Sunday, November 27, 2005

Advent 1: The Surprise You Know Is Coming

Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

It’s wonderful to worship with you again at Park View.
2 weeks ago we worshiped with Mennonites in Weierhof, Germany.
Rachel Whitmer sat with us,
and translated part of what was going on.
We celebrated communion.
That needed no translation.
Last Sunday we worshiped with the Swiss Reformed
at the Grossmünster in Zürich, Switzerland.
The liturgy was also in German, and a Reformed pastor friend,
Peter Dettwiler sat with us to translate.
In that service, we witnessed an infant baptism.
The baby girl being baptized was a twin,
whose twin sister died soon after birth.
We were deeply moved as we watched the parents,
while the pastor applied water to the baby’s head.
We could see how much this meant to them.
And I had to think, almost 500 years ago,
Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel tried to convince
the pastor of that same church, Ulrich Zwingli,
to stop baptizing babies.
But the pastor wouldn’t go against city council.
So the men baptized each other as adult believers,
and an Anabaptist, free-church movement began.

After the service last Sunday, Peter Dettwiler walked with us
down to the Limmat River, and he pointed out the spot
where his own church, in 1527,
took Felix Manz out to a fishing platform
in the middle of the river,
tied him up in a crouched position,
with a stick under his knees and over his shoulders,
and threw him in the river to drown.
Five other Anabaptists were drowned from the same platform
during the next five years,
and persecution by Swiss reformers continued for decades.
The last Anabaptist martyr in Zürich was Hans Landis,
my great-grandfather, 11-times-great.
Hans was a 70-year-old preacher and farmer,
who refused to hand over his farm and leave the area.
On Sept. 29, 1614, my great-great-great...and so on...grandfather
was beheaded in a prison just a few blocks
from where we stood last Sunday morning.

Last summer, a marble marker was placed there by the river,
which included the names of Felix Manz, and my ancestor.
The president of the Reformed Church in Zurich,
read a statement to a group of Swiss Mennonites,
and other Amish and Mennonite representatives,
confessing that their forefathers were in error,
and that the persecution was a betrayal of the Gospel.
Reconciliation has begun. And it continues.
I thank God for the courage of the Anabaptists to resist.
And I thank God for the Swiss Reformed Church of today.
I can’t tell you how much it meant to be there last Sunday,
to see with my own eyes where my ancestors were persecuted,
and then to worship in the church of their persecutors,
and feel such a kinship of spirit with them,
even if they still do baptism differently.

On my office door today, if you want to take a look at it,
is a picture I took last Sunday morning,
with the marker in the foreground,
the Grossmunster in the background, and the river in between.

Now what’s the point of talking about all this,
at the beginning of my sermon on the first Sunday of Advent?
Other than the fact that I’d love to spend the whole 20 minutes
talking about our trip to Europe...
But you came to hear a sermon, so I won’t.

Actually, it does connect, and without much of a stretch.
This Advent, through our worship and scripture reading,
we will proclaim, over and over,
that God’s purposes are sure.
That, like a flower that pushes itself out of the hard earth,
with unstoppable strength, and with tenderness,
God’s purposes will be fulfilled.
The flower for this Sunday is a crocus.
A flower that always surprises.
Catches me off-guard every year,
when, before spring actually arrives,
when the air is still cool,
it pokes itself out of the hard cold ground.
Delicate, tender, yet incredibly strong.
It’s the surprise we knew was coming.
It’s a surprising, yet predictable reminder
that God’s purposes, just like the forces of life in the spring,
are unstoppable.
They are sure.
In the winter of human suffering and distress, God is sure to act,
with tenderness and strength, just like the crocus.

The church, at the beginning of the 16th century,
was ready to come out of a long winter.
The Reformation that was sweeping through Europe,
was long overdue.
The church was in a deep freeze for all kinds of reasons,
but the bottom line was,
it had become enmeshed with the powers of the world,
and had on its side incredible wealth and political sway,
as well as the power of the sword, to enforce its own will.
And that power had corrupted it.
It had lost its identity as God’s called-out people.
God had a purpose for the church.
And that purpose was not being fulfilled.
It was being stymied.
But God’s purposes are sure. They are unstoppable.

The Reformation that Zwingli brought to Zurich was needed,
and, I believe, Spirit-led.
Zwingli is rightfully honored and remembered in that town,
for his courage and conviction and commitment to scripture.
Manz, Grebel, Blaurock, and other left-wing reformers in Zurich,
were also, I believe, Spirit-led and courageous.
The Anabaptist movement they launched in Switzerland,
which later consolidated with other free-church movements
in Germany and Holland,
was also, I believe, Spirit-led and courageous.
All over Europe, there were surprising crocus buds of new life,
emerging from the frozen soil of the church.
Those buds took different forms.
None of them were perfect.
There were shadow sides to all these movements,
including the Anabaptists.
In fact, the Reformed Church in the Canton of Zurich
is still tied closely to the powers of the state.
The city still collects a church tax,
and pays most of the salary of the pastors,
and exercises at least some degree of control.
And Mennonites today, are still being tempted
by the powers of wealth and the sword.
To this day, the Gospel is still being compromised,
by Swiss Reformed, by Mennonites,
and by any other Christian group you could name.

But nevertheless, God’s purposes are sure.
God is sure to heal, to restore, to bring peace & shalom.
God desires
obedience to his will revealed in scripture,
loyalty to God’s kingdom over the kingdoms of the world,
the breaking down of walls that separate,
the healing of enmity,
forgiveness,
reconciliation.
And God is sure to act, often in surprising ways,
to bring these things about.

During our 2 weeks in Europe,
I saw a variety of signs that God is still “working his purpose out,
as year succeeds to year,” to quote the hymn-writer.
People and churches are still being reformed, slowly.
But sometimes so slowly, it cannot be perceived.

Sometimes, God’s purposes seem so remote from our human experience,
that we can only conclude that God must have completely given up.
That God is deaf to our plight.
That God is silent in response to our cries.

That was the situation with the people of Israel,
that produced this agonizing prayer
we heard from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 64.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence!”
O that you would get fed up
with the way things are down here on earth,
that you would get so furious with evil,
that you would say, “I can’t take it any more,”
that you would just rip open the heavens, tear the sky in two,
and come down here and shake things up . . .
make the very mountains shake.
That was Isaiah’s prayer—for a God who acts decisively.
Who intervenes in this messy world.
Who brings an end to all injustice and evil and human suffering.
Probably all of us have prayed a prayer like Isaiah’s
at one time or another.
When we got fed up with the way things are in the world.

When we are in the dead of winter, so to speak,
when true, abundant life, seems to be in a deep freeze,
it’s not so hard to know how to pray.
We pray for a thaw.
We pray for the light and life and warmth of God
to break through.
In the winter of our discontent
(to steal a phrase from John Steinbeck),
we pray like Isaiah:
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
The issue isn’t knowing how to pray in the winter.
It’s knowing how to live.
Because sometimes, the winter lingers long.
So how do we live when the God we pray to falls silent?

It’s actually in the prayer of Isaiah,
that we get a clue about how to live.
It’s not only despair that comes through in the prayer.
It’s also hope and expectancy.
Isaiah lays out his bitter complaint,
“you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” – v. 7
And in virtually the same breath,
he reminds God of his great faithfulness.
“There is no God like you, since the beginning of the age,
no God has worked for his people, like you have.
You meet those who seek you.” – vv. 4-5.

With both expectancy and despair,
Isaiah prays to a God who he knows will come,
and yet who will come as a surprise.

This attitude toward life in the winter,
is precisely what this morning’s Gospel reading was about.
In Mark 13, beginning in v. 24, we heard a great speech of Jesus,
where he said, in those days, it will be a deep winter.
“The sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light.
From the lesson of the fig tree, Jesus said,
we know the signs that winter is over.
The branch gets tender, it starts pushing out leaves.
It’s something we can be sure of. We know the weather will change.
“But about that day or hour no one knows,
neither the angels, nor the Son of Man.”

So how do we live in the winter—
the winter that we know will someday be over,
but we don’t know when—
Here’s the advice of Jesus:
“Beware, keep alert...keep awake—
for you do not know when the master of the house will come,
in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,
or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.
And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
The end of the winter, the restoration of life,
the salvation of our God,
is the surprise we know is coming.

A couple months ago, our three daughters threw a surprise party,
for our 25th wedding anniversary.
For me, since someone inadvertently let some information slip,
it was a surprise I knew was coming.
In this case, all I knew was the time and location.
I didn’t really know what was going to happen.
But you can be sure, knowing what I did.
That I lived with a little more attentiveness,
than I would have had otherwise.
I kept my antenna up for clues.
I was alert, and awake.
But when it came, I think I was just as surprised at what they did,
as Irene was, who hadn’t heard a thing.
I knew it was coming, but was surprised when it did.

That’s not unlike the way it is with God’s work in this wintry world.
We know God’s purpose is to heal, to restore, to bring life.
We just don’t know much
about the how, when, and where of it all.
God’s ways are far greater than our ways.
So as a result, we live with an expectancy,
that just around the corner,
God might be up to something.
But if we’re sleepwalking, we’re going to miss it.

Advent is the season of the year,
that we encourage each other to wake up from our stupor.
God is about to do something.
God is sure to act.
As sure as the crocus pokes itself out of the ground,
when we’re not expecting it.

Advent is a time to remind each other
to live life on the edge of our seats,
to live life with eyes wide open.

It’s a time of year, that despite what our consumeristic culture tells us,
there are more important things on our agenda
than getting all our Christmas shopping done in time,
and hitting the right stores at the right time,
and working long hours at home to make sure
the decorations are stunning,
and the tree lights are flashing,
and the turkey is well-done.

Living attentively in the winter,
might mean spending time just sitting and talking with our children,
or having coffee or tea with a neighbor,
or reading the news with quiet prayer in our hearts,
instead of merely shaking our heads at the latest news
from Iraq and Colombia and Sudan.
It might mean taking a real interest in the way people
on the fringes of our community experience Christmas.
It might mean, that to make the best use of the little time we have,
we spend more time in quiet meditation,
rather than less.

God is sure to act, in tenderness and strength.
God is sure to surprise.
But it’s a surprise that attentive people can see coming.

God will come to us again, as surely as Jesus, at the first Advent,
“came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
when half-spent was the night.”

Let us sing together hymn #211.
—Phil Kniss, November 27, 2005

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