Sunday, December 08, 2013

Not what we expected

New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 8, 2013

Week 1 of Advent - The Cycle of Light
The Cycle of Light (2011)

              When I was in college, I marched against South Africa’s apartheid.  It was my first protest march.  “What do we want?  Divestment!  When do we want it?  Now!”  Friends and classmates from Westfield State College, along with hundreds of others from various schools and walks of life converged on the steps of the city hall in Springfield, MA on a sunny, spring day to declare our hopes for a peaceful end to apartheid.


            Whenever we march and make protest, we do so with hopes rather than expectations.  For we know that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”, as Paul says to the church in Ephesus.  And so we temper our expectations with a dose of reality, recognizing that a good and lasting peace takes a long time to achieve.


            It did take a long time for apartheid to come to an end, for the people of South Africa to be one nation, for Nelson Mandela to be released from prison.  27 years.  I doubt that anyone in the apartheid regime expected Mandela to survive prison, let alone be released.  He was 71 years old when he walked out of his cell at Victor Verster Prison.  He then went on to become the first black president of South Africa, enlisting his predecessor, F.W. de Klerk, as one of his deputies.  He formed a Government of National Unity, blending an administration of white and black South Africans.  He initiated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, bringing to light human rights abuses on both sides, so that the process of healing and potential forgiveness could begin.


            I doubt anyone expected any of this to work.  The memories of violence, fear, and overwhelming death were still fresh and visceral.  Some did not expect Mandela to survive his presidency, that he would be assassinated not only for his radical initiatives but for simply being black.  Then to live to the age of 95; a black South African man living 9 ½ decades!  Who would have expected that?  From all appearances, the odds were stacked against him.

Madiba, father of a nation

            It’s not that people didn’t have faith.  Millions around the world believed in the rightness, the justice of his cause.  We human beings always seem to be caught between what is and what could be.  So we have hopes, that we may not risk our expectations to despair.


            The people of the southern kingdom of Judah may have even given up hope in their Babylonian captivity.  After approximately 50 years of exile, who would think that they would be able to return home?  And if so, what was left of not only their homeland but of their faith and God’s desire to be in covenant with them?  Hindsight isn’t really 20/20.  When bad stuff happens, our judgment and memory are clouded with emotion.  We look for who is to blame, sometimes holding ourselves not just accountable but worthy of shame.  And so God’s people blamed themselves for their exile, believing that because of their sin, God had abandoned them to the whims of their captors.


            The book of Isaiah is believed to have three authors, writing at different points in Judah’s history.  Isaiah 11 is believed to have been written while Judah was still in exile in Babylon.  These words surely spoke to the people’s hopes but this prophecy was not what was expected.  A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”  Out of something strong and established yet cut down shall come forth something vulnerable, something growing where nothing should.  God judging not with what the eyes can see or what the ears can hear (as we do) but with righteousness, with integrity and equity.  And then all those predators and prey shacking up like old friends, with a child at the front of God’s parade.  Not what was expected but certainly a dream worth longing for.


            But we know that receiving not what was expected is not always a good surprise.  We don’t expect cancer.  Or a stillbirth.  Or a gunman in an elementary school.   Or a natural disaster taking away a slew of homes.  Or the well-meaning but insensitive comments of others when we are hurting.  Or the rich getting ever richer and insulated and the poor continuing to get even poorer.  God upends our expectations of despair with utopian dreams when we have lost hope but what of God when it goes the other way?


            Certainly the people of Judah and Israel did not expect the Greeks and the Romans to be an occupying force in their country.  It was one thing to be carried off into exile; it was quite another to be rendered to a police state in one’s own land.  John the Baptizer was preaching a baptism of repentance, demanding that God’s people turn their lives toward God’s righteousness; that they turn in their ‘old lives for a kingdom life’.   In John’s hopes for the expected Messiah we can hear intimations of a longing for a zealot: someone who will clean not only the spiritual house of the Lord but also the land of Judah and Israel from foreign occupation.

The peaceable kingdom

            And though Jesus said that he had come not to bring peace but a sword, he also said that those who live by the sword, die by the sword.  He was given a bandit’s, a zealot’s death but he went to it willingly, even offering forgiveness from the cross.  Jesus hoped that there would be peace between God and human beings, but it would take longer than his lifetime.  Frederick Buechner wrote, “For Jesus, peace seems not to have meant the absence of struggle but the presence of love.” 


            To make peace with a world full of beauty and brutality can take a long time.  And to make peace with the God, the power, the mystery that created it can take even longer.  Oftentimes, we ascribe to God, that power greater than ourselves, the evil that we did not expect, that gave us unimaginable grief, for we do not want to make peace with that which does not give peace.  Though we would exile ourselves from God, God welcomes us home anyway.  Though we do not even know the way home, God sends us Jesus, a fiery, fierce yet peace-filled savior.  Though we do not know whether we can love or forgive or make peace yet again, God waits for us.


            And maybe that’s what Advent is all about:  God waiting for us while we’re coming to peace with what this whole existence is about.  Where does life come from and where does consciousness go when life is over?  Who are you?  Who am I?  Who are we?  How can I live peacefully with myself and with other human beings?


            Here are some signs that we might be experiencing inner peace:


·         Tendency to think and act spontaneously rather than from fear based on past experiences;

·         Ability to enjoy each moment;

·         Loss of interest in judging others;

·         Loss of interest in judging self;

·         Loss of interest in interpreting the actions of others;

·         Loss of interest in pursuing conflict; 

·         Loss of ability to worry;

·         Frequent periods of appreciation;

·         Feelings of connectedness with others and with nature;

·         Increased susceptibility to acts of kindness extended by others;

·         An increased tendency to let things happen rather than make them happen;

·         Uncontrollable urge to extend kindness;

·         Gaining the ability to love without expecting anything in return.

Not what you’d expect, these signs of inner peace.  And I think before we can make peace with God or with our neighbor, we have to make peace with ourselves.  Accept ourselves, all of it, our flaws and our unique capabilities, our sins and how we can be such a blessing, our hurtful ways and our ability to love, be courageous and humble in heart.


            For in this way the wolf and the lamb can lie down within us.  For in this way a child can lead us.


            Peace be with you.



No comments: