Posts Tagged ‘Advent’
This was my sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2015 at St. Luke’s United Church of Christ. Our series is entitled “Do You Hear What I Hear?” I wrote new words to that tune to go with the lighting of the Advent candle each week. The scripture for the day is Luke 1:5-25.
The song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was written by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker in 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. A known duo, they had been asked to produce a Christmas album, but hesitated because they did not feel comfortable with the consumerism of Christmas. However, when the nation found itself on the brink of a nuclear holocaust–people fearful of enemies among them, digging backyard bomb shelters and praying to avert another world war–Regney was inspired by babies being pushed in strollers along the streets of New York City. He returned home and penned the words to this song of peace, since sung by countless high school choirs, recorded by hundreds of artists, and played endlessly on Christmas radio.
The imagery captures something of our longing, too, as we prepare for Christmas in another era hovering on the brink of war, with fear of our neighbors and worry for our children. The night wind speaking to a little lamb, the shepherd boy and the king singing about a star, a song and a child, such humble, earth-bound creatures, somehow give us a sense of hope amid the fear and violence of the world—a promise that peace is out there, asleep in the ordinary, whispering and waiting for us, if we only awaken our senses to hear it, see it, feel it. Though I took some liberties with the words for our season, the original words evoke the Advent spirit on their own. Do you hear what I hear? Do you see what I see? Do you feel what I feel? Do you know what I know?
That’s what Advent is all about. These weeks before Christmas are supposed to awaken our senses to the presence of God in quiet, ordinary places, because when God-With-Us arrives on Christmas Eve, it is in the humblest of stables. So we prepare by remembering that God is seen in the glow of a midnight angel, felt in the leap of a child in the womb, known in the song of a mother-to-be, and today’s story—heard in the silence of the priest.
Yep, you heard that right—heard in the silence of the priest.
(The irony of preaching a sermon about the silence of a preacher is not lost on me, I assure you.)
Zechariah’s story is the tale of a man of words, the man to whom the community had assigned the task of speaking about God, even speaking FOR God, being struck mute when God actually spoke to him.
It was Zechariah’s big day. There were thousands among the priestly clans, each rotating through the temple, taking their turn to care for the Holy of Holies. When his family, the sons of Abijah, came to take their turn, they lit the fires, tended the sacrifices, oversaw the prayers for the whole temple, the whole people of Israel. But only one man could step inside the Holy of Holies to perform the ritual there. Only one man each time, and no man could enter twice—it was a once-in-a-lifetime honor, and most, even among the priestly families, were never chosen.
This was no popularity contest or piety award—Zechariah and the members of his family stood around and drew lots, and Zechariah’s hand happened upon the lucky straw. He would step into the holiest sanctuary, the sacred room in the Temple inhabited by God’s own presence, representing the whole of his people before the Holy. When he emerged, the people would gather around and await a blessing, a word from God himself, delivered by Zechariah.
The Gospel writer goes out of his way to tell us that even though he got this honor by sheer luck, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were people of exemplary faith. They prayed, they followed the law, they were righteous and blameless, good and faithful in every way. Zechariah must have trembled in holy awe that he was chosen.
And yet, even though Zechariah and Elizabeth had been faithful all their lives, but God had not rewarded them. They were barren, childless. They had prayed, they had obeyed, but God had been silent. Month after month, cycle after cycle, nothing but silence. Silence in Elizabeth’s womb, silence in their home, silence from God. By the time Zechariah was chosen to enter the Holy of Holies, it was too late. Too many moons had come and gone, and they grew old. God had remained silent for years.
When Zechariah entered the Holy of Holies that day, I imagine he believed that God still had a word for the people he represented. Certainly God had a blessing for everyone else, a message of hope and encouragement for the masses—even if God had only silence for he and Elizabeth.
But the angel had not come with vague promises or generic words of comfort. This was no anonymous platitude or nameless blessing. It wasn’t for everyone else. The angel of God came with a very specific word to them, Zechariah and Elizabeth, a silence-shattering, new-world-opening, mind-blowing, unthinkable, impossible word. “Your prayers have been heard,” the angel said. “Elizabeth will give birth to a son, and you must name him John. This child of yours will not only bring you joy and delight, he will be the one who brings many people back to God. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah, terrified and stunned, responds to this breath-taking announcement in the most awkward, graceless, bumbling way possible. “How can I be sure? We’re old,” he says. If there were a soundtrack, you’d hear one of those record-screeching-to-a-halt sounds right here.
I can almost hear the angel Gabriel sigh. “Because I am the angel Gabriel, and you’re standing in the Holy of Holies, and I’m telling you so.” Shaking his head, Gabriel continues, “Because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.”
Some would like to see this silence as punishment for Zechariah’s sin of disbelief, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. I’m with Barbara Brown Taylor, who calls it “a failure of imagination, a fear of disappointment, a habit of hopelessness.” (Bread with Angels, 93)
Zechariah had grown so accustomed to God’s silence that he was unable to receive the word of God when it came. While he never stopped praying, never stopped obeying, he had long ago abandoned any sense that God was listening. Zechariah, whose very name means “God remembers” had become convinced God had forgotten.
Who could blame him? How many of us, likewise, have prayed and obeyed, but long ago given up hope for an answer? How many of us have ceased to imagine God hears our prayers? We pray that our family could grow, our illness be healed, our relationships mended, our job meaningful, our finances successful—but how strong is our hope in God’s response? We pray for peace and justice and love to win, but it is murmuring into a void. The news of more shootings, more hatred, more violence, more abuse have given us likewise “a failure of imagination, a fear of disappointment, a habit if hopelessness.” Imagining the promises of Isaiah about a light in the darkness, a Prince of Peace, reigning with justice and righteousness forevermore are impossible dreams. The best we have come to hope for is some nameless blessing, generic word of comfort, or vague platitude.
Instead, what Zechariah discovers is that God has a hope just for them. He and Elizabeth, their deepest and most intimate prayers, have been heard, and God is about to fulfill their hopes and dreams, even when they themselves have given up on them. Zechariah’s name and his story instead proclaim that God remembers. God’s silence will not be forever, and when it arrives, God’s voice will not come to us as a vague, generic, nameless message. When God speaks, it will be so stunning, so personal and convicting and convincing and life-changing and mind-blowing and new-world-opening that it will render us speechless.
The 19th century mystic Baron Von Hügel said, “Sometimes when we speak before great things we shrink them down to size. When we speak of great things sometimes we swallow them whole, when instead we should be swallowed by them. Before all greatness be silent, in art, in music, and above all in faith.”
When Zechariah emerged from the Holy of Holies, the greatness of God had swallowed him whole. The people stood around him awaiting his message, the blessing he would give directly from God. There were no words. Sound caught in his throat, his hands flapped helplessly. This man assigned to speak for God found himself mute when God actually spoke to him. The look of holy awe must have lingered on his face, the reflection of the angel still in his eyes, because the people could tell he had seen a vision, and they fell silent too. Because they know God remembered, God heard, and they had hope.
This opening Sunday of Advent, hear the story of Zechariah and know that God remembers. Even when there is only silence, God is still there—and when God does speak again, it will be a word so surprising and life-changing, so for you, that it will swallow you whole and leave you speechless.
So maybe then Zechariah’s story is also an invitation to fall silent, a reminder to just shut up, because the greatness of God is all around us. Just shut up and listen, in wonder and hope-filled imagination, to the night wind and the little lamb, to the child and the shepherd boy, to the presence in the Holy of Holies.
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.
Do you hear what I hear?
The Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World? by Rick McKinley, Chris Seay and Greg Holder. Zondervan, 2009, 151 pp.
I’ll start with a confession of prejudice: Zondervan makes me nervous. They publish mostly materials from a more conservative theological position, and I often find their titles to be interesting at first, but disappointing or downright offensive upon closer examination. If Zondervan makes you nervous too, fear not. The Advent Conspiracy is the real deal. While you won’t find a progressive theology or inclusive language, you will find solid theology and biblical interpretation, alongside a commitment to overcoming consumerism and responding with compassion to the crisis of poverty.
The Advent Conspiracy starts in a familiar place: the feeling that consumerism has robbed Christmas of its sacred purpose. However, rather than just passionately insisting that we remember “Jesus is the reason for the season,” the authors address the real pressures we all face around secular Christmas traditions, and invite us to practical, challenging steps to reshaping our experience of the season. They do not suggest we can easily accommodate Jesus in our otherwise secular celebrations, and they refuse to make peace with consumerism.
Consumerism requires our consciences to stay detached from the moral consequences of our purchases. We buy without thinking beyond the price and the promise of a newer, better self. Yet we ought not to deceive ourselves: this is a religion, and this is worship. (26)
In response, they issue four short instructions, in four short chapters: Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, Love All. The chapter on Worship Fully looks at what we truly worship versus what we say we worship, and looks at Mary (including the radical Magnificat), Joseph, the Shepherds and Wise Men as examples of worship. The Spend Less section encourages us to look at all our spending and see if it is true to what we say we believe. It is not about avoiding spending, it is about being more intentional and spending on things that matter. They quote C.S. Lewis:
I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc. is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them. (61)
The chapter on Give More encourages us not just to give to charity, but to give better and more thoughtfully when we give gifts to those we love. They discuss giving relationally–gifts that are costly (not necessarily in dollars), honor the recipient and relationship. No more cheap junk to fulfill an obligation. Finally, the Love All section turns toward giving for the poor. It encourages all Christians to honor the God who came to live among the poor by showing a real and lasting commitment to serving the poor in the world today, especially highlighting a water project in which the authors are deeply invested.
The book has an accompanying DVD series, and a lesson plan for each chapter at the back. We offered it as a series at my church, but it was hastily organized and lightly attended. I would like to do it again, and do it better. This is a great resource, and I encourage more churches to make use of it.
This is a first draft of my sermon for this Sunday, December 16. I don’t usually post things early, but I thought it might help other colleagues who are also seeking a path to speak of Advent’s promised joy in the face of such tragedy. Please feel free to borrow, quote and adapt, just please credit where appropriate. It still needs editing, and I will probably tinker with it throughout the day. I will post a final revised version on my sermon blog on Sunday.
The scripture reading for the day is Zephaniah 3:14-20.
This Third Sunday of Advent is supposed to be a day about joy.
“Rejoice, daughter Zion! Shout, Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, daughter Jerusalem!” proclaims the scripture from the prophet Zephaniah.
And yet, shouting and rejoicing seem grossly out of place this Sunday, in the wake of the slaughter of children, a national tragedy. How dare we rejoice in the face of such horror? How dare we talk about joy in the face of such grief and devastation? It’s inappropriate, unseemly, insensitive, untimely. This is not the day. Now is not the time. How dare we?
And yet, it wasn’t the time for Zephaniah either. But he does. How dare he?
Zephaniah, or whoever wrote the book in his name that comes at the end of the Hebrew Bible, mostly likely lived more than 600 years before the birth of Christ, during the reign of the king Manasseh. Manasseh was a client king for the conquering Assyrians, and widely regarded as one of the most wicked and evil rulers Israel ever knew. According to the book of 2 Kings, Manasseh defiled the holy temple with false gods, trusted wizards and fortune tellers instead of priests and prophets, persecuted those who followed Yahweh’s law. In a bit of history hauntingly parallel to our own, he even practiced of child sacrifice, including the murder of his own son. 2 Kings tells us that “Manasseh spilled so much innocent blood that he filled up every corner of Jerusalem with it.” (2 Kings 21:16) Evil. Violent. Tragic. Appalling.
How could Zephaniah preach joy in the face of such evil?
Well, he didn’t start out with joy, for one thing. We only read the joy part today—the last six verses of this tiny little scroll. Zephaniah begins at the beginning—decrying the tragedy, death and destruction that he sees all around him. Speaking as God’s voice, Zephaniah declares punishment for all the evildoers. He describes “a day of fury, a day of distress and anxiety, a day of desolation and devastation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and deep darkness, a day for blowing the trumpet and alarm.” (2:15) I don’t know about you, but that describes my day on Friday with startling accuracy.
Zephaniah doesn’t try to make sense of it all, or explain it, or even figure out who to blame for it—he just names the situation for what it is—horror and suffering and tragedy. A world where children die violently—in ancient Jerusalem and modern Palestine; in Newtown, Connecticut and Portland, Oregon; in Chenpeng Village in Central China and the town of Aleppo in Syria. A world in which violence has become commonplace and lawlessness the law of the land. A world where it’s easier for a troubled young man to acquire a gun and a fake id than it is to find the mental health assistance he needs. Zephaniah names it all. And he names the feelings it provokes—anger and pain and sorrow and desolation and despair. Then he tells us that God is angry and hurt and mourning along with us. That work—calling out the suffering and telling us God shares it—takes up almost the entire tiny book of Zephaniah.
In just the last few verses, slowly, gently, Zephaniah dares invoke joy. The turning point comes when, again speaking for God, he says, “Wait for me. Wait for the day when I rise up.” Not now. Not yet. Not joy realized, but joy promised. Not joy fulfilled, but joy awaiting. Zephaniah does not declare that everything is alright, or even that it will be alright again soon. Nothing about dead children is ever alright, whether two days or 2600 years ago, whether caused by a mass shooting or an abusive king, or war, or famine, or bullying, or addiction, or suicide, or cancer, or anything else. He does not tell us to get over it, move on, or be happy. The prophet speaks of joy because he wants us to know that in spite of it all, God still reigns. How dare he speak of joy in the face of such tragedy? How dare he not.
How dare any preacher or prophet let us think for one moment that God’s promised joy risks being snuffed out by any evil this world could ever display.
God speaks to us through Zephaniah: “The day is coming when you will no longer fear evil. I am in your midst, and I will create calm with my love. I will deliver the lame. I will gather the outcast. I will change your shame into praise. I will bring all of you back, and you can see them before your eyes.”
These darkest days are just when we need the light of this little pink candle most of all. We don’t need this candle’s light when the sun is shining, the tree is twinkling and everyone is happy and bright. We need it now. Today. In the midst of despair. Not because the day of joy is here, but because we need to know it’s still coming. Otherwise, how could we ever go on?
And so, I join with Zephaniah and dare speak to you this day of joy. Just because we aren’t ready to hear it or feel it or receive it does not mean that God’s joy is not still there, waiting for us even as we wait for it. God still moves toward Bethlehem, even if there is room in the inn. “Rejoice, daughter Zion, rejoice and exult with all your heart. I am in your midst, and I will create calm with my love.” “Fear not, for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
My spiritual personality is suited to the season of my birth. Like Advent, my spirit dwells more in the realm of possibility and promise than in the here and now. I pray in a state of anticipation, connecting to the God of the Prophets who promises justice, righteousness and peace. My spiritual gifts in ministry involve imagination, vision and leadership—helping people come together for a journey to an unknown place.
I wonder if the season of my birth is what gives me this Advent heart.
Many millions of people for many thousands of years have believed in the Zodiac, claiming that the alignment of the stars at your birth portends your character and your future. Could the same thing be true for those of us steeped in Christian tradition? Is the season of our birth like a Zodiac sign for our spiritual self?
Imagine what traits and gifts each sign might inherit.
Advent: Those born in Advent come into this world with a deep longing that they carry with them throughout their whole lives. Their relationship with God is not about fulfilling that longing, which is a beloved companion, but about knowing that God shares their yearning for a better world.
Favorite Hymns: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel; For the Healing of the Nations; God of Grace and God of Glory
Favorite Scriptures: All the prophets, major and minor
Christmas: This is the shortest season, and those born in these twelve short days are always about incarnation. They are connected to the earth and the world, and see God’s mystery and beauty in ordinary, unexpected places. They are creators and builders, organizers and caregivers.
Favorite Hymns: For the Beauty of the Earth, O Little Town of Bethlehem
Favorite Scriptures: Creation stories
Epiphany: Epiphany’s child is born with a sense of wonder and delight that follows them throughout their lives. They see God’s manifestation everywhere, and radiate with a bright passion for the presence of God in our midst. Their relationship with God is filled with a sense of mystery and discovery, always finding God’s new appearances in their midst.
Favorite Hymns: Arise! Your Light Has Come; Be Thou My Vision
Favorite Scriptures: Gospel stories of Jesus’ teaching and ministry
Lent: Those born in Lent have a lifelong passion for God’s grace and redemption. They are not gloomy and guilt-ridden, but they have a profound grasp of the pain of sin and suffering. Consequently, they have boundless grace for sinners and endless compassion for any soul who suffers.
Favorite Hymns: Just as I am, Amazing Grace
Favorite Scriptures: Gospel stories of Jesus healing and forgiving sins
Easter: Easter people possess enormous zest for life. They are survivors who can overcome any challenge, and embrace change and newness with great energy and excitement. They excel at make-overs, turnarounds and renewals, confident of God’s power to change anything for the good.
Favorite Hymns: God’s Eye is on the Sparrow; In the Garden; There is a Balm in Gilead
Favorite Scriptures: Stories of conversion, resurrection and transformation (Lazarus, Damascus Road, Jesus casting out demons)
Pentecost is a long season, united always by the attention to the Holy Spirit. However, there may be wide differences between those born closest to Pentecost and those born later in Ordinary Time.
Early Pentecost: Those born closest to the day of Pentecost show the fire and flair of the Spirit in all things. They are dramatic souls who prize a burning passion for God above all else in their faith life. They are often talkative and extroverted, with a contagious energy that draws others in to see the Spirit at work.
Favorite Hymn: Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee; I Love to Tell the Story; How Great Thou Art
Favorite Scriptures: Any dramatic miracles (Pentecost, crossing the Red Sea, battle of Jericho)
Mid-Pentecost: People born in the middle of the Pentecost season are concerned about the presence of the Spirit in everyday life. They are pragmatic in their spirituality, and view their faith as a lifelong journey, taken one day at a time. They value unity, community and connectedness above all else, and they can point out the Spirit’s presence in the ordinary life of the church.
Favorite Hymns: The Church’s One Foundation; Blest Be the Tie That Binds; Great is Thy Faithfulness
Favorite Scriptures: Epistles
Late Pentecost: Those born in late Pentecost see the Spirit’s presence in the whole journey of history from creation to redemption to culmination in “thy kingdom come.” They emphasize the eternity of God and the promise of life after death. They see themselves as just one generation in a long line of God’s faithful, taking spiritual strength from those who have gone before and those who will come after them.
Favorite Hymn: Forward through Ages; O God, Our Help in Ages Past
Favorite Scriptures: Apocalyptic Literature, Heroes of the Bible
This is my imagination. What’s yours? Does this connect to your spiritual life? Are you drawn to one of those types, and does it match the season of your birth? What would you add? What’s your sign?
I usually post sermons as podcasts through my church’s website, but the recording did not work on this one, and I owe a debt of gratitude to my Facebook friends who helped me write it. So, I’m posting the manuscript here for them to see.
The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness. –-Jeremiah 33:14-16
This is the first week of Advent, which means we get to talk about hope.
And this week, of all weeks, I couldn’t spend all this time thinking about hope without thinking about everybody who spent the week hoping they would win the Powerball jackpot. Millions and millions of people waiting and hoping that their number would be called, hoping that their lives would be changed, debts cancelled, woes about bills and expenses forever banished, mean bosses vanquished. All those fantasies about what you could do, what you would do with such a windfall.
Josh and I bought a ticket too, and indulged in some fun daydreaming together about how we would spend and distribute $580 million. It was lots of fun. We had a good time talking and anticipating and hoping. All the good we could do with that kind of money!
As a pastor, I was hoping too. Of course my first hope was that we would win, but my secondary hope was that one of you would win. Just like every other pastor in this country, I prayed that if it wasn’t me, it might be one of you. Even the pastors who rail against gambling still hope for the chance to call up a church member who just won $580 million and have a conversation about tithing.
Then, of course, came the disappointment. I didn’t win, and neither did any of you. Two families were the lucky ones, but the rest of us are just left with useless scraps of paper in our pockets.
Thankfully, my friend Mary Luti posted this: “A Prayer for All the Times You Do Not Win Powerball.”
If you, O Lord, are not bitterly disappointed
that, not having won, I will not be able to solve
the financial problems of my congregation
and build several houses for the poor in Honduras
with a generous donation from my winnings
(after I take care of my family and friends,
pay off the mortgage and the plastic and buy a Mercedes),
then I’ll be fine, I’ll get over it, even ‘though
the thought of all the good I could have done with that money
is painful, even ‘though you could have used me
to make a difference. Oh well.
There will be another day. I have my numbers picked
for when the jackpot gets big again. Bless them.
There’s so much I want to do.
For you, of course. Amen.
The hope of which we speak on this first Sunday of Advent is a very different kind of hope from the hopes we place in a Powerball ticket.
Ours is the hope of the prophets.
Prophets are not fortune tellers, predictors of the future like Nostradamus or something.
To prophesy in the Bible is to tell of the promises of God—promises of peace and not destruction, promises of grace and salvation and home and justice.
It’s like what we read today from the prophet Jeremiah: “The time is coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise.”
What is that promise? A leader who will do what is just and right in the land. Salvation and safety for the people of Israel and Judah, and for Jerusalem.
And our hope is that God will fulfill that promise.
You can see how different that is than the Powerball kind of hope. Early in the week, when I was thinking about this distinction, I put it out on my Facebook page, and quite a few of my friends weighed in with their thoughts, which are integrated with my own.
First and foremost, the difference between the Powerball hope and the Gospel hope is the difference between luck and trust.
The Powerball is all about luck—and your chances are one in 176 million, which is not very good odds.
The Gospel is all about trust—confidence that God will come through, not just for one in 6 billion of us, but for the whole world.
Our own Eden Kuhlenschmidt said, “difference between the false hope of this world and the true hope of God’s promises.”
That’s the other difference—hope for one vs. hope for all
With Powerball, one lucky family, or maybe two, experiences salvation, freedom from debt and a change of their lives.
But Gospel hope is not just for one person or one family, although it’s personal for each of us. The Gospel Hope is for the whole world, for the salvation of everyone, so that we experience a change in the way the whole planet runs, into ways of justice and righteousness and peace and salvation for all.
Everyone’s a winner. It’s a sure bet.
Another difference is in time
Powerball hope seeks immediate gratification. By 11:30 on Wednesday night, you knew if you were a winner or a loser, if your hopes were fulfilled or not.
Gospel hope doesn’t happen so quick like that, although the Gospel warns us to be ready for it to happen “in the blink of an eye.” After 2000 years of hoping for Christ’s return, we’ve realized we’re dealing more with a long-range confidence.
Gospel hope proclaims that, no matter what comes, God will be in charge at the end. God will see you through. Peace will prevail, no matter how long it takes.
In the famous words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
What it is we are hoping for is different too.
A friend I grew up with, who no longer considers herself a Christian, wrote this:
“The lottery is the hope for freedom from poverty and obscurity in this life. The Gospel is the hope that the 80 or so years we spend on this planet aren’t pointless because there’s something else afterwards. It’s too depressing to believe that the struggle against poverty and obscurity is a waste of time in the end.” (Melissa)
My cousin wrote: The gospel actually leaves you with a better life 10 years later instead of the strife and drama lottery winnings come with. (Carrie)
Jim Jensen, St. Luke’s insurance agent, mused: “Unfortunately we don’t celebrate God’s new winners like we do the lottery winners.”
One of the first things that people were quick to point out is that, unlike the Powerball, the Gospel is free. You don’t have to pay to play, that God’s grace is a free gift for all.
I don’t think it’s free at all. No, you don’t have to spend $2 to play, you don’t have to have money at all, but it will cost you—everything. God doesn’t demand anything from you in order to receive grace—but in response to that grace, you are compelled to give everything you have, your life, your time, your love, your resources, to God’s purposes.
But the math is all different. People play Powerball trying to spend a little and get a lot. Turn $2 into $580 million. Did you know that your odds don’t actually increase the more you play? It’s a myth, because the lottery doesn’t work like chances in a raffle. No matter how many tickets you have, your chances are still just one in 176 million.
As my friend Jodi put it, “God gives us way better odds than the lottery does. God might talk about a narrow path, but it is nowhere near as narrow as the lottery path.”
With God’s promises, the more you invest in hope, the bigger the hope grows and the bigger the payout. Give it all, get it all and more. Whatever you put in comes back to you in full measure and more. The more you put in, the stronger the hope grows.
The Gospel hope doesn’t cost you a thing, because it is God’s gracious gift. But it will cost you everything to follow it. And it will be worth every penny, every hour, every sacrifice.
In my initial Facebook posting, I made a note that told my friends not to mock anyone who played the lottery, because it is fun to hope and imagine what you would do with all those winnings. One friend, an Episcopal priest, responded this way: “It’s fun to hope and imagine what you’d do with the Gospel, too.”
That’s what Advent is for. For hoping and imagining the Gospel promises being fulfilled in our lifetime, or even in us. Imagine the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Imagine a world of peace and justice. Imagine the world living together in harmony with God’s design. Imagine right relationships, security, trust, fulfillment. And know that those are not wild fantasies and lottery dreams—they are the hope of the prophets, the sure bet, the free grace, the covenant of peace and justice and righteousness and safety and salvation from the God who was and is and is to come. For the time is coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise. Thanks be to God. Amen.
B and I made our own Advent wreath this year, to sit on the kitchen table. The kitchen table is regularly the dumping ground for junk mail, school artwork, receipts, stray gloves and not-yet-put-away purchases. Its proximity to the back door makes it everyone’s first stop and first view upon entering the house. Since the wreath has taken central place, though, it has seemed easier and more important to keep the table clear of unnecessary junk. It’s amazingly refreshing to my spirit to enter the house and see the Advent wreath, rather than a pile of mess that needs to be put away.
Last week, we lit the first candle and I talked with B about hope. Tonight, we lit the second candle and talked about peace. Even as we talked about the meaning of peace—ending war, getting along with friends, making sure everyone has enough—we could see our hope candle struggling to stay lit. Smoke was pouring from it, but the flame was barely an ember on the wick. Watching the light struggle to survive, I contemplated how hard it often is for hope itself to stay strong against the darkness.
I reached for my camera to capture a picture. Before I could get the lens cap off, the candle suddenly exploded into a full flame of light, bigger and brighter than the peace candle next to it. Wax was pouring down the side of the candle, spilling over the holder. The flame had been dampened by all the old wax around the wick, unable to catch enough air to fully shine. Letting go of the junk released the light of hope again.
It was just like my kitchen table. Removing the junk to focus on the Advent wreath set me free to focus on the hope and peace of the season.
Even more, it is just like my soul. Hope gets stifled by all sorts of junk—old hurts, built-up anxieties, piled-on worries, and overwhelming circumstances that make us feel like we just can’t get any air. Yet the tiniest flame of hope, even the one that looks like it’s too small to survive, can be enough to throw off all that mess and explode into light.
I’ll freely admit it. I am a terrible housekeeper. When people ask me, “how do you do it all?” I tell them the answer: “I don’t clean my house.” There are almost always dirty dishes in the sink, dust on the shelves, laundry piled up and a kitchen floor in need of mopping. It would not be unfair to call me a slob.
In my mind, there have always been so many more interesting and important things than cleaning house. With the limited time in my life, maintaining a clean living space seemed to pale in comparison to the opportunity to go to the zoo, watch a movie, go out with friends, or engage in conversation with my family. Why fold clothes when you can probe the questions of the universe with a good book? What’s more valuable: playing a game with my son or dusting the picture frames?
That’s the logic I followed for the last 20 years or more (probably more, if you ask my mother). “Cleanliness is next to godliness” had no place in my theology.
Much to my surprise, I have begun to discover a deep spiritual practice in housecleaning. Doing housework is the simple act of service, and a way of bringing order out of chaos. It grounds me in my humanity, in my body, and in the earth. It connects me to the rest of humanity, all of whom must attend to the daily tasks of keeping order amid the flurry of life. Housework is humbling, and it reminds me that I am just one person among six billion, not God.
Recently, I attended at three deaths in one day, including two unrelated deaths in the same family. It was holy, powerful and emotionally exhausting. When I returned home for a brief hour in the afternoon, I desperately needed to be reminded of the things of life, to restore my sense of balance in the midst of such grief. I had been in prayer all day, and had no more words. Even the silence felt overwhelming. I was too exhausted to talk through the day with my spouse. I couldn’t compartmentalize the emotions enough to enjoy playing outside with my son. What did I do? I washed the dishes and folded laundry. It was the most healing thing I could have done.
Simply attending to those necessary tasks for my family reminded me that life goes on. The act enabled me to separate from the grief of the families I had sat with throughout the day, and return me to my own living family. In a day of such brokenness and messiness, I found a way to bring some order and peace. I remembered that God would take care of the dying and the grieving, but I had to make sure that my son had clean underwear. Rather than a chore, attending to the housework grounded me in God’s love for me and my family and their mundane concerns—not just the urgent needs of others pulling us in a thousand directions. It was an act of spiritual self-care.
Yesterday in church, we sang “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” for the first Sunday of Advent. I heard this verse in a new way:
O come, O Wisdom from on high,
and order all things far and nigh.
To us the path of knowledge show,
and help us in that way to go.
How often do we long for order in the midst of the chaos? From the opening chapter of Genesis, we learn that ordering chaos is the work of God. In that pleading hymn of Advent, we ask for God’s wisdom to come and straighten us up, to take this mess of a world and somehow put it right again. We beg for Wisdom to show us the path, so that we can follow God and help in the work of making meaning out of madness.
The practice of keeping house is a way of bringing order out of chaos. Like prayer and other spiritual disciplines, it is a practice—something that you must do over and over again, sometimes with no effect and sometimes with transcendence. Slowly, I am coming around to see housework as more than drudgery, and perhaps even as a path to God. Instead of competing with one another for my time and attention, the work of keeping order in the house has become a part of keeping order in my soul.
My house is still a mess most of the time, but then again so is my soul. I doubt I’ll get either one of them in order anytime soon. But maybe, just maybe, working toward cleanliness can be working toward godliness.