Worship notes for Advent II...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, December 8, 2013, the celebration of Advent II.  I am grateful for the art work shared here from Jan Richardson.  I invite your prayers for her upon the recent death of her beloved husband, Garrison Doles.

Every year my participation in Advent is filled with tension – it is a quiet tension, to be sure – lovely and tender but still a tension nonetheless.  Maybe you have experienced this tension, too so let me try to give my apprehension shape and form:  for me the aesthetics of this liturgical season are quiet – almost serene – a call to saturate ourselves in chant, contemplation and candle light.  One of my favorite songs of this season, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” puts it like this:

Christ to Thee with God the Father – and O Holy Ghost to Thee
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving 
and unending praises be
Honor, glory and dominion and eternal victory: 
evermore and evermore.

This poem is one of the oldest in the Christian tradition – a 4th century Latin prayer – that has become a mystical love song to the Lord:  hymn and chant and high thanksgiving and unending praises be.  Another of Advent favorite, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” also hails from the 4th century as part of the Eucharistic songs of Syria.  It begins with the proclamation:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence 
and with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded for with blessing in His hand:
Christ our God to earth descendeth our full homage to demand.

Do you get what I’m trying to say about the aesthetics of the season?  They are lofty, peaceful and hushed.  Gertrud Mueller-Nelson speaks of the spirituality of this season as our training in the feminine virtues of waiting, gestating and simmering.  “There isn’t anything of value that we don’t have a certain period of waiting for: a good wine, for bread to rise, for our compost to work. This kind of waiting is about transformation.”

It’s about going from this state of heart and mind to that state of heart and mind. If your children smell a cake in the oven and say, “I want a piece right now,” would you pull it out and give them each a soup spoon? It wouldn’t be the same thing. All those things are about a period of waiting where something turns from one thing, which is kind of raw and not useful, into something quite marvelous and worth the wait.

The season of Advent is wrapped in serenity and darkness but the readings we’re asked to wrestle with are anything BUT tranquil, right?  First we have to deal with the apocalyptic words of Jesus about judgment and the end of time and then for two full weeks we have to put up with John the Baptist.  And this is where the tension begins to arise for me because the challenge of the Scriptures feels like a glass of cold water has just been thrown in my face.  Just when I’m getting all cozy and “spiritual” with my chants and candles that maniac John the Baptist shows up shouting repent, repent. “The time has come,” he tells all who are listening “to start living like a voice crying out in the wilderness that we must prepare the way of the Lord.”

+  Do you grasp what I’m trying to say?  One message in Advent is about waiting and listening in a very quiet and nurturing way while the other is a public challenge to turn everything upside down and inside out in preparation for the kingdom of God.

+  And every year I find myself resenting this spiritual schizophrenia because I know that the way of integrity and God’s kingdom is NEVER either/or – it is always both/and – waiting AND acting – being still AND knowing God – and this paradox makes me wiggy!

I want it to be one way or the other but Advent tells me that it isn’t about me – or my preferences or comfort level – it is about getting ready for the Lord. And while I’ll grant you that part of my wigginess comes from spending so much time with both the Scriptures and our tradition, I bet that even if you aren’t paying any real attention to the Bible readings for Advent you still feel some of this tension, right?  How many times have I heard you say – or said myself – I want this Christmas to be different?  I want it to be special – loving – spiritual and nurturing.  Are you with me?  Have you ever said those words:  I want this Christmas to be different?

This is where the poetry of Isaiah and the Baptizer can be useful to us if we’re willing to be both playful and attentive with their words.  And this is also where the contemplative spirituality of Advent can help us give shape and form to our deepest desires, too.  It takes some work, of course, and can’t be purchased or ordered and flown in immediately like some drone from Amazon.com.  Rather like Mueller-Nelson suggests, it would be best for us to treat the four weeks of Advent as hunkering down times:

Time out of time… God’s time… (living) in these four weeks, as you would be in the last day of your own pregnancies. The process of making things and counting diapers and painting the room and hanging the mobile — all of those odd little gestures we do — prepare us on the deepest level for what’s coming.

And here’s where the upside-down challenge of the prophets comes into focus:  they, too, are asking us to hunker down and discover whether or not what we’re doing with our ordinary, walking around, everyday lives contributes to our deepest desires or wastes our time.  Take John the Baptist who at first always makes me uncomfortable:  His call to repentance – metanoia in Greek – is not really a scolding as if we’ve been bad children although it can sound that way at first.  Rather it is an invitation to change our direction – to get off those roads that are dead-ends – and back onto paths that will lead us in the way of faith, hope and love.

And we know this if we spend a little time with the Baptist and pay
attention to what he said and did:  he actually invited the people of his day to change the direction of their lives in a humble and tender way when he asked them to be baptized because the baptism of John is a very different ritual from what we know in Christian baptism.  Christians are baptized for the forgiveness of sins – Christian baptism welcomes us into the covenant with the Lord – but Jews were already part of the covenant – they were already in relationship with the Living God and God’s word - so what is Jewish baptism really all about?

+  Mostly it had to do with mikvah – the ritual bath performed in fresh running water for the purification of men and women who were converting from one faith into Judaism – so some biblical scholars now believe that what John was really saying was that everybody who sensed that their life was out of rhythm with God’s love could be purified right on the spot.  They didn’t need to go to the Temple in Jerusalem and offer costly sacrifices on the altar; they could simply humble themselves to God and rededicate themselves to the way of compassion and justice anywhere.

+  This is probably the reason why those in charge in Jerusalem were so uncomfortable with John as a prophet – and it might explain why the Baptist called the religious leaders of his day a brood of vipers – like the prophet Isaiah before him, John was inviting God’s people to be humbled and let God’s love change their priorities.

Isaiah put it like this:  all the sin and distractions of the people will be chopped down like clear-cutting a virgin forest.  For a time, life will look like a devastation – but then, in God’s time and God’s love – out of the stump of Jesse (the father of Israel’s King David) shall come a tender shoot – a tiny branch filled with new life and integrity – and from this unlikely and miraculous source will come the power to live into God’s compassion and justice.

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness (that is compassion) shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.  The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

What I hear both prophets telling us is that God’s love will reverse and heal human sin and alienation – God’s grace will restore creation to the holiness of the beginning – that’s what all that snake talk is about, ok?  Children playing before the adder’s den is what life looked like before Adam and Eve were banished from garden and all the snakes were cursed, right?  In humility God’s grace restores everything that was wounded and corrupted – it creates healing between enemies – and makes clear the way of peace and compassion. 

So, if you will allow this playful leap of faith: whenever WE say, “I want THIS Christmas to be different,” we are joining John the Baptist and the prophet Isaiah whether we know it or not. We are saying:  I need something to be different.  I ache for something deeper than anything I might buy on Black Friday or Cyber Monday.  I yearn for the baptism of repentance in my everyday life.  If you will, this is OUR acculturated way of asking:  in what way are we preparing the way of the Lord and making straight a path for our God in our own and other's lives?” (Ben Witherington, Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching. aspx?commentary _id=777)

And now let’s get really playful with both the Scriptures and tradition because in truth this call to repentance is NOT a call to have LESS Christmas, but an invitation to have MORE:  more joy, more peace, more faith, hope and love.  Like preacher David Lohse says:  Isn’t that what the season of Christmas is all about?  MORE love, more grace, more faith, hope and love?  It’s just that we’re like the people of Isaiah’s time – or John the Baptist’s era – we need some help and direction to get back onto the road of humble repentance.
So let me ask you right now to try something with me:  I’m going to play the role of scribe and record your wisdom to three questions because I think they can help us all find a way to have MORE Christmas this season.

+  First, with NO judgment at all, can you say out loud some of the things that are still on your TO DO LIST for Christmas?  I’m going to need a helper who can make sure I don’t miss things with my faulty hearing ok?  Can I get a volunteer to help me hear right?  Ok, now what are the things you still have on your TO DO LIST for this Christmas:  let’s shout them out…?

+  Second, let’s say out loud what your hopes and dreams are for the celebration of this Christmas:  what kind of day do you want to have on Christmas – what kind of interaction are you hoping for – what would make the world look more like Christmas for you?  Let’s hear what is in your hearts and minds…

+  Now there is one more thing I need your help with – a third list – and this one has to do working backwards to review what we put on our TO DO LISTS and how they “contribute directly to our own deep hopes and longings... There may be many things on the list that are important in the short run but don’t contribute to our larger vision and hope.  So perhaps Advent can be a time to put things in perspective, to channel our energy and resources to those things that matter most to us, to our families and communities, and to God.” (David Lohse, Working Preacher)

+  Can you help me with that – what things on our list deepen and strengthen what we truly desire for this Christmas…?

In her book, Night Visions, pastor and artist Jan Richardson writes:  Advent is a season where I journey with more questions than answers.  “What and whom do I desire?”

Do my desires spring from a longing for wholeness or from a sense of inadequacy? Do they come from within me or from what others say I should want?  Will the things I long for bring healing to others as well as myself?  Will my desires draw me closer to God? Do I really believe the Holy One desires me – loves me unconditionally – longs for me?

All of our Advent traditions and customs – all of the contemplative
aesthetics and practices – are to give us time to repent.  They invite us to hunker down for a moment to discern if our lives are on a path that leads to our deepest desires.  If so, what a joy and blessing; and if not, then as St. Benedict used to say to his monks:  always we begin again.  Advent comes to us over and over so that always we might begin again.  Like the poet, Rumi, put it in the 13th century:

Come, come, whoever you are:  wanderer, worshipper, 
lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter.  
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times:
Come, yet again, and again and again, come.

2) In Those Days - Jan Richardson
3) Gertud Mueller-Nelson - To Dance with God
4) Home for God - Jan Richardson
5) Day and Night - Jan Richardson


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