RENEW: A Passing Thing, This Shadow

by Mike Eller; Isaiah 64.1-9 (NRSV)

Greetings, College Park, from New York City!  Katie, myself, Samuel and Karah have enjoyed worshiping with you every week even if in this odd, virtual way. For all of the headache that remote learning and meetings have caused us, we find ourselves very grateful on this Thanksgiving week to be connected to a church family. If anything, it has strengthened our bond to the family of faith where even distance isn’t enough to keep us from encouraging each other and walking together on this journey. We hope to continue to get to know you more as we move into a new year.

I’m also thankful for the opportunity to work with such an amazing staff. Though I have to admit that it feels a little like hazing the new kid that they’ve asked me to preach the first Sunday of Advent. But I’ll chalk it up to tough love. Nonetheless, I’m thrilled to be a part of the team and to offer some of my own thoughts as we enter this new Advent season.

Advent is upon us…a season of waiting that moves along more like a slow crescendo leading up to all the Christmas festivities. If it had a soundtrack, it wouldn’t be a fanfare but more like a John Williams symphony, teasing out our deepest emotions.  The sights of the season are highlighted by holiday candles, the steady influx of Christmas cards in the mail, an unusual amount of desserts on the kitchen counter, and decorations all around town.

But if this is the only way Advent comes to us, we’d miss out on a critical reality — at the heart of Advent there is a deep longing, a groaning, a wounded creation waiting for the fullness of its Creator, the healer, to come and usher in the reign of true peace.

In my short lifetime, which is admittedly quickly becoming not-as-short as I approach my 40th birthday early in the new year, I can’t recall an Advent season that needed as little convincing of this wounded reality. As we near end of this devastating year 2020, we all have felt the angst and bitterness of life. Some of us more-so than others; yet the pains and challenges of living in these days have escaped none of us. Some of you have lost family members to covid. Some of you have lost your job or perhaps even your business. And all of us have felt the sting of separation and loss of community to some extent. Even daily life has been burdensome and at times it is all we can do just to make it to the next big news headline. 

I don’t know about you, but entering this season feels more like a trust fall, with no one on the other end to catch me, than the lilting dance of the sugarplum fairies. In an age of police brutality and the continued manifestations of systemic racism in our country, you don’t have to do much convincing of the wounded state of our world. Creation itself is groaning from years of abuse and misuse as we see more and more the effects of our lack of concern and care for her. Her groaning is heard in the terrors of incessant destruction by higher rates and catastrophic damage of weather events. It is seen in news clips of raging forest fires and melting ice caps. Creation is indeed wounded…and her people come limping just the same into this Christmas season.

You can say that we are at the end of our rope. With all of the promise with which we began this year, we conclude 2020 with empty hands and unresolved potential. Personally, I remember a year ago thinking 2020 was going to be the year for me – the last year of my 30’s. Among those plans was to run my first marathon, the New York City Marathon, at the beginning of this month. My first concert in Carnegie Hall with my NYC choir. Perhaps a new, fulfilling job in the city, on the way to becoming a true New Yorker. Of course, the majority of events, and many of our aspirations, were cancelled. This is certainly not the way we saw all of this playing out.

Advent comes to us, almost like a warm weighted blanket, bidding us to slow down and wait…but haven’t we been doing that all along? Hasn’t this been a year of waiting and anticipating? Even now, we are still waiting…for an election cycle to officially come to a close…for a vaccine that promises to restore life back to its pre-covid form…for justice for the lives lost at the willing hands of the state. All we have been doing is waiting – what then can this penitential season really offer us?

This year, the staff has decided on the Advent theme of REMIX. To remix something is to take the original and put a differed spin on it, holding it in a new light, maybe at a new angle, perhaps voicing it a little differently. And by remixing, a new thing is created altogether. We hope to do that in some ways with this familiar Christmas story. Along with this theme, we’ll also be highlighting different “re-“ words each week that will give some focus to our reflections.

The word for this first week of Advent is RENEW. This may seem like a trite, overused word in this self-help age of yoga classes, cruises, and vacation houses, but I believe there are valuable lessons of renewal we can glean from a look at the Scriptures surrounding the birth of Christ.

Earlier we heard the reading from Isaiah chapter 64. A prayer of lament, really. Part of a larger section of lament that spans a couple of chapters of this book. The words come from a people in exile – run out of their homes and their land, living in a foreign place – and daily faced with oppression and desperation. It feels like we are quite primed to hear this cry with open ears and fertile hearts. How can we not relate to words like oppression and desperation, even right and wrong, iniquity and anger?

The Israelites yearned for God to come in force, the way God had in the past:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

    so that the mountains would quake at your presence—

When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect…

Their hope was rooted in what they knew God was capable of doing though their reality was defined by a God they saw as being far off (in the heavens). — “That you would come down…” from up there. What they were feeling was distance. This was a call for God to come near again, to come out from hiding, and bring deliverance. Yet still, this was unmistakably a statement of faith.

I believe this lament can offer us some insight for our own journeys. For our purposes today, I’ve put together a short “renew” list that will highlight my prayer for what this season can be for us.

First, I pray we will RENEW our space to lament and grieve. This is an important step and one we shouldn’t bypass in haste to get to Bethlehem.

Many spiritual teachers will point to a universal pattern of transformation that moves us from Order, through Disorder, and into Reorder. And I think this a helpful model for us. We see this pattern at a meta level throughout life but also in a variety of ways in the constant cycle of all things being renewed. This is perhaps what is suggested in Romans when it says, to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” an unending, almost daily, cycle of reordering oneself.

This pattern begins with Order — when life seems to be the way it should be. Everything is in place and is “normal.” But as they say, “life happens,” and we transition from Order to Disorder. Something disrupts the calm and agitates the normal routine. The Israelites’ exile to a foreign land could be categorized by a move into Disorder. Perhaps the year 2020 could also fall into that category. And in this period of naming your situation, grief and lament are a necessary part of moving forward. Some might look at this as a lack of faith but I would suggest that it is an essential part of developing a wholesome faith. Just as a sprawling tree reaches its height only to the extent that its roots reach deep into the dirt. We must get our hands dirty in lament to God for the condition of our reality.

One need only to read the Psalms to know that lament and grief are vital to faith formation and transformation. Consider Psalm 80, another reading from today’s Lectionary readings, that includes a list of imperatives rather than a statement of praise:

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,

you who lead Joseph like a flock!

You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth

      before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.

Stir up your might,

and come to save us! (Psalm 80:1-2).

Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;

let your face shine, that we may be saved (Psalm 80:19).

So as we enter this Advent season, may it be that we RENEW our space to lament and grieve, a vital part in the discipline of waiting. 

In music theory class in college, at times when we were analyzing music, we would come across a passage of chords that sounded out-of-place to our young musical ears. A lesson I learned those years ago from my teacher still applies to much of life — he would always say, “embrace the dissonance,” for it served a purpose within the whole. Life in this way is more like jazz than nursery songs. What may right now sound like unresolved 7th chords, I believe will one day show itself as playing a vital part in a progression that is moving toward something much greater.

Secondly, may we RENEW our rest in a trustworthy God. I have always been quite impressed by the faith expressed in exilic texts like this one from Isaiah. To have an appreciation for the weight of this text, we have to understand that in ancient times, everything was tribal. This is to say that you were defined by your location and those you associate with — your people. The might and worth of your people were defined by the resources you had — the land, the animals, and the goods that your land afforded you.

The same could be said of your god. In a polytheistic age, your god was only as good as your situation. You could imagine all that was being said of the Israelites and their God during the exile. No jobs but oppressive slavery…No land and no resources to call their own. They were in no place to point to the might and worth of their God or even claim that there was a God at all. And yet, in the depths of their situation, an anthem welled up within them:

From ages past no one has heard,

     no ear has perceived,

no eye has seen any God besides you,

     who works for those who wait for him.

At best, this would have been heard as a slap-in-the-face for their oppressors, who boasted about the great might of their own gods. At worse, this was a subversive message of tyranny. But unmistakably, this was a statement of faith. A faith rooted in their present situation but always fixated on a future hope. And from this vantage point, they could weather any storm.

So, may it be with us, that we RENEW our rest in a trustworthy God in spite of our present circumstances.

If there was another hope that this season of renewal can be for us, it would be that we would RENEW our commitment to justice. The work of justice was an everyday reality for God’s people living in the shadows of oppression. But to us, it is something we can easily sidestep on the way to merely folding into the pattern of this world.

We’ve all heard it said that you shouldn’t judge a Christmas card by its cover. At first glance, we can easily get caught up in the wistful, Hallmark-y version of this nativity story. But we miss a deeper, truer reality at play without the lens of its first-century hearers. To see it — I think of those teenage characters in Stranger Things becoming aware of the upside-down realm. I believe God in this nativity narrative is inaugurating an upside-down kingdom that will subvert the power structures in place. 

So make no mistake, Christmas is a subversive narrative. We read here of no kingly throne but of a cold, dusty stable. No golden scepter with which to rule, just a wooden baby rattle. There are no guards present, just smelly animals. This story is proclaiming a kingdom that looks like no other but will supersede all kingdoms of this world.

But this reign will look more like a crying baby laying on hay, born to unwed parents, and in the unlikeliest of places – a small town about a few miles south of Jerusalem. It’s a story not tied up in bows but rather messy, secretive, subversive. To be sure, this story would have been heard in those days not as the sweet hum of a mother’s lullaby but as the desperate shouts of shepherds on a hillside. Its message of justice and deliverance would reach sages from far away, drive a powerful king to madness, and be welcomed by all who were being oppressed and forced to the fringes of society. God’s kingdom was here, present in the child born in David’s lineage, and its message was as piercing as the star against the dark Bethlehem night.

While our hearts are still and waiting this season, we wait actively, committed to the work of justice. Our rest is only true to the extent that we are pursuing rest for all people. This is a commitment to be again the voice calling out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” God is among us!

May we also RENEW our hope in the promise of God.

Though we may wade in the waters of Disorder for a season, the promise is that there will be a Reordering of things. This is the final movement in the universal pattern of transformation. This is the promise we cling to as believers. There will come a day when God will right the wrong, make the rough places smooth, the valley will be raised up and every mountain made low. This reordering shows up in the cycles of our own lives — A new year, a new job, a change of location, a friendship is made, a child is born.

But this movement into Reorder happens through Disorder, not around it. This is to say that Disorder must precede Reorder, which comes as a welcomed guest because we have already known so well the Disorder. It’s the final movement of the symphony — the long awaited return to the original theme, bringing us back to the familiar key of the first movement after many distant excursions of the in-between sections. It’s that great sigh from all the longing.

It comes like Christmas — which happens every year no matter what: In spite of our losses, our failures, our wilted promises — Christmas still comes, with its message of hope and promise. Like a determined wave, it breaks onto our dusty shores bringing renewal and offering its hope yet again. It doesn’t play favorites and pays no attention to worthiness or position. The message of Christmas is for kings and shepherds, the esteemed and the lowly alike.

Friends, may this season bring you a RENEWAL of hope in the promise of God.

I’d like to close with a quote from the beloved series by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. Coming to the end of their quest, Samwise Gamgee, one of the main characters, offers this: 

It’s like the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. 

Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t 

want to know the end because how could the end be happy? 

How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad 

has happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing this shadow, 

even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer. I know now folks in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.

Friends, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. And in the meantime, we must wait. In our waiting, may we allow space to lament and grieve, while also renewing our rest and hope in God.

Then we will find that in the waiting, there is deep-rooted and lasting peace. 

   May it be so.