Sermon: Strangers to Grace No More

12.8.2013  Preaching Text: “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

This past week somebody referred me to an article that speaks of the difficulties a pastor faces during Advent as it relates to the choice of hymns.

During a time when we all would prefer singing Christmas carols and celebrating Christmas in general, the liturgical year, along with the lectionary readings, conveys a decidedly less celebratory message.

Today, for instance, we encounter the grim John the Baptist, speaking of repentance and judgment. Implicit is the call to mend our ways and to turn back to God. The end result, of course, though we more apt to hear only the negative, is the promise of a better life.

That said, the author of the article offers a solution for hymn singing: set Advent words to Christmas music! And you will notice that we have done just that today with the middle and closings hymns.

On Thursday evening, in keeping with this Advent struggle, Linda read to me the newsletter from a church I once served in New Haven, CT. The pastor, Sandra Olsen, started her newsletter article talking about how she had read of a public radio station that recently decided to eliminate all classical music in a minor key!

The logic behind this decision was simple: research suggests that minor key music does not make people feel “happy,” which translates into fewer listeners. So all minor key music had to go!

Sandra then related this situation to Advent, arguing that Advent, too, has “a minor key ‘feel’ to it.”

“And make no mistake,” she writes, “Advent is a season of darkness. Not only is our part of the world moving toward the winter solstice, when the days do shorten and darkness descends earlier, but also Advent faces the hard truth that the world is indeed a troubled place in need of redeeming.”

We may know all this, she says, but we don’t like to hear it, nor are we particularly anxious to be reminded of it.

We moderns, she says, find Advent’s minor key themes especially difficult because “we’ve tried so hard to convince ourselves that we are the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls…We believe in freedom, especially the freedom to chart our own courses.”

“Yet,” she counters, “there is no denying that this human freedom has resulted in a world and a humanity in deep trouble. And Advent is the season that does not want us to forget this hard and painful truth.”

“If Advent is a season of darkness,” she reminds us, “it is also a season of hopeful waiting.” That, too, is hard for us, she concedes, because “our culture is one of instant gratification. We are not very good at waiting. Besides, we’re not really sure what it is we’re waiting for.”

Though we may not fully know what it is we’re waiting for, what God’s consummation of human history will look like, Advent nonetheless asks us “to pay attention so we do not miss God’s coming.”

“When Jesus was born…a bright star shone in the heavens.” But, she asks, “how many people really noticed and understood what the meaning of the star was?”

She concludes her perceptive remarks by referencing a painting by the 16th century Flemish artist, Peter Brueggel, entitled, Numbering in Bethlehem. The picture is a biblical scene set in a snow-covered European village of his day.

In it, one sees villagers going about their everyday lives “lining up to pay taxes, skating on a frozen pond, talking to a neighbor over the fence. There, in the midst of all this busyness comes a pregnant woman, riding on a donkey, accompanied by her carpenter husband, who has a saw hanging from his belt.

“No one notices the couple,” she observes, and that too is Advent’s theme. “God comes quietly into our lives, and yet we do not notice.”

“Perhaps Advent does not make us feel all warm and cozy;” she sums things up, “perhaps it does leave us with some discomfort. But discomfort may be the very thing we need in order to recognize our hunger and our need. People who are too comfortable,” she says finally, “rarely are receptive to the new thing God is doing in our midst.”

Which brings to mind the saying that you can’t fix a problem you won’t admit, or address a need you deny.

On a macro scale, the main purpose of Jesus’ advent is to reconcile the world to God. Implicit, you will note, is our need to be reconciled!

I once read something that has always stuck with me. It was about reconciliation. The idea is that when we are reconciled to God, it’s as if we are ushered into the presence of a king, into his royal court. At one moment we are in a state of separation, the next we are fully in the presence of, in communion with. The world once known is left behind, enabling a whole new life ready to begin.

Now we live in the kingdom of grace – of forgiveness – one once lost to us. And its trajectory lifts us upward, toward heaven, that place from which we came and to which we one day shall return.

Advent, in short, invites us to this better life, to one fraught not with judgment and threat, but a life defined by grace. Though first, we must disencumber ourselves of that which prevents our experience of grace – thus the witness of John the Baptist.

Advent is a time to stop, look, and listen, to see and hear the holy in our midst. For it is all around us, and within us, if we have but the wherewithal to see and hear.

In the final analysis, we might say Advent is a perfect time to take inventory of our lives, define what’s missing, and resolve to accept the precious gift of God ever-present grace. It is a time to step back, take stock, and seek the greater life God intends for each of us to know. Sort of like preparing for the joy of Christmas morn. Amen.