Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Advent Imagination

Advent IIIA
December 16, 2007
A sermon preached at
St. Luke’s ELCA
Sidney, NY

The people of Jesus’ day waited for the Messiah to come. The Messiah was one who was going to return Israel to its past glory. He would be just like David. The ten tribes who were lost in the Babylonian Captivity would return, all nations would look to the Temple as the center of their faith and justice would reign in the land because God would be in charge.

It was a nostalgic look at the past, just like we who are older often look to our youth as the time when all things were wonderful. We want the “good old days.” But the prophecy of Isaiah foretold a time when God would be in charge again. The kind of “good old days” that Isaiah foretold had never happened except in the dreams of the older generation.

If there was ever a time when God seemed absent to folks it was in Jesus’ day. Rome held the people imprisoned in their own land. Taxes were hideous. Puppet-kings controlled the people with terror rather than with laws. It is not surprising that people longed for the Messiah, the Anointed One who would come and bring in the time that Isaiah envisaged.

But how were they to tell that the time for the new age had come? That is the question that John the Baptist has for Jesus in today’s gospel. Jesus does not tell John Baptist that he is the one. He just tells the messenger:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

These were the signs of the Messiah. Anyone who heard of these events would know that the Messiah had come. They didn’t have to wait anymore. The Christ was here.

I think that the only ones who chart the signs of the times in our own age are politicians, actuaries, and clergy. The other night I heard an actor being interviewed who said that he went to church every Sunday because he wanted to hear what “professional thinkers” had to say. I thought that was a heck of a reason to go to Church, but sometimes we need to hear those who say things differently than we normally get if nothing more than it gets our imaginations running. But for me, the reason I preach is that there is a message –some good news that Christ came into this world to make our lives valuable, livable and important. That is good news. I am not sure that we who wait on the Lord are waiting for the same signs that John Baptist waited for. We don’t especially wait for the lepers to be cleaned, the deaf to hear, etc. because through modern medicine much of this has been done. We wait for the dead to be raised. We know that the poor hear the good news. But I wonder if we are willing to set up new criteria for the coming of Christ? What if we said “the AIDS epidemic was ended, the hungry were being fed, corrupt leaders were being overthrown, democracy—real self-rule was being practiced by the majority of the world’s populace and fairness in trade was the norm in big business. Would that not look like the Messiah had come? Would they not be the signs that we would like to see at the advent of Christ’s coming?
I signed up to read the book of Revelation before Christmas. I am still not happy with this book. Like Luther didn’t believe that James should be in the Bible, I think that people’s dwelling on the dreams of John inhibit and distort the Gospel. As I have said before, the God that I know does not mean for the world to end in fire, be a time of judgment or people who have loved to be left behind. And much of Revelation is the response to a time of persecution following the Jewish Revolt rather than a mirror into the life of Jesus, the Messiah who came so that the blind could see and lame to walk.

That said, I do believe that we are called to live in a time of newness. The Good News is that we are to know what it means to live a saved life—a life that is considered holy—albeit with the tinge of the sin we always have with us. But we are called to live not just waiting for Christ to come, but living as if we are in the kingdom. We are to rejoice in the coming of Christ because we know from his first appearance that God’s love is being acted out in us because we have the witness and the liberation that Christ brought us in his life and his death upon a cross. Christ came so that we would know how to be about living in the fullness of his love.

Are we about abolishing hunger in the world? Are we about ending the AIDS epidemic throughout the world? Are we about demanding fairness from our politicians, our leaders, the producers of products sold world wide? And we think, what can I do here in Sidney, NY?

An Anglican theologian Marilyn McCord Adams said recently that the difference between liberal theology and conservative is that liberal theology is concerned with systemic change and conservative theology is about individual change-or repentance. And to a certain degree I agree with her. But I would also say that all systemic change begins at home with the individual. That is the reason that John Baptist did preach a baptism of repentance. But when one person changes, all around him or her has to change too. The drop in the bucket changes the bucket.

The good news of Christ’s coming reminds us that we have some serious living to do, that our lives are not to be lived in vain. It reminds us that together we are to bring in the kingdom, not because our salvation is dependant upon it, but because we return thanks for our salvation that way. The Coming of Christ, the incarnation of God-with-us reminds us that we do not wait for judgment, but foresee what God envisions for us.

One of the problems of present society says Neil Postman of Technopoly is that we have become so preoccupied with computers that we have lost our imagination. He says that we wait around for more data and that we have more data than our brains can consume. “We don’t need more data,” he says; “What we are dying of is lack of courage, lack of dreams, a failure of nerve and no computer can give us that.” And I believe that is right. As we have gotten more and more capable to make realistic toys, we have eroded each successive generation’s ability to practice in the world of imagination. Do we even think about how life could be better? Do we even bother to think about how others live in other countries and try to make their lives better? Do we even hope for a life that is just and beautiful for our children, grandchildren or great grandchildren? Are we really ready to work so that this fragile earth can be handed on to our great grandchildren in a way that they can receive it the way we did?

While I was in TX last month I watched my mother, who cannot speak, see or hear and can’t remember what she did a few minutes before, hold her great-great grand child. It was a powerful moment—because the look on her face was wondrous. The hope in her blind 95 year-old eyes was palpable. She lives her life waiting to die but for that brief moment the hope was there. The imagination was there even though she could not explain it. It is what we all hope for—a future, whether we are 5 or 95. It is the gift of Advent, that hope. And Advent’s hope is that we can bring in the kingdom with God’s grace. We don’t wait around for the good news, we live it. We who are baptized embrace what it means to be Christ’s own. It is a time of rejoicing that our work is not finished and that we have the mind's eye to re-image the hope for each generation, because without that hope we are dying.

All too often I hear parents or grandparents wanting their children and grandchildren to have lives like they lived, or better. But often those who are older are unwilling to hear the hopes and dreams of the younger ones.
This is one of the things that I think that we need to do in church. This does not mean that what the younger ones dream will get accomplished before or in lieu of the elders. It just means that we hear both old and new dreams. But I have a sneaking suspicion that many of those dreams are the same, just articulated a bit differently.

Rejoicing in the Lord is what it means to hear the good news. We today need to hear the good news just as surely as did those of Jesus’ day. We need to know that because Christ has lived, died, and rose we may have imaginations, that we may have hope, that we may live in a freedom that allows us to be the hands of Christ to each successive generation.
Now, I have no children. I have no offspring that will remember my recipe for chili or my nurture of them. But the hope I have is that what I do will change the bucket just a bit for the next generation—that the love of God that I live will somehow impact those who will attend this church or the churches I have served in the future. It isn’t what I do. It isn’t the data that is important, but if I can help others to reach into their souls and draw out their imaginings of what a future in Christ’s love could mean, then I will have done what I am called to do.

In what ways do you wish to change your bucket? In what ways to you want to envision the future for another generation? How can you make the changes in yourself so that your visions can be caught by another generation? Is the good news being heard because of you? This is what Advent asks of us this week. They who have ears---listen. AMEN

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