On Endings | Reflections from Advent 3 (part 1/5)

Part 1/5 of a set of reflections written for Ware Episcopal Church on the daily lectionary during Advent 3. 


Isaiah 9:1-7 

9Nonetheless, those who were in distress won’t be exhausted. At an earlier time, God cursed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but later he glorified the way of the sea, the far side of the Jordan, and the Galilee of the nations.

2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.
    On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.
You have made the nation great;
    you have increased its joy.
They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest,
    as those who divide plunder rejoice.
As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them,
    the staff on their shoulders,
    and the rod of their oppressor.
Because every boot of the thundering warriors,
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned, fuel for the fire.
A child is born to us, a son is given to us,
    and authority will be on his shoulders.
    He will be named
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be vast authority and endless peace
    for David’s throne and for his kingdom,
    establishing and sustaining it
    with justice and righteousness
    now and forever.

The zeal of the Lord of heavenly forces will do this.


Reflection

We’re spending a lot of time Isaiah during Advent. The joy and trouble of the daily lectionary is that we have texts that don’t seem to make a lot of sense in our context, occasionally interrupted by a passage like today’s that everybody knows and loves.

For the Christian tradition, you might say that this passage is one of Isaiah’s greatest hits: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light… A child is born to us.” For me, this conjures up images of the birth of Christ, of the star in the east, of shepherds and wise men and several dozen Christmas pageants. These verses are a promise of peace, reminding us that Christ will come, and bring an end to darkness and bloodshed.

There’s something unabashedly hopeful, almost shameless about these verses. They’re surrounded, both before and afterwards, by prophesies of judgement and war upon disobedient Israel. Yet, these words of peace remind us that that’s not the end. No matter how hopeless things seem, they’re not the end.

Whatever is going on for you this Advent—exhaustion, too much to do, illness, the stress of the world we live in—I invite you to consider Isaiah’s ridiculous, prophetic hope. Despite all the cares of our worlds, there’s a promise of peace. Whatever it is, it is not the end.

Jesus is coming. Those of us in darkness will see a great light, and darkness is not our end.

Your redemption is drawing near (Sermon)

A friend of mine writes a blog titled “Sermons I Wish I’d Heard”. She reflects on what preachers often say about a particular set of lectionary readings, and wonders if that’s really what she would need to hear, and then writes her own sermon on the text.

Today’s sermon, if you will, is a sermon I wish I’d heard.

You see, we get to these apocalyptic passages in Mark and Luke, and suddenly, the preaching I hear is inevitable. You’ve heard this sermon too, haven’t you, how we must keep ourselves pure and follow the commandments to be ready for Christ’s coming which could break forth at any minute. And perhaps this is true, but to be honest, I’m not sure what to do with this hurry up and wait—how can I live more fully into being a Christian when all I’m doing is waiting and trying not to break any rules?

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”

I feel like I’ve heard this sermon too many times to count, yet it always leaves me deeply dissatisfied. Why are we promised all of this, but not yet? It has been hundreds of generations since these words were recorded, but we still must wait? What I want to know is not about the future, but what these words have to say to us sitting here today.

“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

What I want to hear about this text is not some dream of a king coming in clouds and might who we have to wait for.

You see,

I’m tired of might.

Of shows of strength.

Of the games of politics that we play that are really about power and control.

Of money and nationalism being more important than feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the refugee, the immigrant, the orphan.

And I don’t know if one day the Son of Man will be wreathed in cloud, how or if there will be an end to all of this.

But what I do know is that the Son of Man has already come.

Not in might, but in a manger.

Not in strength, but in a stable.

Not in power, but as a prophet—speaking uncomfortable and inconvenient and financially devastating truths to those who claim power.

Not in wealth or palaces or possessions, but as an impoverished son of a carpenter who healed the sick, raised the dead, and ate with women and outcasts and tax collectors.

Jesus has already come, two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. Jesus has already died on a cross on Golgatha. Jesus has already arisen at the tomb and ascended into heaven. The Son of Man has already come.

And yet, we’re still waiting. Advent is a season that illustrates this tension beautifully—Christ has already come, but every year we engage in a time of waiting, of preparing, of pondering this coming in our hearts. Our redemption has come, and yet our redemption is drawing near as we count down the days until Christmas.

And maybe this will be the Son of Man wreathed in cloud, judging everyone in the last days.

But, maybe redemption is the passing of one of life’s storms—a surgery gone well, an illness cured. An orphan adopted by a family. A community rising up to shelter those who are homeless, tired, and cold. An end to a personal crisis, love found just when we need it the most.

When I read Luke, what I know in my heart is that my heavens and earths have passed away over and over again, and I wonder if yours have too. The stones of my temple have often fallen, and perhaps you know what that feels like, to have everything crash down around you. Our heavens and earths have passed away and will continue doing so, but the promise of this text is that your redemption is drawing near.

Redemption is not a one-time-thing, or a two-time thing. We are living in an in-between time, friends, and rather than tell us to worry, Luke says that we need to stand and lift up our heads and wait for the redemption that is coming. You can almost hear the hope and excitement between the lines. This world is a crazy, heartbreaking place and yet there is a hope of redemption that can happen again, and again.

So maybe, this Advent, you’re waiting for change in your life, for a miracle, for hope. Or maybe you know someone who is waiting, and you’re waiting with them, preparing for the promise of a Savior who seeks to draw closer to us, to love us, to save us.

“When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because [our] redemption is drawing near”. Christ of the manger is drawing near. Christ the Son of Man is drawing near. And perhaps you too are drawing near, drawing near to someone who is desperately waiting for redemption, the light that you are called to bring to a friend, a neighbor, an enemy, a stranger. Christ is drawing near.

Your redemption is drawing near. Will you wait?

(Sermon recording, with some substantial variation from this text, will soon be found at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, under Advent I, 2018, or may be found below.)

All Things New (Sermon)

Where are you going? Where am I going? Where are we going?[1] My inclination when I hear this question is to simply pull out my calendar, and ask well, what date are you asking about? When do you want to schedule for? In this world we only really think about where we’re going in a temporal sense—only if it has to do with tomorrow, or next week, or maybe next year. We’re really great at talking about where we came from. Our history. Why things are the way that they are, why we are at this point in history, but we’re less clear about where we’re going.

Perhaps it’s because we are used to rationalizing other perspectives—I find myself getting a little nervous when people talk about the end times and the apocalypse, and perhaps you do too. Every day that is predicted by one group or another as the day the world will end passes with relatively few disruptions. Time keeps on marching onward, and it would be safe and rational to assume that maybe it just keeps doing this, and there’s no need to worry ourselves about the end of times.

But then, we run into passages like this one, from Revelation, where the writer is not simply talking about the end of days. The writer is audaciously claiming that not only will the end of times come with fire and beasts and dragons, but that the earth as we know it will be transformed into something new. And while our initial inclination may be to get a bit squeamish, perhaps this is an opportunity to put aside a concept of linear time, to step outside of our comfort zones and hear the hope that is so audaciously being offered.

—–

At the very end of the Lord of the Rings movies, Frodo and Sam have finally cast the ring into Mount Doom. This is the end of the quest that they have given everything to complete. And before they drift out of consciousness, they begin reminiscing about the Shire, and home, and people they love. In the film, they’re laying on rocks that barely hold them above the molten lava streaming down the mountainside, they’re so thirsty and hungry that they can’t remember the taste of food. And yet, they are dreaming. The world is collapsing around them, so it seems, and yet they are dreaming about a better world, the world they had once lived in.

This is what I think about when we finally get to this point in the book of Revelation. “I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” These are the words that open today’s reading, but they are not the beginning of the book. If you read through the book of Revelation, (which some of you have been doing in the Revelation Bible Study) you’ll know that in order to get to this point, the reader has travelled a long way. From the letters to the churches, to the throne of the Lamb—from seals to scrolls to dragons to beasts to the fall of Babylon to the defeat of the beast and of Satan to the final judgement. There’s a lot going on in the first twenty chapters.

And when we arrive at chapter 21, the tone changes. We move from the throes of judgement to suddenly, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”. Something changes here—the tone of the text is altered. It’s like you’re laying on a rock on Mount Doom surrounded by molten lava and suddenly you start thinking about home, and green grass and sunshine.

I’ve always wondered why, in this moment, it’s the Shire that gets talked about by two people who barely have the breath to talk. They don’t talk about the lava. They don’t talk explicitly about the fear that they are going to die. They wish they could see home one more time, and this is what they talk about—the memories of specific places and people that they love.

—–

If we were to ask Frodo and Sam where they are going, they may not be able to rationally articulate an concept of an afterlife, but in this moment when they think they are done for—when everything feels completely at an end, they begin to talk about home. This maybe doesn’t seem hopeful—they are after all weeping about things that they will never experience again, or things they wish they had done or seen once more. But just the courage to name these memories in the face of death and the end is ridiculous and full of hope.

All Saints is a feast day that is a little ridiculous—or at the least, a bit strange to us. We don’t often talk about death, let alone an afterlife in our culture and yet here we are on a day that explicitly recalls these things to our mind. We remember the saints of ages past, and on Friday, All Souls Day, we remembered all who have died.  This is a season where we remember that death happens. It’s part of our lives—to walk in the door this morning you had to walk or drive by the hundreds of saints buried around us at St. Paul’s—people who have experienced death. But we also remember today that resurrection happens. We articulate this hope every week when we say at the end of the creed that “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come”.

If we can believe today’s gospel where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead then I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to believe that this same Godhead has the power to make all things new. “I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” It’s not a new heaven and new earth as a second creation, another Genesis account, but it’s the transformation of this creation—this world that we live in.

To claim our identity as people who believe in a world that can be transformed—not abandoned, not left to its own devices—is to be a people who are audaciously… ridiculously hopeful. Just read the headlines. How can we possibly hope when everything feels so bleak? Revelation’s writer makes the claim that even, and especially after the first twenty chapters of judgement and fire that we should be hopeful that God will in fact make all things new.

—–

T.S. Eliot writes in his seminal poetic work, Four Quartets, that:

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—

To be redeemed from fire by fire[2].

As much as this reading is about a new heaven and a new earth and what might happen after death, I don’t want you to walk away thinking that that’s all it’s about. The choice of fire or fire, pyre or pyre isn’t just Revelation’s judgement and new heaven and new earth. When I hear fire or fire, I’m thinking about the choices we have to make in this world every day. And sometimes, life can feel like death. People we love die, or grow ill. Our relationships break down and we can so easily hurt ourselves and others and our planet. Floods overturn our worlds and mass shootings kill our neighbors while they worship.

It sounds a little bit like the first 20 chapters of Revelation, doesn’t it? And I say this not because I believe the world is going to end soon, but because today’s reading tells us that if the fire of this world exists in this life, then so too can the new creation.

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—

To be redeemed from fire by fire

We have no choice. This is the road we have to walk in this life. So how are we going to do that?

Are we going to stare with despair at the lava roiling down around us, at the world the feels like it’s ending, even though it’s been redeemed, even though the ring has been thrown into Mount Doom, even though Christ has conquered death? Are we going to talk about our death, or our hopelessness?

Or are we going to talk about the Shire? The party tree? The summertime and green grass and people we love? Are we going to talk about a world that can be transformed from the brokenness we see to this new heaven and new earth? A new earth that is not strange but is utterly familiar, is home in all the ways we remember it capable of being and so much more.

—–

Will we choose hope over despair? Will we claim the ridiculous, audacious hope that “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come”? If we claim this hope for ourselves, then it doesn’t just have implications for the world to come, the ‘where are we going’ outside of any knowable timeline.

If we are a people of hope and of resurrection then that should change how we walk through this world and how we value it. Our world is not disposable or wholly evil—there are the Shires of our lives, the homes and places and relationships we dream about. If we claim the way of hope, then we believe in a world that can be transformed, even just a little bit into the world we dream of it being, the world that God dreamed and still dreams of it being.

If we believe in “the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come” then we need to claim, to make a part of our lives this ridiculous, audacious hope that God is making all things new. To claim it, to make it part of our lives is to work to make things new in the world we live in. We can choose “hope, or else despair”—Saints of St. Paul’s… let’s choose hope.

(Sermon recording, with some variation from this text, will soon be found at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, under All Saints Day, 2018, or may be found below.)

[Footnotes]

[1] Question of past/future from Taylor, Barbara Brown, and David Lyon Bartlett. Feasting on the Word : Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Vol. 1st ed, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. 230.

[2] Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1943. 57.

Poetry for October

When October hits, I become more contemplative and morose. I wonder sometimes if it’s just the weather, or the season of transition or the time in the semester. In reality, it’s probably a confluence of all these things.

Although I don’t have a lot of time to read for fun during the semester, I thought I’d post several collections of poetry that have been keeping me going. They’re beautifully seasonal. I’m grateful for a way to reflect on life and death in a holy space, which I feel an absence of in our culture.

 

 

To close, I’m going to leave you all with a quote from Eliot’s Four Quartets, which is one of my all-time favorite poems.

“The dove descending breaks the air

With flame of incandescent terror

Of which the tongues declare

The one discharge from sin and error.

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—

To be redeemed from fire by fire.”