Monday, November 28, 2011

Guest Post: Sermon for 1 Advent

Today's post is a sermon preached by the Rev. Kate Layzer at Newton Highlands Congregational Church (UCC) on the first Sunday of Advent. Thank you for sharing!

A long time ago — it must have been around the time I turned 18 — I dreamt that Jesus was coming back.

This was a surprising dream for me to have, since I wasn't raised to believe in Jesus. In my family, there were principles, and there were facts, and there was art, music, and literature. And the daily newspaper. That was the Layzers.

Which didn’t stop God from occasionally sidling up to the family oddball — me — and giving me a nudge. The dream seemed to come out nowhere, though.

I dreamt that Jesus was coming back, and it was supposed to be a secret, but somehow I got wind of it. My soul filled with dread. I had the vision of a bonfire. Not the hell of eternal fire —no, this wasn't that! This was the refiner's fire. This was the fire that burns away whatever is unworthy of God. There was no doubt in my mind that I would have to pass through it, with all my faults and my flaws. And I was not looking forward to it.

So my first response was fear. My second was hope. And my third was resolution.

As much as I dreaded the fire, I realized that something deep within me was ready to embrace it. I wanted to be on the other side of the fire, with my faults burned away. I said to myself that if Jesus was real, I wanted to be able to stand next to him. If Jesus was real, I wanted "in." I wanted it more than I feared what I would have to go through to get there.

So in the dream I prepared myself. And then things took a comic turn. Jesus appeared—and it wasn't Jesus.

There was a real Jesus, I felt certain of that. But this wasn't him. This guy looked tweedy and professorial — a fraud, not a savior. I awoke to a feeling of genuine disappointment. Only later, on reflection, did the dual messages of the dream become clear. The first was that Jesus was real. His coming into the world to judge and to save — that was real too. And I belonged with him; the dream knew that before I did.

The second message was like a sly poke in the ribs. And by the way, the dream told me: Your father is not the second coming of Christ.

I guess we all come to that realization sooner or later on the road to adulthood!

Normally I don’t share my dreams from the pulpit. But this is the first Sunday of Advent, and Advent is a dreaming time. It is a time when God's people slow down—yes, you heard me, SLOW DOWN—gaze through the window and out into forever, and give ourselves up to longing…

Not for sweaters or iPhones or golf clubs… but for God to draw near.

Come, we pray. Come set things right. Come for the poor, the captive, for the blinded and the oppressed. Come for us. Come for me, God. Come take the weight from my heart, loosen dread's grip on my spirit, so that I can straighten up and breathe and rejoice as one who has hope. Come, God, come soon! Come with judgment against the insidious forces of corruption and the destructive powers of greed. Hand me a broom, and I’ll gladly clean up with you, all day and all night. But come. I need you. We need you.

Are we ready for God to come to us? No. But we surely are in need.

In Advent, we prepare a nursery for the holy child to be born again. A bed of straw, rough walls to shelter animals, carols for lullabies. We dream of stars and shepherds, kings and hovering angels.

But we also gaze beyond the story of a child in a manger, to the new world which he has come to birth, where babies are not born into poverty. As it was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth [says our God];
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice for ever
in what I am creating…

No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in [my city],
or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime…

They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat…

Call it God's dream, if you will.
The dream of a world of justice and peace, where human life is precious and everyone is cared for; where laborers reap the fruits of their own labor, and no one is permitted to exploit the toil of others for their own gain.

Who wouldn’t want to live in a world like that? Who wouldn’t want to sign on to God’s dream for us? As long as we don’t have to go through what we’d have to go through in order to get there. Which is to say, the dismantling of everything.

Advent marks the beginning of a new church year. It coincides with the joyous decking out of homes and stores and public streets, the merry sounds of carols and bells and rustling paper, the smells of peppermint, cinnamon, and pine. But the Bible passages we read in Advent aren’t about any of that. They are about sudden disruption. They are about God breaking into the world and overturning the tables. OUR tables.

Ready or not, Christ is coming. And when he comes, Jesus, warns,

the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
This is the beginning of the birth pangs.

It will feel, in other words, like the end of the world. The end that ushers in a new beginning.

Is his coming good news, or not? Is Jesus friend or foe?

Well, it depends on your perspective.

It depends what you have to lose, and what you have to gain. It depends whether your dream for the world lines up with God's.

That's the paradox of all apocalyptic writing. It's written from the perspective of those at the bottom of the heap. It's the cry of those with nothing left to lose — the ones who have long since given up hope that the system could ever work for them. Their only salvation would be if God stepped in and took on the ruling powers.

If you have a secure, comfortable income, health insurance, and a nice place to live, and it feels to you as if you got where you are solely on hard work and talent, and not because you got a thousand lucky breaks along the way—if that's your vantage point, then overturning and dismantling might sound like the stuff of nightmares.

But if you're one of those who have fallen under the wheels of this economy — if you're a recent college graduate crushed under student debt, or if you’ve been looking for a job for 2 years and are being told not to bother applying unless you already have a job; if you had to put off retirement when the stock market crashed, if you’ve been denied health coverage, or if you or someone you love had their home foreclosed on (legally or illegally) -

and if, when you heard about the Occupy protests and went out into the streets to add your support, you got a face full of military-grade pepper spray at close range—

well, your reaction to apocalyptic warnings might be, "Can't come a moment too soon for me."

Are the Occupy protesters prophets or public nuisances? It depends on your vantage point. I happen to think what they’re doing is straight out of the Bible's playbook, from the symbolic act of departing society for the wilderness, to the resounding messages about justice, compassion, and the common good.

You may or may not agree. But given the ferocity of the police response to these protests, I think it's time for us to ask what it is about this ragtag movement that is so threatening. Why are the authorities using truncheons, rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, sound cannons, and their fists against unarmed peaceful protesters? And why, in New York at least, are they targeting the press who are trying to cover what's going on?

What is being protected, here? What do the ruling powers have to lose?

When change comes, not everyone is going to think it's a good thing. Ask an Egyptian. Or a Syrian. Or a Libyan.

The question is, where is God moving in all of this?

What new world might God be bringing into being—whether we like it or not?

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here,
until the Son of God appear…

Until the Son appears, to bring, as his mother so memorably put it, the mighty down from their thrones, and lift up the lowly; to fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty.

To long for that day, regardless of our position in the world, is to long for God's coming—even through we know how disruptive that coming will be. When our longing becomes greater than our fear — that's when we become God's Advent people.

"No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor," wrote Oscar Romero. "The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God—for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God."

Such a sweet little baby, lying in his bed of straw. Yet he comes to throw down the tables of the money changers, and with them, the whole world order. We can’t think about that without a very human sense of dread.

But for those whose hearts belong to God, upheaval is not punishment, it's process. Like birth pangs. It's new life being born. It's the old world giving way to make room for joy.

What does Christ's coming mean for you, this time around?

What do you stand to lose?
What do you stand to gain?
What is your deepest, your truest desire… the one that cannot fit on any Christmas list, or bucket list; the one which only God can fill?

If you aren't sure, or if you can't imagine how God would ever answer such a desire, then this Advent may have a message for you.

Instead of speeding up this season, why not slow down? Put down that list every so often, and take a few minutes for quiet dreaming. Let your gaze move out beyond where the eye can see, and let your heart fill up with longing…

…Come, O God. Come for me, for those I love, for all of us. Maranatha. Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.

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