“That Awkward In-Between Time”
November 28-29, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church
Grace and peace to you from God our Creator, and from Jesus, the Son of God and Messiah, for whom we wait! Amen.
Thanksgiving weekend represents the beginning of a new season…a new time of our year. It is a time of family, a time of travel…it is a festive and joyous time.
I have distinct memories of Thanksgiving. I remember every year as a kid, we would load up our family station wagon for the pilgrimage to my grandparent’s farm near St. James. We’d load in our suitcases, sleeping bags, some toys, games and books and we’d climb into the seat we called the “way back” of the station wagon for the journey.
People of a certain vintage might remember with me those station wagons. The way-back had that fold-down seat that faced backwards, and the three of us boys would sit back there, reading comic books and trying not to get car sick. Safety was an afterthought. There were no seatbelts, or if there were they’d long ago vanished into the crease between the cushions. Every time we’d hit a pothole, we’d launch 3 feet into the air. (It was awesome!) And we’d entertain ourselves by waving at cars that came up behind us to pass…and by trying to get the semi-trucks to honk and scare my Dad, who was driving. (If the honking caused my Dad to swerve, it was bonus points!) We’d look for certain landmarks. “(Zoom!) There goes the farm silo painted like a 7-up can in Le Sueuer!” “(Zoom!) There goes the Happy Chef statue in Mankato!”
We sat in the station wagon, facing backward, knowing full well what our destination would be, but unsure of where we were in the journey and unclear of our route to getting there.
Welcome to Advent! A season where we know the destination, but we’re not sure where we are in the journey, and much of our time is spent looking backwards instead of forwards.
So after 27 long weeks of the season of Pentecost, this morning marks the first Sunday of Advent, a new liturgical season, a new season of the church year. Of course, the rest of the world began shifting seasons weeks ago. Well before Halloween, Christmas decorations in retail stores began appearing, and “Black Friday” sales began a couple of weeks ago.
But for the church, for the world of Christianity, the liturgical calendar did not change until today. We are now in the Season of Advent.
Advent, is a time when we should be preparing ourselves to expect the unexpected. It is a specific time in our yearly faith cycle that we set aside to prepare our minds, bodies, and spirits, our whole being for what is to come.
Advent is a weird, in between time. It is not Pentecost, but it’s not Christmas either. It’s not the past, but it’s not the future. The hope and promise of Advent feels like Gospel, but the waiting sure feels like law. We talk about it in terms of anticipation and expectation. But I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not very good at those things.
I think that for many of us, myself included, it’s actually much easier…more pleasant even, to go into the season of Advent looking backward, with a sense of nostalgia. We think about and try to re-create our holiday and Christmas experiences from days gone by. We fill Advent with traditions: Decorating, cookies, Lefse, ugly sweaters, Christmas cards, the Charlie Brown Christmas special… (I love that one!)
Now, there’s nothing wrong with these things. And I can’t blame us for wanting to do this. Nostalgia can be like comfort food for our spirits. And if we look around…if we see the world around us right now as it is, well…it can seem like a pretty dark and scary place.
We are reminded every day of human brokenness:
- We live in a world full of conflict and war.
- Terrorism makes everything seem uncertain.
- There are refugees who are fleeing terrorists around the world and our decisions about how to help them are being driven by fear, rather than compassion.
- And the growing racial tension just an hour’s drive north of us has erupted into violence.
It can feel overwhelming. It can feel scary.
To be honest, I’d rather duck my head and look back at the way things used to be rather than look around at what’s happening in the world. The past looks safe. The future looks scary.
This is not new.
During the time of Jesus and his disciples, the world was also a mess. The Jews had a long history, at least 2000 years at that point, of war and conflict. They had been defeated, beaten and enslaved. Their nation had been carved up and taken from them. They were second class citizens, subject to the Roman Emperor and Governors, and there was a rebellion bubbling just below the surface. And the disciples were concerned about the future, about what comes next. They believed the prophecy…they knew the destination was freedom for Israel, but they didn’t know how long it would take, or how they would get there.
So they asked Jesus about this…about the future, and the messianic prophecies. “What and when will it happen?” Jesus, as he tends to do, avoids a direct answer and begins talking about signs…signs in the sun, the moon and the stars. The Son of Man coming in a cloud… and Jesus compares the waiting to a fig tree. “As soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves…” he says. I think that if I were one of the disciples, I would have said “thanks for the horticulture lesson Jesus, but how about a straight answer?”
But then Jesus goes on: “So be on guard…so that the day doesn’t catch you unexpectedly…Be alert…be strong…be ready…so that your hearts are not weighed down.”
Jesus is challenging the premise of the question. What is important is not “when” the end will come. Rather, what is important is how you live now, in this time. Jesus is saying, “don’t emotionally skip over this awkward time of waiting. Rather, embrace it. Live within it. Look and watch…see what God is up to.”
Jesus was reminding his followers that even when things were darkest, God was at work in the world. Don’t just look back. Look around. Look ahead. Look and see!
And Jesus reminds us that even when things are darkest, God remains at work in the world. Don’t just look back. Look around. Look ahead. Look and see! There is hope that is coming!
I’ve mentioned before that I led a Lutheran Disaster Relief team to Biloxi, Mississippi about 3 weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit. It was a powerful, transformational experience for me. At night, our team, along with the others staying at the center, would gather to debrief our day and have a devotional time together.
On the evening after our first day of work, the project leader who coordinated all the teams began devotions by asking us “Where did you see God today?” There was dead silence. Our team was exhausted and overwhelmed. That day we had seen amazing scenes of destruction. People came to get food and cleaning supplies who had lost everything. People were picking through piles of donated clothes, 15 feet high, that had been dumped in the Kmart parking lot. It was all so sad. It was so hard to see God in the middle of this mess.
There was a long silence after the question was asked…which to be honest, was even sadder. Then finally, one person, a woman from Virginia whose name I don’t remember, said “There was this woman who showed up at the food shelf with her baby, needing formula right after we ran out of it. She got kind of weepy when I told her we didn’t have any more. But another woman who’d received some formula split her box with her. That first woman was so grateful.” And that was it. That was the only thing people came up with that night.
But the next night, when the questions “Where did you see God today” was asked, there were a few more stories. Team members talked about people who had lost everything, stopping to help at their neighbors. And someone else driving 30 miles north and bringing back a bunch of quarter-pounders for the neighborhood after the Red Cross food truck was a no-show.
And the next night there were more…and then more. As the week progressed, we found ourselves practicing looking for God at work. And suddenly, when we were aware…when our eyes were open to it, we could see what God was doing. At the end of the week, we filled over an hour talking with these stories. We had learned to look and see!
The promise of Advent is that hope comes, and his name is Jesus. The work of God, and the hope of Advent, is that Jesus will climb down into the mess and the muck of the world with us. Jesus reminds us that he is with us, and that indeed, he is, the Messiah.
This is the promise that hope brings: The brokenness of our world, and the fear and anxiety that may rise within us, it not too much for Jesus. He is our Savior.
The challenge of Advent then, is to learn to look…to see…to understand how and where God might be working in the world and in our lives even when it might be hard to see.
Advent gives us a lens through which we see God at work when it seems like only evil gets the spotlight. And to assure us that God has secured a future for us that breaks into present days, and really truly changes our here and now.
We are on a journey, from here to there; from the ordinary to the extraordinary; from the season of Pentecost to the gift of Christmas. We know that’s the destination; but the way from here to there is not clear to us. It can feel like we are stuck looking backwards.
But as Jesus-followers, we embrace this tension, we wait, and we keep our heads up and look around. We look for signs, even in the midst of the darkest moments, that God is at work. And we remember the promise found in the words of Jesus: “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
In the baby born in the manger, our redemption is drawing near.
Let’s embrace the tension of waiting. Let’s cling to the promises of God. And let’s open our eyes, look around and see what God is up to…see what God is doing…and let’s look forward, to see the coming of our Messiah.