2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Alert In The Abyss

Isaiah 64:1-9

The first Sunday of Advent, New Year's Day on the Christian calendar, comes at the darkest time of the year. The nights are the longest, the days are the shortest, and the earth is brown and dead. Unlike the season of Lent when the days lengthen toward the promise of new life, Advent days just get darker, colder, and shorter. Yes, Advent anticipates the coming of God into the deepest darkness of our lives. And unless we enter the full depth of that darkness, we will not be blessed by the light.

Harry Emerson Fosdick was pastor of Riverside Church in New York City for many years. When he retired, he moved to Bronxville, but he maintained an office in Manhattan, daily traveling by train into the city. "He soon noticed that every morning a fellow commuter, whom he knew casually and who always caught the same train, would pull down the window shade as the train passed 128th Street, and then he would close his eyes. Having observed this ritual for a while, Fosdick said to the man across the seat, `I have watched you pull your shade every morning, and I'm curious as to why.' The other man explained, `I was born in that slum, and I find it painful to be reminded of those early days. Besides, there is nothing I can do about the pain.' After a sympathetic silence, Fosdick responded, `I don't mean to poke around in your private life, but surely you could at least leave the shade up.'" (P.C. Ennis, p. 26, Journal For Preachers, Advent, 1993.)

Advent demands that we leave the shade up on the woes and weariness of the world—the woes and weariness of our own souls—for it is in the midst of the darkness that the light of new life will come. One writer has written about the difference between "summery spirituality" and "wintry spirituality." "Winter reveals structure. Only as the structure is firmly there are we able to dress it with the lovely trappings of spring, budding leaves, rosy blossoms.... When all of life is too light, too full, we may be deceived into thinking we deserve its benefits and comforts. Winter does not allow us that option.... Winter is a paradox—the fullness of death and life.... Winter is the quiet, fallow time when the earth prepares for rebirth. (Madeline L'Engle, Introduction to Awaiting the Child by Isabel Anders, p. 6) This Advent season, it is wintry spirituality we are called to embrace—to discern the bare structure of our living, to face and feel the cold winds of a discordant and troubled life, to fully admit how much we need God to come into the brittle bareness of our days.

The scripture lessons appointed for this first Advent Sunday are heavy, moody vignettes. Unlike the glitter, the Musack, the Santa Clauses that greet us in the malls, these verses invite us inside a people's despair. Isaiah's words are written at a desperate time in Israel's history. The destroyed and scattered people have emerged from years of captivity in Babylon. They have come "home"—only to find their land ravaged and their holy temple smoldering in destruction. What these people feel like is "wind blown trash," a literal translation of one of the Hebrew phrases. The anguished words of their lament pierce our soul—as they wallow in their unworthiness, as they suffocate in their anxiety, as they articulate their alienation from a God who seems utterly hidden.

The passage from Mark is no more cheerful. This gospel was written around 70 AD—forty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, when the Jerusalem Temple again lay in ruins, destroyed by Roman soldiers. The followers of Jesus are experiencing acute persecution, families are splintered, and the promise of the presence of God seems like a cruel joke. It is to these disillusioned and desperate believers that the gospel writer retells the story of Jesus. He has Jesus speak words of hope to a people experiencing the absence of Jesus. What he offers to them is a choice. In the winter depths of our living, we can either choose hope, or we can choose despair. We can either stay alert and hopeful in the abyss, or we can cave in to bitterness, negativity, and despair. We can either become captive to our human limitations, or we can watch and wait for the power of God.

It is told that Thomas Edison worked for months, all day and late into the night, trying to invent the light bulb. As he came out of his lab one evening, he looked exhausted. A friend asked, "How many experiments have you done already?" "More than 1,900," Edison replied. "More then 1,900!" exclaimed the colleague. "That's incredible. You must feel very disappointed by now, very much a failure."

Edison straightened to his full stature, and his eyes glistened. "Not at all," he said. "I don't feel like a failure. I've made so much progress. You see, I now know more than 1,900 things that won't work. One of these days, I'm going to hit on the one that does." (Maxie Dunham, Perceptions, p. 76)

My friends, that's what it means to remain alert in the abyss, to live by faith and by hope, and to depend on a wisdom and a timing beyond our own. The people of Israel, acutely aware of their sinfulness and alienation from God, called upon an absent God to become present, to act decisively and dramatically to restore wholeness to their shattered lives. Years later, in the silence of a stable, their prayer is answered. Likewise, the bloody, tormented Christians in Mark—finally aware that their human powers are spent—respond to gospel words by waiting—watching—alert in the smoldering ruins of their faith. It is out of that post-resurrection watch that the Christian church is born, nurtured, and spread to the four corners of the earth. In both instances, the waiting is active, expectant, alert—and waiting pays off—but on God's timetable and not their own—out of God's power and promise—and not their own.

Desmond Tutu, the gentle prophet who remained faithful in the abyss of South Africa's terror, said that to be a Christian means to be a prisoner—a prisoner of hope and grace. In our Christian baptism, we are captured by the powerful, overwhelming, everlasting love of God. There is nothing we can do to escape the prison of Christ's promise—the irresistible pull of his purpose and hope of our lives. We can choose to feel boxed in by the demands of the gospel, or we can submit to its discipline with delight. Scripture tells us, and our experience assures us, that to be imprisoned by God's grace is to be invited into the heart of freedom.

A few weeks ago, Mike came to see me in my study. I had a sense what was coming, but I had no idea how rich or powerful his witness would be. Those of you who have watched Mike's wife, Carol, grow up here, know how deep and wide her faith runs. And how beautifully she lives her life within the gentle yoke of Christ's teachings. So when Carol married Mike, this warm and joyful Jew, we welcomed him as an important, but different kind of guest in our community. Those of us who have been in Bible Study discussions with Mike know how smart he is, how curious and flexible his mind is, how deeply he loves and knows the treasures of Hebrew scripture. Few of us have failed to feel remorse for the anti-Semitic nuances running through the New Testament patterns that Mike has helped us to identify. A few months ago, after Leigh Ann was born, Mike moved to the point where he was comfortable having his daughter baptized, and he stood up next to Carol as she reaffirmed her faith in Jesus Christ.

What Mike shared with me is that his own spiritual journey has continued to move him in a new direction—not because of anything he has done—but because of what God has done in him and for him. What Mike has experienced is a lively relationship with a fellow Jew named Jesus who has gently, but irrevocably, claimed him as a brother. This new and growing relationship continues to transform Mike—daily, deliberately, dramatically. Just as Elijah was captured by God's presence in the midst of deep silence, so Mike has been irresistibly claimed by a living and personal relationship with Jesus Christ. So today he stands before us to make a public profession of faith and to be washed by the welcoming waters of baptism. Far from rejecting his Jewish roots, Mike comes before us immersed in the deep well of Jewish experience—a well that is both an abyss of pain and prejudice, as well as a precious fountain of wisdom and knowledge. Because Mike has been alert and aware, because he has kept the watch as the mystery has unfolded in his heart, Mike was ready when the living Christ came to claim him. So it must be for all of us if we want to be claimed again and again.

In a symbolic way, the season of Advent forms a triptych. It is the season of coming, when, as Madeline L'Engle writes, "...chronological time opens up and we can see simultaneously Christ's `earthly coming to a manger in Bethlehem; his coming to each of us by faith in our hearts; and the anticipation of the future Day of the Lord; his coming again in glory.'" (Isabel Anders, Awaiting the Child, p. 3)

The physical birth of Jesus was but one moment in Christ's coming—a moment which is repeated again and again in each of our lives, and in the life of the world to come. So we are called to be alert, to watch, to expect, and yes, to hope—even in the darkest darkness, even in the most abysmal abyss, even in the most absent absence of God. There is no problem that cannot be outweighed by possibility. There is no pain that cannot be overshadowed by joy. There is no despair that cannot be transformed by hope. That is the promise and the power of Advent—a promise poured over us at the moment of our baptism—a promise reaffirmed every time light breaks into the darkness of our souls. It is God's promise for you. And it is God's promise for me.

May it be so. Amen

Susan R. Andrews

Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church

Bethesda, MA

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