Preparations for Christmas begin every year at this time. The season is called Advent, which means Coming. During this season we are to wait and watch and look for signs of the coming of God. We look for signs of Jesus – incarnation – God taking on flesh.
And every year whether the lectionary bible passage is from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, we get a passage that has nothing to do with babies being born, or hanging the mistletoe, or decorating the house, or singing Christmas carols, or love, peace, hope or joy.
Every year we get a passage that describes Jesus foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus lamenting the coming cataclysm – people fleeing, captives being taken. And the horrors on the earth are mirrored by distress in the heavens and the whole environment is shaken and stirred.
The fig tree is an example – take a look around and see the signs… “The times, they are a changin’” as Bob Dylan reminded us 50 years ago.
Every year Jesus exhorts his disciples to “Be on guard!” “Stay awake!” “Pay attention!”
Jesus tells it like it is! Can’t help but focus on the horrors. Indeed it seems, at times, as if the whole world is being shaken and stirred; cataclysm abound, destruction seems at the gate: ISIS, Syrian refugees, global warming, campus unrest, a crazed man in Colorado, candidates spouting hate and ignorance (and I won’t name names because I will get in trouble – but you know who I am talking about!)
Perhaps it is our generation, our time when all will be unraveled.
We look at our own lives and relationships and are aware of distress, disease, unrest – horrors, but we are aware of rumbles and rifts and tension; change can be overwhelming.
And pundits and preachers decry the fall of Western Civilization, of Christendom, of education, even the end of the world!
But here is the thing. When we give into the false fear thinking that our time is especially bad, or our generation is “the greatest” or “the worst,” or when we despair about our own lives, thinking there is no hope, we fall into the “trap” that Jesus talks about. It is the common temptation that Jesus prays for all to be led away from; it is the reflection of the original sin of Adam – who in his narcissism thinks that he can do it alone without God, that he is the center of it all.
We focus on the end of the world and the unrest, but Jesus says, “Stand up and raise your heads! For the Son of Man is coming!” It is not the end but a beginning that Jesus foresees.
It is not death to be feared, but birth to be preparing for. Whatever unrest you are going through, whatever cataclysm we are collectively experiencing, these are the birth pangs of a new age. Don’t fall into the trap of nostalgia or try to hold on to something whose time has passed.
Birth – physical or metaphorical – never happens without stress, and pain, and discomfort. The old order is passing and something new is screaming for its first breath, forcing its way into life. No pain, no gain. No change, no future.
So it makes me think that on this first week in Advent, we should quit wringing our hands in despair and start asking: How can we, how do we, get into alignment with God’s desire for a new world? It is not hand-wringing time, it is stand up and be counted time, it is lifting of head time, it is letting things go time and using a little imagination!
This is true for your personal life, as well as our corporate life as church, and certainly as a nation. Stress is a sign of new life. Maybe you are in labor, trying to give birth, and your deep pain, and yearning, and dis-ease are indications that something is happening. You may never be the same! So pay attention!
This passage is deeply agitating and also deeply exciting. I feel like Tony in “West Side Story” “Could be, who knows, there’s something just out or reach, down the block, on the beach… something’s coming.” And yes, that wonderful musical ends in death, but it is really about love and life. One could say the same thing about the Christian story that begins in Bethlehem and ends….well, really begins… at the tomb!
It really happens – ending and beginnings and birth pangs – it happens all the time. Just in our own congregation’s history, we’ve seen disruption and new birth. In 1970 Forest Hill Church called a young, smart, activist preacher, Ned Edwards, and immediately after his call, 35 families left – 35 pledging units; that would be devastating. And within 15 years, not because of Ned, but because of racial tensions and community upheavals, we lost half our members. But it made Forest Hill Church became what we are today.
So….do we have the courage to lose another 35 families by aligning ourselves with some great purpose that will shake and stir us?
Now not nearly as cataclysmic as the 70’s…. but in the 1990’s we called a very talented Associate Pastor, Beth Herrington-Hodge who gave us 5 years of good ministry. I began to feel that Beth needed to leave. It was not without tension. There were hurt feelings and a couple of families left the church. That whole episode still “gets to me” sometimes. But from that shake-up we called a vision group together that changed the job description and called Clover Beal. Who knew, that from the tension, we would birth a whole new vision for ministry?
And then about 5 years ago or so – due to deaths, moving and retirement – we found ourselves in a $50,000 hole. So we started slicing and dicing the budget, but from that unrest, our leaders envisioned a new way, a way that reclaimed our mission and values and gave us the most successful Stewardship campaign in our history!
And now we are at another crossroads, facing a new staff challenge, and so it is time to take stock and align ourselves with something courageous, life changing, even a little dangerous and unsettling.
But it means letting things go, and holding things loosely and giving up power to those who might really shake things up.
I don’t know what it looks like. The Session is currently discerning: what are the signs, where is the tension? How does this church bend towards the beginning of something new? What are we giving birth to? We might not know until we have squirming baby in our hands.
Shaken and stirred. Stay in the tension as long as possible – pay attention to your own life this Advent. Read the signs of your own life and don’t do anything too quickly. For the Son of Man is coming and you will see the kingdom of God come near. The baby will be born when it is time.