A Sermon for November 27, 2016

Congregational United Church of Christ,  Iowa City, Iowa

" Apocalypse, Revelation and Grace "      Rev. Jeff Barton

Isaiah 2:1-5  •  Psalm 122  •  Matthew 24:36-44


Happy and Blessed New Year !   Lost too often amidst the multi-cultural concerns of how to greet each other in a religiously diverse society - -   Merry Christmas? Happy Holidays? Have a Cool Yule ? - - is the multiple New Years celebrated in different community calendars.  Rosh Hashanah was in early October this fall, but will be in mid September in 2017.  Diwali was in late October this fall,  but will be 10 days earlier in 2017, unless you live in the southern hemisphere where it is celebrated in the spring.  The list of New Years observances and celebrations is way too long to recite here today. Most of us are content and happy with January 1st and the Gregorian Calendar, unless a favorite college football team isn't playing in the Rose Bowl game that day.   


But today is the Liturgical New Year, according to the way many Christian traditions sort out their church calendar. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and this is the day when we start a new cycle of church seasons. Advent, Christmas (for 12 days), Epiphany, Lent, Easter (for seven Sundays) and the approximate half year that follows Pentecost.   Advent consists of four Sundays prior to Christmas Day.  Since Christmas this year is on a Sunday,  we get a longer than usual Advent season this year, a full 28 days.  


Today, on this first Sunday of Advent, we change the year of our scripture cycle from Year C (somewhat focused on the gospel of Luke) to Year A which is mostly focused on the gospel of Matthew.  And we mark the four Sundays of Advent with the lighting of the candles on an Advent Wreath.  The liturgical color changes to purple (or blue) and while it looks a lot like Christmas in the shopping malls, in the church we try to watch, wait and prepare for Christmas. So, during Advent, rather than to jump the starter's gun some congregations and traditions - and many families and individuals - pay attention to the Sunday themes and lessons which are most often noted by Peace, Hope, Joy and Love.  


As we read in the lessons a moment ago,  the first Sunday of Advent, in all three lectionary cycles, starts with a note of judgment and even apocalypse. This seems to be done to remind us that whatever the challenges facing the world and our own circumstance, the renewal of our attention to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ will bring tidings of good news and new promise.


Thus congregations of every sort will more often focus on the Hebrew Scripture Prophet on this day, rather than on the gospel text.  So while Isaiah 2 is in a lesson of salvation and judgment, (read the final verses of Isaiah chapter 1, for context) we love the image of beating swords into plowshares and forgoing war.  We really like the invitation to walk in the light of our God. The gospel, like today, and in all three cycles of Advent One, is much less comforting, at least to most Christians on first thought.


Often, but not always, the first Sunday of Advent is the Sunday following the designated Thanksgiving Thursday in the USA.  Years ago I was one of two associates at the UCC at Dartmouth College.  The other associate pastor and I began to have a running bet that the senior pastor would, by mid summer, find a reason or excuse to be away for the first Sunday of Advent. He could note family time when it was the Sunday concluding the Thanksgiving extended weekend, as it is today.   Still, he never preached the first Sunday of Advent,  even when it was a full week after the thanksgiving weekend, as it sometimes is.  What we learned over the years is that the senior pastor really got weirded out about the "little apocalypse lessons" that show up on this Sunday.  I'm not aware that Bill Lovin has such a case of "The Biblical/Theological Whim Whams" over the Advent One lectionary, but then I wonder who is keeping track of his Liturgical New Years attendance?


We all have known, and most of us are - - in one way or another - - facing upheaval and challenge that we might prefer to avoid.  We do experience a form of apocalypse most every season, if not most every day.  Maybe your candidate for elected office lost their race, and you live with dread about what might happen over the next term of office?  Or,  maybe your candidate won, and you now must sort out what can be done to reconcile campaign rhetoric with actual responsibility, and that may prove to be much more terrifying?  Maybe you are facing challenge about the health of a friend or family member?  Or facing uncertainty about job and/or vocation?  Maybe there is a chasm between you and someone you love or care about?  Maybe you are troubled by the prospect of injustice that seems to renew itself in our various circles even when we strive to work for peace and justice?  The ways we face and struggle with the concerns which trouble us, be they easy to name or disconcertingly hard to get a handle on, can teach us a lot about our sense of God in our world.  


When it comes to the concept of apocalypse, too often there are knuckleheads who, in some position of religious authority, are all too willing to tell us how what they want to occur in the world is exactly the same as what God wants.  They see judgment as excusing their own failures and foibles, but condemning the choices and/or circumstance of others.  You know that when someone says that a particular storm or earthquake "is God's judgment" upon some one or some group, that such projection is not worthy of the people who are the beloved community called to follow Jesus.  When someone insists that "God hates" a group or an activity, that such bluster is not worthy of the people who remember that God so loved the world that the Christ was sent to show us how to live  with and for each other.  These are, I fear, self designated authorities who don't often know the light of God and walk away from it more often than in it.  


Marcus Borg spoke and wrote of the "Heart of Christianity."  As we complete this Thanksgiving holiday, it is worth noting that Borg suggested that "a closed heart lacks gratitude.  If successful in life, a person with a closed heart often feels self-made and entitled; or if life has gone badly, bitter and cheated.  But gratitude is far from it."  Borg continues by suggesting "a closed heart is insensitive to wonder and awe.  The world looks ordinary when our hearts are closed."  


On this first Sunday of Advent - - on the new year of our continuing pilgrimage past the manger, past the cross, and on beyond towards the wonderful and awesome possibility that not even death can be the final word when we trust in the love of God - - we would do well to try to get past any whim whams about apocalyptic judgment.  So much and too much of Christian tradition has been about the penalties for past failure rather than the possibilities in what is yet to be more fully discovered.  Judgment is almost always seen as an end of life or end of times accounting of our sin.   As kids used to wrestle with this common but disconcerting concept, I used to tell my confirmation classes that it might be helpful to understand God as our judge only if we also understood that the same judge is also our skilled and clever attorney on the case for our defense.  Better yet, why not consider an idea like that of a juried art exhibition, and see God's judgment as that of a renowned art teacher who instructs us with an ever unfolding commitment to helping us better achieve competence and skill in the art of being human?


Our esteemed neighbor, the writer and theologian, Marilynne Robinson, has said something similar, but with far greater artistry.  She notes that "there is much talk of judgment in the Western tradition, and little acknowledgment of the primary character of judgment, that is, revelation.  It is no departure from tradition or orthodoxy, only a shift of emphasis, to say that, granting a Day of the Lord, we will learn what we have been and what we are, against the standard of grace and true righteousness, of which we have had no more than inklings, and in the light of a fullness of Being from which it has been our nature to withhold ourselves."  


I really wish more of us could or would consider the wonder and awe of apocalypse as revelation.  And again,  not the seven bowls and seven seals of the Book of Revelations, a story of apocalyptic judgment that has been abused and misused far more often than it has deserved. Rather, revelation as a lifetime of learning more of the God of love which/who has called us to be in relationship with each other, with the planet, and with the Holy One that Jesus teaches is the light that we seek in the darkness. 


Too often our thinking about judgment has not allowed for mistakes, for improvement, for re-focusing, and for better and different experiences from what we have previously known.  It has insisted on perfection, and even scripture assures us that none of us is perfect.  Thus, a couple weeks ago, I was very impressed when at the death of Leonard Cohen, the tributes to him recalled not only his remarkable poetry and his unique and essential voice - -  they made reference to his deep and wide adventures with theology and to grace amidst the complexities of human life.   


Thus I offer as an Advent gift these words from Cohen's Anthem,  words which might touch your open heart with a revelation rooted deep in Cohen's Jewish tradition and shaped by his exploration of other ways of being human as well.  If this gift doesn't fit,  or isn't on your wish list, remember there will be other gifts as we move from this season to the next, and from this year to the next, and on and on.  But if you are in anyway troubled about the various ways that forms of apocalypse put you into turmoil, or dread, or frustrating challenge, or existential brokenness; this might be a gift of grace for you.


" You can add up the parts

You won't have the sum

You can strike up the march

There is no drum

Every heart, every heart to love will come

But like a refugee

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)

That's how the light gets in "


Happy New Year.  Blessed Advent.  We need not be perfect. We can walk in the light. Grace will be revealed, again and again.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  





Sources and Resources 


Marcus Borg,  The Heart of Christianity, 2003, HarperSanFrancisco,  

                                 Chapter 8 page 152.


Marilynne Robinson, The Giveness of Things, 2015, Farrar Straus and Giroux, Experience page 234




The New Interpreters Bible Volume VI, 2001, Abingdon


The New Interpreters Bible Volume VIII, 1995, Abingdon