November 30, 2008
Edwards (Knox) United Church
Year B, Advent 1
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The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson
Did you have a conflicted reaction to the readings? On the one hand they are so timely in November - a sense of absence and starkness. A sense of ennui and estrangement seems to penetrate us. We wonder if our best days are behind us as we experience our current economic and global crises. Yet here we are at the beginning of Advent which is the season of preparation - to prepare ourselves for in-breaking light and hope.
Our papers are full of cutting back on Christmas and yet we prepare for a festival of hope. Our emotions are reflected in the feelings our texts express. A time of dislocation. There is a dynamic interplay of absence and presence. A sense of emptiness - yet a call to see in this empty time a coming of God to light up the world. Our texts call us to a spirituality of via negativa to be joined with the spirituality of via positiva. Absence and presence are joined together.
In both Isaiah and the Psalm there is a cry for God - for God is absent. This God who had delivered the people with unexpected and awesome deeds is profoundly absent. The people feel this as: God is powerless to save. In their world view this absence has lead the people into sinfulness. The sense of alienation has created a spiritual reality that has lead to the destruction of community. They have experienced a death of God which makes all things permissible, leads to moral chaos. Isaiah calls out for the return of the feeling of the God of transformation. In his reflection on absence is a sense of presence. There is a call to let go of old understandings of the agency of God so they can experience God in the midst of the chaos.
The Psalmist pleads for God to return dramatically in glory and light to save the people from despair and destruction. The present God who we can never fully discern and cannot control always takes us into the unknown and unexpected.
To use the language of Walter Brueggemann, the Psalmist cries out in “disorientation,” hoping against hope that God will provide a new spiritual and political orientation for the people. The God who once controlled all events, so that nothing happens without God allowing it, is nowhere, and the Psalmist feels suffocated by feelings of persecution and abandonment. When will God’s light shine on us? When will we find our way again?
What is crucial in these texts is the sense that we can find in our prayers of lamentation a sense of presence. When we cry out asking what have we lost, we find what is crucial for our living. When we are stripped of all our constructed support systems we become open space where the sense of God can slide in again. In “our sighs too deep for words” we connect with God’s “sights too deep for words.” As the Buddhists teach, when we let go of all conceit- of all that is perpetually perishing - we are now open to a new sense of the divine.
To sense the presence of God in a time of abandonment requires a new understanding of God. A death of old understandings begins a new way of sensing God in all things. The issue is how do we affirm divine absence in a world where we also know the earth and human life is full of God’s glory. We know at some primal level that God is present in each moment. We know a sense of awe. We can feel there is more than surface experience. We intuitively know that within the cracks in the cosmos there is beauty still to be born - that we can be surprised by joy. We sense there is adventure hidden in all our activity yet we cannot always speak that adventure, live that joy.
In the loss of God who controls all, we can come to sense God as one who is in every moment offering vision and is aimed at beauty. Lament allows to let go of the images of a God who controls, is a moral law giver so we can discover God who walks with us, and participates with us in the creation of what we will become.
All experience is mixed. We feel tears and joy. We know loss and being found. If our sense of God is one of all powerful then we cry out why has this happened? We have heard the phrase that God does not send more than we can handle, yet we know that this is not true. It is not true in two senses: we have experiences that have overwhelmed us; and most importantly God does not send suffering and pain. What happens in the moment of the absence of the God who sends all things is awaking to a sense of God who is now resource to handle all the good and bad things that happen. In absence we now can see we are overwhelmed, have more than we can handle and that opens us to the possibility of creativity that will walk with us, support us, in these times of dislocation.
Affirming God in every moment is based on the sense of God who is the source of adventure, possibility and creativity. This sense of God allows us to know that not every moment is inspirational and life transforming: most moments are ordinary and they can be tragic. Yet even in the mundane there can be glimpses of hope. The very desire to hang colored lights on our homes suggests a glimmer of hope within us. Lighting up the dark December nights signifies that even in the sense of absence there is a sense of presence.
This is what our texts affirm. God is still there but not one as a cosmic control mechanism, but one who works with what is, with images of transformation.
What is clear is when we habitually turn away from a sense of beauty which comes from God we deaden our experience of hope. When we turn away from God, we close the door to certain divine possibilities. Instead of hope we reflect judgment and limitation. God depends on our own and our communities response to the divine aim, and the more that aim is covered with surface and materialistic living the more our world experiences absence and the loss of hope.
Mark calls the listener to stay awake in turbulent times. The world is turned upside down - the time is out of joint and dangerous and Mark picks up Jesus call to stay awake, to see in absence a presence breaking forth. It is a call to be a people who nurture the light of hope in our world. To join with those who don’t curse the darkness but light a candle. To light a candle is to see the necessity of a sense of absence, not to run from it so we can feel the presence of light in a new way. It is to go beyond fear and to let go of fear and to join those who seek to light hope in our world. It is to “Stay awake. Keep alert.” It is a call to mindfulness. To look deeper. To go beyond all surface experience. This is the time of preparation for such experience.
Thanks to Bruce Epperly.