Sunday, November 30, 2014 – Sermon on Isaiah 64, Psalm 80, and Mark 13

Mark 13:24-37
24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 28 “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. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Isaiah 64:1-9
1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence– 2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. 6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth 2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us! 3 Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. 4 O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? 5 You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. 6 You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves. 7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. 17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself. 18 Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name. 19 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from our God revealed to us in Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Do you ever wish you could start over? Do you ever wish that you could go back to the beginning and do things over once again? Maybe with that conversation that didn’t go as you had hoped. Maybe so that you could make a different decision at a turning point in your life. Maybe so that you could have appreciated more the time you had with a loved one who is now gone. Maybe so that you could have chosen a different career, or told that friend how you really felt about them before they went off and dated someone else. Do you ever wish you could just start over?

Our reading from Isaiah today begins with these words: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. What could lead Isaiah to say such a thing to God? Isaiah says, Lord, we sinned and you are angry. But don’t be angry any longer. Please. Lord, tear open the heavens and come down. And consider us your people once again. Let us start over.

And you can hear Isaiah’s desperation in that word tear. Lord, tear open the heavens. Don’t just open them. Don’t unzip them. Tear them open. Come quickly, Lord, we need you. Now. Whenever someone tells you tear something open, they never mean “take your time” or “be careful and go slowly.” Think of children at Christmas time. What do they do? They tear open the presents, because it is quickest. O Lord that you would tear open the heavens and come down. We’ve sinner and your angry. But please don’t be angry any longer. Consider us your people once again. You get the sense that Isaiah is wishing to start over. Wishing that they could go back and do things differently.

Or take our psalm for today. There was a repeated phrase in the psalm. We spoke it three times: Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. Restore us. So that we might be saved. The people of Israel are in need of restoration. And the problem with restoration is having to go through the desperation that calls it forth. If you restore the roof of your house, it is because you have been leaked on. If you restore a friendship, it is because it was once broken. If you restore a painting, it is because layers of grim have collected upon its surface for decades, muddying the bright colors and the intricate details. And so in our psalm we learn of a desperate people in need of restoration. Listen to their words at the end: Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name. 19 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” You get the sense that the psalmist and his people are wishing they could start over. Re-store us. Bring us back to how things used to be. Help us start over, Lord, and do things differently.

And then there is our gospel reading. And while it might not seem entirely clear after just one reading, our gospel text for today begs for a chance to start over as well. The gospel began, “But in those days, after that suffering.” What suffering? Well around the time this gospel was written, there was a war going on in Jerusalem. The Roman Empire was destroying the Jewish people and destroyed the temple. It was absolute destruction. And you can imagine that after such a war and after the temple is destroyed and after all that suffering, the people in Jerusalem would love for nothing more than a chance to start over.

And so all three of those texts long for a chance to start over. But here is the thing about starting over. In order for something to start over, something has to end. In order for something to start over, then the current situation has to come to an end. I heard this wonderful quote a couple of weeks ago – “Corporations are afraid of death; gardeners aren’t.” (Rachel Held Evans). Corporations are afraid of death; gardeners aren’t. Isn’t that a great line? Gardeners know that the death of the garden is the beginning of something new. Next year’s garden. And in fact, the death of the old garden feeds and nourishes the life of the new garden.

We long for a chance to start again, but in order for something to start over, something has to end. And if we continue reading the rest of our gospel for today, at first glance, it sounds like what’s coming to an end is… the world. The sun is darkened, the moon will give off no light, and the stars start falling from the sky and the powers in heaven will be shaken. It sounds like a text that is meant to frighten us or scare us into believing in God so that God will take us in the end. The text is one that makes all of us think about the rapture – or the end of the world. But let me be very clear, this is not about the end of the world. This isn’t about the rapture. The rapture isn’t even in the Bible.

This is actually meant to be a hopeful word, not a frightening one. Why? Because the thing that is coming to an end is not the world, but rather it the end of that great suffering. It is about the end of the Roman Empire oppressing the Israelites. It’s about the end of wars that leave people dead in the streets. And so the readers of Mark’s gospel would not hear this text as something that scares them, but as something that brings them hope. “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. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” This was a hopeful word because it means a new day is coming. A chance to start over. It says that the heavens are being torn open and God is coming down. God is coming to put an end to the Roman Empire and the things that bring suffering to this life. Isaiah asks for the heavens to be torn open and now they are. The psalmist asks for restoration and now it’s coming. This text from the gospel of Mark – it is the gift of a new start. God’s healing of the world. A new age. A new dawn. The Kingdom of God coming to earth. And the gospel tells us to keep awake. Because we don’t want to miss the moment, all the moments, when God shows up giving us a chance for a new start.

I have always thought that the Scripture readings on the first Sunday of Advent were strange. Out of place. Not appropriate for the feeling of this season. But now I have changed my mind on that. All the texts are about the end of something, but they plead for the beginning of something. They plead for a new start.

And that’s what the season of Advent is. This season of Advent is the gift of a new start. A new church year. Now, with the God of Jesus, every moment is a moment to start over. Every moment is a time when we can begin again in a new way. A way of grace. But Advent gives us this marked time. A time of starting over that reminds us and revitalizes us into the promise that God is here and at work bringing an end to the world all right. But it is the world of poverty that is coming to an end. The world of injustice and the world of people getting killed by the police and no one knows whose story is true that is coming to an end. It is the world of chronic illness and suffering and the world of addiction and broken relationships that is coming to an end. It is the world of homelessness and hunger that is coming to an end.

Advent is the season when we get to start over and be reminded once again of the promise that God is at work tearing open the heavens and coming down so as to bring about a new earth – a healed earth. But we know that this hasn’t happened fully yet. We know that those worlds are not fully over. “We see the state of the world around us, what with war, famine, illness, greed, abuses of power, and we know that the world God hopes of us—that reign of God marked by never-ending love and flourishing life—that world is still yet-to-come.” (Erik Koepnick). That Kingdom of God is not fully here yet. And so we wait. In hope. The season of Advent has all this talk about waiting. In one sense, we are waiting to celebrate Christ’s birth. But we are also waiting for that time when we can say that Jesus has finally come once again fully and completely. A time when the world is fully healed and restored. And so we are waiting for that time. But we don’t wait passively. We wait actively.

We wait actively “trusting that God’s goodness is always present, that God’s love for the world will never go away, that even the worst that can happen or the most powerful evil in the world cannot outlast or extinguish God’s love for the world.” (Todd Lippert) How do we do this? By going to Meals of Hope and feeding hungry people. By putting mittens on the mitten tree and by giving food to the food shelf and by putting coins into the little red buckets. We do all of this not so we can be nice, but because as Christians we get to proclaim that hunger or homelessness or poverty or brokenness or addiction or depression or mental illness do not get to have the last word on anyone’s life. That God is at work in this world putting an end to all of the things that destroy life, so that something new can grow in its place.

So happy New Year friends. A new church year for us. A chance to start over. A chance to put an end to our fears and to trust once again in the promise that God is always being born into this world. Isaiah pleads, “O Lord, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” The Psalmist begs, “Restore us, O Lord God so that we may be saved.” And the gospel of Mark says, “Keep awake.” Because the Lord God is already here. Amen

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