Caught Between

A Sermon preached by the
Rev. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, December 3, 2017

Text: Isaiah 64:1-9

As we have affirmed over and over this morning, Advent is time of preparation, a time to be attentive to what is going on around us as we watch for what is to come, a time to wait for what has been promised and to hope that it will be fulfilled. It is a time of anticipation of what is on its way at the same time we struggle with its not yet being here. Ann Lewin writes that it is a “season when dual citizenship holds us in awkward tension” (Ann Lewin, “Wachet Auf”). In this season we are caught between what is and what we hope may yet be. “Come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel.”

Have you ever felt like you were caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place? What was it like to be stuck there? Was there impatience and frustration with being caught? Was there a sense of hopelessness, of despair, at being stuck? What did you do to free yourself? Was it effective? Did you need help, even rescuing? In the Psalm for today the psalmist, caught between the experience of God’s anger and hope for God’s steadfast love, cries out, “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80:7).

“What does this all have to do with the holiday season?” you may ask. “Isn’t this supposed to the happiest time of the year? Aren’t we supposed to be singing carols of joy and celebration? Shouldn’t we be adorned with the brightest colors and headed for holiday parties?” Well, yes and no. You see, this is the dilemma of being caught between. In her poem, Lewin cautions us, “The world, intent on spending Christmas, eats and drinks its way to oblivion after dinner” while “The Kingdom sounds insistent warnings: Repent, be ready. Keep awake. Christ comes” (Lewin, op. cit.) Perhaps we party at our peril, if we are not aware that the One who is coming is the Christ of Great Compassion. The celebration of his birth will be unlike any we have ever known. He may have something to say about how we treat one another and God’s good creation. And we may not like what he has to say.

In Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, Melchior, one of the three kings, sings of the Christ child:

On love alone he will build his kingdom.
His pierced hand will hold no scepter.
His haloed head will wear no crown.
His might will not be built on your toil.
Swifter than lightning,
he will soon walk among us.
He will bring us new life,
and receive our death,
and the keys to his city belong to the poor.

It doesn’t sound much like “Happy Birthday,” does it? It’s not anyone’s idea of a party song. Yet, it is full of truth and wisdom. “The keys to his city belong to the poor.” If that is so, just how do we go about celebrating? Here is a place where we are caught between what we know well and what we know too little of. How will we celebrate with the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, the least of these? These are questions that merit some reflection. Oh, there will be a time to celebrate but not yet. Christ’s might may not be “built on our toil,” but there is some soul-searching, some taking stock to be done before we welcome the Holy One on earth in human form.

In the wisdom of 12th century theologian, Hugh of St. Victor, we are encouraged, “Brothers and sisters, it is now the season of the coming of the Holy One, and we must use the time to prepare ourselves by some spiritual devotion…We must strive to enter the house of our hearts, open the windows, and notice what is seemly and what unseemly in that house. We must brush away the cobwebs, sweep the floors, clean out the dust and dirt, strew the clean floors with freshly gathered rushes fragrant herbs, and sweet-smelling flowers.”

People, look east
The time is near
Of the crowning of the year
Make your house fair as you are able
Trim the hearth and set the table
People, look east and sing today
Love, the guest, is on the way.

We are caught between what is and what is to come, between present reality and the desires of our hearts. If we take the time and make the effort to look behind the glittering façade of holiday cheer, we may find ourselves longing for something more, something holy, something that looks like God’s Beloved Community.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

The lectionary has given us a set of difficult texts for today. The psalmist sings, “O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves” (Psalm 80:4-6). Does this not feel familiar? Could we not sing this same lament today?

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus stands before the temple, predicting its utter destruction, as the ominous Day of the Holy One, the Day of Judgment, draws near. He predicts, “…in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken…But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:24-25, 32-33). “Keep awake,” he tells his followers. “Be prepared so that you don’t remain mired in darkness when the Light comes.” It is an ominous word about what is to come, certainly not party material.

And then there is Isaiah, calling on Yahweh to “tear open the heavens” and descend with the force of an earthquake to right a world gone wrong. The prophet is so stressed by the situation in which he finds himself that he is willing to risk the very shaking of the foundations in order to see things ultimately set in order. Some of the Judeans had returned from exile in Babylon. They had realized that the restoration of Jerusalem was an overwhelming task, that the rebuilding of the temple would take years, that no Davidic kingdom was about to burst forth in power and glory. Elna Solvang writes of this time that “Threats, divisions, land battles and power struggles erupted between and among returnees, those who had remained in the land, and those who had settled there from other places after Jerusalem was conquered in 587 BCE” (Elna K. Solvang, “Commentary on Isaiah 64:1-9, November 27, 2011,” It was a grim time. Maybe it is not so distant in tone and strife from the time in which we live.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for God. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways.” It is not uncommon for some of us human creatures to cry out for God to turn it around, make it all right, especially when we have made a mess of things through our stubbornness, greed, apathy, ignorance, hurry, and hatred. Isaiah’s words are such a lament, a crying out. I don’t know that he literally wants God to tear open the heavens and descend like an earthquake. That may be more than any of us can handle, but, you get the idea that something needs to be done to set things right and Isaiah recognizes that he cannot do that by himself, no matter how powerful his words of prophecy.

Once we have flung our lament into the midnight sky, we may need to watch and wait to see what God will do, whether we like it or not. We are a problem-solving people. We want solutions, preferably right away. So, we become frustrated when the problems of the world are more than we can handle. We find ourselves caught between present reality and that deep desire for the full realization of God’s Beloved community. Rather than rushing to celebrate the coming of the Christ, we would be better served by stepping back, yes, even turning inward for a season, so that we might better understand what it would mean for God to tear open the heavens and descend in human form. Are we ready for such an action? If not, what will it take for us to prepare ourselves? That is the function of Advent, to give us a little time and space to prepare for the One who will surely come, though we don’t know when or where.

For those of us who feel caught between, today’s Words of Preparation from Margaret Hebblethwaite assure us that it is not the worst place we could be. “Advent is a time of exquisite balance,” she writes, “between the sadness of the mess we live in, and the bliss of the world we would like to live in.” But, she also cautions, “Advent is when we acknowledge that bliss is not the blotting out of pain with port and plum pudding, [rather it is] a process, a pilgrimage, a pregnancy, and – amidst the chaos of the world’s governing – a cry for the coming of the reign of God” (Margaret Hebblethwaite, Opening the Scriptures: Faith through the Year). A process that will need to take its own time to play out. A pilgrimage that is no quick trip for a good-time vacation. A pregnancy that will yield God’s own Child. A cry that God come close, no matter what the cost.

O Holy One, you are our Mother-Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Holy One, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.” Keep awake, God’s love may yet be made manifest in each of us, in our community, in the world we inhabit, even throughout the whole creation. “Come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel.” Amen.

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