A Sermon for November 27, 2016
Congregational United Church of Christ, Iowa City,
" Apocalypse, Revelation and Grace "
Rev. Jeff Barton
Isaiah 2:1-5 • Psalm 122 • Matthew
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
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
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
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,
Chapter 8 page
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