Wednesday, December 06, 2006

the sign of peace (advent 1)

A friend recently shared this experience. He was taking a plane flight from Birmingham to Louisville. Like everyone else, he arrived early and waited for the call to take his seat. As he was waiting he noticed a very attractive woman, so attractive that he had to keep himself from staring. He entered the airplane when his zone was called, sat down on a row with three seats, he on the aisle, and an older woman near the window. The middle seat was empty, but as the time came near, the woman came in and, sure enough, this was her seat. At first her presence almost made him uncomfortable, but then she began to talk to him and the other seatmate about things, they exchanged generalities, talked about work, and then, the question: “do you have family”?

Her face lit up. She was going to Louisville to meet the special person in her life. He is amazing”, she said. They talked a little longer, she described him. Where did they meet? We met over the internet”, she said. She literally could not wait to arrive in Louisville. As they touched down she began to call his cell phone number, but there was no answer. She called again. No answer. She called again. A voice answered. Not the person she was hoping to reach. She went to baggage claim, the woman walking beside her. It soon became apparent that there would be no meeting, no connection.

In this life we hope for a better future. At its core, there are many gospels of hope in our culture: a paradise in which to retire with beautiful people, maybe on a beach somewhere; our children opportunities for our children that we did not have; a cure for a dreaded and debilitating disease; our team will win this Saturday, or Sunday; this virtual person will indeed turn out to be the real thing.

In this life we hope for a better future. And so it is good that we come together, on the first Sunday of Advent to think about hope, to profess our hope in God, in God’s future, in God’s messiah. Hope is one of the greatest gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 13), and hope is also one of our most significant human needs. When we lose hope, our very lives are threatened.

It is true that hope is always practiced in the midst of ambiguity. Suffering and hope are always mixed together, despair and hope, fatigue and hope. If you listen to the scriptures this morning, you can hear that:

God is going to fulfil the promise, Israel is going to be saved, they are going to live in safety. When do we start talking about safety and security? When there is a danger.

God is going to teach us his paths, lead us into the truth, all of his paths are steadfast love and faithfulness. When do we start talking about direction and guidance? When we are lost and adrift.

In this life we hope for a better future, but sometimes we take our eyes off the prize. And so we need to become re-acquainted with hope once again, and that is one of the gifts of Advent. The people were hopeful that a messiah would come. This hope was grounded in the word of God: I will fulfil the promise, God says…Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

And so hope begins with God’s promise. The promise calls for our response: be on guard, be alert, stay awake, look for the signs. That is where you will find hope. The scriptures train us to look for the signs, and to sift the real from the unreal, the truth from false teaching. Look for the signs: a righteous branch will spring up, a ruler will watch over the people with justice and righteousness, the fig tree will sprout leaves,there will be distress among the nations and roaring in the seas. Look for the signs.

This morning, I want us to focus on one of the messianic signs, one that is obvious, today, and yet we might indeed miss it. When we say the words, in the Holy Communion, Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again, we are professing our hope in a better future, in this life and in the life to come. But God is not limited to words, and so we look for other signs: the lighting of candles; the gathering of friends, the extension of hope to the stranger; and, one of the most profound signs of hope, the meal, the feast.

For some, this is a season of family meals. The family meal is in part about our love of food, and for some a genuine gift for preparing a feast. Beyond the feast itself, for many, the family meal in this season is about a dream, and a hope: All are safely gathered in”, the aroma of a perfectly good meal and the appearance of a perfectly behaved child and the demeanor of a perfectly appreciative spouse. This is the hope and the dream. Right? And we do have that fear within, sometimes, that the dream will turn into a nightmare. We want to avoid the whole thing bursting into flames, it ends, crashes, it’s either too loud or too quiet, and someone says, “let’s get our coat and leave!”

Because of mobility---we are so scattered out---and because of pace---we are so distracted---parents from children, spouses from each other, adult children from their parents---there is a great hope placed in this meal. There is a lot at stake, maybe too much. And yet sometimes the meal only reminds us of how far we are from each other, how great the distance is that separates us.

We know from experience: A meal can be an experience of communion, or a bitter taste of division.

Some of us can remember a part of our tragic history, when whites and blacks could not eat together. Deep within we knew this was wrong, but we held onto our divisions. This week the Pope traveled to Turkey, to meet with the Orthodox, 200 million Christians with whom Catholics are estranged, and with Muslim leaders. Two of the three families of the Abrahamic faith, deeply divided. If you want to cast blame, there is enough on all sides. The point is not the blame. What would be the end result of the pilgrimage? It had something to do with our desire, our dream, for wholeness, for communion. Sometimes, even in the smallest families, with share the same hope, don’t we?

One of the signs of the Messiah’s coming was that there would be a great feast. People would gather from the north and the south and the east and the west to feast at the table. And one of the signs he gave us was that same meal, a meal that is not only done in remembrance of him, but in anticipation of his coming again. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

And so the church of Jesus exists to share this meal. It is one of the two or three most important things we do. It is a sign of hope.

In this life, in the life to come, we hope for a better future. This has a global dimension. This has a congregational dimension. This has a personal dimension. A few brief reflections on these hopes.

A Global Hope

I hope that our church continues to be drawn to the larger world, for it is getting smaller, and more interdependent, and the hope of salvation is not just for me, it is not just in my heart, but it is a hope for the world that God loves. And so I hope our church never loses touch with Africa or Haiti or Cambodia.

A few weeks ago I was in the Chapel Service on Sunday evening. My wife Pam was speaking, and some very gifted people in our congregation, among them Joan Carlson and Len Bullock and Doris Mock and others were leading it. When the time for the offering came, Ron Miller spoke about it. That evening it would go toward the Methodist Theological Seminary in the Congo, for the training of pastors in Africa. Ron spoke of the missionary couple who are the leaders there, who had recently been here, and then he gave the invitation. Tuition, for three years for one student is $2500. This also covers the cost for the spouse to learn a trade, and for the family’s living expenses, for three years. $2500.

The next morning Bill Jeffries told me that a person had given $2500 in that offering. What a sign of hope? Imagine the difference in that family’s life, in that pastor’s message to the church in Africa.

A Hope For Our Congregation

I hope that new disciples, new Christians will become a part of this great church. I hope that people who are making important decisions will turn to God and to the scriptures and to relationships with friends who can support them and hold them accountable. When all of that collapses, what happens? People board airplanes, they take great risks, to find community.

I hope that our church continues to think about people in our community who are really facing pretty stiff odds. Are their children going to make it through school? Are they going to have a place to sleep tonight, or to eat breakfast tomorrow?

And I hope that our church, especially in this season, becomes a community of people that bears one another’s burdens, especially the burden of grief. Loss is difficult, especially when someone is missing at the feast. If we have discovered hope in this life, surely we are here to share that hope with others. I rejoice that this often happens in Providence. And this is why I love my work: I believe the local church, the church of Jesus Christ, is the hope of the world.

A Personal Hope

My personal hopes, if I am honest, are pretty simple. The changes I hope for in others, I need to begin to live into myself. If I want other people to be more peaceful, I become more peaceful. If I want other people to be more generous, I become more generous. If I want other people to be more Christ-like, I become more Christ-like.

We are here, this morning, because we have accepted the invitation to the great banquet of the Messiah. And somehow, this meal is a sign of a better future, for you and me, for our church, for our world. This meal, we believe, is a foretaste. As I read scripture, heaven will not be a collection of disembodied ghosts floating around, but a family, gathered at the table, with the Host, the One who knows us and loves us and created us, presiding,

and surely there will be family members we have not met, of every race, every tribe, every tongue, every nation, who have streamed toward the throne of God. And the lamb of God will be at the center of the throne, the sacrifice, the bread, the body broken, the blood, the life shared, for you and for me, but also for every heart that hungers for justice and righteousness and peace.

This Advent, we hope for a better future, in this life, and in the life to come.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.


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