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Advent I, Series B

The following sermon was preached by Mark P. Bangert, John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Worship and Church Music, Emeritus, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, November 30, 2005.


Isaiah 64; Mark 13: 24-37

Linguistic Luddites not-- this week's worship planning team. Seeking direction, and attuned to current street vocabularies, they immediately pounced on that ear-catching line from Isaiah: "When you, God, did awesome deeds that we did not expect." "Awesome" is what did it, though the word "expect" brought its own marketing charms. Then, who can ignore "keep awake" and its synonyms used four times in the last verses of the Gospel?

There you have it.

Expect awesome things: Keep Awake!

That's a start, a place to begin during these early days of a new year, for responding to such advice might keep us from being lulled to sleep by the usual.

Once again Advent rolls around as a buffer between the year-end feasts. One more time we await the Dow Jones figures, measuring the effects of Black Friday on our own investments. Once again we light four candles to seek a way out of the boredom of late Green season spirituality. Once again we walk the malls in search of some spark to light our Christmas spirits, to be rewarded only by this year's arrangement of "Chestnuts roasting" and "You'd better watch out." (Come to think of it, that would work well as a hymn of the day today, though it hardly qualifies as "awesome.")

Momentarily awakened, we nevertheless continue to struggle with the sleepiness of the usual. There's not much in the awesome category here, but watch we will try and sleep we will try to resist.

Expect awesome things; Keep Awake! That's a start, a place to begin during these early days of a new year, for responding to such advice might keep us from being distracted by the big special effects.

Entertaining grandchildren for four days this past week has its own rewards, one of which was to see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Special effects abound as you might expect. Potter's expertise on the flying broomstick is legendary, but in this film he is at his best, as he, while flying, looked backward as much as forward, always trying to determine just how far away he was from the fire coming from the dragon's mouth. One cannot drive that way forever, of course. Spectacular accidents do and did happen.

And then there was his return from an encounter with the Lord of the Dark, during which he was marked with the deep cuts of the evil one, unable to save the life of his friend, Cedric, and released at the last moment from his own tree of death. This Potter manages to bring back through the wall separating realities the very body of Cedric together with himself, landing dramatically with a mighty thud on the grassy field of Hogwarts. The Christological aura of the moment nearly escaped me, for the special effects were so astonishing.

One wonders what Potter's Stuart Craig and Ralph Pratt could do with Mark 12 and 13. Wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, tribulation, false Christs together with their signs and wonders, a darkened sun, a moon that no longer provides light, stars falling from heaven, the very powers of heaven shaken. Astonishing and terrible things.

Fascinating as well, enough to prompt even the Biblically literate to uncover their meanings, to divine their places on the great timetable of creation, in spite of the fact that no one, not even the Son, can know these things.

Drawn thus to the fantastical, we expect the awesome only at the end of time, and we reveal our kinship with the people for whom the prophet prayed—those who had waited themselves into despair over God's perpetual silence. Distracted by the special effects, we too are tempted to believe in the eternal silence of God.

Can we say it? Expect awesome things: Keep awake! We can try to stay awake, but it is not easy.

But look what happens when we turn it around. Keep awake! Expect awesome things. That is, keep awake precisely because you are expecting awesome things. Refusing to affirm the eternal silence of God, we can stay awake when we are expecting at any moment something awesome. Awesome, such as that which is terrible, dreadful, and fearful, but even more so that which is astonishing and wonderful.

Now that's a start, a place to begin a journey.

Awesome, like a meal out of place. Keep awake, Jesus said, for no one knows the hour. Watch, therefore, for you don't know when the master of the house will come--in the evening, midnight, or at cockcrow. Watch, therefore, for you don't know the four-fold shape of the liturgy anymore. Is it Gathering, Word, Meal, Sending, or is it Sending, Gathering, Meal, Word? Watch, therefore. Awesome, as in dreadful for some, astonishing for others, wonderful for still others. Now that's a start, a place to begin the journey into Advent.

Awesome, like imagining ourselves in a new ways. A community that looks at itself, west to east, east to west, magnetized by the attracting forces of Word and Table. Will we come closer during these next days? Will this new posture lead us to find other signs of God's presence among the usual and the distracting? Now that's a start, a place to begin the journey.

Awesome, like entrusting ourselves to a God who waits for us to call on promises divinely made. Down deep in each of us is an Advent Confession that needs to come out. The prophet gives it words: "We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth." "Now, consider," the prophet continues to pray, "We are all your people. Remember, Yahweh, remember that you have made us your people. Look at the wildernesses of our hearts, the desolations of our spirits. You dare not remain silent towards us any longer, for you have promised to be our God, even as you have made us your people.

There is a kind of "gotcha" in this word from the prophet, as the writer holds God's feet to the fire. In the midst of sleepiness and distractions we today get to remind God that God is our Potter, our Potter who has not only made us from clay but who has also delivered us, leaving behind awesome deeds.

The fun of this upside-down liturgy today is that the answer to our hopes, the reply to our expectations has already occurred. Awesome things have just happened in a terrible death remembered and in a wonderful astonishing life freely given.

Keep awake as you expect and discover awesome things, for it is sure that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and—CHRIST WILL COME AGAIN.

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