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Looking for God in All the Wrong Places
November 27, 2011
Isa. 64:1-9, I Cor. 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37
Advent brings to mind the 1980 hit song by Johnny Lee, “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.” Perhaps more than at any other time of year, this is the season during which we are most intent on looking for God. Advent, after all, is a word that means “coming.” During this season we look, long, and wait for the coming of the Lord. For the next few weeks, we will be looking for God in all sorts of places—at family gatherings, in the familiar carols, in the story of the babe in a manger, in the lights and decorations of the season, perhaps in nostalgic memory of past Christmases, and so on. But on this first Sunday of Advent, let’s clear away the tinsel of easy answers and unrealistic expectations. Then let us ask ourselves: Where will we look for God during Advent this year?
Let’s start by acknowledging how difficult it is to answer that question. Our first reading today, the one from Isaiah, gives voice to the problem of looking for God when so many things are on the skids. Recall that in this section of Isaiah, which is sometimes called Third Isaiah, the Hebrew exiles have returned home from Babylon. The people had expected God to meet them on their return. They expected God to help them rebuild the Temple and restore the fortunes of their nation. But the homecoming didn’t measure up to their expectations. It was a let-down. Economic injustice, political upheaval, disregard for God’s law, and corrupt leadership were widespread. In many ways, the people were worse off than ever. In fact, the prophet said frankly to God, “You have hidden your face from us.” And then the prophet entreated God to come in power, to come and straighten out that mess that seems beyond human repair. He cried, “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” In other words, he was pleading with God to show up in some unmistakable way, a way that would make the nations tremble and the mountains quake. Yet in reality God remained hidden. Isaiah confesses that when there are widespread frustration, crushed expectations and deep disappointment, it is no easy task to discern God’s presence.
And while Isaiah’s situation is centuries removed from our own, his looking for God in a time of frustration and disappointment sounds familiar to modern ears. According to a Rasmussen Report, over three-quarters of Americans today believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. In the last year and a few months, frustration and anger have spilled over, first in the Tea Party movement and later in the Occupy Wall Street protests. Yet whether protests come from the right, left or middle, Americans in general are frustrated, and many are outraged, over how things are going. The so-called Stimulus Package didn’t seem to stimulate much of anything, except for more discord. The Congressional Super Committee that was to come up with a plan to address the deficit turned out to be dysfunctional. Jobs programs are yet to make much of a dent in our nation’s high unemployment. For these reasons and myriad others, Americans today feel the kind of frustration Isaiah felt. Where is God in times such as these?
Well,, the original disciples of Jesus wondered the same thing. The Gospel reading for this first Sunday in Advent is from Mark 13, which is often called “the little apocalypse.” Apocalypse means “to reveal,” especially the events surrounding the end times. However, Mark warns us to be discerning, because God doesn’t show up where we expect God to be. For example, Jesus’ disciples expected that, whatever God was about to do, the Temple in Jerusalem would be at the center of God’s plan. The 13th chapter in Mark opens with the disciples staring in awe at the Temple: “What big stones those are,” they marveled, “and what big buildings.” They assumed that God’s presence was situated in the Temple. But Jesus refutes this expectation. He tells his disciples that not one stone of the Temple will be left upon another. Clearly the Temple is important, but it’s not the key for locating the Lord’s coming.
Perhaps, then, we should look to charismatic figures, who have special powers and knowledge. Rare individuals, who say, “Look to me. I have the answer and I know God’s timetable.” Such people come along from time to time. But Jesus warns us not to expect God to show up in these self-proclaimed messiahs, and in any case we see how human predictions and time-tables crumble.
Or again, what are we to make of all the upheavals of history and nature—the wars, and rumors of war, nations rising and nations falling, earthquakes and famines. These, too, will take place, but Jesus warns his disciples not to draw conclusions from them. In example after example, Mark shows Jesus saying, in effect: God doesn’t show up in our lives and world when and where we expect it. God’s timetable is unknowable and God can’t be controlled or pinned down. Or, to use a seasonal image: we can’t wrap God up in a neat bow.
But then, toward the end of this little apocalypse, Mark suggests an answer to the question we’ve been asking. Listen again: “You do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn…” Turn the page in Mark’s Gospel and those four phrases are repeated. “In the evening” was when Jesus gathered with his disciples at table, and announced that he was about to be betrayed. “At midnight” was when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane while the disciples fell asleep. “At cockcrow” reminds us of Peter’s denial and “at dawn” was when the soldiers led Jesus away and handed him over to Pilate.
Is Mark telling us that the cross is the key that unlocks God’s future? Is he inviting us to consider what God will do by remembering what God has done? On the cross of Christ the love of God was poured out for us and the entire world. This means that, whenever and however God will bring all things to an end, the future is but a projection of God’s love for the world beamed from the cross. Where, then, will we look for God this Advent? Mark locates us in all the frustrations, disappointments, suffering and global upheavals of our time, and then shows us a God who turns the cross into resurrection, a baby in a manger into salvation, suffering and death into a new day of peace and joy.
Friends, we’re in that time of year when we’ll be looking for love, for God, for that elusive Christmas spirit in all sorts of places. But let’s be honest. God is rarely where we would expect God to be. Yet if we keep our eyes fixed on the cross, we look for the God who will transform the darkest night into daybreak, weeping and mourning into shouts of joy, and, ultimately, the whole creation into a new heaven and a new earth.
Ours is to be alert, and keep awake. Watch.