Look Both Ways
The following sermon was preached by Craig M. Mueller, Interim Associate Director of Spiritual Formation, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, December 1, 2008.
Isaiah 64: 1-9; Mark 13:24-37
Look both ways. That's what we learn as kids. Look both ways before you cross the street. After all, there could be danger lurking.
It seems a lot of theology is about looking both ways. Sometimes it's called memory and hope. Or salvation history and eschatology. We proclaim God's faithfulness in the past and we proclaim that the future is in God's hands as well.
It seems there is another kind of looking both ways at seminary. You're always looking back and telling the story of your call, your experience in the church, the ways your faith has been formed. And there is always looking ahead to what's next. It seems to never end, this planning and preparing. Applications for CPE, MIC, internship, first call. There is always this unknown future out there: where will be I next year, and the year after that. Sure, it and be a bit exciting and adventuresome, but it can also be downright stressful!
There is yet one more kind of looking both ways I want to mention. We do a lot of looking up and down in our faith. We say that when God comes down in glory and awe, it is a theophany. Sure, we know that God is not literally up. But in the creed we say that Jesus came down from heaven. Then he ascended back to heaven. Then the Spirit descends. God seems to do a lot of going up and down.
The people are pretty down in the reading from Isaiah. They have returned to their devastated land. They feel abandoned and hopeless. So they lament their plight. They cry out to God: "O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down." They thought of the sky as a solid, plastic-like covering over the earth. For God to come down to earth, God would need to break the "skin" of the firmament. Like an animal tearing open a cage. Helpless and discouraged, it's as if the people are looking up to the sky, shaking and their fists and saying: God, get down here right now.
And the people in Mark's day. They're pretty down too. But Jesus is talking about things up in the sky. The sun will grow dark. The moon will give no light. Stars will fall from the sky. The powers of the heavens will be shaken. With persecution under Roman rule and the destruction of the temple it certainly would have felt like the end of the world. To their realm of experience, a downer of cosmic proportions.
A couple of years ago this was the tagline for a children's movie: "The end is near. This time the sky is really falling." An acorn falls on Chicken Little and he mistakes it for a piece of blue sky. Look both ways: danger is at hand! He sounds the apocalyptic alarm which sends his panicked neighbors into a tizzy.
Usually fear is used as a motivator with end-of-the-world talk. Yet apocalyptic material such as this is meant to give hope to those facing tribulation and persecution. The world may pass away but God's word, God's promise, God's presence is everlasting. And it is that good news that we announce as we once more begin the season of Advent. As we celebrate the church's "new year," we are startled back to our senses. Such unsettling images again give us our Advent agenda: be alert and awake, watch and wait. For the Lord is coming at an unexpected hour.
The blues of Advent are quite a contrast to the jingle bells, sparkling lights, and the eight weeks of non-stop Christmas music that began November 2 on one Chicago radio station. We've been looking both ways as we've seen the market go up and down. Unemployment rates rise. Home values fall. And all the fluid, changing news of the past weeks has caused many people's emotions to go up and down as well.
Not to mention that all the hype and expectation of these pre-Christmas days are enough to get some people down. Not to mention the let-down that follows. Grief, depression and anxiety seem to just get intensified at this hap-hap-happiest time of the year. For many of you it's just getting through all that needs to be done this week. Who's really thinking about presents, cards and party invitations?
Still we come back to our Advent agenda: wake up! Sometimes we can be so busy looking both ways that we don't look where we are right now! Wisdom from Buddhism would remind us that much of our suffering comes from living in the past and the future, and missing the present. We can be so obsessed with our past hurts and regrets and anxious about the future that we miss the grace of the present moment.
But what if the present seems stressful, difficult, lonely, filled with suffering? Can there be gifts in the down times? One commentator writes that the positive meaning to the economic downturn is that we are waking up to more prudent, responsible lifestyles. It also invites us to embrace a spirituality of uncertainty. That is, embracing that good can come from whatever life hands us. Robin Silverman (in The Ten Gifts) writes that her worst fear was losing everything that mattered to her. And it came true. Her home was totally destroyed in the devastating flood in Grand Forks, North Dakota about a decade ago. Yet this ultimate downer became the most liberating moment of her life. From that loss she was able to find many gifts, and a life of renewed peace and meaning.
For it's not so much what happens to us that will define us, but how we respond. And how alert and awake we are to the spiritual invitations in these so-called bad experiences. When we see in these hard times the potential for growth and a richer, deeper life, we are able to face the future in a more balanced, centered way.
Advent is sometimes described as celebrating the three comings of Christ: He came, he comes, he will come again. We remember his first coming two thousand years ago. And we wait for his coming again at the end of time. Someone joked this past week that some Christians must be so disappointed with Jesus' first coming that they spend all their time waiting for him to come again, hoping the result will be better! Nonetheless, by looking only backward and forward we miss the present moment. We miss God breaking into our lives this day.
And it just might be that when we are most down and out. When the nights are darkest. When our lives get shaken up that we are most open and receptive to God breaking in. To Christ coming down and dwelling in and among us. And surprising us with new ways at looking at ourselves, at life, at the world.
O, that you would tear open the sky and come down, we pray on these darkening Advent days. We look up at the sun, moon and stars. We look at what is getting us down. Sometimes on sleepless nights we literally watch and wait and wonder. Where are you God? What's it all about? And with longing we pray: Come, Lord Jesus.
We may spend a lot of time looking both ways. But Advent challenges us to be alert to Christ coming at the unexpected hour ...which just might be today. This one more new year of grace. This one more Advent. This most amazing good news that God is not up in the sky. But down here. In our breath. Within us and all the things that get us down. Down to earth. Down to things that really matter.