sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 12/04/2011
2nd week of advent, season of preparation to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Time in the Christian calendar when we reflect on the experience of the absence of God, on waiting, on anticipation, on longing, on making ourselves ready for God’s incarnational coming into the world.
Did you ever notice in the scriptures how often the people of God are waiting? Noah waits for the floodwaters to recede…
But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. 2Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. 3The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, 4and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. 5The waters continued to recede until the tenth month, and on the first day of the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible.
6After forty days Noah opened a window he had made in the ark 7and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. 8Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. 9But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. 10He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. 11When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. 12He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.
13By the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year, the water had dried up from the earth. Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry. 14By the twenty-seventh day of the second month the earth was completely dry.
The king waits as Daniel waits through the night in a den of lions…
17A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the rings of his nobles, so that Daniel’s situation might not be changed. 18Then the king returned to his palace and spent the night without eating and without any entertainment being brought to him. And he could not sleep.
19At the first light of dawn, the king got up and hurried to the lions’ den. 20When he came near the den, he called to Daniel in an anguished voice, “Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to rescue you from the lions?”
Sarah remains barren for decade after decade, waiting for a child.
Jacob waits 14 years to marry Rebecca.
The Israelites wait 400 years in Egypt, then 40 more years in the desert.
Jonah waits in the belly of a fish.
Simeon waits to see the Messiah.
The disciples wait for Pentecost.
Paul waits in prison.
So this advent, we are going to spend this week and next reflecting on waiting, and the role it plays in new creation being birthed in our world.
We begin our reflection with Luke’s account of Mary and Elizabeth, two cousins who become pregnant in extraordinary circumstances.
The story takes place in Israel, a small nation under Roman occupation and oppression. Israel itself has been enduring a long period of waiting and pain and uncertainty. It has been 400 years since the last prophet, Malachi, has spoken. Listen for the threads of waiting woven through this account…
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.”
26In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
34“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37For no word from God will ever fail.”
38“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me according to your word.” Then the angel left her.
It is significant that when God is ready to act to deliver his people, after years and years of waiting, he chooses to begin with pregnancy.
Elizabeth’s and Mary’s pregnancies show us that before the kingdom of God comes to the world out there, it must first come to the world inside of us. And that as it comes, we experience periods of deliberate waiting, in which we learn to embrace uncertainty and pain as companions in our waiting.
“To group up spiritually means having growing pains in the darkest part of the night. Some Christians and even some churches have responded to this difficult truth by trying to create shortcuts – promises of easy grace, push button answers to complicated problems, illusions that we can go to church and work to bring in the kingdom out there in the world without entering the fiery process of bringing it into our own soul.”
Sue Monk Kidd, “When the Heart Waits” pg. 25
Pregnancy is a patient unfolding. It requires endurance. Lots of uncertainty. Deliberate waiting. Pain that embraced and incubated for sake of the new person who will be born. [Colin and I playing foosball…]
This is important to us as a centered-set church. Because our faith is defined by our movement towards Jesus, what matters to us is the process of new creation that happens as we take each new step of discipleship towards Jesus. And new creation – although it has many moments that are dramatic and eventful like birth, like the birth of Jesus, or the resurrection from the tomb – also has long periods of waiting where the growth is much more difficult to see from the outside. Periods like Mary’s pregnancy. Or like Jesus’ time on trial and on the cross and in the tomb.
“No aspect of thinking on conversion is more foreign to the American Evangelical experience than this stress on conversion as a process…Evangelicals emphasize emotion and an initial movement. This moment is celebrated, recalled, and when the experience fades, recaptured. But Christian tradition does not agree…Conversion is a continuous and lifelong process. Conversions proceed layer by layer, relationship by relationship, here a little, there a little – until the whole personality, intellect, feeling, and will have been recreated by God.”
John H. Westerhoff, the Spiritual Life, pages 75, 76
Sometimes in our pain, God is a rescuer. But sometimes he is also a midwife.
We have longings for growth. We have deep desires for transformation. For things to fundamentally change in our world, and in our soul, our minds, our hearts, our bodies. Some of those longings come from good visions God gives us of what is possible. Some of those longings come from the pain we know in our current state. The witness of the incarnation of Jesus is that God does desire to rescue us.
But that before the rescue comes, as part of the rescue, God wants to do something deep inside of us that requires patience and waiting and probably pain as well.
And we must not allow our distaste for pain to get in the way of that growth or transformation. Otherwise, things will stay the same.
The natural gradient in us is toward growth. Whatever we use repeatedly and compulsively to stop that growth is our addiction.
In our modern world, quick, easy-fix solutions are one of our addictions. We are, many of us, quickaholics and easaholics. [The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking…]
What if Mary had said, Well, I love the idea of the Son of the Most high and all that, but I’m just not sure I have the time and energy for a pregnancy right now. I’m engaged, I’ve got a wedding to plan. Plus, doesn’t that hurt a lot?
At a deeper level, our addiction to quick, easy-fix solutions keep us unaware of what is going on inside of us. It keeps us from growth. As soon as we have pain, our first instinct is to find a way to get rid of it. Preferably with an easy to swallow pill. Worst case, an injection.
How often do we recognize pain as an opportunity to discover some place in us that God might want to bring about new creation? And then trust him with a time and energy-consuming process like a pregnancy to give birth to it?
Perhaps if we could use this advent season to recognize and begin to break our addiction to quick, easy-fix solutions, we could begin to welcome the Kingdom of God within us in new ways, as Mary did.
Sue Monk Kidd identifies 3 rules of our addicted culture that we need to recognize and resist.
1. All lines must keep moving.
To resist entrainment, we must become still.
Pregnancy forces us to become still. Everything else becomes less important than that which is growing within us, preparing to be born.
2. Make life happen.
Mark 4:26 - ...the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain.
Parable of yeast.
Pregnancy reminds us that life is happening all on its own, and our main job is to support it, watch and wait, receive. “Let it be to me as you have said…”
3. Eat Dessert first.
Scott Peck: “Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with. It is the only decent way to live.”
Death always precedes resurrection. You can’t have resurrection life without death.
Pregnancy gives us none of what we’re longing for until the waiting and pain are done. Nothing, that is, except a deep, loving connection with the new life growing within us.
In waiting, it may look like nothing is happening. Like we are doing nothing. The temptation will be to get out of line. To abandon the line. Or to try to rush to the front to make things happen.
Pregnancy won’t let us do either.
Waiting is an essential part of following Jesus. He waits in the womb. He waits in the wilderness. He waits in the garden. He waits in the tomb. Sometimes the next step of discipleship doesn’t look like a step at all. It looks like continuing to face him, not changing course, not rushing forward without permission, even though it seems no movement is happening at all.
Waiting is the most persistently active forms of trust, isn’t it? You can take other steps of trust, and once the step begins it has a momentum all its own. But waiting is constant, moment by moment trust.
Sometimes our job as brothers and sisters to one another is to help each other wait while the Lord does deep and transformative work of spiritual growth. Not to get frustrated with one another, but to give each other breathing room to wait.
This isn’t easy; it requires knowing one another deeply to discern if it is hesitation or avoidance of the next step, or if the next step is in fact a step of waiting.
Holy pain is often the key. Is the lack of movement an avoidance of some holy pain? Or is the lack of movement a form of remaining in some holy pain until a holy work is done?
[Circles of communication/intimacy: cliché, facts, ideas, feelings, needs…you can’t move past ideas until you are willing to accept the pain of conflict…but you can’t have any of the deepest benefits of relationship until you move into those last two circles, either…this has application for our relationship with God. Have you been stuck outside of intimate relationship with God because of your avoidance of pain? It’s time to take a step of trust…]
1. Pay attention to your addictions. What pain is it helping you avoid? (If you’re not sure, resist your addiction once; instead, stop, sit down, and ask God to reveal your pain to you.) That pain is centered in the place God wants to bring new creation in your life.
“The assumption of spirituality is that always God is doing something before I know it. So the task is not to get God to do something I think needs to be done, but to become aware of what God is doing so that I can respond to it and participate in it and delight in it.”
2. Make a Christmas list. List three things from which you have been waiting for God’s rescue. Pray this prayer each day of Advent: “God, I want your rescue. While I’m waiting, I welcome whatever new life you want to birth in me. Teach me how to wait well.”
3. Find someone else to wait with. (Mary and Elizabeth waiting together…) Sometimes waiting is very lonely, especially when everyone around us is go, go, go. If you are involved in some holy waiting, find someone else who is, too, and do some of your waiting together. If you’re not, find someone who is, and ask if you can join them as a support in their waiting.