A sparse crowd on Sunday, so I’m glad to be able to post the sermon, which wasn’t a bad one–and it stayed within my new shorter format.
Isaiah 64:1-9 ; Mark 13:24-37
Words of Assurance: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Our lives are so complicated, and even incomprehensible. Each one of us is a puzzle made of almost infinite pieces. In my house, the holidays were always a time to put together jigsaw puzzles—we always said “fixing a puzzle” in our local dialect; I have never liked jigsaw puzzles, but Jessica and now Silas are getting sucked into this family tradition. No thanks. Each of you, and me too, is enough of a puzzle for me. And so we try to ‘fix’ ourselves. We put together stories about ourselves that explain where we came from, where we are going, and why we are the way we are. Our stories about ourselves are insightful and mostly true, but incomplete. They pick out a few pieces of us that make a fairly clear picture. But there are still so many loose pieces that we can’t fit in or can’t even perceive. What is your story about yourself? First, do you have one? You should: writing your own story is a really good exercise for discerning your spiritual life.
But say you’ve got a story about who you are. What else would God see that you don’t? Plenty, I suspect, at least for myself (and I’m almost obsessively self-reflective). God alone sees the whole puzzle, how all the pieces of us fit together. We get glimpses of the loose pieces in our lives that only God sees, whenever we come up against things we do but don’t know why. Why does it annoy me so much when he clears his throat like that? Why do I like what that one commentator has to say, but I dislike the other one even though she seems equally smart and well informed? Why did I let my child become so distant? Why do I just sit here when I know what I should be doing? We could bring in a whole team of pyschologists and therapists to evaluate each one of you; and you would learn something about yourself, although you would feel very exposed, having lost control of your story. In their flawed way, they would tell a different but insightful story about who you are, and they would add some of the puzzle pieces that you had left out, too. That would give us some hint of what else God sees in us.
And God sees that our puzzles are both individual, but also all connected. We are also one big puzzle (now my sisters would be getting really excited—imagine a 7.6 billion piece puzzle!). None of us can see how the whole thing fits together, nor how to fix it. And so we find ourselves asking questions about the larger reality in which we are immersed: why is the world so out of control? Why can’t we come together and solve our problems? How did we get stuck in these collective ruts? Well, we could also invite in the historians, the sociologists, the gender theorists, the economists, the religion scholars, and let’s not forget the literature scholars; and they would first bicker amongst themselves a whole lot, because I know these folks and that’s what they do; but then they would start to show how each of our personal puzzles connects with those of others, and with scattered puzzles all over the world and back through time. And in their own flawed way, they would bring us a little closer to seeing us as God sees us: the whole world, in its naked truth, like an infinitely large and infinitely detailed puzzle.
God sees the good in this puzzle, and God sees the bad. And much that just is what it is. And were we to see what God sees, we would feel humbled, because we thought we knew who we were, but we don’t. And were we to turn our focus on the bad in this great puzzle, we would feel horrified and ashamed, for ourselves and for the whole world. That’s why our faith is so important, because when our eyes catch a glimpse of the bad—even when it’s ‘out there,’ because we deep down know that what’s out there is a part of me too—when we see the bad for what it is, as God sees it, we need to believe that God is merciful and loving, or else we will be undone. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
We are all one, infinitely complex puzzle which we barely can make out and hardly understand, even the little section of the puzzle that is framed by my body. We throw ourselves on God’s mercy, for God created us, as Isaiah says: “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” We remember and confess that our origin and our future are in God’s hands. We are clay.
But by the light of Christ, Paul, in our Words of Assurance, sees something greater in us than just clay. God in Christ has called us to a much higher confidence:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind–just as 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. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
We might not always feel like we have been enriched in Christ Jesus, with speech and knowledge of every kind. We may not feel so strengthened in Christ “that we may be blameless.” We might instead feel like a bunch of scattered puzzle pieces, out of which I have forced a few ill-fitting pieces together to make sense of myself, at least. How do we get to the cheery gratitude that Paul expresses for us, so that we really feel like those “called into the fellowship of God’s son, Jesus Christ our Lord?” That’s what we want to be feeling come Christmas Eve.
Well, I don’t think we just pretend everything is dandy. We can’t ignore this massive, broken puzzle that God sees. We know God sees with love and mercy, but we can’t imagine how God does it, when absolutely everything in the world is laid bare before God’s infinite vision. How do we deal with the infinite complexity that is the puzzle of our world and ourselves?
Here’s where we need a variety of seasons in the church year to help us deal with our own complexity. We need Lent to celebrate Easter truly. We all need Christmas and Epiphany, certainly, to reassure us that God has seen our world for what it is and has nonetheless entered it and joined with it by being born in Bethlehem. But we need another season, set apart, to deal with that “nonetheless.” It is no small thing for God to enter the world, to become in God’s very being one piece of our puzzle, but just so, the one piece in this puzzle that makes sense, and that promises to make sense of the whole thing and to reassemble it into the beautiful picture of the realm of God that was intended all along, before it all got so scattered. It’s easy for us to appreciate the beauty of this one piece which re-centers and re-orients the whole puzzle, placed just so, as when we place the baby Jesus figurine in the manger on Christmas Eve. But we only truly appreciate the beauty of that night when we take a hard look in these four weeks at this mess of a puzzle without Jesus in it. Otherwise Christmas becomes just a Kodak moment, a lovely season of make-believe which is like a dream (or nowadays, a shopping and logistical nightmare) from which we wake up on December 26 and go back to our hopeless world. Advent helps us connect our workaday world, the world of fleeting delights and repetitious drudgery, to the extraordinary time of God, the day of the Lord. It may be helpful to emphasize the contrast. And Advent is indeed a good time to confess that we and our world are not yet full of God; we are still awaiting our salvation. But that’s also the hope—we know what God has in store for us, and we can see signs of hope all around us, even amid the fleeting delights and repetitious drudgery.
So let us keep the fast of Advent. We don’t have to literally fast. But it is a season to keep watch, as our strange reading from the Gospel of Mark has it. Our lectionary brings us this weird reading in Advent, which is echoed by the longing in Isaiah –“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” I think I get it. Remember there is the first coming of Jesus in Bethlehem, but also a second coming, the return of Christ to judge the world and bring the Kingdom in its completeness. (We don’t talk about it much but it’s in Scripture.) Our lectionary connects the time of waiting to celebrate Christmas with the waiting for that Second Coming.
This is meant to disorient us a little. We are used to thinking about the star over Bethlehem, not “the stars will be falling from heaven, ” as Mark puts it. We think about that dark, silent, Holy Night, but not because “the powers in the heavens will be shaken,” and so the stars, sun, and moon will all fail to give their light. It’s all kind of ominous and unsettling. And we are used to watching for Santa on Christmas Eve, but Jesus is talking about watching for this mysterious Son of Man to come, who seems to be the Jesus we know, but we’re not sure. We know exactly when Christmas comes, but about this the hour when this Son of Man will return, no one knows—neither the angels, nor the son, but only the Father, who apparently is a God of secrets.
All of this is meant to be disorienting, so that we will open ourselves, amid all the dear old sentimental, child-centered traditions of Christmas, to receiving Jesus anew, as a stranger, as if for the first time. So we keep alert, and watch. This is part of the Advent fast—fasting from the easy familiarity that Christmas can breed. We fast by confessing our need, confessing that our salvation is not yet complete, our knowledge of God is still only fragmentary, that we still don’t know what Jesus means for us.
Our particular focus during Advent and then after will be on love. Jesus reveals the love of God, we all know that. What could be more obvious? We’ve heard so often that God loves us, that it passes right over us. We don’t have to think twice about it. Now’s the time to think twice. And then we can rediscover what the love of God is.
When we learn to watch for Jesus’ coming as if for the first time, Advent can both open us to the need of our world for Jesus and his love, and also prepare us for a new disclosure of what God’s love is by this Emmanuel. We learn a little more about this jigsaw puzzle that is us, about the holes in the puzzle where love should be, and so Jesus begins to put it all back together again. And then, after Epiphany, Jesus will call us as his disciples, and we will be ready to follow him and put ourselves and our world back together again.