Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us…
Preachers have, what I like to think of, invisible radars attached to the tops of our heads… listening, especially when they know it’s their turn in the pulpit, for signals in the spiritual, cultural, political , community air waves, and in the lives of congregational members entrusted to our care; listening, praying, studying and thinking how we might respond with words of encouragement, hope, faith and challenge. Listening for the signal amidst the noise, for the still small voice of God to break through to guide and inspire. Watching for the light that shines in the darkness to navigate those unknown places for which there are no maps.
Recently a clergy colleague, preparing for a homily asked: How does God the Holy Spirit speak to you? Where do you hear the Spirit? Where do you listen for the Spirit? I responded that I hear God the Holy Spirit speak in the scriptures, particularly in the prophets and the Gospels. And even more clearly still in Jesus’ parables. And…-that I often “hear” The Holy Spirit’s wisdom in Tom Ehrich’s and Richard Rohr’s blogs, sometimes in novels, movies, song lyrics, and… on the radio.
Thanksgiving afternoon I listened to NPR while preparing our home for guests. At one point I paused to listen to a Fresh Air interview with a film critic and (if my memory serves me correctly) with Gary Oldman, the actor who portrays Winston Churchill in the new movie Darkest Hour. The film critic inquired: “There have been so many films about Churchill. Why do we need another?”
Oldman responded: (Again to the best of my memory) “Western Europe was crumbling. An apocalypse was looming. Winston Churchill was the only one strong enough to unite all parties and lead Britain to victory.”]
We now live in challenging times–the threat of war, terrorism, political turmoil, unstable and unpredictable world leaders…so it is valuable to look back to those who were capable of leading us out of chaotic and dangerous times. Churchill was one of those leaders. “Though Churchill suffered inner anxiety and pain from his catastrophic term as Lord of the Admiralty during WWI” wrote our local film critic Colin Covert…[Darkest Hour] is a beautifully crafted love letter” [reminding us] “to Never, never,never, give up” courage amidst turmoil, a value that remains quite resonant [today].
A few days later while driving to Kowalski’s, Kerry Miller was hosting in a call in radio show. She invited her listeners to respond to the question: Who are we in turbulent times? Good question. Who are we? Where is our strength, our hope and resilience? Where is the light? To whom can we turn for wisdom?
Today begins the Third Week of the Advent. It’s the five year anniversary of the massacre of school children at Sandy Hook Elementary. Wildfires continue to burn in LA, the ability of North Korea to launch intercontinental ballistic weapons that will reach the US increases, in Jerusalem , ancient Palestinian – Israeli tensions have re- ignited. Whose photo will be in tomorrow’s news?
What can we learn from looking back to our Jewish and Christian spiritual forebears in the Advent Scriptures?
In their Advent homilies Barb and Jered rightly referenced the historical context of the readings from Mark’s Gospel and the prophet Isaiah. For just as we need the context of the American Revolution to understand Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. And just as we need the context of the Civil Rights Movement to interpret MLK, Jr’s. Letter from a Birmingham Jail… We need the context in which our Advent readings were composed, and then ask…. what can we learn about living in tumultuous times from the first followers of Jesus. From those early Christian communities who waited expectantly for Jesus’ return –in the midst of war, persecution and calamity. The Apostle Paul had been preaching Jesus’ imminent return while evangelizing in the Greek- speaking world.
Today’s NT lesson is from the First Letter to the new church at Thessalonica. It’s the earliest of Paul’s letters we have- the oldest book in the NT. Written from Corinth about 51 C E. The followers of Jesus in this port city on the Aegean suffered intense persecution. Bible scholars tell us that in the midst of persecution “Paul’s over -riding purpose was to soothe the anxiety of those whose loved -one’s had already died without having been exalted by the Lord’s return. Paul’s letter addresses their anxiety, and their disappointment, while reinforcing his original teaching instructing how followers of Jesus should live as they wait for his return; how they should strengthen and support one another.
“…Be at peace among yourselves” he wrote, “admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. Repay no one evil for evil, always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, Pray without ceasing, Give thanks in all circumstances; abstain form every form of evil, …may your Spirit, Soul and body be kept sound…”
Twenty years later [By the time Mark writes his account of Jesus life around 70 AD] Paul was dead. Back in Jerusalem when the Jews rose up and rebelled against their occupiers– spiritually and physically exhausted by Rome’s brutal military and the desecration of the temple… Roman garrisons laid siege to the Temple, the very epicenter of Jewish life, destroying all Jerusalem… crucifying thousands.
Writer James Carroll puts it this way: “The simple rule for populations conquered by Rome was straightforward: Submit or die.” And still, Jesus had not yet returned.
What can we learn by looking back to these first century Jewish and Gentile disciples of Jesus? Where did they find hope, courage in the midst of disappointment and apocalypse? Where did they find Jesus?
They found him in the Gospels.
In Mark, the earliest Gospel in the NT, in Matthew, Luke that followed and later the Gospel of John written near the end of the first century they found the hope, John’s Gospel taught that Jesus is the Logos…In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word of God became a mode of Jesus’ presence in turbulent times inviting Jews and Gentiles alike to become followers of The Way. To live like Jesus did. To love like Jesus did. To practice justice, compassion and reconciliation like Jesus did and as Jesus taught.
Theologian Sallie McFague once asked: “How can my life be a reflection of love in this time and place? The classic phrase for discipleship, she answered –the imitation of Christ– means that we were made by God to become like God, loving all others, loving universally.”
The Imitation of Christ, is the title Thomas á Kempis 13th century devotional and from a verse in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
It’s the practice of following Jesus’ example.
How shall we live in tumultuous times? Imitate Christ.
- Love like he loved.
- Forgive like he forgave.
- Heal like he healed.
- Challenge hypocrisy like he did.
- Speak truth to power like he did.
- Put the needs of human beings first like he did.
For I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was sick and you cared for me; Naked and you clothed me; Imprisoned and you came to me. (Matthew 25.35-40)
The Roman Catholic tradition teaches us to imitate Christ by practicing The works of mercy for the love of God.
The works of mercy include:
Corporal Concerns and actions that support material needs:
- Feed the hungry
- Visit the sick
- Clothe the naked
- Give drink to the thirsty
- Shelter the homeless
- Ransom the captive
- Bury the dead.
They also include-
Spiritual Concerns and actions that support Spiritual needs
- Instruct the ignorant
- Encourage the sinner
- Council the doubtful
- Comfort the afflicted
- Pray for the living and the dead
- Forgive offenses willingly
- Bear wrongs patiently.
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us… in these uncertain and tumultuous times… …And may you find us… following your example, imitating your life and teachings as we know your presence in the Gospels, the Word of God, Emmanuel, God with us.
Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age, James Carroll, Viking Press 2014