Are We Prepared this Advent?

December 9, 2018
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Malachi 3:1-4; Isaiah 11:1-10; Luke 3:1-6

“The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together.”

The language used by the prophet Isaiah imagines an impossible world, a world turned upside down by the dawn of a new age.

“The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” (Isaiah 11:6-7)

It’s difficult to know exactly what the seer has in mind, other than his confidence that a time will come when the animosities and hostilities that currently abound will be no more. Using the image of predator and prey relaxing together and sharing a meal, Isaiah jolts us out of complacency with the realities of our time. He wants us to think that things can, and will, change.

The wolf shall live with the lamb.

Many of us have given up on reaching anything like the community the prophet proposes in his other-worldly creation. But Isaiah seems to be asking us to consider…if I can see it happening among the animals, why can’t you see it happening among yourselves?

In fact, the prophet suggests as much when he adds children into the mix. He imagines the transformed animals being led by a little child. He sees small children playing unafraid in the midst of venomous snakes:

“The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.” (Isaiah 11:8)

What kind of creation is it where the creatures have learned to live in harmony with one another? What kind of world is it where fear would not rule the day, and life would not be defined by rancor and enmity?

That’s the world of Advent, a world in which the coming of a child will mark a cosmic shift. Love will no longer be an abstract possibility, but instead will put on clothes that look an awful lot like ours.

Remember Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak? It saved him from many a tight spot. He would put it on and no one could see him, but he could see them.

Sometimes it feels as if we get up each morning in our world and put on a different cloak altogether, a cloak of fear, the opposite of the invisibility cloak. People can still see us, but we can’t see them. Instead, we see images that frighten us, or stereotypes that terrify us. We don’t see people for who they are, but, rather, for what our anxieties imagine they might be.

We wear the cloak of fear to school and to work and out on the street and, perhaps, even to church. It keeps us always afraid, perpetually prejudging others wherever we go. If we keep it on too long, it begins to harden our hearts, making it more difficult to change.

In the world of Advent we shake off the cloak of fear, because life is lived by different rules in this season. In anticipation of a new day dawning, everything begins to change, including us. Hostility has ceased. Fear is gone. Death is no more. The desert flourishes and the dry places flow with cool, clear water.

Isaiah is convinced of it.

He may not ever see that world, but in the imagination of his heart he already lives in it. We may never see it either, but Advent invites us to live as if the new day were dawning here and now.

In the words of the old Advent hymn:

“Make you straight what long was crooked, make the rougher places plain.

Let your hearts be true and humble, as befits God’s holy reign,

For the glory of the Lord now o’er the earth is shed abroad,

and all flesh shall see the token that God’s word is never broken.”

(Comfort, Comfort, Ye, My People; Johannes Olearius, 1671; third stanza)

The hymn-writer borrows from Isaiah, the prophet of Advent, who – against all odds – conjures up a completely changed landscape, and then climbs into it. He inhabits that new world, a place unlike the one in which we now live.

To help us see it, once again he turns to the language of creation, only this time it’s not the animals, but the topography of the earth. The prophet describes mountains and hills brought low, and crooked, rough places made straight and smooth.

In the days just before Jesus comes onto the scene – the Advent of that time – Luke puts Isaiah’s words into the mouth of John the Baptizer. He connects the events in Bethlehem with the prophetic imagination of long ago, in order to prepare the people for the coming reign of God.

Are we prepared this Advent? Are we ready for the great turning of time at the birth of Mary’s boy?

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Isaiah 40:3-5)

It’s the climax of history, the in-breaking of light for a dimly-lit world, and Luke and Isaiah and John and Mary and Ruth and Elizabeth all want us to be ready for it. Hope and promise and life itself are at stake.

Are we ready?

John the Baptizer knew what it meant to be prepared. He centered his entire ministry on it. He went around preaching that it was time to change, time to repent. Repentance requires turning our lives around, heading in another direction, starting over, letting the wind of the Holy Spirit gently push us away from our old selves and slide us slowly toward something new, and better.

We all have crooked and uneven places of our own making, if we look honestly at ourselves and our lives. God knows the world is full of them. When we repent the crooked is made straight and the rough places plain. We are prepared when we’re willing to let the grace of God go to work in us, to smooth us over and straighten us out. To be prepared is to be ready to change, to change ourselves and our systems.

“The past is finished and gone,” we say every week in worship after praying our repentance. What if Advent were the time that really happened?

In his poem Messiah (Christmas Portions), Mark Doty describes what takes place when a community choral society performs Handel’s Messiah. It’s an unexpected enactment of Advent one evening in the small town’s Methodist church.

Doty sets the context of the poem:

“The day of the performance I arrived at the church just as an unbelievably beautiful sunset was occurring overhead. It seemed ironic to leave that perfectly accomplished sunset behind and enter the chapel for a doubtful human achievement.”

The singers, he says, are locals everyone knows…”the friendly bearded clerk from the post office…altos from the A&P, soprano from the T-shirt shop…”

But the poet, like the shepherds of old, is in for a surprise.

Silence in the hall,

anticipatory, as if we’re all

about to open a gift we’re not sure

we’ll like;

how could they

compete with sunset’s burnished

oratorio? Thoughts which vanish,

when the violins begin.

Who’d have thought

they’d be so good? Every valley,

proclaims the solo tenor,

(a sleek blonde

I’ve seen somewhere before

—the liquor store?) shall be exalted,

and in his handsome mouth the word

is lifted and opened

into more syllables

than we could count, central ah

dilated in a baroque melisma,

liquefied; the pour

of voice seems

to make the unplaned landscape

the text predicts the Lord

will heighten and tame.
This music

demonstrates what it claims:

glory shall be revealed. If art’s

acceptable evidence,

mustn’t what lies

behind the world be at least

as beautiful as the human voice?”

In Advent, with Isaiah and John and the singers in the choir and hope in our hearts we draw back the quotidian curtain to see what lies behind the world. And it is, indeed, beautiful.

The poet continues…

“Aren’t we enlarged

by the scale of what we’re able

to desire? Everything,

the choir insists,

might flame;

inside these wrappings

burns another, brighter life,

quickened, now,

by song: hear how

it cascades, in overlapping,

lapidary waves of praise? Still time.

Still time to change.”

(Bill Moyers, Fooling with Words [Wm. Morrow & Co., New York; 1999], p. 48-52)

Aren’t we enlarged by the scale of what we’re able to desire? Isn’t that true of this season? And isn’t it true that the basic message of Advent is that there’s still time, still time to change?

That message compels the prophet to his song of preparation, and urges John to make ready the way of the Lord. There’s still time, still time to change.

Time for the wolf to learn to live with the lamb,

time for the leopard to learn to lie down with the kid,

time to make the rough places smooth.

Still time. Still time for us to prepare for the change that will soon come.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Latest Sermons

Does Our Faith Rock the Boat?

October 14, 2018
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Exodus 5:1-9; John 5:1-13

Last August in the high desert of northern New Mexico I did my annual preparation for preaching in the upcoming year at Westminster. When I got to this Sunday, I mulled over the two scripture texts – John, from the end of the first century, and Exodus, from many centuries earlier – and, oddly enough, they pointed me to a 1950 musical comedy, Guys and Dolls.

Given our sensitivity these days about gender language it would have been called something else, but Guys and Dolls has some fun music and even a bit of wisdom to impart that offers perspective on our two texts this morning. If you’ve never seen the play you’ll soon have a chance: it’s coming to the Guthrie next summer!

There’s a scene in Guys and Dolls at the Save-A-Soul Salvation Army mission where one of the characters, a gangster named Nicely-Nicely Johnson, offers testimony in the form of a song. The song tells of a dream Nicely has in which he’s on a ship sailing to heaven but is standing on the deck with gambling dice in his hand. “Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down” the rest of the passengers in the dream sing. “Sit down ‘cause you’re rockin’ the boat.”

Next he’s standing on board the ship in his dream with a bottle of whiskey and they sing at him again. “Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down ‘cause you’re rockin’ the boat.”

Finally a big wave washes him overboard and just before he goes under he wakes up – and then sings again to himself, “Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down. Sit down ‘cause you’re rockin’ the boat.”

The song becomes, in a way, the center of the musical. The pious faithful at the Salvation Army, it turns out, rock the boat of the gangsters. By the end of the show they reform their ways. Gambler Sly Masterson marries Sergeant Sarah Brown of the Salvation Army and becomes a drummer in the Save-A-Soul marching band. Adelaide the nightclub dancer weds Nathan Detroit the gangster, who changes his ways and opens a newsstand.

Maybe you remember the story. It’s corny and fun and more than slightly moralizing – but it’s also a story at least partly repeated many times over in real life: the awakening of faith that can cause transformation. Go to any Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous meeting and you’ll hear about it. People’s lives can take a different tack when they stop and go deep and discover a power higher than themselves and gain perspective on how they’ve been living.

Christian faith, it turns out, changes lives, in ways big and small

In another church I served, after worship one Sunday a new member came up to me with a complaint. He was a retired police officer. He’d been a homicide detective who had recently rediscovered his faith, having left the church some 30 years earlier. His complaint? His life had changed and he was having to adjust in lots of different ways. “Someone cut me off while I was driving the other day,” he said,

“And I caught myself just as I was about to make what, has been my favorite gesture, reinforced with some of my favorite words. But now I can’t do that anymore and I used to really enjoy it.”

His boat had been rocked, and in that small way – learning to restrain his anger, which probably showed itself in other areas of his life – his life had changed.

Does our faith rock the boat? Not only in little ways, but sometimes in life-altering ways?

My favorite story about adult baptism you may have heard me tell before. It happened in that same congregation. One of the musicians we hired to play regularly in our worship services asked to see me one day. She said she’d never been part of a church and had no religious experience at all in her background. She simply came and played the music and then left. But, in hearing all those prayers and scripture readings, sermons and sacred music week after week, something had begun stirring in her. We talked several more times, about the Bible, about Christianity, about worshipping God, about coming to faith, about Jesus.

Finally she asked how she could become part of the church. I said we’d have to baptize her, and she told me she that’s what she wanted. When the day came it was a powerful moment for all of us. People had known her as a musician who came from outside the congregation to play in our worship, but they knew nothing of the story of her journey of conversion. She was weeping, as was everyone else, as the water from the font ran down her face and dripped onto the floor.

When I saw her the next Sunday she came up to me all excited and told me she’d had to stay home from work for three days.  She had called her boss to ask for time off because the experience of baptism had so thrown her she needed time to re-orient her life. As she told me of her experience my own Christianity felt so puny. Sometimes we forget or dismiss the power of coming to faith. That musician was in seminary a year later and now serves as a Presbyterian pastor.

Jesus is in the boat-rocking business. In today’s parlance he’d be called a disruptor. He subverts the way things are – not only systems of injustice, but also in much more personal ways in our lives and our relationships. If our Christianity doesn’t destabilize and challenge us then we might not be paying close enough attention.

Our faith should knock us off balance, at least once in a while. Whether that’s in the gestures we make or the language we use, the attitudes we have or the way we spend money, how we exercise power or how we live with our neighbors, Christianity is anything but passive. It’s a faith we practice, and put into real life and use, and it changes us.

There’s a rebellious quality to our faith. Jesus displays it most obviously when he breaks the Sabbath law by healing a paralyzed man. One of the Ten Commandments declares that Jews were to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” For centuries that had been interpreted as doing no labor of any kind on the day of rest. Some Jewish congregations and movements still view the commandment like that today.

But Jesus turns the law on its head; for him, to heal someone is holy whenever it happens, and it takes precedent over tradition. Keeping the Sabbath is not limited to maintaining a ritual simply for the sake of following the rules. What can be more holy than healing a person suffering paralysis?

Here’s how John tells the story:

“A man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’

The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’”

Imagine that: for 38 years, trying to drag his paralyzed body into the healing waters of the pool but being bumped out of the way by able-bodied people. Over and over, day after day, for nearly four decades. Out of compassion Jesus says to him,

“‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’

“At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

Now that day was a sabbath.  So the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’”

In other words, “Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down. Sit down ‘cause you’re rockin’ the boat.”

Rules can cloud our vision sometimes. It happens still today. We Presbyterians are really good at it. We are known for being sticklers on order and process and protocol – which sometimes causes us to miss the point of faith. And when that happens we don’t take many chances. We become risk averse. Faith like that doesn’t rock many boats, or change many lives, or alter many systems.

Jesus is not the first boat-rocker in the Bible. In fact, scripture is full of them. Moses does it ages earlier, when he goes with his brother Aaron to visit Pharaoh to ask for a three-day break for the Hebrew people so they might worship God.

The request unsettles the peace that has kept things in balance in Pharaoh’s Egypt, and causes turmoil that had been kept to a minimum on the backs of the Hebrew people. But Moses pushes the boundaries for the sake of his oppressed people. The king gets angry and doubles down on the work required of his Israelite slaves, making it impossible for them to meet their quota. In effect, telling the Hebrews to sit down and stop rockin’ the boat. Leave the status quo alone.

That injustice is too much, and the die is cast. Pharaoh’s treatment of the Hebrew people turns the tide toward the liberation movement that becomes the Exodus. The request of Moses for a three-day retreat in the wilderness turns into the demand to “Let my people go.” Period. It’s a defining moment for the Hebrew people. The dominant order is about to be overturned. Subversion has commenced. The boat is rocked.

Moses and Jesus are both on a mission from God – arising out of an encounter with the Almighty at a burning bush, in the case of Moses, and coming after 40 days in the desert, for Jesus. Everybody else – the enslaved Hebrew people, the disabled man at the pool in Jerusalem, all of us – everybody else is simply doing their best to be faithful and avoid any problems and keep their head above water. Like so many of us.

But in each instance it’s the common believers that take the brunt of the anger. The Temple leaders vent not at Jesus but at the man he heals, for standing and picking up his mat on the Sabbath. Pharaoh takes it out on not on Moses, but on the Hebrew people, whom he accuses of being lazy and defiant when they can’t meet their work quota.

In other words, even if we keep our head down and try not to rock the boat, following our faith may eventually land us in trouble.

Moses and Jesus are disruptors, but most of us are not. Most of us are rule-following, law-abiding citizens, religiously and politically, and that’s a good thing. A peaceful social order depends on that. We live by accepted, shared cultural norms, and we keep pursuing those norms even as it gets harder and harder. Most of us are not boat-rockers out to disrupt the present order of things. The status quo is working well for most of us. The world may need disrupting and we may need it in our personal lives, but those aren’t easy places for us.

I know I find it difficult to confront systems that are unjust. It’s not easy to stand here and talk about racism or misogyny. That makes me uncomfortable. It’s not my go-to place.

Yet, sometimes our faith pushes us in that direction. Westminster has learned this and has stood up on public issues. Our congregation has spoken up against current gun laws. Westminster took a stance in support of marriage equality. Our congregation has supported legislation for affordable housing and changes in the criminal justice system.

Christian faith changes lives – and systems – in ways big and small.

Our church has taken positions on public issues and policies that we feel do not reflect God’s intentions for the human family, as discerned through scripture study and prayer. We have rocked the boat and worked with others for justice. But that doesn’t mean we’re comfortable doing it.

Most of us – and I am in this category, too – prefer a quieter, more nuanced Christianity, a comfortable faith that doesn’t ask too much of us. A little voice inside tells us not to rock the boat, whether it’s working against systemic inequity or making changes in our personal lives. We’d just as soon stay seated.

Yet Jesus expects more from us. Those places in our lives where we need to change – and we all know where they are – are waiting for us to face them with courage, and then to act. And the injustices we see all around us in the city and the nation and the world cry out for transformation and call us to join with others in working for change.

The good news, the good news, is that Jesus has already given us all we need to make the change we sense is required in our world and in our lives – to stand up and rock the boat:

faith that gives us strength and courage,

hope that one day will be fulfilled, and

love that cannot be stopped.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Pastoral Prayer ~10:30 am Worship

David Shinn

God of wind, rain and snow, the world witnessed and trembled at the power of your majestic creation. From your dazzling cosmos to the force of the hurricane, you are God and you are mighty. Yet you are mindful of every human being and created us just a little lower than the angels. When we stray away from your love, you call us back with the urging of your prophets. At the fullness of time, you sent your Son Jesus to fully demonstrate and embody your love for your creation. For your name is great, and we worship you as our God.

Loving God, look upon this world, we pray, that you will pour forth your soothing grace. Pour out your comfort for all who are suffering from the aftermath of the crushing waves of tsunami in Indonesia, and the howling wind of the hurricane in Florida and southern states. Spread out your love for the grieving hearts, injured bodies, and post-traumatic spirits. Guide the volunteers who are heeding the calls for help from all states, especially those coming from our state this day, as they reach out to all who are in need. Bless the rescue and relief workers as they clear debris, restore power and clean water, and begin the long road to healing.

God of peace, you created this world and called it good. Yet we do not follow your path for peace. We pray for conflicts around the world. Bring peace to Cameroon, to Palestine and Israel, to South Sudan, and other war torn nations. We pray for all who are terrorized by the arm conflicts and the threat of civil war. We pray for our Cameroon community here in our church and community who are troubled by the news of their home. We lift up to you all who are caught in the crossfire and displaced by wars, we pray for the refugees seeking for basic needs and security. Protect and have mercy on them O Lord.

For our community here at Westminster, we pray for all who are seeking health for their bodies, minds and spirits. Place your hands upon our loved ones who are preparing for surgery, chemo treatment, and rehab. Bless them with healing of their bodies. Soothe all who are living with mental illness and the struggles they face each day that are beyond our comprehensive but not our compassion. Comfort the grieving spirits of those whose hearts are made heavy by the death of their dear ones.

O Disruptor of faith, in you we move and have our being, lead us to be your light and salt here in our community and in the world. Let us never be afraid to rock the status quo. Let not our complacency stymie the call to action. Let not the rigidity of rules stop us. Let your power in us be the courage to forge new path of faith in action. With compassion of Christ, with the love of God, and the power of the Living Spirit, may we be the transformed people standing against injustice, ushering peace, feed the starving multitude, and set the captives free.

With this confidence of your moving Spirit, we now pray the prayer that Jesus has taught us all to pray, Our Father…

Latest Sermons