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November 29, 2010

“Yet” Isaiah 63:16-64:12; Mark 13:24-37 © 11/28/10 by Tom Cheatham @ First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I have a harebrained theory about the relationship between economics and Christmas decorations. I believe from casual observation that the harder the times, the earlier the lights and trees go up. The same applies to Christmas commercials, movies on TV, and songs on the radio.

So this year the guy down the street from us had his house lit up the Monday before Thanksgiving. Some friends of ours put up their Christmas tree about the same time. The hospital here had decorations adorning the lobby and halls by the 17th of November. Hallmark Channel was already showing Christmas movies early last week., and the Christmas-theme commercials started running before that. As I was driving up here Tuesday, 93.3 FM was playing Streisand singing “My Favorite Things” followed by other Christmas songs.

None of this is surprising. Christmas brings a warm feeling of serenity and joy, peace and comfort. All those are in short supply in these days of continued high unemployment, war, and increasing crime, not to mention travel hassles with the TSA and people jostling each other at 3:00 AM on Black Friday for so-called “deals.”

We expect the church to offer solace and escape. So why this morning have we heard such horrid texts that have nothing to do with angels, shepherds or even peace and joy? Why does the church have to mess up the feeling of the season that is already abroad in the culture? Why can’t today and every Sunday in Advent be the “little Christmas” that the song reminds us we need, a time to sing beloved carols and hear sweet words that warm our hearts? Why do we have to listen to people talk about loneliness and hurt and fear in a day when those unpleasant realities of human life assault us at every turn?

Perhaps some comments from Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann can explain, if not satisfy. If he is right, Advent does not begin in “buoyancy or celebration….” It does not provide comfort or peace right away. The first voices we hear are not those of angels singing or shepherds spreading good news. Instead, we are greeted with the cries and groans of doubting, hurting, complaining people. Advent begins with abandonment, guilt, and shame. The prophet we know as Third Isaiah wrote to and for a group searching for its identity, people who felt polluted and dirty. They were angry and upset, longing for a cosmic upheaval that would turn their rotten world upside down. The community of Third Isaiah felt as if God were hidden by a big, black, thick curtain that could only be torn from God’s side. The One whom they vaguely recalled as Creator or Father was long gone or if he were around, he wasn’t listening.

The grief of the community had its particular focus in the destroyed temple, overrun by the Babylonians in 587 BC. Yes, there was a new temple, but it was an ugly concrete layer cake, so crude and unappealing that people would weep just looking at it. No longer did they have the wonderful building erected during Solomon’s day, the magnificent edifice that made them feel proud and safe and secure, that assured them of the presence of God.

Who was to blame for their lousy situation? Wasn’t it God, at least in part? They needed guidance and correction, somebody to keep them on the straight and narrow. But just when they were faltering, when they would have appreciated discipline administered by a firm hand, God gave up on them. If he had only been there, they wouldn’t have sinned so badly! It wasn’t fair! If only God had been as anxious to come to their aid as he was to show his wrath! Only he could tear away the curtain of the heavens that hid him from his people. Why, oh why, wouldn’t he do that right now, today?

Similar feelings lie in the background of the gospel lesson. The church for which Mark wrote was faced with the continuing absence of their Lord. The original and authentic ending of the gospel at chapter 16, verse 8 feels like a suspended chord, unsatisfying, leaving us hanging on a note of fear. The risen Jesus still has not appeared. Here are folk wondering and watching, waiting and wailing, faced on their best days with how to order their life together and on their worst with persecution by the authorities. They were like abandoned children who wondered why mom and dad didn’t come home. Except they were waiting on Jesus, who so far hadn’t shown up. Yes, there had been those claiming to be the Messiah. Terrible events in Jerusalem like the destruction of the Temple were supposed to usher in the end of the world, and the coming of Jesus. But life went on. They needed guidance and help, just like their brothers and sisters so long ago who stood looking at their pitiful excuse for a temple. They were asking questions: What was the meaning of these events? What was the Christian community to do and be? How could they bear the tremendous burden of their despair and crushed hopes?

We would like to put such questions and concerns far from us this time of year. But Advent is a call to add our voices to the chorus with the Jews with their crummy temple and the community of Mark as they wondered what they were supposed to do. To add them to the cries of the hungry and the oppressed and the enslaved and the frightened, the left-out and looked-down on and the hated. To the sobbing pleas of those who don’t know why their plans fail or how they will make ends meet or feed their families or send their kids to college or pay their mortgage or provide for retirement. “Rend the heavens and come down!” they shout, we shout. We need help, and we need it now!

Tortured cries. But I wonder if it’s in and through the longing and the anger, the questions and confusion that the promise of a Savior becomes all the more precious, the presence of God all the more welcome and powerful. Could it be that we appreciate good news more when we have heard the bad?

The church, especially in Advent and its sister season Lent can and should be a place where such questions and ironies are explored and owned. Those who rage against the unfairness of life and the absence of God should find a safe place and welcome among us as much as those who are sure of God’s care and faithfulness.

When I was a campus minister at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, a student I didn’t know called me out of the blue. I guess she picked the Presbyterians out of the book. She told me on the phone that she wanted to know God. Could I help? As she sat in my office, telling her story, it became clear that she was grieving. In particular, she was mourning the end of a relationship. How could God let it happen? she wondered. When I told her it was OK to be angry at God, to grieve and wail, she burst into tears. That was all she needed—to be given permission to strike out at God.

Questioning God, wanting to call him to account, is paradoxically a testimony to faith. Faith that there is still someone to complain to, who still has the power to do something. Modern therapists encourage people to bring their feelings into the open and give voice to their longing, to tell their stories and thus find identity and healing. But Freud and Jung and Rogers didn’t invent that strategy. The Jews were doing it a long time ago. They knew that when fear and frustration and anger are brought to speech, when we do not censor our prayers, when God hears what is down so deep it can’t be spoken, when we do that, we are on our way through the pain. See, it’s not the ones who are satisfied with the status quo who cry out like those folk in Isaiah or who struggle to understand faith. Nor is it the one so oppressed, so frightened and put down and made into a doormat that he or she can no longer find voice. No. The people who know that God can do and is doing something new are the ones who cry out, who complain, who badger God to hurry up and get on with it! These are the ones who groan and scream and curse until hope is born.

And born it will be. There is a great big little word in the Old Testament reading. It is “yet.” “Yet.” The ability to speak that word with seriousness and conviction bears testimony to faith that the way things are is not the way they have always been or forever will be. It looks toward the day when the parents come home to those abandoned children, to embrace and provide for them. “Yet.” To speak it is to say that God will act in a surprising, shocking, shattering way to bring redemption.

I invite you to speak that little word silently right now. Let its importance fully grip you. And I will do the same. In your worst times, let it strengthen you, be the word of God to you, remind you that the story of you and me and our families and friends and God and this nation and this planet and this cosmos is still one of hope. And in that strength and confidence, watch and wait for the revealing of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, born at Bethlehem, coming in glory.


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