Defiance, Courage, and Hope”

November 27, 2011


Isaiah 64:1-9

Mark 13:24-37


Isaiah describes our human situation with troubling accuracy: “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”

We are mortal.

We are separated from God and from one another. We are separated even from the best in ourselves—which is what “iniquity,”—sin—means.

Once again in the past month we have received stark reminders of our condition: the leaves fall. The wind blows cold.

Yet even in these days, especially in these days, I invite you to look again for the faithfulness of God, who is our life and our light.

I invite you to look again for the faithfulness of God, for we are the work of God’s hand.

I invite you to look again for the faithfulness of God with defiance, courage, and hope.

As Congregationalists in the United Church of Christ, we enter to a season of defiance today.

Oh, most people call these days “Advent.”

This season that begins four Sundays before Christmas is intended to give each of us some much-needed time to prepare our hearts and our lives for the coming of Christ.

It’s a curious time, these weeks before Christmas. Since the fifth century, Christians have taken time to prepare for the celebration of God coming to us in Jesus at Christmas. The name “Advent” was given to this time, from the Latin word that means “coming.”

In faith we announce that God came to this world in a unique and decisive way, born in Bethlehem. We look backward and remember the “incarnation”—God taking on human existence, human flesh and bones, human pain and joy.

We also look forward to the Christ who will come in a unique and decisive way at the end of time. The picture language of stars falling and the darkened sun are not meant to be taken literally. Bu they tell of the God who acts—the God whose ways are made known.

During Advent, this season that looks ahead as much as behind, we are urged to stay awake, to keep alert, to watch. We look with expectation for what has been called “the coming again of our second chance.”

When I say that “we” do these things during Advent, I don’t mean most of our Congregationalist forebears. Early American Congregationalists in the 17th century rejected all honoring of special religious days, except Sunday. They were opposed to observing special religious seasons such as Advent. They didn’t even celebrate Christmas. In its early years, Congregationalists at Harvard, their little college in Massachusetts, held classes on Christmas day, just to show how unimportant it was. So Congregationalists certainly didn’t mark the days leading up to December 25 in any way.

It wasn’t until 1935—not even eighty years ago—that Congregationalists developed worship materials for use during Advent. That year, the first edition of the Pilgrim Hymnal cautiously included four Advent hymns.

Even though we now join with other Christians in four weeks of waiting and preparing and hoping as we move toward Christmas, our defiant Congregational attitude continues.

The days grow short. Almost as an act of resistance, we begin our worship with adults and children standing where all can see them and lighting a candle—a reminder to us that the light of God still shines in the darkness. The light fades early, but we say it will not always be so.

The leaves turn brown and fall. We take pine and balsam and holly—evergreens—and turn them into living circles with neither beginning nor end. As nature point toward death and decay, we turn our sights toward resurrection and new life.

Those who were just making it in warmer weather find themselves cold and hungry. In opposition to the poverty and despair in our city, we provide food and shelter.

War continues. We pray for peace and will continue to pray and act until our petitions are heard in the highest heavens and made real on earth.

The Congregational Way all too often goes against the way of the world. Our actions are filled with both symbol and substance. In our defiance we discover God, faithfully with us. In our defiance we proclaim God doing something new among us and within us.

Advent is a season of defiance.

Advent is also a season of courage.

After all, waiting is a part of Advent and waiting requires all of our strength and courage.

The temptation is to give up—to conclude that there is nothing worth waiting for, to decide that no arrival will end our waiting.

The temptation is to give in to the present—to accept that what is is all that can be, all that will be.

With courage we learn to wait—to keep awake, to stay alert in the faith that God’s promises are good, that, as Isaiah put it: “God works for those who wait for God.”

Some time ago I found myself, as I often do, in a hospital waiting room, sitting with members of a family while someone was in the operating room. In this case, it was a child having heart surgery. At one point his father turned to me and said: “You must do a lot of waiting.”

It was a unique way to describe my work, but I smiled with recognition. Another person had seen that much of my job is—how can I put this?—hanging around, being present, waiting: biding my time with others while we move through major events of living and dying. I wait with the strong conviction that God is to be found just at such times.

I want to call this “holy waiting,” not to make it sound more important than the waiting other people do or to suggest it's only done by “religious types.” It is holy because it is a waiting that is set apart and filled with power. Holy waiting—which all of us do—is active and immersed in the reality of this world.

Some waiting does change us. Think of waiting for test results to come back, waiting for a child to be born, waiting for healing, waiting to receive news of a loved one far away. As we wait, we learn again just how much we need each other.

In actively waiting, we are involved fully in this present world with the conviction that God is at work where we are. We will not flinch from the unpleasant realities of the present, but neither will we take them as the final word.

In our waiting, we enter a season of courage.

And this is a season of hope.

Yes, sometimes we grow weary.

Sometimes we would cry out to God like the prophet: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…so that the nations might tremble at your presence.” If only the Creator would simply join with the creation that longs for peace and fulfillment and life and light. The memory of God’s sure mercy in the past, however, allows us to look forward in hope.

The psalmist invites us to get real and be honest before God about our world, our lives, our hopes and our fears.

"Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel. . . stir up your might, and come to save us!" If Advent is the time of preparation for the coming of the incarnate Shepherd of Israel, we can start by confessing with the psalmist our own longing for deliverance. Some are reluctant to speak like this before God, fearing that such a lament indicates a lack of hope.

The people of Israel, however, were not reluctant to speak honestly with God. Maybe it's because they weren't trying real hard to convince themselves and everyone else that they were good, faithful people. Can we learn from them?

They remembered times of favor, times of prosperity. They would not forget their story, the story of God's sheltering care. In part of Psalm 80 that we didn't read, the people sang:

            You brought a vine out of Egypt;

            you drove out the nations and planted it.

            You cleared the ground for it;

            it took deep root and filled the land.

            The mountains were covered with its shade,

            the mighty cedars with its branches;

            it sent out its branches to the sea,

            and its shoots to the River.

Israel was that vine, and God was the gardener that gave it growth.

But now life is different. The walls around the vineyard are broken down. Wild boars—gentiles—uproot the garden.

If God seems distant at times, we need not sit waiting in silence. With the psalmist we can cry out: “O Lord God of Hosts, how long will you be angry with your people's prayers?”

To cry “God, we have had enough violence and hunger and death in this world!” is part of our Advent preparation. Our waiting is active. Our waiting suffers and hopes. As we announce the coming of the light of Christ, we cry out of the black holes of our own existence and listen for God’s faithful reply.

This is a time of defiance and courage and hope—as, really, all of life is. Advent just reminds us of what we are about in all our days.

As Christmas approaches, we need to get out and buy the presents. We need to bake the cookies, to sing and dance in the night, and to do all the other small and large things that we do to celebrate the reality that God has come to us in human flesh, to mark the occasion of God with us in this world of hunger and war. We do these things because we are the work of God’s hands. We are, as we saw once again in the baptisms of L. and L. this morning, the very children of God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.

We live—with defiance, courage, and hope—in the faithfulness of God.

We live in the everlasting faithfulness of God.