Comfort, Comfort Ye My People

Rev. Sarah Buteux                                                                                                           
December 1, 2013
Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44

You can also watch and listen to the sermon here and on our Youtube page.

Note: Rev. Sarah will be leaving First Church of Hadley at the end of January. We've included her opening words to the congregation to give today's sermon more context.
Advent wreath words

By now many of you know that I will be stepping down as your pastor at the end of January. Not today, but at the end of January. There are extra copies of our newsletter in the back, for anyone who hasn’t yet seen it, if you want to read my official letter of resignation.  And I am truly sorry if you are hearing this for the first time right now because I know it is not easy news to hear. And yet as we gather around this Advent wreath, I think there is something right and holy about sharing this news and this moment right here and now with all of you, because Advent is actually all about new beginnings.  It is here, on this day, four Sundays before Christmas, that the new church year is set in motion.
 

You might think it would begin on January 1st, or December 25th or even December 22, at a moment we could adequately describe as a fresh start; a time when we could say, “yes, it’s dark, but look; starting today the days will get longer, or Christ has been born, or God makes all things new.” But no, Advent begins while the world is still dark and for all intents and purposes only getting darker. Advent begins while the world is still cold and for all intents and purposes only getting colder.
Advent begins with a deep awareness that something is not right, that something needs to change, that we need God now more than ever to break into our darkness and break through our cold to find us, give us hope, and bring us life.
In our church, I have often asked people to stand here each Advent, light these candles, and speak about where in the world they would pray for God’s hope or peace or joy or love to be felt. But today I have chosen to stand here myself, because I want to light this candle of Hope for you. In the midst of whatever darkness or uncertainty my news might bring, I want to remind you that your hope has never rested on me. Your hope is in the Lord. And though I may be leaving, you need not fear, for your Christ is coming. It is Christ you must look to. It is Christ who you need. And it is Christ who always has and always will be the one to lead you home.

To bring the word of God to the people of God on a day like today is not easy. I know that some of you have seen this coming for a while, but I imagine most of you are at least somewhat surprised by my decision to bring my time here as pastor to a close.

And whether you are surprised or not, I imagine that many of you are sitting here with a lot of questions swirling around in your heads. Questions like:

Why? Why go? Why now?
How? How can this be? How will this work?
What? What happened?
And, (perhaps most frightening of all…)
What happens now?

And I’m not going to be able to answer all of those questions this morning, if I’m ever really able to answer them at all.

There are many different ways to tell the story of our time here together  - what we’ve done well these past nine years… what we might have done better - and I want you to know that we will have time to do just that over the next few months.

There will be time to talk; around tables, at meals, and over tea. In fact, part of why I’ve chosen to leave now, rather than later, is because I think those conversations need to happen for the health and wellbeing of this church, and if I leave now I am still strong enough and fond enough of everyone in this congregation to have those conversations and have them well.

But for right now, the questions we really need to focus on are honestly not about me – what I am doing and why? – but about Jesus, our Immanuel - what he is doing and why?

Where is Jesus in all of this, for you and for me?

As we begin a new advent, a new year, a new chapter in our lives and the life of this church, where is Christ to be found in the midst of our loss, our uncertainty, these huge changes through which we are all about to live?

That is where we need to focus, and although our gospel reading for this morning might not hold all the answers, I think I can safely say that it at least takes questions such as these seriously.

As you may have already noticed, our reading for today is not an easy one.  The first readings for Advent never are.

We traditionally begin this season with references to Christ’s second coming; with little glimpses of the end of times and, as anyone with a fondness for apocalyptic literature can tell you – Katniss Everdeen aside – the end of the world as we know it is rarely pretty.

No, indeed, readings such as these are often violent, jarring, deeply unsettling… and intentionally so.

Here in Matthew, we’ve got reference to Noah’s flood – not a particularly bright moment in the history of humanity regardless of the number of children’s play sets this story has inspired.

We’ve got something akin to invasion of the body snatchers going on out in the fields and in the village square.

And, as if that weren’t freaky enough, we’ve got the Lord showing up not as some great hero to save the day and rescue the faithful, but as a thief!

A thief who might just break into your house and steal  - what exactly? I’m not really sure – but steal something if you’re not paying attention.

“So Keep Awake!” he says, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

I mean, Jesus Christ

“Where?!?!?!” (says the choir, sounding alarmed).
Exactly.

***

There’s a story in the “Frog and Toad” collection we have at home (anyone else know Frog and Toad?) a tale where Frog tells Toad a ghost story so they both can get the Shivers.

Well, this kind of writing is designed to do just that: give you the shivers, raise your blood pressure, put you on your guard.

The question is: why?

Why read something like this during Advent? What does the apocalypse have to do with Christmas? I mean, we’re all gearing up to go buy trees, roll out gingerbread, mull cider, and go a-caroling.

How does getting all freaked out about Jesus’ second coming in any way better prepare us for our perfectly precious, delightfully idyllic, deeply romanticized celebration of his first?

One of my favorite commentators, Jan Richardson, who blogs at The Advent Door, [1] has a possible answer. She writes:

It can be tempting to recoil from the imagery that this opening lection gives us: Christ as burglar, coworkers and companions left bereft, the anxiety of not knowing when or how the Word who became flesh for us will come again.

Yet the season of Advent challenges us to resist recoiling and instead to press into the insecurity and unsettledness of this passage—and of our (own) lives. Advent beckons us beyond the certainties that may not serve us—those sureties we have relied on that may have no substance to them after all.

Advent is a season to look at what we have fashioned our lives around—beliefs, habits, (traditions), prejudices (dare I add, maybe even pastors) —… to see whether these leave any room for the Christ who is so fond of slipping into our lives in guises we may not readily recognize.

Why treat us to visions of apocalypse now? Because sometimes you have to mess with people as they are in order to remind them of who they can truly be.

Because sometimes you have to mess with the world as it is to remind people that this isn’t all there is.

Because sometimes you have to shake things up if you want people to “wake up,” and that seems to be Jesus’ ultimate goal in this passage – waking people up – waking them up back then, waking us up right now.

Waking us all to the reality that the savior we want is rarely the savior that we need.

Jesus has never been one to fit neatly into any box, be it under the tree or anywhere else. Jesus never comes among us the way we would expect.  He didn’t the first time or the second or the seventy second or the seventy billion seven hundred and seventy second.

That is just not how he works.

This Jesus, our Jesus, is always on the move, re-appearing and re-shaping himself each and every time he appears, the better to reshape us all; reshape you and reshape me into people awake and alert to what he is up to, where he yet waits, and what he would have us do.

Reshape our lives - as painful and messy as that can sometimes be - lest we get swept up by that which does not matter, or swept away by that which cannot save.

***

I think at Christmas time, because we know the story of Jesus’ first coming so well and love it so deeply, that there is a temptation to domesticate him, to sentimentalize the story of Mary and Joseph and the little baby in the manger.

We know the script. We know the score.  We want Jesus to come take his place on the stage, hit his mark, be the gentle glowing light in the midst of our climate-controlled darkness.

We don’t really want to be surprised at Christmas.  We really just want everything to be like it’s supposed to be at Christmas.

(I mean how dare I make an announcement like this right before Christmas.)

I think maybe that’s the real reason we need Advent. I think maybe that’s why we need readings such as this one; need them to remind us that the Christ we long for is not now, never was, nor ever will be, a Christ we can control.

We’re not talking Burger King here: your way, right away. We’re talking about the King of Kings, and he’s the one in charge.

Our savior is not Ricky Bobby’s 8lb, 6 oz tiny baby Jesus, (Right? Anyone?) but something and someone altogether more; someone we cannot predict or even always understand, and yet hear me when I say he is still someone I believe we can trust.

And ultimately, that is the good news I hope to leave you with this morning. This Christ who changes, rearranges and upsets everything on his own schedule, in his own time, does so not only for his own good pleasure, but always and ever for the ultimate good of all.

You’re obviously not all fans of Talladega Nights, or Ricky Bobby would have rung a few more bells, but I trust that most of you are familiar with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, right?

Well then, maybe you’ll remember that scene between the Beavers and the children when the kids learn that Aslan is not a man but a lion:

"Is he -- quite safe?" Susan asks. "I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."

"That you will, dearie, and no mistake," replies Mrs. Beaver, "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else silly."

"Then he isn't safe?" Lucy asks.

To which Mr. Beaver responds, "Safe? Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."[2]

Friends, our Christ, the Christ of Christmas, the Christ whom we call both King and Lord, is anything but safe. He’s not safe at all, but he is good, and he is near. Our job is simply to remember that, trust in him, and remain open.

I wish I could offer you more. I wish I could stand up here and tell you what will happen in the days to come, but I honestly don’t know what’s ahead for you or for me.

I don’t know where Christ is leading this church any more than I know yet where I will be led. All I know is that he is the one I must follow and the one I trust you will follow too.

So let us lift our heads, keep awake, and be ready, always ready lest we be tempted to despair in the days ahead, tempted to believe in the midst of all this change that God has abandoned us, left us behind, or robbed us blind.

May we open our eyes the better to see him when he comes and follow where he leads, trusting come what may, in the goodness of this Jesus who changes everything.

Amen

[1] http://adventdoor.com/2010/11/21/where-advent-begins/

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1560 Thanks To David Lose for reminding me of this passage in reference to Matthew 24.