Advent 1B Sermon (2008)

1st Sunday in Advent
Texts: Mark 13:24-37;
Isaiah 64:1-9

KNOWING WHERE TO LOOK FOR GOD

 When JFK was shot, I was home sick from 2nd grade that day. I vaguely remember watching something like “I Love Lucy.” I’m not sure. I vividly recall the news breaking in with the terrible news. That was a Friday. On Sunday morning, on the way home from church, I remember the news story on the radio about Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was having breakfast with our usual Tuesday morning pastor’s group, to study the lessons for Sunday. Someone came in with a news flash about a plane flying into the World Trade Center. I remember thinking that awfully strange, thinking that it must be a small private plane of someone in trouble. I had no idea until more news reports began to flood in, and our breakfast was abandoned to head for the nearest television screens.

Momentous days, with earth-shattering, world-changing news. Some here this morning might also remember where they were and what they were doing for the announcement of FDR of the day will live in infamy, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. Then, they would also remember things like V-E Day and V-J Day, and the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. These are the kinds of events that Jesus is talking about in our text from Mark 13 this morning. Earth shattering, world-changing events. Jesus uses language like, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven.” It has been popular to think that that is language about the so-called “end of the world,” and various Christians through the ages have then searched their Bibles for other clues about when that might be.

But recent biblical scholars — N. T. Wright, my favorite, among them — have challenged that way of reading this passage for at least two reasons. First, a good Jew has a faith in God that is anchored in the goodness of Creation, and that the Creator God would never abandon it, so Jews like Jesus wouldn’t have thought in terms of a literal ending to that creation. They thought in terms of its redemption, its salvation, its being fulfilled and completed.

Second, the language that sounds like “end of the world” stuff was used by the prophets to talk about not the literal “end of the world” but the earth-shattering, world-changing kinds of events that do change the world for good or for ill. When I use the term “earth-shattering,” do you take me literally? Or do you know what I mean? Mark 13 is Jesus’ longest speech in Mark’s Gospel, and it all begins with Jesus predicting the destruction of the Jewish Temple, which is something that truly happened within a generation, about 35 years Jesus predicted it. It came at the end of the Roman-Jewish War in the years 66-70 AD. During those years the Roman army laid siege to the city of Jerusalem and there was terrible, barely imaginable suffering that went on. And the climax of that war brought the city’s destruction and the end of the Temple, the center of their religion and way of life. So these events truly were earth-shattering for them. Their lives as a people would never be the same, right on down to this day two thousand years later. The Temple mount in Jerusalem still is empty of a Jewish Temple, but center to political turmoil.

Our first reading in Advent from the book of Isaiah is a cry in the face of such turmoil: (Isaiah 64:1) “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” It is the anguished outburst of a desperate people, having exhausted all possible human alternatives, having given up on polite, respectfully restrained prayers to God. They cry, “Tear open the heavens and come down!” “Where are you, God? Where are you?” Isaiah prays the prayer of a people who long for God, yet cannot see or hear God, people for whom God is absent.

We know what that feels like. Have you ever prayed, but felt like you were only talking to yourself? Have you experienced your own personal earth shattering moment after which your personal world would never be the same? Have you ever stood by the bed of a loved one in pain and prayed to God for help, but felt like God was far away? Have you known Isaiah’s prayer: ‘God, where are you? Tear open the heavens and come down! Please come!’ This is our Advent prayer, as we begin in relative darkness. “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”

Will Christmas bring an answer to that prayer? We celebrate God’s coming in Jesus on Christmas. But will he come again this year? Will he come to those who sit in darkness who yearn to see a great light? At Christmas we do celebrate that Christ has already come, that a great light has come to shine in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. But how does that make a difference to those who sit in darkness now? The difference it can make, I think, is this: Since Christ has already come, we now know where to look. More specifically, we know to look in the unexpected places. Think of the Christmas story: the savior of the world, the king of creation, is born to two poor people in a barn in tiny Bethlehem. Is that where you would expect God to come? Not really, right? And it never really changes with this Jesus. The Pharisees expected such a great teacher to be with them all the time. But they continually had to look for Jesus among the tax collectors and sinners, the sick and outcast. Finally, it even ended with this Jesus hanging on a cross, the very last place anyone would have expected to find God coming into this world. So when we pray the prayer, “Where are you God?” perhaps what we need is to remind ourselves of where to look. Perhaps when we can’t find God, it’s because we look in the wrong places.

I’d like to share a brief passage about looking for and finding God. It’s from a book with a good Advent title, Night, for it describes one of the darkest places ever known on this earth: the Auschwitz death camp. There’s an earth-shattering event if there ever was one! Elie Wiesel is a Nobel Prize winning author who survived Auschwitz and recorded many of his experiences in this book. If ever there has been a place on earth where we are justified to cry out, “Where are you, God?!” Auschwitz is the place. One particularly well-known passage from this book asks just this question. It describes the Nazis hanging three of the Jewish inmates, one a young boy:

The victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses. “Long live Liberty!” cried the two adults. But the child was silent.

“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked.

At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.

What happens next is difficult to tell you. The two adults died rather quickly. But the young boy wasn’t heavy enough for his weight to mercifully kill him, so he hung there struggling for more than an hour, as his Jewish comrades were forced to stand and watch. Wiesel writes:

Behind me I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?”

And I hear a voice within me answer him: “Were is he? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows. . . ”

Weisel’s small voice within him is the Christian answer to the question “Where is God?”, isn’t it? When we are looking for God to tear open the heavens and come, we begin by looking at the one who was hanged on the cross for our sins. Jesus turns the whole question of suffering around. When we are suffering, or when someone close to us is suffering, we are often moved to ask “Where is God?” But with Jesus, suffering becomes part of the answer, not the reason for the question. In Jesus we begin to see that the answer to “Where is God?” is precisely this: God is with those who suffer. God is with us when we suffer. That’s where God is. In Jesus we learn where to look for God.

And this is where our salvation itself lies: learning where to find God. Because I think that the problem of humankind has been to so often look for God in the wrong places. We have tended to look for God among the powerful and mighty. ‘It’s someone with great power, who will get us out of this mess!’ is what we are usually tempted to think. But, no, it’s those people of great power who too often represent our human powers that are responsible for the suffering in the first place. We have tended to look for the solution to suffering among the mighty who help wield the power that brings us suffering.

In Jesus, we learn to see differently. When we look to the cross, we learn to see that God is with those who suffer, and has been all along. As long as there is suffering in this world, that is where God will be. And here’s the most important question: when we learn to find God amidst human suffering, and go to be with God there, then won’t the suffering finally end? If everyone learns to find God, and to be with God, among the suffering, then who will be left to cause the suffering?

As you and I prepare for Christmas and Christ’s coming once again this year, where will we look to find him? We pray for peace, and hope that there will be no earth-shattering events, though we can never know the day or the time. So we are awake and ready because we know where to look for and find Christ again this year: among the needy, among the suffering. May our many Advent preparations also take us to where we are most sure to find the baby Jesus. And that way you and I also find ourselves working for peace, working for that promised day when there will be no more suffering. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, November 30, 2008

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