Sermon November 30: Show Us A Sign

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Faith United Methodist Church

November 30, 2014

First Sunday of Advent

Rev. Krista Beth Atwood

Scripture:  Isaiah 64:1-9

Prayer of Illumination:        

God of promised new beginnings, open our hearts to the nourishment of your word so we might grow with mounting hope as we wait for your advent among us. Amen.

Sermon:  Show Us a Sign  

We might think that on this First Sunday of Advent we would have a more uplifting reading. I mean, we know (or at least I hope we know) that we won’t find Santa in the stable with the Baby Jesus, but something with angels and shepherds and the heavenly host might be more appropriate than this morning’s reading from Isaiah. Instead of joy and rejoicing we find ourselves mired in weeping and lament. Isaiah tells us that God may have forgotten us altogether.

The Hebrew Prophet Isaiah was writing out of a time of national chaos. The Assyrians had conquered Babylon and the people of Israel were able to return to Jerusalem from their exile. This was what they had been waiting for (praying for) all those years by the River Babylon. They were going home. Yet they soon found it was not going to be as they remembered. They returned to threats, divisions, land battles and power struggles. The returnees, who thought they would have their land back, found themselves fighting with those who had remained as well as those who had settled there from other places. The restoration of Jerusalem as it had been was not ‘gonna’ happen.

So out of the midst of this situation Isaiah cried, “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!” If only! Isaiah knew that God had done miracles in the past. God had parted the Red Sea, provided manna in the dessert, brought water from a rock. Yet it seemed like God had forgotten all about them. Isaiah just wanted a sign ~ some signal from God ~ so they would know that God was not ignoring them. Do you remember us, God? Do you remember that we are your children and you are our loving parent?

Elna Slovang describes lament as, “…poetic protests against pain and appeals for intervention.” And lament, while one of those church-y words, is something that we know about, too. Like Isaiah, we’ve probably found ourselves asking “Why God?” or crying “If only!” at one time or another. Last week I got an unexpected call telling me that my friend Tina died. Tina lived in Milton and came to church here a few times with her family after we became friends. She was the first friend I made in Vermont who was not already affiliated with our church. She had German Shepherd dogs and, early on, helped me in training Bady in the working dog sport we do. Tina’s grandfather was a United Methodist pastor. She and her husband Dan had nine children. She had cancer. Why God? If only God…. Do you remember us, God? Just show us a sign that you are still with us.

We all have stories like this. Loved ones taken too soon. Friends who had to suffer too much. Steady employment ripped out from under us. Depression that descends from out of nowhere. Children gambling their lives with drugs. And these stories don’t disappear during Christmas time. At one point or another we’ve all joined with Isaiah in protest, “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!” Just let us know that you are still with us, God! So maybe this isn’t such a bad place to start our Advent journey after all.

If we fast-forward several hundred years after Isaiah’s time to the time just before Christ was born we’ll find another community in lament. Judah and Jerusalem were part of the Roman occupation. It had been many years since they had a sign from God. Even the prophets had been silent for centuries. Was God anywhere to be found? God had promised them a Messiah, but so far none had showed up. They hoped for a revolution, for restitution, for a return to the way it used to be, back when things were good. As C.S. Lewis affirmed, “The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy. But it does not begin with joy, but rather in despair. And it is no good trying to reach the joy without first going through the despair.”

Some time ago I met with the Evangelism Committee of the first church I served, a small United Methodist congregation in Holbrook, MA. The purpose of the meeting was to talk about growing the church. I asked the four our five people sitting around the table how they thought the church might grow. For the next ten minutes they named off fifteen or twenty former members of the church who had either died or moved away. It was clear to me that we weren’t going to be getting those folks back. It was also clear to me that they had some grieving to do. Like the people of Israel, they had to accept that the restoration of the church to the way it had been was not going to happen. In other words, things would never be good in exactly the same way they used to be good. Things could be good again, but just in a different way.

I think that is an important lesson to learn during Advent. Things will never be good in exactly the same way they used to be good. The Jews of Jesus day prayed for a revolutionary leader to restore their nation to it’s former glory. They were looking for a sign of power and might. What they got instead was a tiny baby, fragile and weak, who would restore not their nation, but their hearts.

What do you long for this Advent season? What “if onlys” do you carry in your hearts? What sign are you looking for? Sometimes we might wonder, as Russell Rathbun put it, “How long are we supposed to wait for God to show God’s face around here?” Sometimes it seems as if God isn’t paying attention to the things that are important to us. Remember, God? Remember? We think we know how God should respond. Yet Advent reminds us that God does not respond with ‘shoulds.’ God responds with love.

Last week we decorated our sanctuary with symbols of Advent. Instead of the red and green that we see in our cultural displays of Christmas, in here we see purples and blues. Purple (as we see in our Advent candles) represents both royalty and repentance. Blue represents hope, expectation and heaven. It is like the blue we see in the sky just before dawn. In Advent we await the dawning light of Christ, just like the rising of the sun.

As Talitha Arnold reflects, during Advent, “Hope is mixed with longing for the past… Especially at Christmas, our congregations are often filled with people with that same yearning for restoration to a life we once knew, be it the life of our families, relationships, churches, or even nation. But while we may look back, God always looks ahead.”

During Advent we look for a sign. And we get one. The star shines bright and the baby is born. During Advent we are reminded that we are not foolish to put our hope in God. We learn that things may never be good in exactly the same way they used to be good. But things will be good because God has not forgotten us. This is our Advent hope. As Psalm 30 reminds us, “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” The light of Christ is dawning. Thanks be to God! Amen.