Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Advent: Anticipation

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 12/06/2010

[audio link not yet available]

[Hammer time…]

Life finds its stride in rhythms and melody.

The beating of our hearts. Breathing in and out. The contraction and relaxation of our muscles. The cadence of our footsteps and the swinging of our arms. Waking, sleeping. Meals and prayers punctuating the day.

It’s no accident the scriptures begin with a poem. What better way to show us the creation of all things then through words ordered by creative rhythm and melody. Vocalized sounds woven into primitive song, the hustle and the flow that creates worlds in our minds, in our bodies, in our hearts.

[Genesis 1v14…]

14And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, 15and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, 18to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.

Genesis 1v14–19

Rhythms and melody from the beginning, surrounding and penetrating every experience. Night, day. 6 days of work, 1 day of rest. Fortnights and months from the waxing and waning moon. Seasons from the tilt of the earth’s axis and the wheeling path around the sun. Planting and harvesting. Hunting and hibernating. Feasts and festivals, holidays and holy days.

We are in a season now called Advent, which is Latin for “the coming.” If seasons make up the stride of life, Advent is the moment before the footfall. A holy moment. What Rob Bell calls “the moment before the moment.”

Advent is a season of anticipation, of looking forward. It is dark, but the pregnant stillness in air says that light is about to appear on the horizon. The tracks are empty, but an ear pressed against them can feel a vibration that promises the train’s a-coming. The package hasn’t arrived, but the tracking status has changed to “out for delivery.”

Let’s look at an advent story this morning, and hear what the scriptures are teaching us about anticipation, about looking forward to what God is about to do.

Read and comment on Luke 1v5-23…

5In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both well advanced in years.

8Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

11Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

18Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

19The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

21Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

23When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25“The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

Notice - something significant is happening in this passage, but it all feels like prelude, doesn’t it? Such a sense of pause, of presence in the moment, of a pace yet to quicken. Once. Meanwhile. Remained unable to speak. Were waiting and wondering. Returned home. Remained in seclusion. And listen for all the future language: “Will bear…will be a joy…many will rejoice…he will be filled with the Holy Spirit…many will he bring back…he will go make ready a people prepared…you will be silent…which will come true…”

Another way to reflect on it would be to say that the moment before the moment matters. This moment (the moment of these advent prophecies and pregnancies) has a particular kind of life in it because of what is coming next (God himself entering into the world through flesh and blood in Jesus of Nazareth), and the life available in what is coming next is accessible to us because of what happens in this moment (it allows us to see what’s next for what it is, to not miss it, to be prepared to receive it, respond to it). The two moments – the moment before the moment, and the moment itself – are joined together in meaning and power.

We see this in the way kids love hearing stories again and again, filling in the blanks; then when something comes at the right time, even perhaps in a surprising way, it gives delight - delight whose power was born in the moment before the moment. [telling Elle she is a great daughter…]

Many of us know what is arguably the greatest single moment in all of pop music. And that, of course, is Phil Colin’s drum solo three minutes and forty three seconds into “In The Air Tonight.” [play short clip] But would that moment be what it is without the 3:43 that come before it? Would we know what to do when it came without experiencing the moments before the moment? [play the few seconds before and the moment itself…] For those who know the song, would the 3:43 before it be what it is without what we all know is coming? Those 3:43 are what they are because of the anticipation present in them, the drum solo inhabiting them like a baby in the womb, waiting to be born out of them.

Anticipation, looking forward to something, is a way of making the future blessing present now. Through anticipating it, you receive life today from the future that hasn’t yet arrived, but is surely coming. [examples…] This is what the season of Advent is all about.

Look again at Zachariah’s experience with the angel. Gabriel makes him a promise about God’s answer to his prayers. A son is coming to him and Elizabeth. A son who will be a big time player in the coming of the Messiah.

The whole point of prophecy is that those who hear it would begin to anticipate its fulfillment. Because in their anticipation, they are prepared to receive what God is going to do. And because in their anticipation, they receive life today from what God is going to do in the future. (After all, God could just do what he’s going to do without telling anyone right? But we’d be left in the dark, and everything God is doing is precisely so that light would chase away the darkness in which we are dying.) Anticipation is the first thing we do to join with God in his salvation.

But Zachariah’s capacity to anticipate God’s promises, to look forward to their fulfillment, has been destroyed by the work of the enemy in his life, hasn’t it? They were childless. One disappointment after another, and now they are advanced in years. And so he doesn’t receive the promise, doesn’t begin to anticipate its fulfillment. Instead he resists it. “How can I be sure of this? I’m old. My wife’s no spring chicken either.”

It’s the sort of thing that happens to many of us.

When you look forward to something that doesn’t happen, it can sour the anticipated joy you carried into that moment. [Carmel apple/onion prank…]

So sometimes, we protect ourselves from that disappointment by choosing to be skeptical about any good thing promised. We’ll believe it when we see it, we say.

Perhaps there are times when that’s wise [Lions football…].

But no matter how wise it may be, it closes the door to the life intended for us now from God’s good future. [Share my inability to look forward to anything unsecured and the bad fruit of thatthe joys un-looked-forward-to would certainly outweigh the disappointments avoided on balance]

Sometimes, not only are we not anticipating the good thing promised, we are actually anticipating the bad thing that we anticipate will take away the good thing promised. [examples…] Which brings the ill effects of future disappointment into our present nows, and which are carried with us into the future, whether or not our disappointments are realized.

The ways in which our capacity to look forward, to anticipate is compromised by any number of things: the disappointments of life, the unreliability of others, misplaced expectations…

[Quote from SI about LeBron James’ first game back in Cleveland after leaving his old team to go play in Miami: The basketball lesson for the day was that ‘tis better to have LeBron James than to have loved and lost him. But this night was never really about basketball. It was about Cleveland….It was about Cavs fan Bart Gruber, who brought his 8-year-old son to the game – not so much to cheer or boo, but because they are Cavs fans. I asked Gruber what he told his son after “The Decision.” “After he cried for two hours,” Gruber said, “I just told him this was life.”]

This may be life in this world. But it is not life in the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God, joy awaits, not sorrow. Promises are kept. Every disappointment swallowed up in a beauty that takes our breath away and fills our lungs with laughter. Love wins. The King comes home to stay.

Look at children. They can delight in what they think is coming, no matter its likelihood… [examples…]

Why not us? Because we don’t want to look foolish. Jesus says to inherit the kingdom of God, we must become like little children. This, I believe, is part of that kind of faith. Faith that risks looking a fool for the sake of the Kingdom.

Which is why Gabriel shuts Zachariah up. He’s not able to speak until the promise is fulfilled. Which is an interesting thing, isn’t it?

First, who looks like the fool now? See, that’s the truth about not trusting God’s promises; it means we are trusting the enemies promises, and that is true folly.

Second, every time Zachariah can’t speak, he’s reminded of God’s supernatural power, which in turn encourages him to anticipate the promise, doesn’t it?

And finally, every time he can’t speak, he’s reminded that he can’t speak because he used his speech to push back against faithfully anticipating the good thing God was promising him. Which encourages him to look forward to its fulfillment, because it’s when the prophecy is fulfilled that he will get his speech back.

God’s a genius.

Anticipation is an act of faith, faith that opens the door to life from the heavens. This advent, may we take advantage of the moments before the moment. May we open our eyes to look forward to what God has promised us. May we open our hearts to look forward to the arrival of a savior in the midst of our deepest pain. May we embrace the life that finds its stride in the rhythms of looking forward and waiting and receiving, of longing and celebration, of anticipation and fulfillment.

Practical Tips…

1. Look forward like a fool to something inconsequential but potentially joy-filled for you. Go public with it. Make some kind of daily reminder for yourself. When you see the reminder, welcome the joy trying to poke in to your heart from the future.

2. Make an Advent List. In prayer, list the things you are looking forward to God doing in your life and in the world. [The Advent Prayer Hour as a great opportunity…] As you do, anticipate the joy that’s coming in their fulfillment.

3. Repent of foolish foolishness. Resolve to be God’s fool and no one else’s. Turn doubts and fears into prayers. Change your “We’ll see” to “Amen.” (Mary’s “May it be to me according to your word.”) Every prayer contains at least seed of anticipation that God might act, can act, may want to act on our behalf.

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