December 3, 2017

Come, Lord Jesus, come! – December 3, 2017

Preacher:

Preacher: Roger C. Bullard

Come, Lord Jesus, come!
Come in weakness and in power
to reveal our sin and shame.
Come, set us free to worship without fear
and guide us on the road to peace,
Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death.
Come and make all things new
In our lives, our labors and our world.
 
Come, save us now in life and death
and in the great and final day.
Come, Lord Jesus, Alleluia![1]
I am convinced that Christmas decorations appeared much earlier this year. Well before Thanksgiving, Christmas lights arrived around the neighborhood. I am sure mail order catalogues also arrived long before the turkeys. Is it the economy, is it about retailers getting us out into the store earlier, or encouraging us to go on-line even sooner? Is it just about getting our wallets open earlier every year? Well…maybe.

But perhaps it is only my imagination this year. Maybe the fire station schedules those lights to go up on the exactly the same day in November, every year. Maybe it is just me. Perhaps there is something inside me calling more urgently for the Christ child. Perhaps I am so troubled by events these days I just can’t wait. I am yearning for Christ’s healing power more than ever before.

Listen to that urgency in our readings this morning. Hear the powerful words of Isaiah as he cries: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” Or the words of the Psalmist: “restore us, O Lord God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

Isaiah is not calling us to get out to the mall and shop. The psalmist does not declare the coming of the Christ child a retail holiday. These are calls from deep inside their souls for the healing presence of God’s love. They are appeals of hope for the living Christ to come amongst us, to return to us now, to heal the brokenness of our world.

On this, the first of four Sundays in Advent, we live into the great mystery of Christ: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Look at what we have experienced during our yearlong journey through the Gospel of Matthew. As we walked with Jesus’ ministry through the church year, we experienced God’s love in the healing power of Christ 2,000 years ago. Now, from the brokenness of our world of 2017 we cry out for Christ to come into our lives again.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

The season of Advent puts us in a strange place. In the words of Biblical scholar William Palmer Ladd: “The past is dead. The future unborn. Between these two non-existent entities stands the present moment, living, timeless, eternal.”[2]

In Advent we commemorate the past ministry of Jesus while at the same time we await the arrival of the Kingdom of God in Bethlehem.[3] We have lived in the promise of the risen Christ as he walked along with us through the pages of Matthew. We now look with hope to the future, yearning for Christ to come again.

Remember Rod Taylor in the movie, Time Machine?[4] Like us, our hero finds himself at the intersection of time. He travels in his time machine from his well-ordered past in Edwardian England to a far future time where he finds injustice and violence. Here the ruling Morlocks enslave the people, the Eloi. The Eloi are pastured out as livestock to be fattened for slaughter. The people are kept as cattle, uneducated, unloved even among themselves. The concepts of love and hope have been bred out of them. They no longer see a light of inspiration to guide them. Our hero escapes to his former time, but urged to return by his love for the Eloi woman, Weena, he travels back with three unnamed books. I like to think the three unidentified volumes he brings to the Eloi represent the Good News of hope to set them on the path to life, love and freedom.

We too live in a broken world. We too have our Morlocks. Everywhere is the drumbeat of man’s indifference, self-centeredness and disregard for the humanity of others. We see millions of migrants streaming from their homeland seeking freedom from oppression, poverty and an early death. Daily we live with news reports of hate, discrimination and violence on the streets of our neighborhoods. Once again this weekend we are heartbroken to read of the injustice handed down by those we have raised up to dispense justice.

I ask your permission now to take you to a dark place, the troubled place in which we live today. Every day we hear the drumbeat calling of those in power who inflict violence and abuse upon our most vulnerable people. Last week I was inspired by a dramatic sermon of Baptist Pastor Howard-John Wesley at the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA.[5] He tells the story of Jepthah. Now Jepthah is an example of a biblical hero, on one hand, but on the other hand, he is also the premeditated murderer of his daughter. Asking God for victory in battle, Jepthah promises that in return, he will sacrifice the first person who greets him when he returns home. In Biblical times, when a conquering hero returns he is always greeted by dancing women. So as he makes this bargain with God, Jepthah knows that the person he will sacrifice will be a woman, a woman of his household. He is victorious, he returns home and the first person to greet him is his daughter. She accepts her fate without complaint, because she views her father as a man of God.

Through this Biblical lens we see an example of a vulnerable life, a young woman, shattered through abuse and violence from a person in power. Then and now, it is imposed upon our sisters, our daughters, our mothers, our children, the elderly, the poor. We are told that one in four women have experienced domestic violence in their lives. One in four, twenty-five percent. So don’t be surprised that among every four of the women sitting in the pews next to you today, one of them will know, they will know only too well of what I am speaking.

                        We live in a world where those in a position of power…husbands, fathers, elected officials, business supervisors, male… and yes, even females…daily violate the sacred trust of their position. The powerful are shielded by the silence of those they have abused. Jepthah’s daughter willingly goes to her death because she thought her father was a man of God. Yet today the curtain of silence is parting. Some who have been violated are finding a voice to speak. We need to move further. The victims must be told that they are not the one at fault. Their friends must encourage them to speak, the wounded must take confidence that their friends and families will support them. Perhaps the light of truth is only just emerging, I pray it will grow to overcome the darkness that shields the abusers.

I know I can never live in the pain of those who have been abused. But perhaps I am just coming to appreciate the position of power I occupy and the power that implies. In school, college and career I felt equal to those I worked or studied with, no matter their gender or race. When we discussed discrimination, I never saw myself as a racist. Yet that was only possible through living in privilege as an employed, educated white man that allowed me to think that way. It was baked in to me. I did not have to fear of being stopped by a police officer every time I drove to work. No one in power placed an unwanted hand on me, or made suggestive remarks about my body as I walked along the sidewalk.  I was never ignored as an elderly person; I was never dismissed as just another homeless guy down on his luck. The cries of the abused today wake me up. They warn me of mistreating the vulnerable through no more than a careless comment based upon the assumption of a God-given position of privilege.

So I too cry: “Stir up your strength and come to help us. Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” Save me Lord, save me from sins known, but even more so, save me from my sins unknown.

Today the Gospel of Mark brings us a message of hope. Mark tells us we will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory (Mk 13:26). The angels will be sent out to the ends of the earth to gather all of God’s people to be embraced by the presence and healing power of Jesus. And how will God’s people know? God will alter the celestial heavens, the sun, the moon and the stars. The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give light, the stars will fall and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. (Mk 13:24-25)

God does alter the heavens. God sends forth a star to lead his elect to the Son of Man. On this first Sunday of Advent 2,000 years ago, hundreds of miles from Bethlehem, the Wise Men, the Magi looked up, saw that star and began preparations for their journey to the Christ child. We don’t know who they were, or how many there were. But it was a long journey across rugged country and it took time to prepare their convoy. They had to ready their camels, supplies and hire protection from thieves and robbers before they could depart on their four-week journey through Advent.

We, too, must prepare for the coming of the Christ child. Think of a time when you were so excited about a future event that you simply could not contain yourself? My young daughters were so excited after putting out milk and cookies, they were determined to stay awake, sneak downstairs and meet Santa at the tree. They never met Santa, they always fell asleep. When they awoke it was dawn, Santa had gone, they found only a few crumbs where the cookies had been, the glass of milk empty. In the movie Mostly Martha, Chef Martha works late into the night, yet she must be awake at 7:00 am to take her eight-year old niece to school.[6] She always oversleeps, they are always late to school. It is not enough to simply want something badly. We must stay awake, we must prepare ourselves.

In parables these past few weeks, Jesus reminds us no one knows the day or the hour of the coming of the Kingdom of God. If the owner of the house had known when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake. Had the five foolish bridesmaids kept their lamps filled with oil, they would have been admitted with the bridegroom to the wedding feast. If the servant given one talent had used his talent wisely, he too would have been put in charge of many things. The purpose of these parables is not to reveal answers. Jesus’ parables challenge us with questions. They challenge us to think about what we must do to be prepared for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

As the branch of the fig tree becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, the parable shows us that Kingdom of God is near. (Mk 13:28) But keep alert, because we know not the time and the hour. We have work to do, we must not be found asleep when the master of the house returns at an unknown hour. (Mk 13:35-37) Paul tells us that we have the spiritual strength for the task, as he tells the Corinthians this morning: 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. (1 Cor: 6-7) Be confident, God will be faithful, Christ will return to us. He will return to us as an infant, as the most vulnerable of persons. The infant Christ will demonstrate the inherent power of every infant, every vulnerable person as they grow into the fullness of life.

In Advent, we stand in the intersection of time. We are prepared through the past witness of Christ among us. Today we commemorate the ministry of Christ. In hope, we now anticipate the arrival of the Kingdom of God in the person of the Christ child. Massey Shepherd, Episcopal priest and liturgical scholar reminds us that the feast of Advent today is not just remembrance of the past, nor reaching for unfulfilled hope. Advent lives with us across all time as a present reality in our hearts.[7]

Today we welcome the Christmas lights everywhere. I see them on the streets, on homes, on our firehouse. I look forward to the Salvation Army soldiers and the smell of roasting chestnuts. I can’t wait to see the film Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life again. I feel like Ebenezer Scrooge as he welcomes Christmas Day. These are signs from my childhood, from my past, that Christmas is in the air. Christ is coming to Bethlehem. Christ will make all things new again. Yes, Advent remains a present reality that lives in our hearts.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now is our salvation nearer than we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness and let us put on the armour of light.[8]

[1] Massey H. Shepherd, Jr., (1913-1990), his prayer for Advent, in Give Us Grace: An Anthology of Anglican Prayers, Christopher L. Webber, ed. Morehouse Publishing (2004), Kindle edition, Location 5452

[2] William Palmer Ladd, Prayer Book Interleaves, Oxford University Press (1942/43) and The Seabury Press (1957) p. 28

[3] Massey H. Shepherd, Jr. in Documents of Witness, A History of the Episcopal Church 1782-1985 (Armentrout & Slocum, eds); p. 266

[4] H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, George Pal, Producer/Director, Metro-Goldman-Mayer, 1960

[5] Pastor Howard-John Wesley, from his sermon “Somebody Say Something” delivered April 17, 2016 at the Alfred Street Baptist Church, Alexandria, VA. Accessed on line at: https://youtu.be/PjMUcwKHlH8

[6] Mostly Martha (original German title: Bella Martha) written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck , Bavaria Film (2001)

[7] Massey H. Shepherd, Jr. The Worship of the Church (New York: Seabury Press, 1952) p. 97-99, 102-106 (excerpts)

[8] op.cit, Ladd, p.28

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