Sermon preached December 11, 2011
Texts: John 1:6-8, 19-28; Isaiah 61:1-4
From there to here, from here to there – I like to take different routes if I can. For the seven years we lived in Dallas, Texas, and travelled to Minnesota at least twice a year, we found some different routes. The most direct route from Duluth to Dallas is I-35 – goes right there and interesting enough for interstate. But maybe you want to take US 75 north to Tulsa, go through Joplin and then into Kansas City. Or you could stay on US 71 south out of Joplin and into northwest Arkansas – very pretty. We may have even taken US 75 south through parts of Kansas. Most of the time these other ways had their new discoveries. I have some vague shadowy memories of a few quaint small towns that we would not have seen had we always traveled the interstate. And even if you are on the interstate, you get to choose between the by-pass and taking it right through the city. In other places we lived, I liked to try some new ways to get from there to here, and here to there.
Sometimes this has not served me well. Ignoring the bypass isn’t always a good idea. I also remember one time when we lived in Roseau and we were traveling to Duluth across MN 11 towards International Falls and I thought taking Highway 65 south might be kind of interesting. I think part of it became dirt road on the Nett Lake Reservation, and Julie was not real happy with this new way of going.
Maybe the tried and true ways serve a person well, but we have to admit that there is more than one way to get from there to here and from here to there. Hold that thought in the back of your mind for just a bit.
We are now into the third week of Advent, that four-week period before Christmas. One way to think about the season of Advent is to think about it as a season in which we say, “God is up to something.” God is up to something, so we best pay attention. God is up to something, so we should stay awake. God is up to something, so we should so we should be alert. In Advent we affirm that God was up to something in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
This Advent we are thinking together about what it might mean to affirm that God is up to something now. To ask about the meaning of “God is up to something” is to move into a discussion of “the will of God.” I don’t know about you, but when I hear the phrase “the will of God” it feels like it should be capitalized, pronounced in a lower octave – THE WILL OF GOD. There seems to be an emphasis on the – implying singularity. The will of God is one thing and one thing only.
Such resonances are reinforced by certain Biblical passages. In Matthew 7, Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” The will of God – the narrow gate traveled by few and hard to find – kind of like Minnesota 65 north of Togo. Interestingly, in the parallel passage in Luke, the verse is much shorter, and is paired with a very different verse (Luke 13:24, 29): “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” But then just a bit later, Jesus says, “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” You need a bigger door for that, a broad gate, a wide highway.
And here we get back to Advent. Many Advent texts refer to a wide highway. Isaiah 40:3-5: A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. Sounds like quite a highway project, doesn’t it? And when we hear these words from Isaiah, we think of one figure who makes a regular Advent appearance – John the Baptist.
So maybe in Advent, this season when we affirm that God is up to something, something we associate with the “will of God” – maybe Advent with its images of wide highways and flocks of people from north, south, east, west, and all nations – maybe Advent is suggesting to us that what God is up to is taking us in a certain direction, and if direction is a good way to talk about what God is up to, let’s remember that there is often more than one way to get from there to here and from here to there. You can bring that thought back now. God is up to something, and what God is up to is to move us, our church, our world in a certain direction.
If what God is up to is a certain direction, then following God through following Jesus may be something like a dance. That is just the image Marjorie Suchocki uses in a book some of us read last spring, In God’s Presence. Imagine with me the dynamics of relationship between God and the world. Think of it as a dance, whereby in every moment of existence God touches the world with guidance toward its communal good in that time and place and that just as the world receives energy from God it also returns its own energy to God. God gives to the world and receives from the world; the world receives from God and gives to God (24).
So we dance with God. God offers guidance, a whispered word, moment to moment in our lives. And maybe the guidance is sometimes a range of options. Maybe sometimes the will of God feels like God leaving us with options. Another theologian Paul Tillich suggests this. The Lord from whom you derive a word wants you to decide for yourselves. He does not offer you a safe way. (The New Being, 119) This can be misunderstood, but there is wisdom here. God takes a step, we respond to God’s movement, and maybe there is range of positive responses, though some may be better than others. Sometimes the range may be very narrow, and sometimes we ignore God’s whispered word all together. We act, then God moves again, even if we have moved awkwardly, God adjusts – still trying to teach us to move with the unforced rhythms of grace. Sometimes we have to call God’s response forgiveness when we have stepped badly.
God is up to something – a direction, and the image of a dancing God is helpful. But we know something more. We can say something more about this direction. We know where this dance is headed. God dances in the direction of light, good news, healing the broken hearted, freedom, comforting those who mourn, repair. When God’s Spirit is dancing, when God is up to something, it is good news – freedom, justice, healing, release, light and life, comfort, repairing the world. All day long God is working for good in the world.
God is up to something in each of our lives. When we open ourselves more fully to dancing with God there is healing, there is comfort, there is courage, there is care. When we open ourselves more fully to dancing with God we join in God’s work to bring hope, healing, comfort, justice, freedom and repair to others and to the world.
When you think about your life and God being up to something, don’t get weighed down by a notion of the will of God for your life as some one thing that you just have to discover or be lost. God’s will for your life is a direction – freedom, comfort, healing, helping God repair the world. There are all kinds of ways you can do that. Part of joining what God is up to is finding where your gifts and skills and passions are and using them well. God’s whispered word is often heard in the deep places inside us.
God is up to something in our church community. Sara Miles, who many of us have read this fall, shares some insights offered by the pastor for care at her church, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Being in the presence of someone’s suffering for which you can do nothing provokes an almost universal reaction: the desire to run away as fast as possible. It is frightening to be with someone who is suffering and to feel helpless in the face of anguish and uncertainty. Being part of a pastoral care community means learning to be with those who are suffering even when you feel helpless. I believe we are not helpless. We can be beacons of hope and light for one another, holding the faith that God is at work even when we can’t see how. Just knowing you are not alone makes all the difference in the world. (Jesus Freak, 80-81)
I think God is up to quite a bit in our church community, but those words describe for me one thing God is up to here, one direction God’s dance is taking – deepening our sense of being a caring community together. We can be beacons of hope and light for one another. Not long ago I had someone in my office sharing some anxiety and fear about life, and one of my replies to this person was “You are not alone. God is here. We are here with you. We are here for you.” And we are. Dancing with God we are continuing to find ways to care with and about each other.
God is up to something in moving us to engage in God’s work in the world – the work of justice and healing and repair. We are doing that work with Ruby’s Pantry. We are doing that work as we mentor. We will be doing that work as we engage in the Imagine No Malaria campaign. We are doing that work as we offer the hospitality of our building to others. In recent days we offered the Hmong community a gathering place for the celebration of their new year. We provided space for the Kiwanis to share breakfast with Santa. We were the site of a record-breaking drive for Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank. Where might God be calling us next? There is not an easy answer to that. We will need to ask about our gifts and skills and energy and talents and see what opportunities may present themselves. We know the direction that dancing with God will take us, but there may be a variety of good next steps.
So let me end this morning by playing a part of a seasonal song.
The Beach Boys, “Do You Wanna Dance?”
At Advent we say that God is still up to something – a dance, a dance toward light, good news, healing the broken hearted, freedom, justice, comforting those who mourn, repairing the world. So maybe a good Advent question is “Do you wanna dance?”