Monday, December 01, 2008

Where is God?

What follows is the transcript of the sermon I preached yesterday at the Community Church of Francestown, NH. The texts were Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; and Mark 13:24-37.

Happy New Year!

That’s right, today marks the first day of Advent, which begins a new year in the Christian calendar. We’ve come through the long weeks of “ordinary time” since the last big festival, Pentecost, back in May, and now we’ve arrived in Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas.

Usually, these are the weeks when we go through the story of the birth of Jesus: the annunciation to Mary by the angel that she was carrying a child, the meeting between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, the call by the governor for a census to be taken, the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, where they found no room at the inn and the Christ child was born and placed in a manger. Then the angels announce the birth to the shepherds, and the star shines showing the magi where the child lay so they could offer him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

In our worship services, we sing traditional songs: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” “We Three Kings.” Advent is a time of joy and happiness and the expectation of the birth of a baby.

But the birth narratives we know are found in Matthew and Luke (neither of which, by the way, has the same version). And a new church year, for those of us who follow the lectionary, means a new cycle of texts. This year, with the very creative name of Year B, we begin with Mark, and he skips the story of Jesus’ birth altogether. He begins his book with the baptism, so the Advent texts from his Gospel focus on the other part Advent, the one we often forget amid the drive—in the church and secular worlds—towards Christmas.

Our word Advent derives from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming.” Generally, we apply that to anticipation of the coming of the Christ child, but Advent is also a time to anticipate Christ’s coming again, what Mark calls “the return of the Son of Man.”

I’ll let you in on a little preaching secret—this does not make for an easy sermon, nor does this cycle of texts tend to make congregations all that happy during Advent. I’m guessing many of you here had the same reaction when Susan read the texts this morning as I did when I first looked at them.

I was excited to prepare the service for today. Hey, it’s the first Sunday in Advent! Piece of cake! Some happy “here starts the journey to Bethlehem” stuff, some familiar Christmas carols, a reminder to focus on the spiritual, not the material this season, etc. etc. And then I read the texts.

First the Gospel. Hm, sun and moon darkening, stars falling from the sky, heaven and earth passing away. Ok…not so Christmassy.
Well, surely Isaiah will be fine. We read Isaiah a lot during Advent: there’s all the stuff about a branch growing from the stump of Jesse, preparing the way in the wilderness, about the names that the Messiah shall be called. Nope. It’s all about God hiding from us. Greeeaaat.

Psalm 80? A lamentation, again, asking where God is. The passage from Corinthians? More about waiting for Christ’s return.

So my first reaction was disappointment, annoyance, confusion. This is not what I expect from Advent texts. Perhaps you experienced something similar.

But while our texts this morning are not your typical preparing-for-Christmas texts, they are suitable for Advent, and I think they can speak to us of our relationship with God just as well as the story of God in the form of a little child.

Who hasn’t, at one time or another, or even many times, wondered where the heck God is? Who hasn’t begged, “please God, come fix this!” Who hasn’t asked in prayer, “God, why aren’t you making your presence known?” Who hasn’t questioned if God even cares about us in the middle a crisis?

Personally, there are times I ask exactly the same questions Isaiah was asking. We read in the Bible of the Red Sea parting to allow the people of Israel to escape, of God’s appearance to Hagar as she fought death in the wilderness, of all the miracles Jesus performed. Isaiah pleads,

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.”

Isaiah’s saying, “Come on God. You used to do all these big things for our ancestors. Maybe people wouldn’t be sinning so much if you were doing that kind of thing now. Big gestures, that’s what we need! Mountains trembling!”

There are many times when I want a big gesture, an obvious miracle, a big flashing neon sign of God’s presence and action in the world.

Tomorrow, December 1, is World AIDS Day. 2008 marks the 20th anniversary of the recognition of the day to bring awareness to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Now, here I’m going to admit my youth: I grew up knowing about AIDS. I have few memories before the time when AIDS was known and named. I don’t believe I ever thought it’d be the epidemic it has grown to now, however. In developing areas of the world, AIDS is destroying whole countries of people. Millions of children are being left orphaned by AIDS, and often are fighting and dying of the disease themselves. Even here in the United States, one of the most educated and wealthy countries in the world, the Center for Disease Control estimates that in 2006, there were 56,300 people newly infected with HIV. That adds to more than one million estimated people already infected as of 2003, of whom about 25% --one quarter—were unaware of their infection.

Panels are still being added to the AIDS Memorial Quilt, now over 1.2 million square feet in size. If you were to spend one minute looking at each panel of the quilt, it would take you over 33 days to see the whole thing.

Where is God?

During this past week, we watched as a tragedy unfolded in Mumbai, India. Multiple attacks were carried out, including one at a Jewish center which killed a rabbi and his wife and left their two year old son orphaned. As of the most recent count, almost 200 people have died, and more than 300 are injured.

Where is God?

Over the last few years we’ve seen people and places devastated by natural disasters: fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, a tsunami.

Where is God?

In the ongoing worldwide financial catastrophe, we’ve watched as our friends, neighbors, and family members have lost jobs, as people struggle to find work, to make ends meet, to simply put food on the table.

Where is God?


Isaiah reminds us, as he reminds God, “O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Kate Huey, in her reflection on these texts writes, “No matter how bad things are, we are reminded that we belong to God, that all the earth belongs to God, and we believe that God breaks into this reality regularly.”

Isaiah was looking for grand gestures. We often hope for the same. Sometimes we get it: the end of apartheid might be one example, or the peace accord in Northern Ireland.

But more often than not, the Divine breaks into the earthly realm with far more subtlety.
This is Advent, remember? A time to remember God’s manner of incarnation. The people at the time of Jesus’ birth were expecting something big from the coming Messiah.

Instead God broke into the world through a young poor unknown woman named Mary, who gave birth to a boy-child not in the comfort of a palace as people expected, but in a stable or a cave. Simple. Humble. Unassuming.

Remember when Jesus gives his first teaching? “Who is this?” the crowds say. “Isn’t that just Joseph’s son?” Not the Messiah they were looking for, it was supposed to be someone important, not the neighborhood kid.

In the reading from Mark’s Gospel today, Jesus reminds us to keep alert, pay attention.

Perhaps this Advent there will be no Miracle on 34th Street (or Wall Street, for that matter). No angels appearing to shepherds on a starry hillside or to depressed men like George Bailey. No mountains trembling.

But, as Talitha Arnold writes, “God answered the demand, ‘Let your face shine that we might be saved,’ though not as anyone expected. Not in a return to the glory days of the past, but in the light of the Child born in Bethlehem, the light the darkness has never overcome.”

I believe that so too God will answer our demands of action, our pleas for presence, but it may not be in the way we want or expect. We may have to wait longer than we’d hoped. And in order to recognize it, especially in the chaos of the Christmas season, we’ll need to be aware, keep alert, pay attention.

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  1. Well done Beth - I enjoyed your sermon. I'm trying to find ways of injecting God into our Christmas season. Instead of questions about God's presence, I feel like my household is more interested in asking questions about LCD tvs.

  2. Beth - This was a good word. Thanks for sharing it. I could "hear" you perfectly.


  3. Good job! I think we write similarly, injecting our personalities into our words. Because I definitely "heard" you, too. How did the congregation react?

  4. Beth... Great sermon. I wish I would have heard it in person. I too have wondered the same thing - where is GOD and had to reassure myself that everything happens for a reason. If I give it all up to GOD, then the lord will guide me in the right path and show me the way.

    Great sermon... Kudos to you. :) ~Sheree