Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"Comfort my People" First Sunday in Advent, 2014 on Isaiah 40:1-11

Note to Reader: I almost never post on either blog any more, but a few hearty souls with long memories have urged me to post some of my current efforts, particularly my Christian writings. Since I will be 76 in a few weeks and yet have, once again, "unretired" and taken another Interim Pastor position about all my current writing efforts are sermons. What follows is the first of my Advent sermons for this Advent season, which starts Sunday, Nov. 30. I am not much worried about jumping the gun or about any of my congregation reading it in advance of delivery, since I doubt any of them even know I have a couple of blogs. I have preached on this very subject before. But it is always interesting to see how much, for me, the subtle meanings of the text in the context of a different congregation change what I have to say about even a short passage of scripture. Which tells me two things: even old men can learn and change, and, God never intended that there be only one thing to be learned from the holy books. 
And finally, the usual disclaimer which should never even have to be said: this is a religious article and is intended to be viewed by other Christians, although I doubt it will either polute or change the mind of someone of another persuasion. I have no interest in arguing the validity of religion, or Christianity or my beliefs or someone else's lack of same.  And, regardless, I say "God bless" to all of you, of whatever faith or none.  -- Monte

Today is the beginning of a new year according to the Church calendar. It is also the First Sunday of Advent.  But today is NOT the beginning of Christmas. Today, and for four weeks, the season is Advent. Then comes Christmas. Christmas starts on December 25th, and runs for 12 days, until Epiphany. Because we are worn out by the Christmas frenzy even before the end of First Day of Christmas, we have been taught to think that Christmas is essentially OVER after Christmas Day. In fact,  it is just beginning. 

But, in order to sell us more things before the end of the calendar year the ad mavens and the purveyors of “Christmas” as a commercial bonanza make sure that our attention is focused on a glittery, secularized, almost mystical “Christmas” as part of a glorious “Holiday Season” that lasts from Halloween through Christmas Day. Then come the “After Christmas Sales.” 

And Advent gets totally buried in the process. Think about it: How many “Advent” ads have you seen on TV this year? None? I thought so. There is absolutely NO money to be made out of such a serious and thoughtful season as Advent. And so, Advent is a time when any Pastor worth his keep has to preach against the tide of Christmas frenzy promoted by the hucksters of commercialism and greed.

Why is Advent so unattractive to the hucksters of Christmas cheer?  Well, Advent is about EXPECTATION, REFLECTION and WAITING.  Which is what makes observing Advent so hard to do. We Americans aren't much into expectation and waiting, and calm reflection hardly registers in our minds in the midst of this busy season when society tells us it is time to buy and to party NOW for Christmas. And that sounds a lot more interesting that waiting.

But Advent waiting isn't intended to be either aimless or clueless.  After all, it isn't like we don't know what we are waiting for.  While many think we are waiting for Santa Claus to come, we are actually awaiting the coming of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.  

The Church says that there are important things for us to be doing in Advent; and some of those things are hard work. For example, in the text from Isaiah for today, a voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God." Now, obviously, Isaiah isn't speaking literally here.  We are not all supposed to literally build a highway for Advent. What then are we to do?  Well, John the Baptist tells us that the way we make a highway for the coming of our God is to "Repent!'  He tells us that we are sinners all, and we must, in this time of waiting, do something about that, so that we might be clean and pure when we receive our King. And John the Baptist has a point.

But we can hardly repent unless we assess what we are doing right and what we are doing wrong. So it sounds very much to me like one of the hard jobs we need to be doing during Advent is that of taking our own moral and spiritual inventory. Let me say that last phrase again: taking our own moral and spiritual inventory. 

And, during the next weeks we are not just to be shopping and going to parties and satisfying culturally induced cravings. We are to be about some genuine"metanoia." That is a new word I want you to learn: “Meta-noy-ya.” Metanoia is the Greek word for repentance, but it means more than just turning FROM something. Metanoia means to turn from something to something else.

True repentance doesn't go just half way.  We, too often, mistakenly think that repentance is "turning from sin."  Avoiding sin.  That is important, and many times it is terribly difficult.  But that is only half of the meaning of repentance. The other half is turning TO God.  And that involves some time consuming tasks: prayer, worship, reflection, introspection, and Bible study.  And in Advent, these tasks come at precisely the time when we believe that there IS no time! Which means, of course, that a choice has to be made; specifically, whether to celebrate a HOLY Advent, doing the work necessary to be right for the coming of God; or doing what we usually do. The problem is simple: there isn't time to get right with the God who is the Father of the coming Christ, if most of our time is spent doing other things.
But!  But, even in the midst of the pre-Christmas chaos, we can BEGIN to change our lifestyles.  We can begin to set aside more time for God. Let’s face it. Santa Claus really can't do you a whole lot of good in the long run.  Jesus can!!

Isaiah tells us what happens when we actually do repent and turn to God.  To the exiled, defeated, dejected nation of Israel, bound in slavery in Babylon, our God spoke a word of hope.  To a people who had lost all hope; to a people who were at the end of their collective rope, God spoke a word of comfort. Listen:"Comfort, O comfort my people.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, her penalty is paid."  

The people in exile had paid for their sins, had repented and turned once again to God for salvation. They were ready to come home. But they felt helpless. Even the famous prophet, Isaiah, felt helpless. "What shall I cry?," he asked. He complained to God: We are mere mortals. There is nothing we can do! We mortals are like grass, dying and withering and fading with the season. And, interestingly, God's angel does not disagree with Isaiah's assessment.  He confirms it: Yes, you ARE like the grass that withers, the flower that fades. BUT.  But, says the angel. "The Word of our God shall stand forever!!"

That is a message of HOPE.  For when we finally recognize what really counts; when we finally opt out of the Christmas rat-race; when we cease trying to find the "true meaning of Christmas" in the presents, the buying fever, the sense of guilt because we think that we aren't spending enough; when we let go of the consumer mentality - when we finally truly repent and turn to God - then, and only then, can we find the true peace of Christmas, – which begins by observing a Holy Advent.

And when we do that, we can shout with Isaiah: "HERE is your God!"  HERE is your God.  Here!  Not at Wall-Mart, Sears, Kohl’s, Penny's or Elder Beerman.  HERE, In THIS place, is your God.  It is here that you bring the results of your personal inventory to lay at the feet of God.  It is here that you can say, "I have sinned.”
It is here that you share with God your beginning attempts to spend time with the Bible, to reflect on what it means that Christ really did die for our sins. It is HERE that God allows us to confess those sins and have them be not only forgiven, but forgotten. It is HERE that God offers us abundant life, not only for now, but forever. It is here, in sum, that you turn back to God. And when you are ready to do that - God will tell the heavenly host: "Comfort, O comfort my people.  Speak tenderly to them.”

I know it may not work equally well for all of us, because we all live different lives, and it may have been tried before and failed, but all I ask is that this year we simply BEGIN to work on our spiritual awareness of what Advent really is, and that there is something we are supposed to be doing during Advent that is not at all like what many of us have been doing in years past during these weeks before Christmas. 

I implore you: Search your souls, as a congregation, as individuals and as families and then pray that, this year, we are going to take a clear first step to distinguish between Advent and the commercialized, secularized “Christmas” that has, up to now, usurped time that God has set aside for us to wait, wonder, ponder and pray; time when we turn back once more to our God and away from narcissism and hedonism.

May God bless our efforts and may He say to us: "Comfort, O comfort my people.  Speak tenderly to them.” Amen.