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November 27, 2005 (Advent I)—“Living With Hope in a 9/11 World”

Pastor David Barber

Matthew 25:31-46

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Its been about 4 years now that we've lived with the threat levels advising us about the possibility of a terrorist attack on the soil of our own country. There are five levels ranging from green to red--from low risk to severe risk.

I've been wondering if we shouldn't follow suit in our churches as well. In addition to changing the color of our paraments from season to season, we could also have a color code at the door of the nave indicating the nature of the sermon for that day.

Yellow would indicate a significant risk of preacher attack, and orange would indicate a high risk of being assaulted by the preacher in the sermon.

To tell you the truth, I haven't paid much attention to these threat advisory levels. In fact, I had to do some research on what colors were being used and what they indicated. Quite frankly, I couldn't tell you what the threat level is for today although I suspect it might be yellow or orange.

I also suspect that I'm not alone in failing to give attention to this matter. Many of us here probably wouldn't fare too well on a competency test prepared by Homeland Security.

If only the writers of Scripture had possessed this kind of wisdom, they could have used their own color-coded system to keep us informed about the coming of the Son-of-Man with great power and glory.

Today our Scripture might be coded as red or orange. Today we are exhorted and encouraged to "Be Alert" and "Keep Awake." We're advised to stay on our watch because we don't know when the day of the Lord will descend upon us like a thief in the night.

I suspect as well that we might have as much preparedness for this event as we do for the terrorist warnings from Homeland Security.

Obviously, we live in horrific times, but I don't know if the treats we live with are any more terrifying than any other time in history. To be sure, through technology and the media, we certainly are more aware of them. We live with them 24 hours a day--7 days a week.

As a result we have those who are asking, "Are these the last days? Are these the days of the Apocalypse--and the days when the Rapture will soon take place? There are many who think so, and millions of dollars are being made as religious hucksters feed on the fears and insecurities of the masses.

Certainly the recent disasters may give us pause to think that this might be so. We've had 9/11, the tsunami in South East Asia, Katrina, Rita, Wilma, and killer tornadoes in our own country.

We read about terrorist threats and successful suicide bombings almost every day in some part of our world. While we anticipate the birth of Christ in this Season of Advent, we also wait expectantly for violence.

One counselor has written, "We lived in an 'age of anxiety' before 9/11. Now this anxiety has metastasized and flirts with paranoia in the deep recesses of our minds. No wonder the popularity of the Left Behind series. A rapture that would end this lingering dread has appeal.

"What is the chronic effect of this terrorist pall that spreads over our congregations and communities? How is it to be processed? How do we deal with the tensions [that are] present in it and us? What word of grace can be spoken to it?"

In that regard I'm thankful for this Advent Season where we have the opportunity to wait patiently with hope--not false hope mind you--but true hope that takes into account the reality of the world and the conditions in which we live.

It's interesting that of all the seasons in the church year, the Season of Advent is the one that creates the most controversy. Indeed, here you are after a great Thanksgiving perhaps, and after one of the largest shopping weekends of the year, and you're greeted with these Scripture readings of doom and gloom.

There are those in the Christian community--even in Lutheran circles--that want to change the nature and the duration of the Advent Season so that it more readily reflects the mood of the culture that surrounds us.

They're singing Christmas carols at the mall and we're greeted with the "Ho! Ho! Ho!" of jolly old St. Nick. Why can't we reflect more of this festivity in our church? Why the somber and the repentant tone of Advent?

As one author stated in an article entitled "Holy Waiting," There's no other time than the Season of Advent that reminds us so clearly just how countercultural it is to be the church. "The truth is that you don't have to scratch the surface very hard to see that it's not the 'rest of the world' that's whopping it up, but only those with cash (or the plastic) to do so.

She continues, "You don't have to look very far at see why it makes a difference that we sing 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel' before we get around to 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing.' A look at the morning paper or the evening news will do it; every canned food drive and Salvation Army bellringer reminds us, too."

The scripture readings appointed for this first Sunday of Advent are heavy and somber pieces. Unlike the sparkling lights, the entertainment, and the Santa Clauses that greet us in the shopping centers, we're invited instead into a people's despair.

Isaiah, for instance, was written at a difficult and painful time in Israel's history. The people of Israel had come home from captivity and exile in Babylon only to be greeted with their homeland in ruins and their holy temple smoldering in destruction. Could this be what some folks felt like after they returned to their cities and their homes after Hurricane Katrina?

These words of anguish from Isaiah pierce our soul as they wallow in their unworthiness. As they are asphyxiated by their anxiety and as they articulate their alienation from a God who seems utterly hidden, we, too, are moved by their cries of abandonment. "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down," they cry in their despair."

The reading from Mark doesn't make us feel any better. Written about 70 AD--after the destruction of the temple once again--the followers of Jesus are experiencing severe persecution, families are splintered, and the promise of the presence of God seems like a cruel joke.

It's to these disillusioned and desperate believers that the gospel writer offers words of encouragement and the need for courageous persistence. He has Jesus speak a word of hope to a people experiencing the absence of Jesus. What he offers them is a choice.

In the winter depths of our living, will we live with hope or will we live with despair? We can either stay alert and hopeful in the darkness of our days, or we can cave in to bitterness, negativity, and discouragement.

We can either become captive to our human limitations, or we can watch and wait for the power of God working within us and within our world. We can watch and wait for the power of God to bring to reality the vision that we're all longing to see.

Standing at the very core of our hope is the vision of a world, reconciled and whole. Deep within our being, we believe that one day all things will be made new. We believe - and we work and live - as if there will be a time when there will be no more violence and war, no more hunger and poverty, and no more sorrow and sadness.

We trust that one day, God will restore us and all of creation to a wholeness that God intended from the very beginning. And because we have this hope, we partner with God and we work diligently for that day when the whole universe will be whole and well.

That's what it means to keep alert and stay awake in this Advent Season. It's not passively waiting--sitting on our hands, doing nothing--looking for the end to descend upon us, but to live out the hope that is within us by acts of compassion and service for our neighbor and our faithful stewardship of the earth.

In a wonderful article in the most recent Lutheran magazine, Walter Bouman talks about the last days of his life. He died on August 17 from advanced colon cancer.

He says, "I've resisted the temptation to say, 'Stop the world because I'm getting off.' Instead I continue to care about the world, pray for it and urge all to be faithful stewards of our planet and to make the U.S. a more responsible member of the family of nations.

The agenda is urgent," he says. "In a world where the gap between the rich and the poor increases daily, we need to oppose policies that condemn the poor of the world to lives of misery and early graves...We need to ask why U.S. policies have made us more fearful and feared, more arrogant and hated in the world."

In a book that I just finished reading, Unfettered Hope, the author writes about Jewish musicians in Hitler's Germany. It was wondered if these musicians caused people to misjudge the terror of the Nazis.

One person insisted that the Jews didn't underestimate the Nazis, but the other way around. "The Nazis made a big mistake in not realizing that '[I] f you let a full-blooded musician or any artist practice his profession, even under the force of the Gestapo, he comes alive, and that's what we did...We were born to perform and when we did that we really lived.' ''

The author then concludes, "In baptism Christians are born to hope, and when we practice that, we [, too,] really come alive!"

That's what it means to live with hope in a 9/11 world. We wait expectantly, staying awake and keeping alert, looking with anticipation for the new world that God will unfold before our very eyes.

As we involve ourselves in this magnificent story of what is to come, we, too, will involve ourselves in the work of this new world as if it were already a reality within our midst.


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