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 From Despair to Hope

Homily - 11/27/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Isaiah 64

[Editor's Note:  This was the annual "Hanging of the Greens" service, where the sanctuary is decorated for Christmas.  Pictures included below]

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
   so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
2 as when fire kindles brushwood
   and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
   so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
   you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
4 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 him.
5 You meet those who gladly do right,
   those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
   because you hid yourself we transgressed.
6 We have all become like one who is unclean,
   and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
   and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
7 There is no one who calls on your name,
   or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
   and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
   we are the clay, and you are our potter;
   we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
   and do not remember iniquity for ever.
   Now consider, we are all your people.
10 Your holy cities have become a wilderness,
   Zion has become a wilderness,
   Jerusalem a desolation.
11 Our holy and beautiful house,
   where our ancestors praised you,
has been burned by fire,
   and all our pleasant places have become ruins.
12 After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?
   Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?

How many of your have smart phones? You notice how we often start off by saying "please silence your phones, put it on silent mode, turn it off", etc. Well, we have a new message -- when you come to church, we want you to turn your phone on. We want you to download the app for Facebook, and if you don't have Facebook, well, get with it :)

But, for those who are 'with it', to use it in church. Get it out and post on Facebook -- I just saw the stars come out in church this morning! I just saw the most amazing video that brought a tear to my eye! Whatever it is, if something moves you in church, post it -- let folks know of the wonder of God that you experience in church. Now wouldn't that be a surprise for a change? We can hope. It's the season of miracles, right?

Preachers have a variety of tools they use for preaching, besides technology. Some of us are still stuck with the old stuff, and I still use books (believe it or not). This particular text I find very helpful, it's a series for lectionary preachers, three of them, there are three years in the lectionary, we're starting with year "B". You all know this is the first Sunday of Advent, it's the start of the church's year. And so I open up this resource as I often do at the beginning of the week, to see if there's anything insightful for me to use that my spark the old juices. And I read the very first words in this book, besides the usual stuff at the beginning of books, very first words, page 1:

"Contrary to the manner in which it is often celebrated in the churches, Advent begins not on a note of joy but of despair. Human kind has reached the end of its rope. All our schemes for self-improvement, for extricating ourselves from the traps we have set for ourselves have come to nothing".

Ooops. Take it all down. Back up. Never mind. So why this dreary note on what we assume is a very festive occasion? Well, it turns out when you read the text assigned for this first Sunday of Advent, they're pretty dreary. They're full of all kinds of despair, like Isaiah 64, where we read:

"We have all become like the one who is unclean and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf and our iniquities like the wind take us away, there is no one who calls on your name or attempts to take hold of you, for your have hidden your face from us, O God, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity".

And then the Psalm for this morning is Psalm 80, where we read:

"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 give them tears to drink in full measure. You make us the scorn of our neighbors, our enemies laugh among themselves".

And then the Gospel text is from Mark 13, where Jesus says:

"But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light and the lights will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken".

It's a dreary message that this Sunday begins on. So these Bible scholars conclude, humankind has reached the end of its rope. All our schemes for extricating ourselves from the traps that we have set for ourselves have to come to nothing.

And you remember how this week began? I'm not talking about the USC game, that was. . . . well, let's not go there :) But if you'll remember, on Monday, the news of the failure of the super-committee that was supposed to save us from financial Armageddon. And they failed their task, and now they tell us in just a little over a year, we face this budgetary meltdown like we've never seen before. The world is coming to an end.

Well, have you paid attention to the Mayan calendar? :) You know, it comes to an end in December of next year. That's the time we have to get our house in order, evidently.

And we know the economies of Europe are on the verge of collapse, our own economy has stalled, unemployment benefits for millions of Americans are set to run out. Oregon released some new statistics this week, about children living in poverty in our state -- one in five white children, one in three hispanic children, one in two African-American children live in poverty. That is a scandal. It's despairing.

And many of us have experienced our own personal despairs as well. Who has not been in that place, when life is so bleak and there is no place left to turn -- loss of a job, failure at school, debilitating illness, financial crisis, death of a loved-one.

We have all faced those situations, or if not, we will. It's part of life, we sometimes experience the world as a very dark place. And so Advent begins with this reminder that all is not well in the world. And we would be lost, save for one thing -- that God has not abandoned us.

So if there is any reason for hope, if there is any reason for this celebration, for the festivity, it is because God has not given up. And just as the seasons of the earth move from Winter into the hope of Spring and Summer and then Fall and then starts all over again, so too the seasons of the church.

From Advent to Epiphany to Lent to Easter and Pentecost, and we start all over again. Advent is like Winter, for those of us living in the northern hemisphere -- it is a season of darkness that reminds us how utterly and completely dependent we are on God to lead us out of that darkness.

And so we begin the season with the lighting of a single candle, to remind us of that light. That even in the darkest night, there is still light and hope to lead us out.

And so the prophet, fearful that God may have abandoned God's people in the midst of that captivity in that time of living in exile, says "Yet O Lord, you are our father, we are clay, you are our potter, we are the work of your hands. So do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, do not remember iniquity forever, now consider we are all your people. Your holy cities have become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation, after all this, will you restrain yourself O Lord?".

And so our hope, the hope of Advent, is bound in the nature and goodness of a God who favors the goodness and nature of life. And so it is in the midst of the darkness of our world that we look to God for that light that will save us.


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