Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent, "The Time In-Between"

Sermon 12/6/09, Luke 3:1-6

The Time In-Between


As a child, I considered there to be two important seasons in my year. The season of Christmas, of course. And the season for summer camp. I grew up attending Camp Aldersgate every year – the counterpart to Casowasco, located in the foothills of the Adirondacks. I watched my big brother head to camp every summer with acute jealousy, until I was finally old enough to attend myself. I *loved* it, every part of it. I could attend camp for just one short week during each summer, until I was older and finally could afford to pay for a second week on my own, and eventually even work on staff. But as a child, all my longing for camping season was rewarded with one too-short week of camp. So I had to turn my energy, my love of camp, into something that would last me a little longer. Waiting for my week at camp was a period that lasted from sometime in late January all the way until the week itself in July or August. I didn’t wait idly. First, I waited for the camp brochure to arrive – usually in by the middle of February. I would scour the brochure for a few weeks, debating back and forth over which camp to attend. There were certainly fewer choices then than now, but I still occupied a lot of time choosing between swim camp and creative arts, an on-site camp or an adventure camp in the wilderness. Then, I would start making lists. I would make lists of what I needed to pack, focusing on what outfits to wear, complete with ideas on how to coordinate clothing, what shoes to go with said outfit, and of course, how to accessorize. By May, I was seriously already starting to pack. I would have a small bag or two in tucked away in my closet with items for camp already folded and sorted and ready to go. I would eventually do my shopping for camp, a sure sign that my waiting was almost over. And then, after the hour-long car ride that seemed like an eternity, I would finally be at camp again, for 6 short days, where lifelong friendships could be made in time that always seemed to short.

We’re talking about time, this Advent, and this week we’re thinking about “the time in-between.” If Christmas is what we’re waiting for, with the coming of the Christ-Child, what do we do with the time in-between now and then? We certainly must wait – we can’t make the time go any faster or slower than it will. But you can certainly spend the time in-between now and then in ways that will prepare you better (or not) for Jesus’ coming, that will enrich (or not) your experience of God at work in your lives this Christmas. So, how are we waiting? How are we preparing in this time in-between? How are you getting ready for Christmas?

When we talk about preparation in the church, preparation for Advent, preparation for the birth of the Christ-child, it turns out that this process of preparing isn't so different from the way we would prepare for the birth of a baby anyway. Think about all the things that you do to get ready for a child. Of course, we might immediately think of the baby showers, the diapers and the cribs and strollers and bibs that need to be purchased. But of course, we know that preparing for a baby involves much more than that. Those are just the surface matters, the material ways that we have to get ready for a baby to live in our midst.

At a deeper level, we have to prepare in other ways for a baby to come. Getting ready for a baby might require a change in lifestyle. If a parent smokes or drinks, these are habits that will probably change for the health of the child. A mother is more careful of what and how she eats, because what she does will affect the baby. The family must make sure that the home is ready for a baby, that the house and rooms are safe for someone who cannot judge for themselves, that there is a space, a room, for the newborn. The mother goes to the doctor to check and see how the baby is growing, if the baby is healthy. The family might outline an emergency plan, so that everything is ready when the moment comes. Parental leave must be arranged from work, child care plans are negotiated, health insurance is calculated. A family expecting a child has to determine how the finances will change once a new person is added to the household. Finally, more attention is given to another human life than is given to one's own life. All of these concerns have to be measured, planned, calculated, determined, well in advance of the actual birth of the child. They don't work out as well when planned last-minute. In between confirming a pregnancy and delivering a health baby, nine months of waiting take place. But it’s busy waiting, because the arriving newborn will depend completely and entirely on others for his or her very life.

In the same way, we can prepare for the Christ-child on many levels during this season of Advent. There are the surface things - and they are important, just as the basics of buying baby clothes are important. Our shopping, our parties, our caroling - these things truly are important for Christmas. We feel the community, the fellowship that comes from being together. We certainly don't shop only because we are consumers, but because we truly do love to give to others. These parts of preparing for Christmas aren't to be neglected. But like with a newborn, preparing for Christmas hopefully involves deeper levels, deeper life-changes if we are truly to be prepared, if we are truly to use the in-between time wisely.

John the Baptist, cousin to Jesus, wanted people to ready themselves for the coming of the Messiah. John wasn’t even sure himself who exactly the Messiah would be until he laid eyes on him, until he confirmed for himself that Jesus was the one. Later in the gospel, he even sends his disciples to Jesus while he is already in prison to make sure that Jesus is the one. But John believed the Messiah was coming, and believed that he needed to prepare for the arrival, and believed that others would need to prepare as well. John believed that preparation meant repentance – he called on people to repent and be forgiven for their sinfulness. He didn’t think people should just sit around waiting for the Messiah to show up – he believed that while they were waiting, people had some serious work to do. I’ve explained before that repentance means a changing of the direction of the mind – a turning around of your life so that you are leaving the path you are on and taking a new course, a new direction, that goes in the direction that God is going with you.

Repentance means we need to identify how we’re off course – identify our sinfulness – ask God for forgiveness from our sins – and get on the right path, no longer engaging in those actions or inactions that have led us on a different course than God. Sin has a pretty simple and clear but compelling definition –sin is being disobedient to God. When we disobey God, we’re sinning. That’s pretty simple, and perhaps we’re thinking that we know at least that much already. But I’m not sure we’re letting the magnitude of such a definition sink in.

If sinning is simply disobeying God, then that means that I sin every time I don’t do something God wants me to do. That makes sinfulness a lot more complicated then just breaking a standard list of thou-shall-nots. It means that if God is challenging us, calling us to go where we’re not ready to go, and we say no, or not right now, or I’ve got a different plan, we’re being sinful. And it means that sin for you and sin for me might not always look exactly the same. It means that the very same actions or inactions may not always have the same consequences for us. What is most sinful for me to do might be something very different than what is most sinful for you to do. That goes a little bit against our impulses as Americans who pride ourselves on our love of equality. It sounds awfully unfair to us at first, to think that God has different expectations for each one of us. But actually, I think it is a gift to us. God, who in love for us created each one of us as unique and precious individuals, this God takes the care to have specific hopes and dreams for each one of us. God knows us enough to want something special and specific for and from each one of us. So, what God wants from you and from me will never be exactly the same, just as what God gives to you and to me will never be exactly the same. What is the same is that God gives the same unconditional love to all of us, and hopes for the same complete commitment from all of us.

So John was calling for repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and Luke tells us that John called for repentance as a sign of preparation, as a way of getting ready for something that was about to happen – the coming of the Lord, the time when all people would see and experience God’s salvation. Advent is a time of preparation, and so it is a time for repentance. It is the perfect time for us to examine our lives, see where we have been sinful, disobedient, and commit to turning in God’s direction.

Christmas is just 19 days away now. What are you doing to prepare in-between now and then? Have any of you seen the movie Stranger Than Fiction? This movie is all about what you do in-between. The basic premise: Will Farrell plays a straight-laced IRS agent who finds that his life is being narrated by some voice, and the voice says his death is just around the corner. He tries to find the author and persuade her not to write his death. But when she doesn’t take him seriously, he starts to begin to live differently - in a way that the voice doesn't predict – while he is waiting for his predicted death to happen to him. The narration of his life makes him realize how mundane and unsatisfying his life has been so far, and he tries to outsmart the narration by living how he’s never lived before, living to the full. Once Farrell’s character changes what he’s doing in the time in-between, while waiting for his tragic end, he actually changes the direction his life is headed. The film has a basic message of 'carpe diem - seize the day.' Stop putting things off and start living the life you’ve been meaning to live now. It isn't necessarily a profound message or a new one, but I guess like all such life lessons, we need to keep hearing it until we're living it.

An article in Relevant magazine, a favorite of mine, a magazine for twenty/thirty-something Christians that I really enjoy – posed a similar challenge in an article that asked, "what are you waiting for until you really start you life?" What excuse do you keep putting out to yourself or to others that goes like this: "I'll get around to [the thing I'm really called to be doing/meant to be doing/passionate about/convicted about doing] as soon as [this other life thing happens/falls into place/gets settled.]" I'm very guilty of this. I'm very guilty of saying to myself that I'll start doing things the way I think I really should be after I go back to school someday, or once I have more money, or when things in my life feel more settled, or even just after the new year. The point is - what are you waiting for? This is it already - this is your life. It has already started, is already well underway, and if you keep waiting for the perfect time to act, your life will be well over before you get anywhere. If you are waiting for something to happen, consider that the time in-between now and then is just as important, can be just as life-changing, as whatever it is you are waiting for.

Advent is a time of preparation. The time to prepare is now because the coming of the Christ-Child is so very close – the kingdom of God is already near, already here! What other time are you planning to use to prepare? What are you waiting for to repent? How long will you travel down a road you know is not the road God’s calling you to before you will turn around? Or how long will you simply live at a stand-still, doing the same things in the same way, waiting for some day that’s never coming to get started doing what you’re really meant to be doing? Whatever you’re waiting for, in this in-between time, the message from John, the message of Advent is that the time is here already. Prepare now for God’s coming, because this is it.

In the first year of the Presidency of Barack Obama, when Paterson was governor of New York, and Schumer and Gillibrand were Senators, and when Danny Liedka was mayor of East Syracuse, during the time when Beth was pastor, the word of God came to the people of the First United Church. And they went out into all the regions, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Prepare the way of the Lord.

Amen.

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