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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Living in Hope

Advent calls us to live in hope that God is with us today, to trust that the kingdom of God is at hand.  So we stay awake, and keep watching for signs of God’s coming and presence in our lives and in the world.

Vicar Meagan McLaughlin
   First Sunday of Advent
   Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I can still feel the anticipation that filled me as a child when Thanksgiving came, and I knew Christmas was “just around the corner.” When we were expecting company, I would watch from the couch in our living room, because it had a great view of the street and I would be able to see the guests arriving. I spent the entire month of December, figuratively speaking, leaning over the back of the couch, trying to make the time go faster! I was desperately curious about all the details of the parties being planned—what food would be served, when my cousins would come in from out of town, what service we would attend at church, what Santa would bring me, and could I please, please, please go along when my dad went to pick up my grandmother and great aunts? Every minute seemed like an hour, hours like days, days like weeks.  Christmas was all I could think about, and at the same time it felt like it would never get there. Advent is a time to follow what Jesus calls us to do in Mark—stay awake, keep watch, and I certainly had that down, even if I was more focused on parties and presents than the birth of Jesus!

Time has changed since then, or perhaps, it is my perception that has changed. Now rather than being painfully slow, the month of December flies by so quickly that I hardly have time to realize that it’s Advent before suddenly here it is—Christmas Eve. Being who I am, I am always prepared, at least in one sense. The presents are bought and wrapped, the tree trimmed, food for the family meal prepared. But spiritually and emotionally, I am always taken by surprise when Christmas comes. I spend more time on my to do list and less time leaning over the back of the couch, and as the years go by I find myself yearning for the time I spent as a child simply anticipating.

Our effort to be present and wait during Advent is certainly not helped when we have to walk past several aisles of Christmas decorations in the store in order to get to the Halloween costumes in mid-October, all the while listening to Deck the Halls and Frosty the Snowman piped through the sound system. Everything around us seems to call us to a flurry of activity . . . . buy, bake, order, send, and hurry up because time is running out! And of course, it is important to do the things necessary to get ready to welcome and celebrate with family and friends. But in the midst of all of this activity, on top of the regular daily life that continues, it is easy to forget that Advent is about waiting, and it is particularly easy to forget what we are waiting for.

So, what are we waiting for? The obvious answer is that Advent is a season of waiting for Christmas, Jesus’ birth. But it is so much more than the birth of a baby that we await. God, in all God’s fullness—the God who, as Isaiah described, makes the mountains quake, the God who Mark tells us has the power to make the sun dark and the stars fall, the God of all creation—came to live with us in the messiness of life in the person of Jesus. We remember not just the historical event of Jesus’ birth, but the reality of God’s presence and work in us and in the world, here and now. Advent is a time to remember that God is with us today, a time to live in hope.

When we look at the world, it can sometimes be really challenging to have hope. All we need to do is read the headlines to see evidence of pain, suffering, and evil in the world. This week in Ferguson, Missouri, and cities all over the country, we see fear, anger, even rage in the wake of the grand jury decision to exonerate Police Officer Darren Wilson of Michael Brown’s death. Just a mile down the road from here, thousands of people rallied for hours on Tuesday night, calling for justice. If we listen, we hear stories of those who live in fear, who have experienced the daily threat of discrimination, who can’t ever forget that they are treated differently in countless ways because of the color of their skin. If we listen, we hear stories of those who commit themselves to protecting others, often putting themselves at risk, and know daily the reality that they or someone they love may not come home. Setting aside guilt or innocence, right or wrong, justified or unjustified, in these events the damage and grief of centuries of systemic racism has been brought fully to the surface. We are all impacted, in one way or another. It is overwhelming, and it is hard not to turn away, to minimize the pain. Today, on the first Sunday of Advent, we take a few minutes to hear these voices, and ask the question of how we can have hope, and see God at work, in the midst of it all.

The pain of this world is not new. In the verses before our passage from Mark, Jesus describes war, betrayal, murder, destruction. And he encourages his followers, promising that nothing is too much for God to overcome. With the psalmist, we can bring the brokenness of our communities, and our own pain and brokenness, to God, and cry out—“Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, shine forth. Stir up your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

The miracle of the hope we have in Advent is that we are waiting on a God who has never turned away from our pain. As Christians today, whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, whatever challenges we face, we await the birth of Jesus knowing the rest of the story—Jesus lived, taught, challenged, loved, forgave, healed, called. And Jesus died—and rose again. Death was not the last word then, and it is not the last word today. Jesus transformed people’s lives, and we are invited to put ourselves completely in God’s hands, like clay ready to be formed by the potter, willing to be changed, to be made new.

In Advent, we are called to live in hope that God is with us today, to trust that the kingdom of God is at hand. Waiting, anticipating, living in hope don’t easily find their way onto our “to do lists,” but in this moment, for this season, it is the most important thing for us to do. We don’t know the day or the hour when the kingdom of God will be fully accomplished, but we can keep watch, and if we do, we will see glimpses of it. We can see God at work in the world in the way people love and care for each other, in voices courageously speaking truths that are hard to hear, in the beauty of creation. And we can call out like a watchperson—Hey, look, there it is, God is here, did you see it?—so those around us will also know that we have great reason for hope. We are called to witness to God’s presence by being the hands and feet of God in the world ourselves, by showing God’s love and care for others and calling for justice where it is due, so others can see God at work through us. And most of all, we can put our trust in God, who sends Jesus to show us that we are never alone.

I plan to spend a lot of time leaning over the back of the couch this Advent, anticipating God’s coming into the world anew. I invite you to join me, so we can support each other in our commitment to take seriously the call to keep watch for the presence of God in our midst. We don’t know the day or the hour, but there is plenty of room on the couch, and it has a great view.

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