Saturday, February 22, 2020

What can we say December 6? Advent 2

  The first two weeks of Advent always intrigue, puzzle, buffalo and challenge me. I want to observe and invite my people into the realities of Advent. They aren’t entirely in a Christmasy mood just yet, so there’s hope. I sure want me preaching on the texts to help them angle themselves toward the coming of the Lord.

 {Check out my blog "God Became Small: Preaching Advent," with general observations on what it is to preach during Advent - with loads of illustrative material for the season}

   Psalm 85 is one of my favorite texts in any season. Verse 10 alone, to me, offers the most hopeful alternative to the hostile, angry, cynical world in which we find ourselves. A kiss: nothing tawdry or illicit here, but a tender kiss. The kiss: the gentlest affection. A mother kisses her newborn. I kissed my father’s forehead on my last visit before he died. It’s your mouth that kisses, the part of you that speaks, smiles, eats and drinks, takes in the body and blood of our Lord, the part of your body that sighs (think Romans 8!).

   This particular kiss is so counter-cultural, in its tenderness, in its compassion, in its hopefulness – but also in a world where ideology and spin will clobber one another in a nanosecond. Facts and biases fling mud at one another. But Scripture, here in Advent, suggest not winners and loser, or thumping foes, but a gentle kiss – after the meeting of the virtues and theological dreams we all harbor underneath all the rancor: it’s steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness (’emet) that in this lovely Psalm’s vision simply meet, not fighting, but looking, listening, open, anxious but hopeful. And then: it is righteousness (zedek) and peace (shalom) will kiss one another.

   What genius. What inspiration – and in a Psalm! The love, the commencement of a tender, ongoing relationship, between realities estranged from all of us, weirded out in our world, yet enduring, godly, holy, the dream of the ages. Steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness and peace, gathering, not distancing, but embracing, even kissing. If I see, witness, contemplate, and get absorbed into what this is all about, I am transformed. So are the people to whom I preach.

   Mark 1:1-8. Astonishing that the lectionary’s Mark simply skips over the birth. As if Christmas was nothing! Perhaps Mark alone can reveal to us what Christmas really is about. It is good news – and news!!! The word “news” – in our world where we barely endure a torrent of bad news, not to mention issues of trust and spin over what is news, what is “fake news.” Jesus is good news. How does the preacher capture the surprise, the unexpected, in all this?

   Mark sees Jesus’ advent as the “beginning,” the arche, the Genesis, the creation. Something unprecedented is afoot, not a percentage improvement on what we’ve managed for ourselves, but something radically different, shocking, enlightening, hopeful.

   It begins in “repentance.” The Greek metanoia, is not feeling guilty, repentance as remorse, but as a change of mind – and one that entails forgiveness. The Greek aphesis derives from aphiemi, which doesn’t mean having warm fuzzy feelings about the other who’s wounded you terribly, but rather simply letting to, dropping the whole affair. You forgive, because of this Jesus. You let old stuff go. You drop it to the floor and don’t look back. How is Advent a season of letting go, of letting old hurts and wound go?

   Back to the Old Testament then: Isaiah 40:1-11. We’ll have some tenor sing Handel’s “Comfort Ye.” And I’ll speak of the great highways of victory the Babylonians paved and marched along in triumph – and how in this case God’s way for Israel was a very real road back home. The glory of God is God’s people returning home. I’ll ponder this in my sermon: “No matter how much the world shatters us to pieces, we carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home and that beckons us” (Frederick Buechner). During December, we’ll sing and hear “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” and “Through the Years We All Will Be Together” – which I reflect on in my little Advent book on the theology of Christmas carols, Why This Jubilee? – which I’d commend to you and your people, as a group study but also for preaching.

   So thinking about these texts, and the whole idea of “home,” especially “home for Christmas,” I’d refer preachers to a fabulous podcast, “Dolly Parton’s America,” which is just stunningly good and entertaining. A couple of its best episodes explore this feel of “home” in light of her song, “My Tennessee Mountain Home.” She built a huge theme park around a replica of her actual childhood home. She calls this the “golden thread that keeps me tied to Eternity.” Tourists flock to it by the thousands. They’re having fun, but many report being touched by some deep memory and yearning. What’s downright shocking is how popular her song is in countries like Kenya, England and Lebanon, where southern hillbilly culture could not be more alien. It’s that home-shaped hole in the heart of every person, God calling to us “softly and tenderly,” “Come home.”

   Yesteryear. For me, the home in my heart wasn’t a house where my nuclear family lived. We were a transient Air Force family that moved a lot, and my parents were at war with one another. So for me, it was my grandparents’ home in a sleepy middle of nowhere town called Oakboro. My memory of it is expansive, as if it were a huge mansion. When I went back to visit decades after my grandparents had died, I was a bit stunned by its actual size, just a small bungalow of no architectural distinction. Nostalgia, or my God-given ache for home, grew the place, the space in my soul. I wanted to go back still, and be welcomed home as I’d been as a wee one. I did stand in the yard for a few minutes, and wondered what it was like when my dad returned there from World War II, back in the days of no communication, so many young boys killed in action – but then my dad, in his early twenties, being embraced with shouts and tears, probably a lot like the homecoming Jesus pictured when that prodigal finally found his way down the road to home.

   What did St. Augustine tantalize us with? “You made us with yourself as our goal, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” We know this restless sense of yearning for home but never quite settling in. Carl Sandburg wrote that Abraham Lincoln never felt at home in any one of the 31 rooms of the White House. Anne Tyler’s novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant tells the story of Ezra Tull inheriting Mrs. Scarlatti’s restaurant, where he’d worked. He renamed it the Homesick Restaurant; instead of a menu, you’d share what food you were homesick for, and they’d cook it for you. God seems to have fashioned us with this hankering for home, and yet with the same weird wiring of reality that stirs the sensation that you’re never quite there. It might feel like some nostalgia for some hazy yesteryear that maybe wasn’t as marvelous as you recall it being. But what is nostalgia anyhow? The word derives from Greek roots meaning an ache for home. Maybe there’s no memory of such a place. But you want it, you crave it, you’re driven by the quest to figure out just where and what it is. Isn’t Advent precisely this search for home?
 My new book on Birth (in the Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Ministering Well series) has a chapter with preaching ideas about Mary and Jesus' Birth - in time for Advent 3 and Christmas!

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