Sunday’s sermon: Waiting in the Mystery

This sermon is from Dec. 3, 2017. Due to illness (thank you, laryngitis), we had a hymnsing this past Sunday as opposed to a traditional service with a sermon. Hopefully, we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming next week! 

waiting mystery

Texts used – Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Mark 13:24-37

  • I want to ask you all a question this morning … and yes, you can actually answer it – like – out loud … with your voices. What are some of your favorite Christmas songs? [PAUSE] Okay … and why are they your favorite? [PAUSE] Music and songs evoke powerful memories and emotions in us, don’t they?
    • Music activates many different regions in the brain all at one time – the auditory region (processes sound), the motor region (processes rhythm), and the limbic region (processes emotional response)
      • Hymns/songs are very often used in nursing homes and memory care facilities for those suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia as a way to reach people who often feel beyond reach → Even people who have lost the ability to convey coherent sentences will still be able to sing along or tap out the rhythm to old familiar songs.
        • Story of Margaret – nursing home resident who could no longer speak but would hum and tap out the rhythm to old, familiar hymns and songs and mouth the words to familiar prayers
    • Holidays and Christmas music are especially prone to this sort of lyrical nostalgia → For whatever reason, Christmas songs almost always bring us back to former times and places, making us smile, laugh, dance, sing, and maybe shed a tear or two.
  • So throughout Advent, we’ll be looking at and listening to some of these favorite Christmas songs, thinking about how they enhance and inform our faith as we wait for the coming of the Christ Child. – key word = “wait” → So many of our “typical” Christmastime activities include busy, hustle-bustle, glitz-and-glitter preparations – decorating houses, baking cooking, wrapping presents, and so on. And those are all wonderful, joyful, fun holiday activities. BUT those are also all activities focused on Christmas itself – on the day 23 days from now. In the cycles and seasons of the church, Advent is a special time – a different kind of time.
    • Time for preparation, yes, but a different kind of preparation → time for intentionally waiting
      • Time for self-examination
      • Time for prayer and reflection
      • Time to pause from all the busyness of the world around us and focus on our thoughts and words and actions in this in-between time
      • Similar to Lent in its attitude of preparation – often called “Little Lent” in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions
      • So throughout Advent, we’re going to be approaching these favorite hymns and songs from the angle of how they help us wait, how they help us prepare not our houses and our trees but our hearts and our souls.
  • Today’s song = O Come, O Come Emmanuel
    • A bit of an odd song for Christmastime
      • Not upbeat, bells-a-jingling sort of Christmas son we’re used to
      • Slow tempo and minor key making it a haunting, pensive, pondering sort of song
      • Includes odd phrases like “ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here”
    • But in terms of celebrating Advent – this in-between time of waiting and pondering – the message of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is crucial because it reminds us what it is that we’re waiting for: the coming of the Christ Child.
  • [LISTEN TO THE SONG – “O COME, O COME EMMANUEL” sung by Penatonix[1]] → powerful song because it speaks to so many aspects of our waiting
    • Speaks to the waiting of the past – the history of faith (story of the Israelites)
    • Speaks to our current waiting – “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emannuel shall come to thee, O Israel”
      • Especially some of the other verses (#116 in black hymnal[2]):
        • 6: O come, O Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by your Advent here; Love stir within the womb of night and death’s own shadows put to flight.
        • 7: O come, Desire of Nations, bind all people’s in one heart and mind; make envy, strife, and quarrels cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
    • Speaks to the spirit of our waiting
      • Waiting and pondering
      • Waiting and reflecting
      • Waiting in that haunting, powerful mystery of God coming down to earth not in the form of a mighty and magnificent conqueror but a helpless, vulnerable human child
  • Hear all of this echoed in our Scripture passages this morning, too
    • Ps 80 = call for God to come into our waiting
      • Text: Shepherd of Israel, listen! … Let your hand be with the one on your right side – with the one whom you secured as your own – then we will not turn away from you! Revive us so that we can call on your name.[3]
      • Text: Restore us, God! Make your face shine so that we can be saved![4] (repeated 3 times in just a few short verses)
      • In this passage, we hear the desperate plea of God’s people for God’s presence among them – a presence that saves and protects, that strengthens and lifts up. Even though they acknowledge that there have been hardships – “You’ve fed them bread made of tears; you’ve given them tears to drink three times over! You’ve put us at odds with our neighbors; our enemies make fun of us!”[5] – despite those hardships, they cry out for God’s presence among them. They cry out for Emmanuel, God With Us. “O come, o come, Emmanuel!”
  • Gospel passage = a tough one – not a passage we usually associate with the Christmas season → But again, this is when we have to remember that Advent is a season not just about Dec. 25. Advent is a season about preparing for the coming of Christ, both that first time in a manger … and when Christ comes again.
    • 2nd coming of Christ, final in-breaking of God’s Kingdom here on earth = not something we often talk about in mainline churches
    • Certainly not something we talk about often at Christmastime BECAUSE the whole idea of the 2nd coming has been co-opted by ideas of doom and gloom, of fire and brimstone, of the end of the world and rapture and things like that – not things we want to think about among the glitz and glitter of the holiday season → And when we read our passage from Mark this morning, we can see a glimpse of where that idea comes from – text: In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor.[6]
      • Purpose of this language discussed in our Coffee and Conversation material last week: This language is designed not so much to foretell specific events as to emphasize with mighty language the universal and final import of the end of the present age and the inauguration of the age to come.[7]
        • More light-hearted comparison = the way the boys use “never” for everything → doesn’t actually mean they’ve never had ice cream, just means they haven’t had it for a while, but the language is much more dramatic and attention grabbing
    • So Jesus is trying to grab our attention with all of this apocalyptic imagery. But we have to remember that this imagery is not the end of the passage … it’s just a short beginning! – Jesus’ continued conversation with the disciples: Nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows. Watch out! Stay alert! You don’t know when the time is coming. … What I say to you, I say to all: Stay alert![8]
      • Not about what is ending (as is so often emphasized in contemporary end-of-the-world, apocalyptic thinking) but about what is beginning: the kingdom of God on earth – peace, justice, mercy, hope → We believe that Jesus came that first time to teach us about these things – about God’s love for us, about the beauty and everlasting peace of God’s kingdom, about hope and salvation, and to extend God’s immeasurable grace to us. So why, in the face of all that goodness and blessing, would we believe that when he comes again, Christ will bring horror and pain and destruction?
        • Again, Coffee and Conversation material: The emphasis of [this passage] is on being ready to participate in the fulfillment of history; the fullness of what the gospels call the kingdom of God. The message is clear: the priorities of our lives must center around the will of God – justice, love, mercy, forgiveness, life, wholeness, reconciliation, joy. … Until we are consciously aiming our lives toward the promises of God we are not ready to celebrate Christmas.[9]  → That is what Advent is all about. That is what we are preparing ourselves for throughout this season in the life of the church as well as throughout the span of our lives: the fulfillment of the promises of God: justice, love, mercy, forgiveness, life, wholeness, reconciliation, joy. We’re not supposed to know when Christ is coming back. Not even Christ himself knew that! During Advent, we talk a lot about being “people of the promise. And we are. People of the promise of a Savior – a promise of hope and grace and everlasting peace. People of the promise of a Savior who has come, yes, but also of a Savior who will come again to reveal God’s glorious kingdom in ways that we cannot even begin to imagine. We are to wait in the mystery. But beyond that, we are to wait embracing the mystery because each new day gives us the chance to embody God’s love and hope and mercy in this world. Each new day gives us the chance to bring about a new sliver of God’s Kingdom. And so in all our watchful and expectant and mystery-soaked waiting, our spirits sing, “O come, o come, Emmaneul!” Amen.


CHARGE: Last nugget from last week’s Coffee and Conversation: The season of Advent which prepares us for Christmas focuses our minds, wills, and hearts not on the “end of the world” but on the beginning of life as God would have it lived – the kingdom in all its fullness, “abundant life.”[10] Friends, as you go from this place, go both looking for that kingdom and looking to be that kingdom.

May starlight guide your steps towards this place of wonder,
May angels sing their news as you travel to the manger,
May promise fill these days as we watch at the edge of birth,
And may faith tell you, Emmanuel will be with us soon, in human skin. Amen.


[1] “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” as performed by Pentatonix from the album “PTXMas: Deluxe Edition,” RCA Records, 2014.

[2] “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” New Century Hymnal. (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1995), hymn #116.

[3] Ps 80:1a, 17-18.

[4] Ps 80:3, 7, 19.

[5] Ps 80:5-6.

[6] Mk 13:24-26.

[7] Carol J. Miller. “Watchful Expectancy” in The Light Will Shine: A Study for Advent – Leader’s Guide. (Pittsburgh, PA: The Kerygma Program, 1999), 6.

[8] Mk 13:32-33, 37.

[9] Carol J. Miller. “Watchful Expectancy” in The Light Will Shine: A Study for Advent – Resource Book. (Pittsburgh, PA: The Kerygma Program, 1999), 5.

[10] Miller, Resource Book, 6.

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