Setting the Table

Sermon delivered at Second Church in Newton UCC, December 7, 2014

Isaiah 40: 1-11

Mark 1: 1-8

And just like that, we find ourselves in the Second week of Advent.  Before we know it, another Christmas will have come and gone, all of our hard work and insanely busy social calendars will have paid off and we’ll be thankful for the gifts and the people and the food, and we’ll be glad to have about 345 days before we have to do it all ADVENT-2-PEACEagain.  But Advent is not just the season leading up to Christmas…it is the season of expectation, awaiting God’s arrival into our lives…and it’s the season of preparing, not just preparing the way for God, but preparing ourselves and our expectations for what is possible in God.  What does it mean to prepare our expectations?  Driving into town from the north the other day there were signs that read: Due to construction, expect minor delays.  What does one do with this information?  How do you prepare for minor delays?  What does that even mean, how MINOR a delay are we talking about?  I made a note of my reaction to these signs, it was basically some groaning “UUUGGGGHHH!” followed by accelerating the speed of my car.  In other words, despite all the signs, Ii didn’t know how I should prepare to expect minor delays, so I didn’t do anything at all…except speed up so I could get through the whole inconvenience a little bit faster.  And wouldn’t you know it…the world conformed to my expectations…having no idea what to expect…I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.

There’s a video online that perhaps many of you have seen…it is a visual document of two different world views colliding, and it begs the viewer to analyze their own views[ of how the universe works. 

 One human being who has been taught about the concept of RAIN, who knows for a fact it is RAINING outside.  To tell this girl that what is happening is not “raining” but “sprinkling,” it’s as if you told her “up” has suddenly become known as “down.”  The little boy wails, “IT’S SPRINKLING NOT RAINING!” like the world is a chaotic realm of misery that makes no sense at all.  And, of course, what’s the only difference between these two kids?  One of them has begun preparation for a world of vast possibility–knowing there are many options other than simply “raining” or “not”–and the other one has not yet begun that journey.

Our gospel story introduces us to John the Baptist, and he’s known as that because Baptism was his thing.  Baptism was the practice that he popularized to expand the Jewish people’s expectations of what was possible.  The practice of the day was to go annually to the temple, make a sacrifice, and have the high priests absolve you of your sins. But John saw the need for something new: a one-time cleansing that affirmed that God truly forgives all things, but would force the baptized to actually LIVE better, rather than going through the annual cycle of sin, repent, forgive. Now the expectation was: God has forgiven all you have done, God calls you god’s beloved….now go LIVE INTO that identity. Baptism was–and is–a one-time ritual that is meant to prepare us for doing God’s work every day of our lives.  It expands our expectations for what is possible. 

The same way that setting the table for a meal prepares you for a specific dining experience, John the Baptist was there to set the table, to prepare everyone, for the feast of love, hope, justice, peace, joy, and redemption that Jesus Christ would bring.

When you’re expecting guests for a big feast…what do you do?  How do you prepare?  What is expected?  Who should sit next to whom?  Who should be seated as far apart as possible to keep them from nudging one another into a conflict?  Who eats with their left hand, and who with their right; and who will be annoyed with constricted movement as they are eating?  Is there a kids’ table?  Who sits there?  Will my recent graduate enjoy sitting at the kids table with their younger cousins, or will that be received as our refusal to recognize her as an adult?  Should everyone get a wine glass…or is there one guest who isn’t drinking anymore…or shouldn’t drink anymore…is it ok that the rest of us are?  And nothing will ever be clean enough, will it?  No matter how many times you dust and scrub and wipe down and vacuum, someone is going to find something wrong.  Am I prepared for that?  And what about our loved ones who will not be with us at the table…the people we have always expected to see who won’t be with us this year?  Are we prepared for that?  As I was writing this I really didn’t know if you would think this list of worries was really overdoing it, or if I was only scratching the surface of the considerations you all go through when hosting a meal.  But the point is…hosting is hard work, or at least it should be.  And just think, all these considerations are for family and friends…people we know…people we expect.  What happens when God brings to us the unexpected?  What happens when God makes possible things that we failed to prepare for?

In the season of Advent, this is the work that we do, we prepare ourselves and our homes, not just for food and festivities, but for receiving God into our lives.  It’s a season when we remind one another that we may worship God, we may dream of God, we may speak to god and affirm that God still speaks to us…but are we ready for God to come to our house?  Have we set the table in a way that will give God the appropriate room to work?  We talk about a Loving God, and a God who brings peace and joy and hope…but are we properly prepared to understand what these things look like in our lives?  A lot of us may need to be prepared anew to properly expect God’s wonders, lest we think it’s only raining outside…when it’s really God’s love sprinkling down on us.   We affirm every week that God seeks a table where people of all colors and all creeds and all walks of life can find themselves truly at home together…but are we prepared for what that requires of us?  Have we thought through the dynamics at play in getting people from different walks of life around the same table?  Are we die-in protestsready for the hard work of setting aside our own needs and desires to make room for others?  And even if we have such a table–as we do here this morning, a table where all are welcome, a table set for all because all share the broken bread and the common cup, a table where we meet each other in our vulnerability and our sins rather than according to our privilege or pretend perfection….even when we have such a table…have we prepared the way for others–people who are not US–to be able to get to it?

Isaiah has been telling is for centuries how to prepare the way for God: lower the die insmountains and raise the valleys! Straiten the winding roads! Turn the rocky fields into pastures! This is what it means to set the table for God’s justice and glory: to change the surface of the earth so that all are made one. So lion and lamb lie together, so that every voice can sing “here is our God!” Our God brings transformation, our God breaks into our world and puts the King of Kings in a feeding trough, in the care of a poor and lowly family.  Our God will always raise up those who the world oppresses and ignores, and our God will always humble those of us who are privileged to the point of failing to love our neighbors and our God as we love ourselves.

Friends, brothers and sisters, the story for 2,000 years and counting goes like this: expect an unimaginable love. Expect unparalleled justice and joy. Expect a peace that surpasses all understanding. Expect awe and wonder.  Expect the heavens themselves to break open and pour light and love out on this earth for ALL God’s Beloved People.  Expect your world to change, and our God to bring about justice in ways that astonish all of us.  And as we prepare and wait and faithfully stand in expectation of a brighter and more just world: Expect minor delays. 

....peace like a river?...

….peace like a river?…

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