Monthly Archives: November 2010

Waiting at the Doors

a sermon on Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on November 28, 2010

Andre Sanchez spent the better part of his Thanksgiving holiday waiting at the doors. He arrived at the Best Buy in Union Square at 1:00 Tuesday afternoon so he could save some $600 on a couple electronics items when the store opened early on Friday morning. He told the Post, “When I finally got in, it felt like the gates of heaven opened up.”

He was surely not alone – based on the sheer volume of advertisements via paper, email, and television these days, a great majority of Americans spent at least some part of the last few days shopping, and more than a few of them surely spent some time waiting at the doors. This Black Friday “holiday” has become so notorious that one of the staff in our denomination’s Office of Theology and Worship even wrote a Christmas carol about it!

Early on a Friday morn, anxious drivers blow their horns.
Swiftly to the mall they race, praying for a parking place.
Humming carols of the season, spending with no rhyme or reason.
Checking, savings overdrawn, all before the light of dawn.
Save a dollar! Save a dime! Happy, happy shopping-time!

Bargain hunters stalk their prey all across the U.S.A.
Checkout lines around the block, just like back at Plymouth Rock.
Stuffed with turkey, pie, and gravy, they maneuver like a navy,
stacking high their shopping carts, maxing out their credit cards.
Save a fortune! Save yourselves! Stuff is flying off the shelves.

Prophets have foretold the day all of this will pass away:
parking places gone to seed, escalators clogged with weeds;
Nordstroms, Saks, and Nieman Marcus empty as a turkey carcass;
heaven’s children at the feast where the greatest serve the least.
Savior, save a place for me, where the best of gifts are free.

David Gambrell

As Advent begins today, it is tempting, I think, to see these days as a time of waiting at the doors of Christmas Eve, longing for gifts galore, living into the strange reality of consumerism that permeates these days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, looking for heaven as a big-box store opening up with great deals, and celebrating Christmas without getting ready for it – or by getting ready for it! But our children’s bulletin for today suggests that there is more to Advent than all this:

People get ready during Advent by decorating, baking, shopping, wrapping presents, and visiting friends and family. Use Advent to get ready on the inside, too.

Kids Celebrate, Advent 1A

So how do we get ready on the inside? What can we expect as we wait at the doors of Christmas? And what will we find once we get on the other side? Will the gates of heaven bring us to some great megastore in the sky? Or is there more to this time that that?

Our texts today start to answer that question – not with visions of angels and shepherds and wise men but with a look far forward, well beyond Christmas Eve, into the world that comes into being because of what God is doing in these days. Isaiah starts us out with a hopeful vision of peace and justice that shows us how things will look one day – not just on the other side of the gates of heaven but “in the days to come” here on the earth, too, as we wait at the doors for something new.

In these days to come, God’s life in the world will be more evident and real, for people everywhere will be drawn to God and look for God’s presence, not just in their own way as they feel led but together, as many peoples coming joining as one, to seek instruction in how to live.

But these days to come are not just a time to sit around and enjoy something new – in this time, the word of the Lord will go forth to bring justice and peace to all the world, to “beat… swords into plowshares, and… spears into pruning hooks” so that the whole world will know the fullness of God’s presence and what this means for people each and every day.

Finally, if it weren’t already clear, the prophet invites everyone to join in: “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”

If the light of the Lord weren’t clear enough from Isaiah’s words, Jesus offers us another vision of the gates of heaven in our reading from the gospel according to Matthew. Unlike the deals advertised on Thanksgiving Day for Black Friday, Jesus suggests that the things to come as we wait at the doors will be quite a surprise, a sudden, dramatic change that isn’t at all understood or pictured but is coming nonetheless.

Jesus even makes it clear that we won’t know anything about this time to come until it comes, and this “rapture,” as some Christians describe it, demands only that we be ready for it whenever it might come, staying awake and alert for the day when the Lord is coming. One commentator sums it up well:

We are not expected to know everything, but we are expected to do something. The Jesus of the verses before us calls persons to a life of work in a spirit of wakefulness.

– Mark Urs, Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1

This is not just a version of that wonderful old adage, “Jesus is coming – look busy!” – this is a real attentiveness to the time before us, a real turn away from the world’s pull upon us toward greed and consumption, a real turn toward preparation and making things ready, constantly asking that wonderful question posed by our opening hymn this morning: “O Lord, how shall I meet you?” Jesus insists that we be ready for something more to come at any time.

There is something real about waiting at the doors these days. Even if we dismiss the insane excesses of the holiday shoppers around us, even if we are ready to put off the Christmas carols until December 24, even if we have a pretty good answer to how we shall meet our coming Lord, we still wait at the door for something more. We know there is something missing in the life we have. We start by trying to fill it with all the “stuff” of these days only to find that we have just dumped an incredible amount of time, energy, and money into a black hole that cannot be filled with these things.

And so as this Advent begins and we wait at the door of Christmas once again, we also wait at the door of something more. We wait at the door of a world transformed by God’s power and presence. We wait at the door of a dramatic and complete change that can’t be expected or described or contained in human words. And we wait at the door of a new way of life that can only begin by God’s own initiative but that happened once in an entirely unexpected way, not in regal robes in the palace, announced with trumpets to nobility but wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger, announced by angels to the lowly field workers on the night shift.

The little glimpse of things ahead that we get from our texts today is probably not enough to satisfy our longings and fill our spirits, but the door is nonetheless open. We can peer inside and get a glimpse of the glory yet to come in these and other words. We can wait with patience and hope for a new way to come into being. And we can take this invitation seriously to come and walk in the light of the Lord, for when we take even a little step toward this new way, we join in what God is doing in this Advent season and throughout all time to make things new.

And so, this Advent, as we wait at the doors of something new, how will we respond to God’s invitation? How will we meet our Lord? How will we walk in the light of the Lord? Will we wait at the doors with the world, focusing on the busyness of these days, the shopping that must be done by December 24, the errands and cooking that have to be finished, and the gooey sentimentality that marks so much of this season? Or will we wait at the doors of a heaven far greater than any big-box store, stepping back to prepare our minds and hearts and lives for the coming of an incredible and long-expected child, taking a new and fresh look at a well-worn season in hopes of finding something new in these days? As my friend Carol Howard Merritt put it:

We will never know the reign of God that is in and among us until we wake up and become attuned to those promises of peace and justice, until we can become alert to those things that are going on around us that remind us of God’s presence, until we walk away from the cynicism and despair that can sedate us and become busy, working for a world where the downtrodden will be buoyed and the ravaged will be made whole.

So may God open our eyes to the possibilities before us in our individual lives and our life together in this place, give us trust that these days can bring us something more than just temporal pleasures and seasonal highs, and show us how to look for the real joy and hope and renewal that can come only from walking in the light of the Lord. May these Advent days be filled with hope and expectation not just of a happy, idealized Christmas morning but of a world exploding with the glory and promise of a God who comes into our midst to make all things new.

Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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Moving Beyond Words

a sermon on Isaiah 65:17-25
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on Sunday, November 14, 2010

I’m always amazed at the power of words to create new worlds, to stimulate the imagination into dreaming of something new. Children of all ages were entranced by the incredible new world created in the words of the Harry Potter books in recent years, and even for someone like me who hasn’t read them, their images of a world defined by wizards and magical powers somehow have carried over into a broader part of our lives. Other books transport us to times and places that seem impossible to access otherwise, and suddenly we are linked with people who have very different experiences or who lived in a different day and age. And still other words imagine what things will be like in a time yet to come – or offer some variation on our current world that nonetheless is somehow different. When I was in junior high, I was a big fan of a series of books known as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that imagined that Earth, from this perspective a small and insignificant planet circling an ordinary star on the outskirts of the Milky Way, had been destroyed to make way for a new intergalactic superhighway even as a few Earthlings took up a role in the strange and wonderful story of things beyond this planet. All of these incredible words invite us to imagine something very different from what we know ourselves, a world where things are somehow different yet that is strangely familiar.

Our reading from Isaiah this morning stands among these great words that create new worlds. However, unlike these great literary examples of words that create new worlds, Isaiah’s vision, by its very nature, must move beyond words to become real in the world. These beautiful words suggest that things as they are now will not last forever and the world will be transformed by the power of God. They paint an incredible image of new heavens and a new earth, a holy city filled with joy, people living the fullness of life as God intends, a vibrant and verdant land filled with houses and fields and vineyards, blessed by God in ways beyond all imagination.

These words are so beautiful that they bear hearing again, this time in a paraphrase by writer Eugene Peterson:

“Pay close attention now:
I’m creating new heavens and a new earth.

All the earlier troubles, chaos, and pain
are things of the past, to be forgotten.

Look ahead with joy.
Anticipate what I’m creating:

I’ll create Jerusalem as sheer joy,
create my people as pure delight.

I’ll take joy in Jerusalem,
take delight in my people:

No more sounds of weeping in the city,
no cries of anguish;

No more babies dying in the cradle,
or old people who don’t enjoy a full lifetime;

One-hundredth birthdays will be considered normal—
anything less will seem like a cheat.

They’ll build houses and move in.

They’ll plant fields and eat what they grow.

No more building a house that some outsider takes over,
No more planting fields that some enemy confiscates,

For my people will be as long-lived as trees,
my chosen ones will have satisfaction in their work.

They won’t work and have nothing come of it,
they won’t have children snatched out from under them.

For they themselves are plantings blessed by God,
with their children and grandchildren likewise God-blessed.

Before they call out, I’ll answer.
Before they’ve finished speaking, I’ll have heard.

Wolf and lamb will graze the same meadow,
lion and ox eat straw from the same trough,
but snakes—they’ll get a diet of dirt!

Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill
anywhere on my Holy Mountain,” says God. (The Message)

The beauty and power of these words is clear to me, but they nonetheless cannot just be enjoyed – they must be lived!

However, some people of faith, past and present, have insisted that these words and others like them are only promises for the future, absolving themselves of responsibility for the things that get in the way of this vision of something new in the present world. The reality is, though, that these words offer just as much of a vision for the immediate future as they promise something new for all eternity. The full hope and vision in these incredible words is something that we will almost certainly not see with our human eyes, but that does not excuse us from being a part of doing what we can to help make them real in some small way in our own day and age. These words demand that we move beyond just enjoying them and the world they create in our minds into trying to make these things real each and every day. As our Presbyterian sisters and brothers put it some thirty years ago,

The people of God have often misused God’s promises
as excuses for doing nothing about present evils.
But in Christ the new world has already broken in
and the old can no longer be tolerated. (A Declaration of Faith 10:5)

And so we must join in what God is doing even now to transform and renew the world, stepping into places where the new creation of Isaiah’s vision needs nourishing and nurturing. We look for places around the world that are in need of God’s transforming justice and peace, places torn apart by war, places in need of clean water and safe housing, places where people suffer because of their gender, ethnicity, cultural background, sexual orientation, religious practice, or any other human classification, places where the world needs a concrete and real reminder that we are all children of God. We look for places in our own nation where people struggle to make ends meet, places where women and men are forced to hide because they are considered “illegal,” places where poverty cripples life and opportunities simply don’t exist as they one did, places where God’s good creation is devalued, pushed away, or abused. And we look for places in our own city and neighborhood where people are forced to hide their pain and suffering in uncertain times, places where children are kept from flourishing as their gifts and lives would allow, places marked by unmet need and indifferent leaders, places overlooked by even the most observant among us. Once we look and we see and we find, we can and must act, moving beyond words to bring our gifts, our talents, our wisdom, our commitment – what the vows church officers take describe as “energy, intelligence, imagination, and love” – to this work of transformation.

But we do not approach this work alone, limited by our humanity and only able to do a little here and there. This is God’s new creation, and God has been at work on this for a long time – so we simply seek to join in what is already going on. And that is truly the wonder of this new creation – we do not have to reinvent the wheel but instead seek how we ourselves can join in to help this new way flourish and grow. We can’t do it all, but we must do something. That same statement of faith continues:

We know our efforts cannot bring in God’s kingdom.
But hope plunges us into the struggle
for victories over evil that are possible now
in the world, the church, and our individual lives.

Hope gives us courage and energy
to content against all opposition,
however invincible it may seem,
for the new world and the new humanity
that are surely coming. (A Declaration of Faith 10:5)

And so we are called and challenged to be a part of this new creation even now.

Today, as some of you may know, is stewardship commitment Sunday for us as we consider how we in this congregation can commit to God’s work in this place over the coming year. In these days in our life together, I think Isaiah’s vision of God’s new creation is so very important for us – it invites us to remember that there is something new and different being created for us and yet we must join in making it real in our midst. Isaiah’s vision pushes us to both imagination and action, both vision and work, so that we can join in this incredible thing that God is doing all around us.

We have great and unusual potential in the coming months, an opportunity to continue the new things already happening in our midst, a chance to do not just what we have done before or what must be done now but the new thing that God is preparing for us, a possibility of embodying what God intends for all the world in our life together in this place. Nonetheless, this new thing requires more than my commitment, more than the commitment of a few key leaders, but rather the commitment of the entire congregation. As much as we need financial support, we probably need other things more – participation in our work of outreach and faith-sharing, leadership in new things and new ways, support and encouragement from those beyond our congregation, and most of all your prayerful engagement as we seek to see what is ahead – to dream and vision how God is inviting us to step out together and move beyond words to be a part of this new creation in the world.

As powerful as these words from Isaiah are, as much as they themselves embody and envision a new world, we still must make them our own. We still must use the power of these words to sort out what God is doing in our midst and how God invites us to join in. Then we must respond to this vision with commitment to the journey ahead, with the energy, intelligence, imagination, and love that we have seen in countless women and men over the centuries built on the incredible witness of none other than Jesus Christ, the one who shows us the way of mercy, peace, justice, and love and invites us to join in.

May God guide us in hope and love as we move beyond words to join in God’s work of bringing in the new creation in this place and so in all the world through the power and mercy of Jesus Christ our Lord until he comes again to finish this new creation once and for all. Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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