Sermon Seeds: Longing/Waiting – Finding Meaning
First Sunday of Advent Year B
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Isaiah 64:1-9 and Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Sample sermon on Mark 13:24-37 and 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Longing/Waiting – Finding Meaning
You’re invited to share your thoughts and reflections on these texts on our Facebook page.
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
Most of us depend on our calendar to help us keep track of time. We remember events and appointments in our personal lives, and follow the events of the world around us based on a calendar that turns over a new year on the first of every January. This week, as it does each year, the church gets a head start on the rest of the world by beginning a new year on the First Sunday of Advent. Nora Gallagher uses the church year and its seasons as a framework for her graceful meditation, Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith. “The church calendar,” she writes, “calls into consciousness the existence of a world uninhabited by efficiency, a world filled with the excessiveness of saints, ashes, smoke and fire; it fills my heart with both dread and hope.”
Dread and hope: words as good as any to describe the mood of both of our readings from the Old Testament, the deep longing of the poet of Psalm 80 and the sorrowful questions of the prophet Isaiah. Both were writing in the midst of, and out of, the suffering of their people, God’s own people, Israel. Where are you, God? Why don’t you act to fix this awful situation we find ourselves in? Why don’t you “come down” and make things right? Where is God now? Readers of Night, Elie Wiesel’s classic account of his youth spent in a concentration camp, surely hear echoes of that same question, asked by the inmates forced to watch the ordeal of a child, the “sad-eyed angel,” hanged by the Nazis for being a spy: “Where is God now?”
The psalms are a book of prayers that hold back nothing in the heart of Israel: praise and thanksgiving, but also anger, doubt, guilt, even demands. The demands only slightly resemble reminders, just in case God has forgotten the promises of old or God’s habit of intervening in wonderful ways on behalf of Israel. Remember, God? Remember that we are your children and you are our loving Parent; we are the clay and you are the Potter; we are the vine that you yourself have planted and cared for, tenderly. How long, O Lord, how long will we have to wait for you to “give ear,” to “stir up your might,” to “restore us,” to “turn again” and “let your face shine” upon us? This psalm, Talitha Arnold observes, “confesses the people’s trust in a God who is big enough to hear their hurt, strong enough to handle their anger and pain.” They “are in a world of hurt. They want God to know about it” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1).
The people could have been suffering in slavery or exile, in crushing defeat or on the edges of a power structure, after the return of Israel from exile. The beauty of the psalms is that they can be prayed by Israel in all of these settings and times, and, alas, in concentration camps and during pogroms, because they express the heartfelt, anguished questions of a people who have a history with God. This long, long history holds memories of God stepping in and doing something when the need was great. We can understand that shared stories of defeating Pharaoh, raining bread from heaven, and enjoying the glory of David might lead the people to have certain expectations of God. And that is the word for Advent: expectation. In what way can people of faith “expect” God to act?
Like our ancestors in faith, we and all of humankind stand vulnerably before God in “helplessness and need,” James Newsome writes: “And so the psalm text utters a simple and primal cry: O God, help!” (Texts for Preaching Year B). But the psalm doesn’t say anything about repentance or sin or “searching of the heart,” according to Charles M. Wood: “There is simply sheer need for God: the pain of absence and the longing for God’s presence” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1). Or, as Anne Lamott has famously summarized the two basic prayers of the human heart: “Help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you!” (She has more recently added “Wow!” – as in her book, Help! Thanks! Wow! – as in need, gratitude, and praise.)
The text from Isaiah does speak of sin, but seems to blame the people’s unfaithfulness on God’s decision to remain aloof: “because you hid yourself we transgressed” (v. 5c). Isaiah, however, knows that there is iniquity (v. 9b) that God will have to forget, as we ourselves hope that God will forget our sin today. And so the “church” time of expectation that coincides with the world’s jolly celebration of “the season” is at least partly about repentance and turning back to God. That’s why we use symbols and signs of this season in the church very different from the red ribbons and green holly of the world around us: “Purple, the color of remorse,” James Brenneman explains, “adorns the altar. It’s a ritual warning us not to greet God prematurely or presumptuously – that is, at least not until we acknowledge that we are clay in the divine potter’s hands, people chastened by God’s silence, ready to be molded anew as the ‘work of [God’s] hand'” (The Christian Century 11-18-08). [Note: Purple is not the only color for Advent; blue is also used, and reflection on that color, if used, can enrich our worship; a lovely explanation is available at Why Blue for Advent?] Brian K. Peterson adds to this sense of repentance as being re-formed or re-shaped when he remembers a preacher who “describes repentance as being realigned to reality, rather than to our own deadly self-delusions” (New Proclamation Year B 2008). How would you describe the “reality” of God to which we need to be “realigned”?
Of course, Advent is also about the nearness of God, our hope to experience God, right here, “down” here, on earth, God’s radiance and power and love. While the commentaries on these Advent texts from the Hebrew Scriptures necessarily speak of hopelessness and repentance and doubt, Nora Gallagher takes a different route, a gentler but unsentimental route to the same conclusion. She draws on Esther de Waal’s description of Celtic Christianity, “a practice in which ordinary people in their daily lives took the tasks that lay to hand but treated them sacramentally, as pointing to a greater reality which lay beyond them. It is an approach to life which we have been in danger of losing, this sense of allowing the extraordinary to break in on the ordinary” (Things Seen and Unseen). Patricia De Jong writes in this same spirit: “At Advent, God’s people summon the courage and the spiritual strength to remember that the holy breaks into the daily” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1). Perhaps that’s the difference between a calendar and a journal, if the latter helps us to notice, and mark, those experiences of the holy in our days. If this is the beginning of a new church year, perhaps a good “new year’s resolution” would be to keep just such a journal, a daily record of the holy breaking in, or bursting from within, our lives.
If Advent is the season of “expectation,” we might explore further what our own expectations are. After all, as Brian K. Peterson writes, “expectations are tricky things. We go through times of expecting far too little, or nothing at all. At times, we become deadened to hope, because the world and its sadness seem to continue plodding along the same old road” (New Proclamation Year B 2008). And true enough, Advent comes this year as we listen to a drumbeat of reports that diminish our hopes and lower our expectations of peace: reports of strife between and within nations, including our own, and the seeming inability to find common ground; a profound sense of how far we are from being a society marked by justice for all; reports of persistent and worsening poverty and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few; threats to our environment and a sense of helplessness about fixing it (made even more anxiety-provoking by volatile weather patterns and the damage they inflict), and, of course, wars and rumors of war and the ever-present threat of terrorism that gnaws at our sense of well-being as individuals and communities.
Advent finds us, then, still longing, as we are in every year, for peace in the world: years after distressing, controversial wars appear to be drawing to a close, they re-erupt in strife even more violent and appalling, and we wrestle once again with whether to “put troops on the ground,” that is, to send soldiers, human beings, to faraway lands in the desperate hope to make things better for other human beings, even as we accept the limitations of our expensive and sophisticated weapons to bring peace. We long to fashion a new way of living together, even as massive numbers of God’s children continue to live with the after-effects and consequences of our actions, however well-intentioned. Advent arrives this year as Ferguson awaits a verdict and braces for what will follow, not just immediately but in the long-term. Advent arrives this year in the middle of, and perhaps as an interruption of, reports of school shootings and barbaric executions by extremists of innocent aid workers; discouraging political discourse and continued exasperation with the processes of governing or not governing; the frustration of our attempts to solve our own problems (for example, fracking seems to bring worse problems that it solves); stories of children exposed to violence and drugs; the challenges faced by our schools in serving the most vulnerable among us: a steady drumbeat, yes, and yet, Brian Peterson writes that “God will neither submit to our demented definitions of what is good, nor let us and the rest of the world plod our weary way to hell.” However, he does note that we worship a God who “cares enough to hold us accountable” (New Proclamation Year B 2008).
No matter how bad things are, we are reminded that we belong to God, and that all the earth belongs to God, and we believe that God breaks into this reality regularly. Sometimes, this inbreaking is dramatic and publicly celebrated: one thinks of the fall of apartheid in South Africa, for example, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the dramatic progress in marriage equality in this nation. Sometimes it’s felt in private consolations and reconciliations, a relationship restored by forgiveness or a return to health. “The coming of Advent,” Patricia E. De Jong writes, “jolts the church out of Ordinary Time with the invasive news that it’s time to think about fresh possibilities for deliverance and human wholeness.” Advent calls us to a time of self-examination as well as hope, and De Jong sadly remembers “a comment that our country has changed over the past years from one that wanted to be good to one that wants to feel good” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1). Perhaps the radical transformation that God will work may bring us back to wanting to be good rather than merely feel good.
Preachers face congregations that are sometimes unhappy with the absence of Christmas carols and red ribbons throughout December. We want Christmas to feel the way we think we remember it did long ago. “Hope,” Talitha Arnold writes, “is mixed with longing for the past….Especially at Christmas, our congregations are often filled with people with that same yearning for restoration to a life we once knew, be it the life of our families, relationships, churches, or even nation. But while we may look back, God always looks ahead” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1). And, at some deep level, we know that. We know that things will never be good in exactly the same way they used to be good, but that God will always be good. And so we enter this season, and this new year, in what Walter Brueggemann calls “a spirit of yearnings for that which would be too good to be true: some new and unique expression of God’s intention to save a world gone wrong” (Texts for Preaching Year A). What is the thing that is “too good to be true” for which you pray, and yearn, this Advent?
What do you think would happen if Advent were observed more faithfully in our “Christian” culture? When was the last time you experienced “the holy” breaking into “the daily”?
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, here in another place and time, 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, they 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.
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 – my church, my parochial school, my 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?
Then let us 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.” And in his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul 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
arkened, 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.”
When we think about that persecuted little band of Christians surrounded by powerful forces that threatened them with extinction, we can only imagine 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 the world has forgotten how to wait in faith and trust. Rather, we have been busy finding ways to avoid waiting, to get everything we need, and everything we want, as quickly as we can. Listen to the messages that bombard us not just 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, now. Doesn’t it wear you 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 – 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, destroy the powers of evil, dismantle the machines of war…and let your shalom dawn over all the nations of the world.
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.
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, and 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. The 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 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.
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.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
For further reflection:
Anna Freud, 20th century
“If some longing goes unmet, don’t be astonished. We call that Life.”
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.”
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”
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.”
Bruce Springsteen, 20th century
“For what are we, without hope in our hearts, that someday we’ll drink from God’s blessed waters?”
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.”
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence —
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!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned
upon the cherubim,
shine forth before Ephraim
and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
let your face shine,
that we may be saved.
O Sovereign God of hosts,
how long will you be angry
with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them
with the bread of tears,
and given them tears
to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
our enemies laugh among themselves.
O God of hosts;
let your face shine,
that we may be saved.
But let your hand be upon the one
at your right hand,
the one whom you made strong
Then we will never turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call on your name.
O Sovereign God of hosts;
let your face shine,
that we may be saved.
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.
“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 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, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
Advent and Christmas
The Violet color for Advent is traditionally connected with royalty and penitence. Blue is symbolic of expectation and hope, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ’s return at the end of history. Rose on the third Sunday of Advent, which was Gaudete (Joy), provided a little relief from the somberness of Advent in earlier times. Some Advent wreath sets include a rose candle. White first appears on Christmas Eve and may be continued through the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sunday after Epiphany (celebrated by many as the Baptism of Christ) to show that all of these events are related in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. White is also used for Easter and Sundays following. (Some traditions use Gold or both for Christmas and Easter.)