O that you would tear open the heavens and come down

A sermon at Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, NY

First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2014

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

Tear open the heavens

Today we begin the season of Advent. In the four Sundays before Christmas we prepare for the feast where we celebrate God come into this world, as a human being, specifically as a helpless and powerless baby from a family that was basically poor. One way that Christians celebrate this feast of the incarnation is to give gifts, in honor and rejoicing that Jesus is in this real world where real things are important.

Of course, the culture around us sort of overemphasizes that a bit. The stuff outshines the star and even the baby. But even while the church affirms the enjoyment of Christmas and its material aspects, it has always prepared for it in a very different way. Advent is not about stuff. It is not about a baby. It is not about buying or cheery songs about snow. Advent is about the coming of the Lord; the day when all humanity shall see and be accountable to God. The images in our lessons are not light or superficial—in fact, they can be downright scary. “After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

In other words, prepare to meet your God.

But why? Why can’t we just have a merry little Christmas and be all cozy and party as the days grow dark and the weather gets cold? It’s a good question. I like to have fun and enjoy the holidays. But let’s remember, Christmas is real—Jesus really was born and came into this real world for us. And the world he came into, and continues to come into is very real indeed, and it is not all sweetness and light.
Sometimes we know we experience this disruption that Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel. We have losses and things look dark—at Trinity over the last couple of months, we know that well, losing both Fr. Allen and Keith at nearly the same time. But Jesus also talks about “the powers in the heavens” being shaken at the coming of the Lord. I have never seen anything about Jesus that was superstitious at all—powers and principalities are real, they are spiritual forces that have an effect on us, but they are not ghosts or goblins, rather they are feelings and relationships that go way beyond individuals or even existing organizations.

The powers can be very good or positive: a spirit of generosity that might characterize a whole family, or the spirit of respect that I’ve experienced here at Trinity. But powers can be very large and very negative. In our country there is a power of fear—fear of losing status or comfort— that is very pervasive. It is not so much about individuals as it something more widespread. And fear is the foundation of anger and that anger can lead to hate. Most of the time we are not aware of these powers around us, they are more like the ocean that fish swim in. The fish are not aware of the ocean or the water, it is their world.

When I read the account of the policeman in Ferguson, Missouri who shot Michael Brown, what I see is anger and fear. I know a bit about police work, and it was very poor police work, but mostly a man motivated by fear that he covered up with display of force. But that force is not the power we are talking about, the power is the fear that is shared by all those who control the body politic in Missouri. If you look to individuals, you usually cannot see it, but in that town where the racial composition has shifted in a short period of time, that spiritual power of fear has been shaken and awakened, and it is tragically not surprising that the court system, the political system and the law enforcement system have been in agreement to defend themselves and to protect that fear—to lose that power would be to lose self and security.

When the living God comes, the powers in the heavens will be shaken. That baby we’re looking forward to, the powerless little kid, his coming into the world disrupts all of these powers, these ways of being and doing things that we simply get used to. That’s why they killed him of course. But God raised him from the dead, because God is the God of justice and of life. God disrupts those principalities and powers—frightening things happen—but life also breaks in.

In this season of Advent we get ready for that life, real life in the real world. I have no quick solutions for the real problems of this world, or even of this one parish church in this one place. But I know that God is here for us, to cast out our fear. I know that the Epistle lesson from First Corinthians today is addressed to this place, and to the spirit of Trinity Church of Morrisania:

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the Grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus…–so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord…God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

 

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