of Christ are summoned to follow as well.

“God comes [to us] again and again, because that is who God is” writes Lutheran pastor Kari Jo Verhulst. “God seeks and finds us, again and again, because that is how God is.”  And it’s our willingness to respond positively toward God – no matter how tentatively or fearfully on our part – that makes us “most fully alive” and makes us most fully present to both God and this world (Kari Jo Verhulst, Sojourners Online, Preaching the Word, 12/10/2017).

We are a people baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ.  We have been “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”  We find ourselves nourished at this holy altar time and again – and we pray time and again that in the power of God’s Holy Spirit we might “go out in peace to love and serve the Lord.”  We are not meant to take any of that language lightly, my friends!  Those words are a constant call to a life of active hope – to a life of active longing for God’s kingdom to come here on earth, as it is in heaven.

The reality is that we may not be able to see or perceive exactly how God is working in our lives at any given moment – perhaps that’s true for some of us even as we sit in this sacred space this morning.  “If so, take Jesus at his word: We will come to know God’s presence with us by following the example of Jesus: by teaching and healing, [by] listening to our neighbors, both known and unknown to us; by doing acts of love and mercy” even when we don’t know if that same love and mercy will be given back to us in return (Br. Jim Woodrum, Brother, Give Us a Word, 12/6/2017).

We all long for someone to come among us – someone born to us and in us – someone who melts the ice and snow that can afflict our hearts, and who frees us from the ills of this world.  The Good News is that the One we love and serve – the One whose coming we hope and long for in our lives – is the One we call “Emmanuel” – that is “God with us.”  Emmanuel – God Incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – the fullness of God made alive in each us; teaching us to love, enabling us to love, and empowering us to help change this world.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Vitality of What Will Be

Advent 1B; Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37; St. Paul’s, Smithfield 12/3/2017
Jim Melnyk: “The Vitality of What Will Be”

Growing up I was always taught several things about crossing the street.  First, go to the corner or a crosswalk if at all possible.  Second, never – ever – step out between parked cars.  And finally, before you cross the street wherever you cross the street – look both ways!  If we make a habit of not looking both ways, sooner or later we’re liable to get creamed.  I even look both ways in front of the Church’s Office when heading to my car, even though Church Street is one-way.  It’s amazing how many people fly down that street the wrong way!

Advent is a season that challenges us to look in two different directions – all the while standing in one place.  First, Advent challenges us to look to the past – recalling the stories and events in which God gathers and names Israel as God’s people, and the many stories of their faith – their failures as well as their successes.  Advent challenges us to look to the past – to the stories of our faith which eventually lead to the birth of the Christ Child in Bethlehem.  Advent calls us to remember the life and teachings of Jesus, and to remember his death, resurrection, and ascension. 

At the same time, Advent challenges us to look toward a future – a future when Christ will return in great glory to bring the kingdom of God to fulfillment – a kingdom where all God’s people are honored and welcomed – a kingdom where the whole of creation is treated with dignity and respect – a kingdom where justice, mercy, and peace abound as reminders of God’s great love for all. 

Yet all the while we are meant to keep our feet planted firmly in the here and now – to help make the wisdom and grace of the past real today – to help bring into this very moment the fullness of God’s kingdom here on earth, as it is in heaven. 

We simply cannot live in the past – it’s already gone.  But we can remember, and hold on to its sacred truths.  We cannot live with our eyes and hearts fixed firmly in some other-worldly future – it’s not yet here.  We cannot use the future – some great promise of justice in the great by-and-by – as an excuse to not live in righteousness today.  We can only live in the now – having learned from the past and in anticipation of a great hope for a future yet to come – a future which we are called to help shape.

It’s like crossing the street.  If we’re too busy looking behind us – or so focused on what might be coming up on the other side of the street – on what lies ahead – we forget to look both ways, and WHAM!  We may just find ourselves flattened in the middle of the road!

Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Oliver is possibly one of the best known poets alive today.  In her poem, “Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness” she seems to capture the essence of Advent:
“…who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?”

How the vivacity – or the exuberance – of what was is married to the vitality – to the life giving reality – of what will be?  The looking back – the remembering that we are called to in Advent – is inexplicably married to the “what will be”.  And both the past and the future meet us in the present – meet us in the here and now – and challenge us to live our lives of faith with deep integrity and the fullness of God’s love.

Our lessons for the first Sunday in Advent remind us that the world around us – and in fact each of us in this world – wrestles with one degree of brokenness or another.  We cannot escape Isaiah’s understanding of a God who is both frustrated and angry at Israel – not only for Israel’s betrayal of their covenant with God, but also for the way in which the most powerful of the land have treated the least among them.  And we cannot escape Israel’s pain at living in exile from Jerusalem – feeling totally abandoned by God and left captive in a foreign land. 

The people long to be restored to their homes and with their God.  They seek healing and wholeness in their lives and in their relationship with the God who first gave them life and purpose. They want God to jump in and act – to do something – even if it means bringing further judgment upon themselves.  Anything – as long as in the end there is restoration – as long as in the end there is reconciliation.  “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” (64:1). As the Psalmist writes, “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved” (80:18).  O God, bring us back to that place where we were once at one with you!  Israel remembering her past, looking forward to a great hope, and seeking to live faithfully in the present despite being lost in exile.

And lest we find ourselves feeling somehow superior to the brokenness of Israel in this morning’s lesson, one of the very reasons we retain and tell these stories of ancient Israel is because we, who have chosen to follow Jesus over the many centuries of the Church, have committed the very same sins – have found ways of giving lip-service to God, and ways to ignore the least among us.

Mark’s gospel offers us that same sense of looking both ways.  The gospel opens thirteen short chapters earlier with Jesus proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:15).  In a very real way the waiting is over – God’s reconciling love is being revealed to the world in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

Yet on this First Sunday of Advent our reading finds Jesus in Jerusalem during the final days of his life – looking ahead to the fulfillment of that great hope of God for God’s people.  We find him speaking about a culmination of the coming kingdom in a way which still remains hidden to all but God alone – which still requires waiting on our part. 

But we only have to look back one chapter in Mark’s gospel to see what is foundational to the life, faith, and teachings of Jesus – foundations looking back into the history of his people.  Jesus names the greatest commandment in the long-standing witness of Israel.  “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” The second commandment, Jesus tells us, is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these’” (12:29-31). 

In Jesus we begin to understand that the waiting is meant to be an active waiting – meant to be a waiting informed by the past stories of our faith, and empowered by our hope for a glorious future.  Advent is a promise of the bright sunshine breaking over the darkness of our hearts – dispelling the works of the night and bringing hope for all – especially for those who have lived too long without any sense of hope.

So now, on this First Sunday of Advent, we find ourselves with our feet planted firmly in the here and now – challenged to live our lives of faith with deep integrity and the fullness of God’s love.  We find ourselves called by God to help make the wisdom and grace of God real today – called by God to help bring into this very moment the fullness of God’s kingdom – a kingdom fully realized here on earth, as it is in heaven.