I’ve been spending time in the Clouds lately. Now that may evoke different images for you than what I mean.
The clouds I have visit on a regular basis are
iCloud, Amazon Cloud Music Player, & Dropbox; cloud storage.
The “Cloud” is where I store all my important documents now. This unseen internet-accessible storage means I can get to today’s sermon from any device that has internet access. It’s truly amazing, one might even say, miraculous, …but it’s not the cloud Jesus was referring to.
Jesus’ images of clouds as he speaks to his disciples in Mark’s gospel, are more likely to evoke pictures we have seen of the rapture rather than the words of ancient prophesy to which they actually refer. Hear these words from Daniel, chapter 7 that Jesus was recalling for them,
“As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (v. 13-14)
Today’s reality on the 1st day of Advent, 2011, is far different than Daniel’s or the context for either author of the texts we heard. In the section of Isaiah read earlier, God’s people had returned to Jerusalem from exile and were looking back thru their history to the time when God did awesome things, including their more recent liberation from Babylonian captivity. Their history of God’s awesome surprises gave them HOPE for the future they would build as they slowly restored the temple and religious life.
Jumping ahead to Mark’s gospel, it was written in another time of calamity during the rebellion, called the “Jewish Wars” of 66-74 CE when the streets were literally burning. Persecution, destruction, and death were the reality for everyone. Again people were looking back to remember God’s faithfulness in order to find HOPE for their future which appeared so bleak.
Some of my life tragedies seem small in comparison, but we have only to look at the news to know the world (as we know it) is often in dire straits. We need the reassurance of God’s action in history in order to find HOPE for OUR future.
Knowing even a little of biblical history, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that God’s surprises can be an apocalypse.
We are used to apocalypse referring to the ‘total destruction or devastation of something’[i] but it’s other meaning is ‘a revelation concerning the future’.[ii] God’s surprises are always a revelation.
Today we begin the journey of Advent which is a journey of apocalypse; God’s surprising revelation for humankind.
Christmas surprises are familiar to us.
I remember the Christmas morning that the most beautiful bicycle in the world was leaning up against the fireplace. It was a miracle in my young world. The way-out-of-our price range, convertible, silver/blue bike that was my heart’s desire was waiting there for me on Christmas morning. It was a surprising revelation for which I hadn’t even dared to hope.
Christmas surprises can be as wonderful as a Christmas Eve marriage proposal, or a surprise visit from friends, or even the miracle of a baby born on Christmas morning. They are good surprises to recall, because more often the surprises of our life are closer to the other definition of apocalypse – devastation.
Far too often I hear of surprises that result in hospitalizations or sudden loss.
One minute you are trying to plan another full week of work or school and the next there is a crash. . . And life is turned upside down.
When crisis comes and total devastation is our reality, we long for the awesome, creative miracles of God’s surprises that can turn the world – right-side-up.
At such times we echo the words from Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, O God, . .and make your name known.” At such times we understand and are one with ALL people who HOPE & wait, desperately - for God’s surprises to right the world.
The revelation we need is found in the story at the heart of Advent. It is the crisis & surprise of New Life, called birth.
I was reminded of the two-sided nature of beginning life at the Progressive Brethren Conference two weeks ago. Mary Cline Detrick and Carol Swaggy stood before us -together, giving thanks for all that had happened this summer at Annual Conference. – YES, they gave thanks, not because neither of them got elected as moderator of the Church of the Brethren, in spite of being the only 2 names on the ballot. -And certainly not for the dismal reality of the shrinking place for women in our broader denomination, -- but they gave thanks for the affirmation that both have received since that day of defeat.
Mary said it was painful, very painful that day in July, not for her to lose, but for both of them to lose (to a man nominated from the floor) because the majority of delegates voted against a woman in leadership. Reaction to such denial of basic personhood, (in the name of biblical authority) was at the heart of the birth of the Progressive Brethren Conference four years ago. Seeing it – no, feeling it-- is an apocalypse, both a sad revelation and a devastation.
I’ve learned that standing in solidarity with those who are persecuted, while a good thing, is nothing compared to feeling the oppression directed at you. (and many people have been feeling such oppression all their lives.)
These women FELT the pain – and yet, standing before us, they spoke of HOPE in this upside-down surprise. Mary called it ‘birth pangs.’ (Paul’s language for the persecution in the early church.) She said these ‘Birth pangs’ are bringing forth new life for the Church of the Brethren and new hope for people of all genders, sexual orientation, and races.
When it’s our future that seems too dismal to face, and changes are causing the destruction of our way of living, we need the HOPE they found. We are a people in need of God’s surprises!
It may seem strange to look back to the ancient prophets to find words of HOPE but these special people were given revelations of what would be - but was not yet. And it is this -‘already/but not yet’- which is the promise of Jesus’ surprising kingdom, -born at Christmas.
Another prophet, Zechariah relates a conversation with God that we need to hear,
“Thus says, the LORD of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the LORD of hosts?” (Zechariah 8:6)
We may cry out, “How long O God, how long?” yet God answers with these words of promise Zechariah heard,
“I will save my people from the east and from the west. . . They shall be my people and I will be their God, ------ in faithfulness and in righteousness.” (Zechariah 8:7-8)
And yet we have forgotten how to expect surprise?
This is the promise of Advent; GOD WITH US.
These are words of HOPE revealed in this season.
Why is it such a struggle to hear them?
Have we forgotten how to expect surprise? (like a child who waits for Christmas morning?)
Has our life of busy-ness, buying, and boredom lulled us to sleep?
You would think most of us are more likely to be losing sleep than sleeping too much. . But are we awake to what is really important? . .These Advent scriptures “read us, not the other way around. [because] ..we are indeed asleep to much of what matters.”[iii]
We should be clear, (as one commentator wrote) “while the world’s busyness may seem to be pointed toward Christmas, it is seldom pointed toward the coming Christ child.”[iv] How might we recapture a sense of expectation? the thrill that God will come and surprise us-with . . .-with God's very presence, incarnate in human life.
Perhaps we must first confess to sometimes thinking of God as Santa, there to provide for every little wish on our list. This is where a surprising picture of the breath of the universe can move us from self-centered concern -to the awe-inspiring revelation of the One who Created it all.
We need Mark’s wake up call to remind us that God's surprises are way beyond our imagining.
We need Advent’s unique range of scriptures to help us recall all that we have in common with God’s people thru the centuries who have cried out seeking HOPE for the future.
We even need the apocalyptic vision to tell us again -even tho “the rebellion against God’s reign is strong, as the wicked oppress the righteous. [and] things will [likely] get worse before they get better, we should hang on just a little longer, God WILL intervene to turn the world right-side-up.!”[v]
“Apocalyptic visions are always available to be recycled and applied to new situations.” Commentator Christopher Hutson reminds, “The point is not to predict specific events in the future. Rather, [we who seek to learn from scripture must] look to understand God’s mighty acts in the past as a framework for understanding how the people of God should respond to the present.”[vi]
It is here, looking back at the stories of Advent that we find HOPE for tomorrow.
“Amid the smoke of battle, or the fog of politics, or the confusion of economic distress”, he says, and in the “babble of would-be leaders wearing God masks and claiming divine authority, [we may not know] which way to turn. [Advent stories remind us that we] should not be surprised [by the world] because Jesus warned us such things would happen.” -- We may have been lulled to sleep by the powers that be as they reassured us that they have our best interests at heart, stirring up our fears, our prejudices, our self-interests.[vii]
The Advent message is to WAKE UP, STAY ALERT, WATCH OUT – we have been warned, -and instead recall God’s faithfulness so we can Wait in HOPE for God’s surprise -to turn the world right-side up, again.
Closing & Sending:
The poet, Cheryl Lawrie, described Advent like this:
Perhaps our mistake is thinking that love will always come in the shape we have known it:
-a happy ending -a new beginning -a Christ-child.
In this pregnant pause, while the earth holds its breath waiting for what it does not know,
let us have the faith that even we, with all our wise and cynical knowing,
[can] not imagine the shape that love will take and instead
just have faith that it will come.
[i] Encarta World English dictionary
[iii] Lillian Daniel Feasting on the Word – Year B, Pastoral (Louisville: WJK 2008) 22
[iv] Lillian Daniel Feasting on the Word – Year B, Pastoral (Louisville: WJK 2008) 20
[v] Christopher R. Hutson Feasting – Theological ibid p.22
[vi] ibid p.24
[vii] ibid paraphrased for perspective