Happy New Year! Advent Begins

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December 02, 2018

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!

Truly. Happy New Year. In our Episcopal liturgical calendar, it’s the first day of a whole new year. And in that calendar, we begin the year with Advent. Advent means “coming” and we are starting a season of preparing for the coming of Christ. That’s why we lit the candle.

What’s so fun about our liturgical calendar, is that it’s different from regular time – our contemporary Gregorian calendar. This kind of thing serves us. Helps us remember whose we are. where we are. where we are going. We can be tethered to our spirituality as we attach ourselves to our liturgical calendar…on a different trajectory than the culture around us. It may serve as a powerful reminder.

And what do calendars do? Inform us of coming events or signal us to remember past events.

Though our calendars will not hit Christmas Day for 23 more days, in our stores and neighborhoods, Christmas has come…so much for effective calendar keeping.

However, we can effectually practice the season of Advent over these next four weeks – it can both inform us and signal us to remember.

We have additional help outside of the calendar as we practice Advent. We function in the midst of much sign and symbol in our Episcopal tradition – calendars, colors, candles, hymns, and music of seasons. We tend to involve many senses as we approach God. Sight. Smell. Touch. Sound. The more senses involved, the more we are involved. One sense is sight and has to do with color.

We’ve just come off what the liturgical calendar calls “ordinary time,” though there is nothing ordinary about it. It’s a season of growth after Pentecost. The color that expresses it is green – which kinda makes sense as it expresses growth. To remind us, this color was on the altar and lectern and podium, and we, as clergy, wore it. But now, new year, new season, new color – blue, or purple. Again, using our senses to remind us of reality. In our liturgical practice blue signals expectation and preparation.

And speaking of senses – the Advent wreath also helps us – light and color.

The flavors of waiting are illustrated in the Advent wreath: preparation, joy, and celebration. These are shown in the candle colors: dark blue/purple, rose, and white.

In simplicity, as an additional candle is lit each week it symbolizes growing anticipation for Christ’s coming. Increasing light. Advent is a time of journey from darkness to light.

The season of Advent is, on the whole, a season of waiting with some different flavors to it – Advent is both simple and complex.

Apart from colors and calendar and symbols we see from our readings today, that this waiting is not linear – we hear about the promise to be fulfilled in Jeremiah and in Luke, Christ’s return. It’s about looking back – Christ coming to us as a baby; looking forward – Christ returning, and looking around – Christ confronting us…confront is kind of a strong word – perhaps bringing us up short is more what I mean, getting our attention in our now…our daily lives.

Advent. Looking back, looking forward, and looking around while journeying from darkness to light. In the midst of this, it is also both personal and corporate.

Darkness.

We pick up on this in our Jeremiah reading. At the time of Jeremiah, Israel was in the thick of the Babylonian exile. Kathleen O’Connor in her commentary on Jeremiah describes it this way: “The people were taken captive, dragged from their land, and deprived of their Temple. They…faced death as a people, and…[cried] out to God in anger and despair.”

Darkness. Personally, and corporately as a people.

It’s into this darkness Jeremiah proclaims: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord when I will fulfill the promise, I made…I will cause a Righteous Branch to spring up for David.” In the midst of harsh reality for them, Jeremiah has a confidence that probably seemed a little crazy at the time.

Have you heard the phrase, “Stump of Jesse”? …conceptually connected to what’s being said about the Righteous Branch. It's a reference to genealogy.

What’s happening is that David’s line has been cut off…the hope of Israel is likened to watching a stump blossom and grow a branch, become a tree…which can’t happen apart from something beyond what is graspable. That’s a dark time and takes a lot of hope and a lot of faith.

This then and there, informs us here and now.

If God can bring to life the line of David and provide for Christ to come…God can move in our darkness. Jennifer Ayres, at Emory University’s School of Theology, helps us connect the then and there with our here and now as she writes on this Jeremiah passage. She associates despair with “failed attempts to procure security for ourselves” and asserts “Humans meet despair when they cannot imagine God’s promised alternative future.” Let me say that again: She associates despair with “failed attempts to procure security for ourselves” and asserts “Humans meet despair when they cannot imagine God’s promised alternative future.”

Another way to describe darkness may be an absence of security…

Advent is a season to journey in our darkness to light – where Jesus confronts us.

It’s looking back, looking around, but also looking forward – perhaps crystallizing our convictions concerning Christ’s return.

We hear this in the gospel reading today. Jesus is describing things that may strike fear into folks, but he says, “stand up, raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Not fear, anticipation.

This anticipation leads to preparation. Jesus says “be on guard” – not in a battle kind of way, but in a be ready kind of way.

If we really believed Jesus was coming back…would that affect our lives? Well, yea.

Anticipation, preparation.

Heidi Neumark, a Lutheran Pastor, in her book Breathing Space, writes on Advent. She says:

Probably the reason I love Advent so much is that it is a reflection of how I feel most of the time. I might not feel sorry during Lent when the liturgical calendar begs repentance. I might not feel victorious, even though it is Easter morning. I might not feel full of the Spirit, even though it is Pentecost…but during Advent, I am always in sync with the season.

Advent unfailingly embraces and comprehends my reality [she says]. And what is her reality? Longing. [She asserts] Advent is when the church can no longer contain its unfulfilled desire…

Darkness. Anticipation. Preparation. Honesty. These speak to us in our waiting – our desires wants, needs - personally and as a community.

I said earlier that Advent is not linear. In terms of the snapshot we covered here, we begin to catch that. It’s not tidy. It’s looking back, looking forward, looking around. Many conceptual spirals whirling, not one linear train of thought to follow. When there’s a lot of potential chaos not only in culture but in magnitude in this Advent season, one of the best things to do is stop. Be still. Wait. It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s the full body stop that helps us take in what’s around us. And like all our other signs and symbols of practice we have, when we do a full body stop it signals our minds, our hearts, our spirits to slow down, to stop as well.

Wait as the psalmist did. Hear again from the Psalm appointed for the day:

“Make me to know your ways O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you, I wait all day long.”

May we know courage, faith, and grace in this Advent season.

Amen.

King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.

In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”  

So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.

What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.

Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.

When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”

If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”

“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.

Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”

For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:

Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.

That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?

Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.

SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’

For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.”  Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.

In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me.  (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”

For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”

Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.

Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.

By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.

We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.

We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.





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