Sermon, November 8, 2015

What Are We Waiting For?     Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
November 8, 2015   Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost,
         Advent Preparation Sunday
Selected Texts from Isaiah 60, Mark 1, Luke 1; Mark 13:24-37

The word Advent comes from a Latin root meaning that something is coming. The three things coming during Advent are the birth of Christ at Christmas and the coming of Christ at the end of the world and the coming of Christ into our hearts in any moment. Advent is a time of preparing for those three things. In the old days it required fasting and increased spiritual activity with no parties or singing of Christmas carols allowed. The purpose was to open our hearts as wide as possible for the burst of joy on Christmas when the glorious light arrived.

That is the theory behind Advent, but what does it really mean? What are we really preparing and waiting for? And is it worth what Advent asks of us?

We no longer fast during Advent, but if we are going to take it seriously as a religious and spiritual time, we will need to make some effort involving sacrifice. We cannot prepare our hearts for Christ during the weeks before Christmas if we do not turn away from some of the alluring or demanding activities that secular culture expects of us, or from the standards of perfection it imposes.

If we approach Advent spiritually, then all the material things we do take on greater meaning, but if we are not prepared, it is easy to find ourselves either pulled into the hectic pressures of the Advent season and feeling like a failure to do everything perfectly, or else sad and lonely, feeling shunted off to the side while everyone else is busy. We need to be purposeful about the kind of experience we want to have, and take steps in advance to make it happen. That may mean saying no to some things or doing others that move us out of our comfort zone, or it may mean changing our standards and expectations.

Is Advent worth all that sacrifice and effort?

It depends on what we are waiting for—what the real benefits are. The birth of Christ, Christ coming at the end of the world, Christ coming into our hearts—those sound vague compared to the number of Christmas cards sent or presents wrapped or cookies baked.

So what are we waiting for? Advent hymns get a little more specific. “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night” foretells joy and hope. “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” promises rest, strength and consolation, and freedom from fear and sin. “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” talks about the peace Jesus brings to “those who sit in darkness, Mourning ’neath their sorrow’s load.” “Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates,” adds one other word, the most important of all: “love.” Hope, peace, joy and love—those are the candles we light during Advent, and the coming of Christ brings them not only in some far off time, but to our hearts even as we prepare to receive them—if we prepare.

The traditional Advent scriptures that we heard in the Call to Worship add another element, which is light. Isaiah says, “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” Zechariah says, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” The light that shines in the darkness is the light of Advent.

Hope, peace, joy, love, light—those all sound good, but then we come to the Gospel passage from the Thirteenth Chapter of Mark. That Chapter is called the Little Apocalypse of Mark, not because the cataclysms it foretells are little, but because the chapter is short. In a very few verses it puts the earth through the worst suffering and upheaval ever seen. The sun and moon go dark, the stars fall from the sky. Christ comes back to earth riding on the clouds with an army of angels.

It is cataclysmic but also confusing, because Jesus says that it will happen before his own generation passes away. The only thing that is clear, dozens of generations later, is the way Jesus insists we live: keep alert, keep awake, watch and wait.

But what are we waiting for, really, ultimately, practically speaking? What is coming when Jesus arrives?

A man named Hank learned the answer to that question. He learned it by going through a cataclysm, having the stars fall from his sky, and seeing Jesus come riding in on the clouds on the other side of suffering. His story will be hard for some of us to hear because it will remind us of our own cataclysms, or it will be hard because we have yet to see Jesus come riding in on the clouds on the other side of our suffering. I tell this story, as hard as it is, because it answers the question of what we are waiting for, and I hope that you will find it worth whatever struggle it stirs in you. Your answer may not come in the form Hank’s did, but the same Christ and the same new world is coming for us all, and is here, even now.

Hank was a hard worker. He worked six days a week for his business and on Sundays he worked as an elder of his church. He and his wife, Betty, had five children and scrimped and saved and sacrificed many things to send all five to college. Hank worked himself nearly to death. Every couple of years he was hospitalized for one condition or another. Betty worked herself to exhaustion, too, but she never got sick. She would hold everything together when Hank collapsed. Hank was a hard man, angry much of the time, very stern and judgmental. His children were afraid of him.

But thanks to Betty, they had a wonderful childhood, and she made sure they had plenty of presents at Christmas, even though she and Hank had very few.   One year when the children were almost all out of college and the family was sitting around the tree opening their gifts, something snapped in Hank. He was close to tears—something his children had never thought even possible. Finally he blurted out, pointing to all the presents under the tree, “Next year I want as many presents as they have!” From then on Betty added to her load a truly amazing collection of trinkets and tools and treats for Hank.

It was not surprising that Hank’s God was an angry God, that the Christ Hank envisioned was the one coming on the clouds in power and glory to destroy the wicked earth. Betty’s God was a loving, compassionate, all forgiving one, and her relationship with Jesus helped Hank more than he knew, because it enabled her to endure what he put her through.

Everything changed for Hank the year Betty got sick. It was right before Christmas, and although she was far along in her preparations, some final tasks fell to him. He had never realized how much she did for all kinds of people in the community. Betty rallied for a few days when two of the children came home with their families and she even was able to be a reader at the Christmas Eve service, but she quickly relapsed after they left. In January, he took her to the hospital. In June, he buried Betty in the cemetery behind the church.

Hank was devastated. He realized how harsh he had been and how hard he had driven her. He realized how much he had taken her for granted. He realized at last how much he loved her, and how little he knew her. He found journals she had kept and in them he discovered the Jesus that she had known. He read about how much the love and forgiveness of Christ filled her heart and helped her survive life with Hank. He was devastated, and he was humbled and softened.

Hank’s children did not come home very often for Christmas, so it did not surprise him when only the one unmarried daughter said she would be there that year. Christmas Eve they had a sad supper with many tears. Hank laid out Betty’s stocking and wept more. He went to bed dreading the next day.

Christmas morning Hank’s daughter did all she could to cheer Hank up, joking around and making his favorite cinnamon rolls. She actually had Hank laughing when there was a sound at the back door. “Merry Christmas” a chorus of voices yelled, and one after another all Hank’s children came pouring in with their families. Love and laughter and tears filled the house with comfort and joy that day and for days after.

By the end of that first Christmas, Hank’s world had been transformed. Hank’s God had been transformed. Never again did he think of Jesus riding in on the clouds like a great warrior. Never again did he think that the cataclysmic suffering of the last days would be the end of the story. He knew finally what Jesus was telling us to keep awake and watch and wait for beyond every cataclysm. We are waiting for a sound at the back door and beloved voices calling out “Merry Christmas.” We are waiting for someone in the pew behind us to reach out with a caring word or a listening heart. We are waiting for a love that shines like a star over Bethlehem, a love that comes in many forms, as much by giving as by receiving, a love that makes every heart a stable where Christ is born.

Your cataclysm may not be anything like Hank’s, or you may not have found yet the love that came riding in on the clouds to him, but that love is what we are waiting for, and it is what Advent is designed to open our hearts to receive. It took the terrible suffering of his wife’s death to crack open Hank’s heart, but Betty had found a way, Advent after Advent, to set aside time in the midst of all her preparations to pray, to savor the beauty of the worship and music and family, to fill her heart with all that Advent offered. She was filled by the giving as well as the receiving of love. She passed that light along to her children, and thanks to them, it saved Hank.

The light of Advent is available to you again this year starting November 29th. What are you waiting for? Let us pray in silence…