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Based on the Scripture readings:
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Luke 21:25-36

2009 November 29
First Sunday of Advent
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

The Days to Come, the One to Come

Carly Simon -- and I didn't imagine that the first words of my first sermon back from sabbatical would be "Carly Simon," but there you go -- the musician wrote a song entitled Anticipation. It's a good song, especially its first line: "We can never know about the days to come, but we think about them anyway."

I have been thinking about this day since I moved out of my office on the last of August this summer, and I have been praying for you during September, October, and November along my Sabbath. I was thankful for the support of this parish while I was standing in a dense crowd in the small but glorious Sistine Chapel in Rome, and I was renewed on your behalf when my daughter and I sat alone in the tiny chapel of San Damiano outside Assisi where St. Francis first heard the voice of God. I was researching for you when I attended worship in various Boston area churches, but also I was resting as guided by God, since I take the Ten Commandments as having some authority. I was keeping Holy Sabbath, to remember who I am and whose I am, which empowers me for who we can be together. And I think about that all the time.

I missed preaching and conversing about a variety of news stories that engage our faith this fall. In the late summer, the new Atheist Society at Harvard got press as they led gatherings (you can't call them worship), gatherings that include required cursing of the Holy Spirit as part of their effort to create a more tolerant world. I think there's a sermon in that. In September, Boston's Roman Catholic Cardinal had to explain why he attended the funeral of Ted Kennedy, officially not such a good Catholic. In November Kennedy's nephew had to explain why he couldn't take Communion in Rhode Island, founded as the most religiously inclusive state. The Atlantic magazine has a current cover story* on why Christianity caused the mortgage and market crash, but you'll have to read that for yourself. The BBC reports that a Back to topseries of murders in Peru reveal an organized effort to harvest human fat for use in European cosmetics.

Apparently the world is still crazy, and Christianity is still not only under serious pressure, but desperately needed to offer hope to everyone, whether or not we are good at all the elements of the practice. Apparently we move ahead a little here and there, but we move in a broken environment, parched, hungry for the living God.

I am back for the movement.

For we can never know about the days to come, but we can think about them anyway.

Fittingly, the scriptures today have two prophecies, and there are two schools of thought about the nature of prophecy itself. One is that prophecy is about what is to come, and the other is that it is a commentary on the present, so I'm not sure whether to search these texts to see what is up or to see what is ahead, although both may be possible, because these are amazing words today. And at their heart they ask and answer one question, which is my question, our question today: what is God like. What is our God like? That's where we commence our reunion and our movement.

Just look at how the folks who organize the reading of the lectionary put this crazy world in front of us this morning. Consider our two messages, and ask yourself if they are about the past, the present, or the future? And consider a little of their back story.

Enter the story as both Jeremiah and Jesus speak at times when Jerusalem has been destroyed. In the first case, all the faithful have been exiled and separated from the essence of their belief in God, which was that God was present only in the Temple. But they were not. In the second case, the Temple has literally been destroyed by the time Luke recorded Jesus' words. In both events, hometown, economy, church, divinity, neighborhood, community -- everything -- is in ruins. The twin towers. The historic faith. The family. Gone. A culture of violence, avarice, greed, and poly-atheism rules instead. And amidst all this, what do they believe? Not just what do they suspect, not what do they wonder, not what do they Back to topwish. They believe that God's promise from ancient times is real for the days to come. They believe God is with them, powerfully.

Gene Tucker, an Old Testament scholar, says that Jeremiah offers even more than that. Tucker writes that at the gate of the destroyed homeland, Jeremiah believes that fair and equitable relationships among people, impartial law courts, the protection of the weak, and "the personal characteristics that make such conditions possible" -- and there's a cautious scholar's phrase for sure -- are all right at hand. A new creation is right at hand. Read a few surrounding chapters of Jeremiah, and you'll see that Tucker is right.

What is our God like? Ours is a God who keeps promises. And there came the restoration.

Luke has a strange text, too. We began worship this morning singing Comfort, Comfort ye my people, and we'll go forth today and hear Christmas carols all about, which is fine. Right in the middle of all that comes Luke with his little apocalypse, which seems only mildly Adventy and not very Christmassy at all. Luke says, Jesus says, that all Advent, all these signs of preparation and anticipation and hope, all the cosmic cacophony is God's doing. And it affects everything. All creation reverberates with the signs and circumstances of God-with-us.

What is God like? Well, like Jesus: present to the destruction, manifest in the incarnation, and sharing the message with all creation -- everyone is invited. Because God will come again, abundant life in the face of any death.

When we hear these stories of the promise of a righteous branch bringing justice, these stories of signs in the sun and moon and stars, it is very easy to allow them to become distanced by language, spiritualized by time, or metaphorized through the sentiment of dimmed memory. But they are very particular at their heart.

They are about a people driving on the off ramp of a broken culture who see a sign that says Back to topGod has a new direction still.

They are about a global gay community injured as much by intolerance and ignorance as by a virus, who return each World AIDS Day not only as a memorial but as an opportunity to promote justice and health and new life, as was Eden's hope.

They are about a nation still afraid that fallen markets are more powerful than rising social needs, as was Israel's ancient challenge.

They are about many peoples -- in Afghanistan or Iraq or Sudan or North Korea -- who wonder if they can draw hope out of destruction, and Jesus says, Peter says, Paul says, God shows no partiality here, and God keeps ancient promises, and God is with us and -- specifically -- equity, law courts, the protection of the needy, the behavior of all members of society can be made new, and that is the word of our prophets.

Martin King reflected this prophets' message in sum when he said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. It keeps bending toward justice because of God's coming.

At the front end of Advent, on the first day of the New Year for the Christian Church, we all face a world that is a little dangerous and a little crazy to say the least. We inhabit a world that moves two steps forward and three steps back all too often. And then we come to church possibly for comfort, and we hear three millennia of stories of how Jerusalem is ruined and the foundations of the earth are shaking. All of which comes with this odd boilerplate about equity and good courts and helping the needy. Yet through this all is one simple observation and one cosmic revelation. The observation is that we can't fix all this, do all this, on our own. And the revelation is that God will not leave us on our own.

Even still, we can never know about the days to come. But we can prepare for them, in hope. Because this season of anticipation garners its hope not on a suspicion or a wonder or a wish but on a promise and on the One who makes that promise. Our hope is thanksgiving projected through trust, from the past, in the present, to the future. Our hope is God being God, which is just what she is like.

So it is good to be together with this people of movement and this people of hope.

Back to top Amen.


*http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200912/rosin-prosperity-gospel (Link outside NHCC; please advise the webmaster if it stops working.)

Copyright © 2009 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.
http://www.nhcc.net/sermons/Sermon20091129.htm

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