Gospel: Mark 13:24-37
1st Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
I was truly thinking of tossing the readings for today, on this day of celebration, the baptism of two young children and two adults and the day we receive two other new members. Family and friends in attendance—we want to make a good impression. “All our deeds are like a filthy cloth,”--it just doesn't have the happy Christian feeling that we all want to impress on everyone today, guest and longtime member alike. But being Christian is about telling the truth and these readings tell the truth, not just about the difficulties in life, but also about the joy of the fellowship of God's Son, Jesus Christ. These readings don't gloss over the challenges that life brings, but also celebrate that we are all God's people.
The reading from Isaiah doesn't say that we are all filthy rags—it says our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth and we have become like one who is unclean. However the reading also affirms that we are all God's children made good from the very beginning. “We are all the work of your hand.” And “God works for those who wait for him.” God made us all good and sees us as good.
But let's be real—this world is rough and we are part of it. I started reading an article about how people aren't completely domesticated. Dogs started to be domesticated much earlier than cats, and that's why your dog wants to please you and your cat couldn't care less. People have not always been civilized. We haven't always lived together in groups in which we had rules to order us and help us take care of each other. Sometimes our animal nature makes us more cat-like than dog-like, less caring of what other people think, less friendly, less able to follow directions, more likely to go off and do what we want to without a thought for anyone else. In other words we get off track. God made us and loves us and still loves us when we screw up, but we do screw up and this world leads us astray and teaches us bad manners. And when we do good, too often it is only to get what we want, so that even our motivations are impure and our righteous acts can be filthy rags, full of holes and dirt.
Thinking of Kasen and Kamryn and all the kids in the congregation, we don't want our children to know how difficult life can be, or at least we want to tell them in an age-appropriate way, a little at a time. We warn them of stranger danger and help them understand what to do if they get lost. We explain, in simplified terms, news stories they overhear or ask about, that reveal how people are hurting and hungry. We try to help them respond with compassion. We praise their good behavior and explain how their naughty behavior makes mommy cry. But we don't want them to live their lives in fear of us or God or life. Right now it is all about curiosity and exploration and taking in information and learning and celebrating who they are and who God made them to be.
These references to God coming back and the stars falling and being ready can invoke a feeling of fear, of anxiety. But in this waiting of Advent, are we waiting for someone or something that we fear, or are we waiting for something good to come into our midst? When all the smoke clears, we find ourselves looking in a manger at a little newborn baby. If you've had a newborn baby, you know the element of fear that can come into play—the fear of being responsible for something so helpless, the pure vulnerability of a human being at the beginning of life and through childhood and all the way through life for that matter, the fear of a changed life and not knowing what that will mean.
But usually the joy and hope and even the exhaustion overcomes that fear, and you find a way to do what seems impossible, raise a child, with the help of many many other people. And you aren't afraid that this baby will hurt you. It is a helpless child, full of peace in the quiet moments and full of need at other moments. We look in the manger, and we have nothing to fear from God who would come this way, the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This Advent we find ourselves preparing—are we preparing for something we fear? We've got every reason to be anxious. This congregation has been through all kinds of anxiety-provoking situations over the years, from difficulties paying the bills, to expensive repairs being needed on the building, to pastoral leadership making poor decisions, to falling numbers of members and so on. However, because of these troubles, you all know what is most important and how reliable and faithful God is. Because no matter what the trouble, you've never been alone. God has been in your midst, reminding you why your here and keeping you faithful and focussed and awake and continuing to call you into the fellowship of Jesus Christ.
One of the anxieties this congregation has faced has been the absence of children—a problem which we do not have today, and haven't had for the last three months. It was almost a year ago that the Sandness family started coming here. I think it was last summer, I asked Jamie, wouldn't they rather go to a church that has more kids. I didn't want to gloss over the truth—I wasn't saying anything she wasn't aware of. I had laid aside my anxiety about our aging congregation and decided that if God was going to keep giving us seniors, then it was seniors we would minister to. I think many others had let it go, as well. And Jamie in her non-anxious way said something to this effect, “No. We want to be here and we're planning to stay. When the next family comes along they will see another young family here and be more inclined to stay.” And now with the help of some of the other young families that had been on the sidelines and another few who have recently started coming, something new is happening here.
This is about hope in action. Here is a family that had let go of future outcomes, and was content with how things were going. Yet they also had a vision of what could be—not only their own vision of their kids mixing with other kids, but a vision for other families that might come and what they might experience when they met another young family. And they actively worked to make it happen. They could have stayed home and waited until those other families came. Instead they were faithful and let these children teach the congregation how to expand our welcome for little people, by learning their names, by coming to expect their noises, by reaching down for a little hand at the sharing of the peace, and so forth.
It is a healthy balance of letting go and letting what happens happen, of hope and vision, and of working toward that vision. The readings are all about letting go—letting go of expectation of what will happen when, and letting go of control—you are our potter and we are your clay. There are some things we don't know and can't know, so we let go of that. We don't need to know. But not knowing, doesn't mean that we don't do anything. “Keep awake” the Gospel says. Be prepared. Keep watch. Watch for what? Are we watching for some awful outcome, like the collapse of society and and escalation of violence or for our church to peter away? When we look for that, do we bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy? Or do we look for signs of life, for Jesus Christ in our guests and in the stranger and in all those unexpected places? And when we set ourselves up to see that, don't we treat each other with greater respect and create a better church and neighborhood and world?
You know this sudden appearance of families and younger people is not our savior. They will not make or break our church. Some will come and some will go. These children will grow up into adults—and most likely into elderly people. They will struggle to stay awake and to let go of what they can't control and not to be too anxious. But whether they are 3 or 5 or 35 or 60 or 80, God is saying to them and to us, “You are all my people, the work of my hand.” It isn't about who we used to be or who we will be, but the celebration of who we are right now, God's own precious children. And most of all, it is a celebration of our Lord Jesus Christ, who reminded us that it is all out of our hands, to let go of what we can't control. But also that doesn't mean we sit back and do nothing. In faithfulness, we move forward in hope, knowing that the fulfillment of all our hopes is about to be born in our midst, has already been born, and given his life to show us how best to live, putting others before ourselves, and making this world more loving and just.
What a gift for this Savior to be born among us. We think we are going to pass on our values to another generation, but children pass their values on to us of creativity and spontaneity and living in the moment and celebrating life. Let us serve these little ones and strangers in our midst, and by doing so serve Jesus and let them change us to more reflect the love of God.