1st Advent. December 3, 2017
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling
Isaiah 64: 1-9
Psalm 80: 1-7, 16-18
1 Corinthians 1: 3-9
Mark 13 : 24-37
Let us pray: O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength, lift us we pray into your presence, that we may be still and know that you are God. Amen.
I watched a YouTube video of the total solar eclipse that happened this past August. Here it is: https://youtube/G10m2ZZRH4U.
I wonder if Jesus, back in his day, was talking about a total eclipse of the sun, when he said, “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Jesus said, “after that suffering” this will happen. “That” suffering was their suffering as the people of Israel; it was his impending suffering on the cross; and it is our suffering today. “That” suffering comes in all shapes and sizes for each and every one of us; and it comes to all people in the countries throughout our world.
Last Sunday, Shaykh Yasir, Senior Imam at the mosque in Roxbury, was our guest preacher. He spoke about how God created everyone and everything, and it was all good and beautiful. He spoke about sleep as a mini-death, and that when we wake up from a night’s sleep, however long or short it may be, we can give praise and thanksgiving to God for yet another day of light and life. Sleep is like a mini total eclipse of the sun.
Some of us can sleep like warriors. It doesn’t matter what else is going on around us, we can sleep straight through it. Others of us struggle mightily with sleep, lying awake, tossing and turning.The darkened sun, indeed the dark itself, can produce anxiety; and because of this anxiety, we are restless and fearful. We worry about many things. We sleep with one eye open, perhaps even two, staring into the night sky, wondering if the stars will fall from heaven, and our lives will soon end. We find ways to medicate ourselves to shut off those internal voices, to calm our night terrors, and to silence the enemy.
Anxiety can be acute or chronic. Anxiety is contagious, and it infects the people all around us. Now, acute anxiety soon passes, like the total eclipse of the sun, while chronic anxiety infects our whole system; it stays with us long after any specific event is over. The sun comes out and yet the darkness remains. The family fight is over, and we’re still angry and resentful. The war ended and the battles rage on. We are bitter, like the cold winds before an eclipse; and our responses become frozen like that well-known Princess in the movie.
The Rev. Peter Steinke writes that anxiety can “hold us back, take us by the throat, and chain us like a slave.” When chronic, we begin to think in narrow-minded ways, or behave in predictable patterns. We lose hope; we give up; we tighten our fists; we jerk our knees; we see through our sunglasses only darkly, and become depressed. We forget to walk in faith, even if we can’t see our way forward.
Jesus pointed to the fig tree and said, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” Now, here in Boston, I’m not aware of any fig trees close by. In fact, most trees these days are losing their leaves rather than putting forth new ones. Summer is definitely not near on this 3rd day of December, which marks the beginning of our winter months.
Today, also marks the beginning of our liturgical year, when the Church begins a new season, which we call Advent. Following the narrative of our Christian faith, we prepare for the birth of Jesus, who lived, died, and rose again after his suffering.The Latin translation for Advent means to ‘come to.’ Broken apart into two words, ‘vent’ is translated ‘come’, and ‘ad’ is translated ‘to.’ So Advent means to “come to”, to come to Jesus, to “come to” after sleep, and to wake up to new life.
The season of Advent prepares us for the birth of God in our own lives, which can take many forms. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus says that the ‘Son of Man’ will come in clouds with great power and glory.” For those of us who are looking for an all-powerful God from on high, to descend and make all things right in our world, this is a hopeful passage. Evil is real and it takes many forms. Who among us does not want God to be our avenger?
The Israelites had been defeated by their enemies. They had lost their homes and their jobs, and saw their city of Jerusalem and its holy temple destroyed. They wanted such relief. The prophet Isaiah prayed to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down to make your name known to your adversaries.” The psalmist prayed similarly, repeating three times in psalm 80, “restore us, O God of hosts, show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”
Perhaps you saw the article in the Boston Globe this past week about the Rev. Tom Hoar, a Roman-Catholic priest from Quincy, Mass. who was “a genial guy whose spiritual home as a kid was a triple-decker in South Boston. (A few years ago) he created a retreat center on Enders Island off the shores of Connecticut, for those who have lost their way because of their addictions. He knows. He was there once long ago.”
“I never felt good enough,’’ he said. “Never felt smart enough. My brother was always the better athlete. Even though I excelled in school, internally I felt empty. And you see that in many alcoholics and addicts. I could preach a great sermon on how much God loved you. I wasn’t always sure that God loved me. Even though I achieved, I lived in fear.’’
“And Hoar developed a taste for alcohol. Good wine. Top-shelf whiskey. Fine cognac.”
“In early October of 1989, he was leading a new campus ministry at his alma mater in Vermont. He was alone, drinking in his room when a fire broke out about a mile away. He was the fire department chaplain, so he answered the alarm.”
“I went to this fire and the dean of students said to me, ‘Have you been drinking?’ And I said: ‘No, no, no, no.’ And the fire chief, who was a dear friend of mine said, ‘Have you been drinking?’ And I said, ‘No. I went out to dinner and had some drinks.’ ’’
“Hoar left the fire scene, navigating a sea of flashing red and blue lights. A mile later, he was back at home, where he looked in the mirror and took stock. “I said, ‘What the [expletive] are you doing?’ And that was my last drink.’’
“For (all) who cross that tiny one-lane bridge, whose lives have been wrecked by drugs and alcohol, who have left behind a trail of betrayal and defeat, of hopelessness and paralyzing fear, it is nothing less than the passage of a lifetime. When they get to the other side, he has the simplest of questions. It is a life-changing one. The Rev. Tom Hoar asks, “Have you had enough?”
“I’m grateful for God’s blessings in my life and in the life of the folks who come across that causeway,’’ Hoar said last week. “Because people who come across that causeway are looking for hope.’’
We all pray for the moon to pass, for the sunshine to return, and our anxieties to be relieved. We all want to find and embrace hope, so that we can see beyond our own darkness to the light that shines as bright as Venus in the night sky. Most of us would prefer to see the dawn of a new day, rather than the vesper light in the sunset of our lives.
Today, Janet McKenzie’s art surrounds us with hope. As Christians, we proclaim our resurrection faith, which begins with the birth of Jesus, who is our causeway, a tiny one-lane bridge, to a new life of hope. The sun may rise and set, and our nights of sleep, or days of life, may feel like mini-deaths; and yet we believe that Christ is the light of the world that will cast away the works of darkness forever. We believe that life does not end in him, that death no longer has its victory, no longer has its sting.
In times of anxiety and despair, some claim that God is nowhere to be found or to be seen. And yet, taking those two words apart, as we did with the word Advent, the word no-where can easily become “now-here.” God is now here - in you, in me, in Janet’s art, and in every breath that we take. God is now here: all good, all knowing, all powerful, and ever present. Keep alert, Jesus said. Stay awake, for the holy One is in the midst of us, and hallowed is God’s name.
Today, be a tender branch from Jesse’s tree, shooting forth new life in little evergreen branches. Stand firm in your faith, and as St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Give thanks to God always for the grace of God which has been given to each of us in Christ Jesus who will strengthen us to the end.”
Do not succumb to fear; for Jesus’ words have not passed away, and “in Him there is no darkness at all, the night and the day are both alike.” Sleep at peace. Awake with hope. Wait expectantly; for God is near, God is now here, and in God is our hope and our salvation. Amen.