Two-sided Coin

Two-sided Coin

Sunday, December 4, 2017
First Sunday of Advent Year B

Focus Theme:
Two-sided Coin

Focus Prayer:
Creator of the world, you are the potter, we are the clay, and you form us in your image. Shape our spirits by Christ's transforming power, that as one people we may live out your compassion and justice, whole and sound in the realm of your peace. Amen.

Focus Readings:
1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind--just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you--so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Mark 13:24-37

[Jesus said:]
"But 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.
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.

"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. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 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. Therefore, keep awakeófor you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

All readings for this Sunday:
Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Focus Questions:

1. How do you plan to observe Advent this year?

2. How do you imagine the return of Christ?

3. What do you wait for in your spiritual life and the life of the world?

4. What do you think would happen if Advent were observed more faithfully in our "Christian" culture?

5. When was the last time you experienced "the holy" breaking into "the daily"?

Reflection in sermon form:
by Kate Matthews

One of the gifts of my upbringing in the Catholic tradition was the experience of the season of Advent in its fullness. There were three great settings of my childhood--church, parochial school, and home--and in Advent, those places and influences colored the mood and set the rhythm of my December days, and bestowed on my life of faith a beauty that remains with me today, so many years later, in another place and time and role, at the beginning of another church year.

In those days, the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers were barely gone when the mood shifted dramatically, from oranges and browns and golden gratitude, to softer shades of purple and pink, and perhaps a little greenery around the Advent wreath. There were no Christmas carols or decorations at home or school or church during Advent--in those days, those settings all worked together rather well on this--and so, we sang "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" each week, and saved the "Silent Night" and "O Holy Night" for the night on which they belonged, Christmas Eve. Mostly, I remember the quiet darkness of Advent and the glow within it of the candles on the wreath, building week by week from one solitary light to all four, standing up tall and hopeful and just on the edge of Christmas expectation and joy.

Remembering Advent best

As wonderful as Christmas morning always was in our house, it was Advent that I remember best. Looking back now, I've come to realize that it wasn't the toys or the clothes or the record albums (remember record albums?) or the other presents that I was waiting for and hoping for during those four, candlelit, expectant weeks. To tell you the truth, I don't remember very many of the gifts I received as a child, but I do remember the hope and the wonder and the waiting. I remember the unknown and the mysterious, the sense of promise, and mostly the feeling that something beautiful and good was coming--soon.

Now I have lived many years since then, and I've seen some things. My world expanded beyond those three settings--church, school, and home--and I found out that there was a lot of pain, injustice and violence out there, in the world beyond my own safe and comfortable existence. And I've lived long enough to be injured myself a few times, and to see those I love harmed and diminished by the torn and broken places of this world. My wonder has changed in some ways, for now I wonder at times how things will ever be better, how things will ever be made right, how we will heal and be made new once again. Do you ever wonder these things, too?

Enduring one's suffering

With that question in mind, we turn to the Scripture readings for today and reflect for a moment on their settings, too. The author of the Gospel of Mark addresses a first-century community of Jewish and Gentile Christians who are facing persecution, and he urges them to endure their suffering by holding onto the sure and certain hope of Jesus' return in glory, when he will gather his "elect from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven." In that same spirit, Paul, in his letter to the church at Corinth, reminds the Christians there that they have everything they need to wait faithfully for Christ's return, beginning and ending with God's own faithfulness to them. God, he writes, is faithful.

These readings are clearly not about the promise of a little baby, born in a manger, with a star in the sky and shepherds gathered and three kings on the way. And yet they are consistent with the readings of other Sundays in Advent, for our liturgical year begins with a time of preparation not only for Christmas, and that manger scene, but also for the coming of God's reign in all of its fullness, the time of judgment, the dismantling of the present order, the end time. Listen again to the apocalyptic description of these events: "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 the heaven."

Surrounded and threatened

When we think about that persecuted little band of Christians surrounded by powerful forces that threatened them with extinction, how comforting and inspiring these images must have been to them! The God they trusted was faithful, they heard, and would come with power greater than that of the Roman Empire itself, and lift them right out of their terrible situation. Then Jesus would establish his longed-for realm of love and justice--right then, in their own lifetimes.

Perhaps it would be nicer if Jesus would come again, gentle and sweet as a tiny newborn baby in a manger. But the promise of this text has a certain vigor that may just be necessary after all if only to get our attention--for it seems that the world has forgotten how to wait in faith and trust. Rather, we have been too busy finding ways to avoid waiting, to get everything we need, and everything we want, as quickly as we can. We have become better at getting, and not so much at waiting.

Bombarded by seductive "messaging"

Just listen to the messages that bombard us not only at Christmas but all through the year: from TV and radio and Internet advertising that tells us we can have it all, now, instantly--no waiting, no anticipation...overnight delivery (worth the extra charge!) and immediate gratification of every want and every need. Peer pressure, social pressure, and our own internal pressure to get and to do and to have, all of it, and right now.

Doesn't it wear us out? Of course it does. But it does more than that: it distracts us and helps us to forget the very thing we pray for each and every week when we gather here for worship, or in our own personal prayer-time, in the words Jesus taught us, we pray "thy kingdom come," let your righteousness and your justice and your mercy come and heal this world, and destroy the powers of evil, dismantle the machines of war...and let your shalom dawn over all the nations of the world.

Waiting and watching

And so we wait. More than that, we are to be watchful, wakeful, alert in our waiting. The Gospel passage tells us that we are not to be passive and lazy, filling our time with empty pursuits....no, we are to be awake and able to see the signs of God's coming reign as it breaks into our lives, here and now. There are many signs, as obvious as the buds on a tree that tell of summer drawing near, and we can catch glimpses in the most unexpected places of God's reign in our midst.

I saw it last week in a group of young people, on their way to the demonstration in Georgia to close the School of the Americas, stopping here at Pilgrim Church for a night's sleep on the floor of our downstairs parlor and classrooms. I was impressed by their willingness to make a long and difficult trip to witness for peace and justice. As I gave them a tour of the church, these teenagers stood here, in our sanctuary, and expressed awe at its beauty. "Would it be okay," they asked, "if we just sat here for a while?" After all those hours of sitting on a bus, these young Christians could sit a while longer, and appreciate the beauty of a sacred space. And then, early the next morning, they were on their way. Justice and peace, in a group of committed, appreciative and alert young disciples.

Waiting actively, not passively

The Gospel passage ends with a parable that Jesus tells about a man leaving on a journey and putting his servants in charge, telling them to be on watch, to be awake, to be alert. It reminds me of a visit I once made to a good friend at her place of work. There, on a bulletin board next to her office, was a sign that read, "Jesus is coming--look busy!" I laughed, but then I looked around me. You see, my friend is the director of the West Side Catholic Center, not far from here. All around the building, people were working hard to help other people, their brothers and their sisters, who were hungry, homeless, in danger from domestic violence, in need of clothes or companionship or social services of one kind or another.

Those servants of God, each with his or her own work, waiting not passively but actively for the coming reign of God in all of its fullness, and yet participating in it even now: the "already-but-not-yet" of God's reign. The work God began in the ministry of Jesus, then, continues in our midst. We are faithful disciples not when we focus on the future and obsess about the end of the world but when we commit our lives, here and now, to the great work of God, repairing this world, shaping a new creation of beauty, grace, justice, and joy, leaning into the reign of God, and trusting that future to God, and God's own timing.

Friends, we are about to gather around this table and celebrate once again the sacrament of Holy Communion. How many times we have heard the words, "As often as we break this bread, and drink this cup, we proclaim your death and resurrection, Lord Jesus Christ, until you come again in glory." Here, on the edge of a new year, around this table and in this gathered community of faith, we see yet another sign of the promise of God's reign in all its fullness, when all of God's children will be joined together in one great heavenly banquet, when every tear will be wiped away, and our joy will be complete. Let us be alert then, and wakeful, and be sure not to miss the signs, or the promise, or the hope we have been given. Amen.

A preaching commentary on Isaiah 64:1-9 and Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel. (This sermon was preached at Pilgrim Church in 2005.)

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired last year after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Karl Rahner, 20th century
"Every year we celebrate the holy season of Advent, O God. Every year we pray those beautiful prayers of longing and waiting, and sing those lovely songs of hope and promise."

Walter Brueggemann, 21st century
"Give us the grace and the impatience to wait for your coming to the bottom of our toes, to the edges of our fingertips. We do not want our several worlds to end. Come in your power and come in your weakness in any case and make all things new. Amen."

George Eliot, 19th century
"It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them."

Saul Bellow, 20th century
"There is an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are and what this life is for."

Madeleine L'Engle, 20th century
"Some things have to be believed to be seen."

Henri J. M. Nouwen, "The Wounded Healer," 20th century
"To announce, however, that the Liberator is sitting among the poor and that the wounds are signs of hope and that today is the day of liberation, is a step very few can take. But this is exactly the announcement of the wounded healer: 'The master is coming--not tomorrow, but today, not next year, but this year, not after all our misery is passed, but in the middle of it, not in another place but right here where we are standing.'"

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century
"Driven by the forces of love, the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may come into being."

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