Welcome to our weekly updated Worship Resources section. Here you can find helpful links for virtual worship.
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On Sunday, the sermon will also appear below so that you can read or listen at your leisure.
Present Prophecy – Linda+
Advent 2 Year B 6 December 2020 Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8
Was John the Baptist the last prophet, or the first evangelist? Yes. The writer of Mark’s Gospel begins, not with shepherds, magi, and a manger, but with the resounding liminal presence of one who stands on the threshold of fulfillment of God’s promise to Creation. John the Baptizer evokes the foundational prophetic tradition, appearing as a wild specter of Elijah, dressed in camel hair and subsisting on locusts and honey, preaching repentance of sins. Mark reminds us of the words of Isaiah; a messenger from the wilderness, crying out,
“…prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
John the Baptizer harkens backward to the prophets while pointing forward to Jesus: Repent. Prepare. Something new is coming. Wake up. Good News, Good News, Good News. Prophet and evangelist, old and new, linking past and future.
We often think of prophets as predictors of the future, but that’s not a complete picture. The idea of touting prophecy as a foreteller of future events was actually a way of reinforcing something more important: the call of the present moment, the call to repent, to turn away from systems of injustice or complicity or idol worship, lest the judgment of God be passed upon the people of God. So when calamity struck Israel, as it did in 597 B.C.E. with the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile that followed, the prophets’ words became, not just a call to the people to heed their current situation, but also a predictor of future events: “See? Disaster has befallen us just as Isaiah predicted!” That’s the sexy bit—the idea that certain people can look ahead and tell us what will happen. Somehow it’s easier to ponder and contemplate and speculate about whether prophecy is right or wrong than it is to actually listen to what the prophets are saying and then do the hard work of healing and justice.
The reason the writers of the Gospels so often cited the prophets was not just because the prophets lent them credibility by imaging God’s future actions, but because they recognized a commonality and solidarity with the past. The Gospel writers recognized that the people of their history had stood at similar thresholds—meeting crises of war, famine, occupation, exile. And how they responded to those crises mattered to their future as the people of God.
Mark the Evangelist knew that invoking Second Isaiah would have an impact on his audience. While First Isaiah, written in the 8th century B.C.E., had warned the people of the consequences of their idol worship and turning from God—a warning that went unheeded, ultimately to their downfall–Second Isaiah spoke to the people two centuries later, during the Babylonian exile. And this time, for a change, God spoke words, not of warning, but of comfort. This was because the people were at a different kind of threshold from the ones they had encountered before. They spent a generation in Babylon without their home or their Temple. They had to find, in their new circumstances, a way to get along from day to day in a new country and culture. They had to learn new ways to worship and live their faith as people of God in a foreign land. They were struggling with what it was like to be in a New Normal. They needed reassurance—to know that God was still with them.
“Comfort, O comfort my people…she has served her term…her penalty is paid…”
“The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”
Thank God. This time of struggle is temporary—we will get through it, somehow.
The prophet speaks of a God of both strength and gentleness; of a God who can lift valleys even as he carries his flock gently in his arms. The prophet speaks God’s hopeful promise of deliverance; coming in might yet feeding his flock like a shepherd. Comforting God’s people. But comfort is not to be equated with complacency.
“A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I say?’”
Cry out deliverance! Cry out that God is near! Cry out hope! And John the Baptizer does just that. Good News! The Messiah is here among us! The world is changing! The Holy Spirit is on the move! Wake up! Prophet and Evangelist. We don’t have to wear camel hair and eat locusts and wild honey to be either of these things. Or both. Cry out!
What shall we say? How shall we proclaim the might and grace of our God to a world consumed by sickness and fear; to a country riven by division and failure of political will, hungering for justice, compassion and healing? Because make no mistake, in this Advent season we are being called to be prophets and evangelists, crying out for world-turning change and proclaiming the now-and-not-yet of the Dream of God for all of Creation.
That’s a tall order. How dare the Gospel make such demands when we are dealing with so much, when we are trying to find a way to get along day to day, trying to learn new ways of worship and live our faith as people of God in what feels like foreign land of masks and social distance? When we are struggling with what it is like to be in a New Normal? How dare the Gospel make such demands upon a people in exile from our lives of ten months ago? How do we begin to meet such a challenge? By facing it, naming it, and trusting in God’s paradoxical mountain-leveling strength and shepherd-like lovingkindness. Hear the words of Bishop Steven Charleston:
Sometimes prophecy is pragmatism dressed up for church. And that is not always a bad thing. Take our current situation, for example. It doesn’t take a mystic to determine three things: we are in a bad way on many fronts, things will not get better right away, and the only way forward is together in faith. These statements are just facts. They pragmatically describe our context… But notice one other thing: this down to earth, common sense, give it to me straight approach releases a deep fountain of spiritual strength in us. …There is prophecy here because we now understand what we are up against and what we have to do. Prophetically, the future is not ours to see, but pragmatically it will be what we make it.
The people of God have been in exile before, and they learned that they would be changed by it. It is no different today. Like ancient Israel, like the first century Mediterranean world, we shall be changed by where we are now, and it remains to us to decide what our future will look like. And then, with God’s help, to make it so.
Welcome to our new, weekly updated Worship Resources section. Here you can find helpful links for things you might like to have during virtual worship.
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On Sunday, the sermon will also appear below so that you can read it at your leisure.
Advent 1: Stuck in the Clouds – Mark+
Advent is my favorite season. There is something about the shortening of the days as, in the Northern Hemisphere, the earth cycles away from the face of the sun, the weather cools, and the days shorten and darken. Within this natural process something is awakened in us – a kindling of light to compensate for the shortening and darkening of days. This kindling of light finds symbolic expression in the candles of the Advent Wreath. Each of the four weeks of the Advent Season are represented by another lit candle. Despite the darkening and shortening of days, the kindling of light within is an anticipation for and an expression of the hopeful expectation of the greater light of God’s promise to restore creation in a new heaven and a new earth.
Advent is my favorite season in the cycle of the Church’s year. The music is haunting, the rich purple or in some churches blue of the liturgical season chimes so perfectly with the outer world imbued with somber light. The atmosphere of expectation increases as each day we open another window in the Advent Calendar magnetized to the fridge door or pinned to the wall.
Advent’s theme is one of hopeful expectation. Although our gaze focuses forwards our immediate experience is one of waiting and, while we wait, we prepare.
The focus of my exploration on this first Sunday of Advent is a question with two parts: what is it we are waiting for and why is it we are still waiting? But before I respond to this question I need to note that our 2020 Advent experience will be changed in this time of pandemic.
This Advent we will have to explore our experience of expectation, waiting, and preparation without the supports of in-person worship. For us, this year, the kindling of inner light each Sunday with another candle lit on the Advent Wreath, along with hearing the haunting melodies of Advent music against the background of the somber purple of the Church’s vestments and hangings – will be a virtual experience.
We are more equipped for this than we might think. Many aspects of our lives are now conducted from the terminals of our computers or viewed, as our Advent worship will be, through the media of livestream through your YouTube app on your TV. We human beings are social creatures and of course we badly miss the social gathering aspects of worship. At St Martin’s we have been fortunate enough to have prepared for this eventuality over the spring and summer months through equipping the church for HD streaming.
As part of the process of preparation, Linda+ and I have also had time to reflect on the pandemic’s implications for the theology that underpins our Eucharistic liturgy. We have found our way to reclaiming an older strand of Eucharistic theology – one that stresses physical participation less than participation through our senses of sight and hearing. With each week we continue to learn from our experience in honing the performance of our liturgy to better fit a virtual experience.
On this Advent Sunday, I give thanks to God for his loving providence towards us at St Martin’s. For among the resources that have allowed us to prepare for the challenges of the winter ahead, we have been blessed to have among us the technical skills particularly of Ian Tulungen, David Brookhart, and Emma Marion – our technical production crew – who, together with the adaptive skills of our musicians – Gabe Alfieri, Steve Young, Lori Istok, Amanda Neves, Jacob Chippo, and Glenn Zienowicz – enable us to open our liturgy to our members viewing from home and also so many others who are drawn to worship with us online.
But I’ve avoided the two part question I posed earlier long enough: what is it we are waiting for and why is it we are still waiting? The answer is too large and complex for one sermon and I trust that the essential elements of addressing the question will emerge over the next 3 Sundays.
Our readings point to the experience of waiting for the fulfillment of a promise. When fulfillment is delayed we experience the anguish of frustrated longing that overshadows the hope within us. Writing in the time after the return of the exiles from the 70 years of captivity in Babylon, the prophet Isaiah – remember this Isaiah is the third by his name, laments that, despite the exiles’ return and the hopes of a glorious restoration of the nation, the pallor of exile still hangs heavy over the people causing the prophet to cry out:
In other words, Isaiah cries out to God: why do you remain far from us, up there in the heavens, aloof and distant, can’t you see the mess we are in, understand the help we need – an accusation – why have you not yet rescued us?In the midsts of an earth changing pandemic this ancient accusation finds a deep resonance in us. The prophet’s cry alerts us to a central theological strand in Advent, one not often talked about, a strand which is more easily avoided in better times. At the heart of Advent is the painful experience of waiting. Waiting is the hardest thing we ever have to endure because waiting is an experience of helplessness.
In Advent we await with the eye of faith what we know to be God’s promise of restoration for the world, a hopeful expectation that God will finally put the wrongs to rights. In the infant Jesus – God the Creator comes to dwell among us within the tent of Creation.
But the problem for us lies in our experience of the nature of time. In God’s coming to dwell within the tent of humanity, divinity emptying into the life of Jesus, God opens a new and crucial chapter in the long story of Creation. To our dismay the chapter is not yet complete, as we groan with painful longing for its finalization, which the scriptures talk of as a second coming or return.
Third Isaiah’s question, after all this time, and despite the Advent of the Incarnation, remains our painful question too. When O God will you tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains will quake and the nations tremble at your presence? For Christians this question becomes: when O God will Jesus return clothed in the vibrant metaphor of descending clouds of glory?
When indeed? Jesus himself seems to offer little comfort in Mark, when he reaffirms the enigma of time. He tells us that we will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds, but about that day or hour no one knows, so keep awake.
I guess the next question is: what does it look like to keep awake? We will have to return to this next time. So for now let’s simply say, Amen.