K. Dean Myers, interim pastor
Fairmount Presbyterian Church Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Sunday, November 27, 2011 First Sunday of Advent
Scripture: Isaiah 64:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:32-37

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Isaiah 64:1-4

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
2 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!
3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
4 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.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I give thanks to myGod always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind – 6just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – 7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Wait: the word appears in both of those readings. From Isaiah we heard the promise that “[God] works for those who wait for [God].” From Paul’s pen we heard the affirmation that the Christians in Corinth were “not lacking in any spiritual gift as [they] wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Today’s gospel reading does not contain the word wait, but it is about “that day or hour” when Jesus will come again. Since no one knows exactly when that will be, we can only wait for it. But lest we think we are just to sit by and wait passively, Jesus offers some “content” to fill our waiting days; we are to “beware” and to “keep alert” and “awake,” and according to some manuscripts, to “pray” as we wait. Listen with me to Mark 13:32-37:

32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert [some add and pray]; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It 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. 35Therefore, 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, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’

 I

Wait…wait…wait… Can you stand it?

If you are a red-blooded American, probably not. We hate to wait.

And yet, waiting is what the season of Advent is all about. Yep, waiting.

Can we stand it?

Christine Chakoian, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, Illinois, begins a brief article on today’s 1 Corinthians reading in a way I would claim as my own if I thought I could get away with it…

“The disconnect between church and secular calendars may never be greater than on the first Sunday of Advent. The irony is that both ostensibly share the same goal: preparing the world for Christmas.

“The commercial world is using every medium possible to hawk its urgent message. Our mailboxes, television and radio stations, e-mail in-boxes and web pages overflow with one unanimous appeal: buy gifts now. (Actually, I think the appeal is more like, “Buy things now.”) Buy the gifts that your friends or your loved ones need or want. Buy gifts because you are expected to do so and to prove you love your family, admire your boss, appreciate your colleagues, are sensitive to your in-laws, generous toward your employees, and respect your children’s teachers. Buy to show your patriotism…” (“Reflections on the Lectionary,” Christian Century, November 15, 2011; 21)

Chakoian concludes that it feels like a “lost cause” for the church to try to compete with that sheer volume of advertising. Our message of “beware, be alert, stay awake, pray, watch, and wait” is a hard sell in this environment. Why? Because the church is waiting for the “bang” that will signify the coming of the Kingdom of God, not the “bling” of another electronic gismo in our pockets.

Advent is not about pretending for a few weeks that Jesus has never been born so we can come here Christmas Eve and see him born again. The church knows Jesus has been born. We know the baby Jesus grew up, lived, served, taught, suffered, died, rose again to new life on the third day, and promised to come again to judge and claim this world as his own. There’s the rub – that “return” and that “kingdom to come”. The commercial world would rather forget all that; it wants us to focus on the warm and fuzzy immediacy of a smiling infant who never grows up to challenge or change a thing, not the future, not our values, and certainly not how we spend money.

Disclaimer: I am not denying the joy and satisfaction I get, and I hope we all get, out of finding and purchasing and giving gifts to people we love. It is the profoundest pleasure to be able to share blessings with those who mean everything to us. Much of what we all do in this season is appropriate and fun and good, for Christ’s sake!

But when our doing of it becomes obsessive, when it demands more of us than we can give without risking our own soul’s health, then the season becomes an instrument of that very sin and death from which the new-born Savior came to deliver us. When we hear ourselves adding the two little words “too much” to our pre-holiday activities – as in I ate too much, I drank too much, I spent too much, I did too much – then we know how far overboard we’ve jumped. Worse, when we conclude there is nothing we can do to change our “too much” behavior, we admit we are weak before the very powers Jesus came to defeat, and that without him, we remain locked in their grip.

II

Wait…wait…wait… Can you stand it?

Isaiah comforts us about this wait: “the Lord works for those who wait for [God]”. The Corinthian Christians are assured they possess every spiritual gift as they await the revealing of Jesus.

That’s the point: Advent’s waiting is a spiritual exercise. It is a test of our spiritual health; it is a means to improve that health as well. Like all good exercise, it both proves how far we can go, and strengthens us to go farther.

We – the church – wait during these four weeks for the completion of the work the Christ child was born to initiate. We wait actively, because we trust that what Jesus began in his life, death and resurrection will one day be fully realized, and we want to be ready for it. We wait in the full sense of the Hebrew word “wait”: we long for, we hope for, we expect … what? Nothing less than the dawn of the new age, of the just kingdom and the gracious rule of God over all creation. The end of death’s hold on humankind, a hold expressed in the injustice, violence, warfare, hatred, poverty, and sorrow that grip our life together.

When that quality of waiting and hoping and longing controls our lives, the light of God’s mercy and grace shines bright upon our values and our choices. That light tests those values and those choices by the measure of what Christ has done in us and is still doing in the world. We consciously decide where our values, driven by our faith, lead us to spend and lead us to give. We are not helpless victims of slick ad campaigns. We know we are children of God through the child-become-man Jesus Christ, so we spend, give and live as members of God’s human family. Everything is measured by the measure of Christ. He works for those who wait for him.

Ironically, Fairmount Church invites us into the fray, and can threaten to add to the must-do-before-Christmas list, can seem to squeeze whatever precious little time to wait we may think we have. If you turn to the last couple of pages of today’s bulletin you see what I mean. They are all good things, good activities, good causes, good for you and me and for the community. I hope you will find time for them: this Wednesday’s Advent by Candlelight service; if appropriate, next Sunday’s “blue” service at 8:30; health kits and the glove, sock and hat tree; Christmas pageant, Heifer Gift Market, the Guild’s Cookie Co-op, Boomers Christmas party, special musical presentations, and the Christmas Joy Offering and Family Promise week (not in here today). Every one of those is worthy of your participation in the next four weeks.

But…if we pile any or all of these on top of everything else we have to do, when will we wait? How will we wait? We will likely compromise the spiritual power of this Advent season, the power to ready us to welcome Christ’s final victory over the forces of death and evil in our lives and world. We may prepare for Christmas but miss the Christ.

III

So, strangely, I suggest one more “thing”, but it’s a one more than can make all the others different and productive: Fairmount’s Advent Devotional booklet. It can guide and focus your daily “waiting time” this Advent season, and so give meaning to the rest of your time.

I urge you to take it with you this morning, and to use it by yourself or with others to force yourself to create time for quiet, for reflection, for prayer. It may help alert you to signs of Christ you would otherwise miss. It may cause you to choose more carefully those activities that can both test and strengthen your faithfulness to Christ. It may move you to act to ease the pain and suffering of others, not only at Christmas but year-round. It may push you to pray for yourself, for your family and friends, and for the world with a conviction you’ve never prayed before. You might even conclude that during this Advent you prayed too much. Would that be a bad thing?

These meditations and prayers are the gifts of your fellow Fairmounters, offering their convictions to us all in a way that can change us all. They are prime examples of our mutual spiritual ministry to one another. Thank them by taking their work home today. Then, take the time, make the time, extract the time from your schedule to use it. And wait…wait…wait… You will be astonished at how listening to it will help you get it all done just when you think you’ve run out of time.And to know you’ve done what is really important to Christ, to you and to all whom he calls you to love.

IV

One of Bob Moncrief’s many gifts to Fairmount is his ability to choose anthems that “fit” what’s going on in worship. I cannot let the words of the anthem we heard before the readings pass without praying them on behalf of Fairmount Church, for all of us together. Let us pray:

“Lord, before this fleeting season is upon Fairmount Church, let us remember to walk slowly. Lord, bless our hearts with Love and with quiet. Give our hearts a leaning to hear carols. Grace our [church] family with contentment, and the peace that comes only from You. Lord, help us to do less this busy season; go less; stay closer to [this] home; kneel more. May our hearts be your heart. May we simply, peacefully, celebrate you, Lord.” Amen.

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