St. Paul’s Congregational Church
November 29, 2020; Mark 13:24-37
The Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
Most of us depend on our calendars a lot to help us keep track of time and remember events and appointments, meeting dates, birthdays – all those things that fill our days and evenings. I can’t imagine losing my UCC paper version – it covers 18 months beginning in January and going to June of the next year – I haven’t joined the crowd in having an electronic one, bulky as mine is sometimes.
This week, though, we of the church get a head start on the rest of the world by beginning our new year on the first Sunday of Advent. And what do we typically do in a new year? Reflect on times past. Celebrate another opportunity to start over. Look ahead to the future, often making resolutions for change to make our lives healthier, happier, maybe even a bit simpler. And the church is no different. Advent is a bittersweet time for us – we’re called to look at this season differently – and that’s always a challenge. Christians have always been called to be “in the world” but not “of the world” and I don’t think there’s any tougher time for us to live out this belief than in this season of the year, especially this year unlike any other we’ve experienced.
There’s no doubt that there’s plenty to be concerned, even frightened about these days – at the top of the list is the ongoing pandemic with cases spiking, deaths rising, the continuing chaos following the election, our own dealing with continued isolation, especially during the coming holiday season, job losses, concern for the environment, more widespread hunger and poverty. We do live in the world, don’t we – we’re not exempt from the troubling times.
But at the same time, advent is a season of hope – this year we have a real possibility for a vaccine to fight COVID, we’re witnessing extraordinary compassion and generosity with food donations, more and more people are volunteering their time in soup kitchens and food banks. We hear touching human interest stories mixed in with the terrible news that help us take heart – all is not lost. There is hope these dark days. And that’s the good news we need to hang on to and that we have to share.
Walking the line between despair and hope is always challenging for sure – and aren’t those words as good as any to describe the mood of our readings this morning – both from the Psalm and from Mark. God’s own people, Israel, are crying out, where are you God? Why don’t you come down and make things right?
The gospel reading from Mark talks about darkness, suffering, even the powers in heaven will be shaken. We’re cautioned to stay awake – to pay attention – to wait for the son of Man to come and gather the elect – from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
These readings call us up short in the midst of our celebrations, don’t they. Advent – a time of preparation. Advent: a time for expectation. Preparation for what? Expectation of what?
Of course, the season of advent, the beginning of the new church year, the time of expectation, coinciding with the world’s jolly celebration of “the season” – is at least partly about repentance and turning back to God. We know that on some level. The symbols and signs of this season in the church are very different from the red ribbons and green holly of the world around us. Our advent colors are purple and blue – purple for repentance, for royalty. And blue: for expectation and hope, not only for the coming birth of Christ but the return of Christ at the end of history. Now, that’s not something we here often think about – the return of Christ at the end of history.
So, let’s look at Advent, the beginning of our new church year, as a time of opportunity – a time to repent, to regroup, to reconcile, to restore, to renew. First and foremost, we’re called to repent. Simply put – it’s time to turn back to God. Prepare ye the way of the Lord!
So, let’s regroup – let’s stop and take a breath and remember who we are and whose we are. Let’s stop and take a breath and focus on the season of Advent as a time of opportunity to look at what’s truly important in our lives. Let’s take a breath and refocus. Let’s take a breath and wake up. Let’s just stop and breathe. When’s the last time you did that?
When I need to stop and breathe, I often go outside to my garden. And read the catalogues and emails from the White Flower Farm in Connecticut – I have so many fond memories of walking through their gardens when I lived so close to the farm, wishing my own gardens looked half as good.
This year’s letter in the front of the catalog began, “During the past few months so many of our customers tell us that spending time in the garden has provided a welcome relief from the maelstrom that is 2020. Each and every one of us has been tested as never before this year but we hold together and find reserves of determination, grit, creativity, hope, and courage that continue to see us through. What we can rely on is this: the bulbs we planted in our garden these past few weeks will bloom in the spring.”
There’s nothing like a garden to embody hope, is there.
He continues, “Because none of us knows exactly what to expect in the coming months, we have lately found comfort in the rituals of fall cleanup, bulb planting, and settling in a few new perennials and shrubs in the garden. After a busy growing season, it’s time to prepare for the next spring, the new season – to let it rest and regroup: we’ll do the tasks we’ve always done – put up the storm windows, refresh the woodpiles, put heavy wool blankets reeking of mothballs at the foot of every bed, bowls of paperwhite narcissus will be potted up for later bloom – brush will be cleared away from the electric fences around the pastures so that the sheep and steers who want out, or the coyotes who want in, will get enough juice to think twice about the adventure. Call it nesting behavior if you like, or even the start of hibernation, but it is the way we live, and 2020 has not changed that.”
They go on to say, “If there has been a year in our lives that offered more and faster changes than this one, we can't recall it. The realities of climate change, international events, the COVID pandemic, economic upheaval, and domestic politics have produced what psychologists call "cognitive dissonance," a combination of fear, amazement, and disbelief. Making sense of what has happened, what it means, and where it leads is a real challenge for all of us and will take a good deal of time.” Maybe that’s what Advent brings to each of us: a combination of fear, amazement, and disbelief. It’s a time to regroup, to attempt to make some sense of all that’s happened and look to the challenges ahead. That’s a tall order for us this year, isn’t it – 2020 has brought out the best and the worst in our life together in so many ways – how do we regroup in the midst of our continuing worries, concerns, fears, anxiety? We take a breath.
One of our Advent challenges includes taking time to reconcile with our God and each other, to hold onto each other in comfort and concern – because we are all in this together. Advent is a time of reconciliation – a looking ahead in expectation, in hope, in letting go and letting God be God. Where do we need to come together? Where do we need to restore relationships?
Because where there is reconciliation there is a restoration to wholeness. And isn’t that what Jesus brings us – the possibility for wholeness, for reconciliation, for a whole new way of living – now and always. Let’s use this season of advent to come together with God and each other in hope. Stay awake to the possibilities that surround us every day.
These advent texts from the Old Testament and the gospel of Mark speak of hopelessness, repentance, and doubt – hardly soft, “nice” passages – but we need to hear them. The darkness does in fact surround us, doesn’t it – but I think the season of advent provides us a light, however dim – that points us to the call and promise that’s there too: the light of hope.
No matter how bad things are, we are reminded that we belong to God, that all the earth belongs to God, and we believe that God breaks into this reality regularly. Sometimes this breaking in is dramatic – like the development of a vaccine to harness the dreadful COVID-19 – sometimes it happens in the small acts of compassion, of kindness we observe. Sometimes a relationship is restored by forgiveness or a return to health. Stay awake to feel God’s intrusion in and around and through us.
Preparation for the birth of Jesus is about repentance; about regrouping – taking a breath; it’s about being an agent of reconciliation, of restoring, of renewing ourselves, our neighbors and families, our church, by letting God be God. By letting God intrude in our lives and calling us out of ourselves to take our part in bringing in God’s realm. By expecting the unexpected – to face the challenges of the day in hope – hope that God is always with us, no matter how desperate the situation may seem.
Karen Wallin Usas has written a reflection called “Hope” – may you be blessed by her words:
During this year 2020, we all have seen many posts, satires, scary stories and cartoons displaying our anxiety as well as our dreams for a better tomorrow. I think the one word that stands out for me in all this turmoil is the simplest one, hope. When we imagine what the meaning of that little word hope might be for each of us, I think we could hear many interpretations.
Some think hope is best represented by the last golden leaves falling even while the new leaves of iris are poking their heads up through the soil – heralding a glorious spring to come,
Or an artist in front of a blank canvas picking up her paintbrush.
Or perhaps the frantic squirrels burying and reburying acorns and beechnuts – hoping that they will remember exactly where!
Hope is possibly the new vaccine on the horizon which will begin the process of healing for populations around the world.
Hope might be about the reentry of this country into international organizations which tackle common problems like food insecurity, economic inequity and climate change.
What about the cry of a newborn baby or the peaceful protest of black & brown voices, or noisy sparrows at the feeder outside my window,
Or just knowing the certainty of the monarch butterfly’s return migration?
Hope may be the promise of forgiveness in our hearts of all whose families have been torn apart by political rancor and violence.
Sometimes hope is as elusive as whisps of clouds signaling rain in parched lands or as determined as the belief our team can and will win the game.
Or it can be the reaction we have to a wonderous piece of music, the example of a stroke patient learning to walk again, or to the amazing feat of a rock climber on Half Dome.
Hope, like faith, is what we hold onto in times of trouble, … those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles. Isaiah 40:31
And hope can be found in the story of a child born in a humble manger during very turbulent times over two thousand years ago.
Come, Lord Jesus. Come in hope. Amen.