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Sunday November 28 1999 ~ First Sunday of Advent
Sermon Texts:  Selected from all Lectionary Lessons
Mark 13:24-37 *  Isaiah 64:1-9   *  1 Corinthians 1:3-9  *  Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19


The Actions of Christmas
I. Waiting

How are you at waiting? Are you one of those people whose blood pressure rises when you are in a long line at the check-out counter of your favorite grocery store? And it gets worse – after an already long wait, the person at the front of the line needs a price check on an unmarked item.

If you are tempted to switch lines, there was a study of line switching (probably funded by the federal government) which showed that switching lines usually results in a longer wait. In fact, your chances of a longer wait are directly related to how many lines are available. If there are four lines, the odds are four to one for a longer wait – seven lanes means a seven to one chance of more delay. You get the idea. Very bad news for people who hate waiting.

I have to confess that the issue of waiting is one of those areas of my living where God has richly blessed me with an opportunity for much growth! I am one of those people whose heart sinks when my wife and I go to one of our favorite restaurants where the sign says, "Please wait to be seated." When the host or hostess says something like, "It will be about 40 minutes," I find myself thinking, "Maybe McDonalds would be better this time." My wife knows I am apt to do a U-turn when I see a parking lot crammed full at the place we were going to eat. She hates it when I look for an empty parking lot – She’s probably thinking, "If no one is eating there, can it be very good?"

Yet – waiting is a central part of life. When you think about it, we spend a huge chunk of our lives waiting.

Waiting to hear if you got the job.

Waiting for the doctor to call.

Waiting for your teenager to come home with the car.

Waiting for the "other shoe" to drop.

But there is a more insidious kind of waiting. A waiting that almost escapes our attention in spite of the fact that it eats away at the meaning of our lives. This toxic waiting is reflected in a story I heard years ago.

A little boy could not wait to get to high school. The high school kids seemed to have so much fun. Once he got to high school however, he noticed that the people, like his sister, who had gone off to college were having more fun than he was. He could not wait to get to college. But college seemed to drag on after a time and he was tired of all the homework. He couldn’t wait to get out of school, get a job and make some money. When he got his first job, it seemed as though people who were really happy were the ones with a wife or husband, a couple of children and a home with a back yard – maybe even a family dog. But once he was married and had two children and a mortgage and a dog, he envied those couples whose children had gone away to college. They had so much more time for each other. Finally his children had left for college. But now the burden of a mortgage and tuition for two children was very heavy and he couldn’t wait to be out of debt, pay off his house and retire. Then he could have some real fun like all those people who move to Arizona and play golf every day. Then one day – in the early winter of his life – standing at the tee of the 18th hole of the golf course near his home in Phoenix – (still unable to straighten out the horrible slice that had plagued him ever since he retired) – he thought to himself, "What’s the point?"

This poor fellow, like so many others had waited all his life for and wound up missing the point altogether. In biblical terms, you might say he "waited upon" the wrong thing. The familiar phrase from the prophet Isaiah points to another kind of waiting. Not a toxic waiting, but a healthy waiting that leads to meaning. "…They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength…" (Is. 40:31 KJV)

***

 This issue of waiting is not a new thing of course. Long ago the Psalmist cried out:

"How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?"  (Ps. 31:1-2)

Each of the lectionary readings for today speaks of waiting. Isaiah is waiting and longing for God to intervene in his world where things seem all wrong. "Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down…" (64:1) he cries to God. The Psalmist pleads with God for forgiveness, "… how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?" is the cry. "Come to save us!" In his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul encourages the people who are waiting for the return of Christ. And in the gospel lesson, Jesus tells his followers to stay alert and cautions them to be watchful as they wait for his return.

You can relate can’t you? Most of us have had times when we were waiting and longing for God to do something. The Psalmist’s, "Come to save us…" may be one of most frequent prayers of our life. True enough – this prayer likely comes in those most difficult moments of our lives – but even this is reflected in the scriptures. The lessons from Isaiah and the Psalms were both spoken in some of the most painful moments in Israel’s history.

***

Here’s the big thing about waiting – and trust me – this is from a person who has not always been the most patient or productive of "waiters".

Waiting is going to be a major issue in all of our lives, for all of our lives.

There is not such thing as a life without waiting.

(I must tell you that as I speak these words, my spouse is sitting here with the strangest look on her face. She is writing down every word – and if God is gracious today, she will not burst into uproarious laughter during this sermon on waiting!)

Nevertheless it is true. It is not whether we are going to go through a lot of waiting in our lives, but how we are going to wait. Isaiah has the most important clue. "They who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength." The flip side of this is, "Those who wait without the Lord shall wear themselves out!"

As we begin our Advent journey this year, we come to the first dimension of the Christmas Season. Waiting!

Most of us will do a lot of waiting during this season. There may even be some times when you will have to "wait it out" – at the crowded stores, the grocery stores or the post office (you do have your Christmas cards ready to go – don’t you?)

Our children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews are going into their "I can’t wait" mode. The retailers and shopkeepers are waiting for the "bottom line." While the rest of us finally close our eyes and drift off to sleep on Christmas Eve, computers in corporate offices will be analyzing data to determine whether this was a "good" Christmas.

But this is not the kind of waiting the bible is talking about. Our scripture lessons today are talking about waiting for God! As Israel longed for Messiah to come and fulfill their hopes and dreams, so each one of us has a place within that longs for the coming of the Lord.

The real gifts of this season are not the gifts you find in the stores and place under the tree. The real joy of the season is not the "holiday spirit" found in all the parties and gatherings. The real fulfillment of the season is not when we open even the most special gift with our hands…

The real gift of this season is when we open our hearts and wait for the coming of the Lord in our spirits.

Jesus’ words in Mark serve as a strong caution to Christian people as we enter what can be the most hectic season of the year. The outward "mad dash" of the world around us can distract us from the real thing. We are vulnerable to spiritual lethargy precisely because the outward, secular Christmas can lull us into a false sense that we are celebrating the incarnation when in fact, we are celebrating the culture.

To all of this Jesus’ words serve as a warning that in the rush of this season, we might miss his coming.

"Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come… or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

A man stands at the 18th hole in the early winter of his life wondering, "What was the point?"

In the words of the Psalmist, "Come save us…" O Lord, from arriving at the end of this season having missed the point.

Let this seed be planted in your heart today. Every time you find yourself waiting during this Advent season – whether it is waiting in a store, in traffic or in your preparations – allow this prayer to come to your heart:

"Lord, as I find myself waiting once again, may I wait upon you for the gift of meaning in my life!"


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Texts

All of our texts point to the issue of "waiting."  Isaiah watches the disintegration of his people -- God's people and can not hold his tongue.  "Why don't you intervene God?"   The people have sinned, the nations act without regard for God and things are generally a mess!  Isaiah calls on God to be merciful, "We are all your people," he intones.  The Psalmist likewise calls on God to show mercy and kindness and to forgive the sins of the people of God.  The promise of verse 18 sounds so familiar. "(save us) Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call upon your name."  Waiting!

The New Testament lessons also speak of waiting, but this time it is waiting for Christ to return in glory.  In both cases there is anticipation of the triumph of God over all.  There is a longing for the righteous intervention of God in a world where God's people suffer indignity and injustice.  There may be an opportunity here to talk about the continuing secularization of western culture.  The fact that the old "Christmas" holidays for school children is now called a winter break and the manger scene down at the town square has long since gone the way of other unconstitutional things like school prayer or the old baccalaureate services.  That is not to pronounce these things good or bad -- it is to say that we need to be aware that we are in a post-Christian culture.   Some argue that it is an "anti-Christian" culture.  The name of Christ does seem to garner more hostililty than that of Mohammed or Buddha or other historical religious figures.  The main thing here is that our listeners have the opportunity to examine our texts with a view to examining the particularities of our faith. Advent is a great time to do that.

One of our elders said it this way: "It's kind of interesting.  At work it is okay to mention God.  It is not okay to mention Jesus."

Mark

To his followers who have been told that they will endured pain and persecution, Jesus makes a promise, "I will return in glory and with power and all things will be made right." Creation itself is involved in this consummation. As the Psalmist speaks of trees claping their hands and fields rejoicing, so Mark uses Old Testament prophetic imagery to describe the coming of the Lord in power and glory. (i.e. Joel 2:10-11) The key issue is that no matter what things may appear to be, the fact is God will act decisively in history.

The text from Mark does take us to the final or eschatalogical sayings of Christ, while liturgically we are at the beginning of the church year – nevertheless the issue of God’s decisive action in history is very much a part of the Advent and Christmas season. The incarnation was God’s decisive intervention in history and carries with it the promise of completion or – consummation.

Verses 28-31 will provide much grist for the mill of those who delight in prediction. The changing of the century and turning of the calendar to 2000 will see a tremendous emphasis on the words, "… when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates…" Yet, it would be a mistake to shy away from the words. Advent is a time not only to celebrate the incarnation, but to reflect on how it is that Christ is "near – at the very gates" in every moment of our lives. The concluding words of the text, "Therefore keep awake!" are excellent counsel for the season.

Christ is near – at the very gates – when we see someone excluded because of race or tongue, when the nightly newscast tells the story of another attrocity, when bitterness and distance invades our closest relationships. A good question for reflection might be, "When is Christ not at the very gates of our living?" A constant reminder of this is the calligraphy we have framed in our dining room, "Christ is the head of this house, the chosen guest at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation."

Isaiah

"If only God would intervene and make everything right!"  Have you ever had such a thought?   Might makes right... it's who you know and not what you know... justice is more readily available if you can afford a legal "dream team"...  Things just don't seem right.

And yet, if God were to hold me to a divine standard of righteousness, I would very quickly want mercy instead of God's justice.  In Isaiah's words, "All our {my} righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth..."  I do not call upon the Lord or seek the Lord as I should and, "... you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity."  Wonderful point here.  If we persist in having it "our way" -- God will sing the "Burger King song to us."  Namely, "Have it your way!"  And yet it turns out that "our" way is the way of devastation while God's way is the way to life.

The Advent message in Isaiah's words are contained in verses 7-8.  Translated for our folk it might come out something like:  "God, I am your child, the work of your hand.  I belong to you and I pray that you would be merciful and not remember my failures for time and eternity.  Please remember that I am your child."

As the season of Christ's birth draws nearer, there is opportunity to look closely at my inner bearings.  As we sing, "O Holy child of Bethlehem" once again, we might look within to examine how his holiness has impacted our lives.

1 Corinthians

The trials of the church at Corinth are well known. Most of the Corinthian correspondence has to do with the multitude of problems the congregation faced. Paul's heart was filled with grief at the actions of this fellowship.

And precisely in this there is an Advent message.  Because of the gift of God in Jesus Christ, there is always reason to give thanks.  Paul looks to the positive, renewing power of Christ for even the church at Corinth. Thus he can give thanks for them as he does at the beginning of this letter.

There is good pastoral advice as well as a good Advent message here.  Namely:  Find that which you can give thanks for and commend people for and the discipline and correction you may need to bring will more likely be heard.  Paul can speak words of correction because he has first spoken words of praise and love.  It is the faithfulness of God, Paul says, that is their hope for eventual glory.  Their destination is secure in spite of the fact that there are serious bumps in the road along the way.  It is the Christ who comes to us in this season who will also strengthen you (us) to the end..."

 

Worship Helps

A Call To Worship (Based on Psalm 80:1-9)

Leader: We gather with the saints of every age, O Lord,
People: To journey to Bethlehem once again.
Leader: We have wandered far away, O God,
People: Our hearing has grown dull,
Leader: And our sight has grown dim,
People: Come in this season and restore us O Holy One,
Leader: Let your light shine upon us O God,
People: As we rejoice in your salvation and prepare
               for the birth of your Son. Amen.

A Prayer of Dedication

The light and truth you send upon us are the greatest gifts,
we can know.  How can we do less than rejoice, give thanks
and bring these gifts to you.  O call us to yourself once again
and renew our spirits.  Give us grace to reflect your glory in
our lives this coming week.  Amen.