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longing wounds: a sermon for Advent

November 27th, 2005 by isaac · 9 Comments

I preached tonight. I wasn’t very happy with my manuscript. I just don’t think I got it all together at the end. I needed to develop what it means to consider those who have wounds that fuel their longing as spiritual gifts to the church. And how folks like me who just don’t desperately long for the return of the Messiah need to draw near those whose open wounds reveal the way all creation groans as it longs for the final redemption. I didn’t think I did a great job at saying what I was trying to say, but a got some pretty good responses. (The best things someone said was that at points my sermon sounded like poetry! Quite an undeserved compliment). I guess folks heard the Word better then I thought I spoke it. That’s nice. Maybe there’s a Holy Spirit after all! Anyhow, here’s my sermon for the first Sunday of Advent. It might be worth a read.

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Title: Longing Wounds: Waiting and Watching for the End of the World.
Date: Nov. 27th, 2005
Place: Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship
Texts: Isa. 64:1-9; Ps. 80:1-7, 17-19; I Cor. 1:3-9; Mk. 13:24-37.

Trembling mountains, earthquakes, a darkened sun, extinguished moon, stars falling from the heavens like aerial raids. Jesus, standing on the Mount of Olives a few days before his death, looks out over Jerusalem and sees the end of the world. He paints a picture for his followers of a groaning world, a world in agony, suffering, crumbling, moaning in travail. The heavens split; the foundations of the earth quake. It’s the end of the world. Something tears the fabric of the heavens and earth, the cosmos, in two. And the disciples shiver as Jesus invites them into this convulsing world. You could imagine their skin crawling… bristling goose bumps, hair standing on end. This is what Jesus says,

The sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
(Mk.13:24-25)

I remember a reoccurring nightmare from my childhood—I must’ve been around 8 or 9. My parents told me that I wasn’t ready to read the book of Revelation. They thought all that apocalyptic imagery in Revelation would be too much for me to handle at my age. Well, they were probably right because this mini-apocalypse in Mark and the related passages in the other Gospels inspired a terrifying dream. I can still remember bits and pieces.

In the dream I woke up the day after a nuclear holocaust, or something like that. My bed was in the middle of scorched earth, as far as my eyes could see. I could see breaks in the earth, jagged ravines. The air was dense, weighed down with a red darkness. If I looked up I could see rough, glistening lines against a stark darkness beyond the red hues. It looked like something cracked, and those lines expanded and contracted while shooting in all directions at once. Some even shot down from heaven and tore into the ground, swallowing chunks of earth and leaving jagged ravines of dark emptiness.

On that bed I felt totally exposed to these lightning-like streaks across the sky. In my dream, a silhouette of a bunker in the distance offered the only possibility for safety. And every time, I would gather up all the courage I had and jump off my bed and try to make a break for that bunker. But as soon as my feet touched the scorched earth my body started to dissolve. It was like that desolate earth would suck the life right out of me, and turn me into a faint echo of that dark emptiness.

I guess it was sorta like that playground game: hot lava. Did anyone ever play that? You would have to make your way around the playground by jumping from the slide to the merry-go-round to the monkey-bars without touching the sand, because the sand was hot lava, and if you touched it you would burn up. So, when I woke up from my dream I felt like I had to escape to my parents’ bedroom in order to save myself from the coming doom. But I couldn’t move. I stayed frozen with fear under my covers, in my bed because I knew that if my feet touched the floor that would be the end of me!

I don’t think this nightmare is a far cry from Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecy. The passage from Mark describes an event that will shake the very foundation of existence for all those in Judea—an event that will strike the very core of Israel. It’s something that explodes the present order, that shatters visions of the future, and that may even disrupt the memories of God’s promised care.

Earlier in our chapter from Mark (ch.13), Jesus tells of an unimaginable “abomination” that brings the “desolation” of Jerusalem (v14). But this apocalyptic desolation isn’t the end. It’s only the beginning of the end, Jesus says. These are only tremors. Jesus calls these events “birth pains” (v8). But, unlike those birth pains that announce new life, these groans anticipate the end of life—a destruction beyond any comprehension. Jesus says, “This is the beginning of the birth pains.” The heavens break, the water breaks, and what do we see? Well, what we see isn’t any reason for hope. It’s not the beginning of new life—the pain that accompanies the arrival of a wonderful gift. These birth pains anticipate more pain, more labor, more “days of distress,” as Jesus puts it (v19).

This nightmare came true in 70 A.D. That’s when Roman soldiers broke through Israel’s Zealot resistance forces, and plundered the Temple, destroying the house of God. That was the abominable desolation. That was the day of distress, the beginning of the end. At the beginning of chapter 13, Jesus made clear what he was talking about. On the steps of the Temple, Jesus looks up, and tells his disciples and the crowds of people coming and going about the fate of the Jerusalem temple: “Do you see all these great buildings… Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (v2).

But this is only the beginning of the end. And Jesus calls his followers to careful listening, to close readings of the signs of the times. He tells them to watch: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (vv32-33). The world they knew is falling apart, and Jesus tells his disciples to look carefully, to tune their ears to the groans, the birth pains of creation in entropy. You can’t know the exact time of the very end, but you must learn to wait and watch. Wait and watch.

The destruction of the temple is shocking. That place is supposed to be the visible sign of God’s presence. When it goes, Jesus’ followers can’t help but feel disoriented, like it’s the end of the world. It’s an astonishing wound. It’s like those seconds that last forever right after you get the wind knocked out of you, and you try to remember how to breathe again. It’s like me frozen on my bed after those re-occurring nightmares. But in the midst of that shock, Jesus calls his followers to new levels of attentiveness. As the heaven and earth start to pass away, as the ending begins, Jesus tells his followers to focus their senses, to develop skills for watching.

These are the skills of Advent. Waiting and watching. We develop our skills of waiting and watching by remembering the story of Jesus’ birth. We remember how the Messiah of Israel showed up in an unexpected city—in the lowliness of Bethlehem, not the kingly splendor of Jerusalem. And how foreigners—strangers to the promise, travelers from the East—were better at watching, at reading the signs of the times, than Israel.

The season of Advent is our training season, a special time we set aside for remembering what it means to watch and wait for the Messiah. As we remember the story of how Jesus came to us, we hope to learn how we must watch and wait for his return. But I wonder if I—and maybe some of you too—miss an important part of this waiting and watching. Maybe some of you are like me and don’t know what it means for waiting and watching to overflow from the depths of longing. I don’t know how to cry out for God’s help like our Psalmist does. His prayer is wet with tears:

O Lord God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears;
you have made them drink tears by the bowlful.
(80:4-5)

The longing of the Psalmist flows from his open wound. His cry is the pulse of his wound. And, like a pulse, the cry keeps a beat; there’s a refrain that repeats three times, and drives the rest of the Psalm:

Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine upon us,
that we may be saved.
(v3, 7, 19)

The voice from Isaiah 64 cries out with this same desperate longing. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (v1). “Look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people” (v9). And at the end of the chapter we hear deep wounds voicing an unsatisfied longing:

Your holy cities have become a wilderness,
Zion has become a wilderness,
Jerusalem a desolation.
Our holy and glorious temple, where our ancestors praised you,
has been burned by fire,
and all that we treasured lies in ruins.
After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?
Will you keep silent and punish us beyond measure?
(vv10-12).

And that’s how the chapter ends—an open question that echoes the open wound of Israel, the desolation of the temple and Jerusalem. It ends with an unsettled longing. A desperate prayer… a posture that waits for the Lord’s response; and a watchful stance that courageously looks into the desolation, into the painful wound, and waits for the moment of God’s promised help, the advent of the Messiah. Will God keep silent as the world crumbles, as desolation consumes Jerusalem and the temple? Our chapter from Isaiah ends with that question. The passage leaves us no choice but to wait on the Lord of hosts, and it trains us to watch for God’s response. This is the training of the season of Advent. But what sense does it make to wait and watch without a desperate longing disturbing our core?... without an open wound that cries out for healing? What’s the relationship between desperate longing, and waiting and watching?—that’s my question for Advent.

Jesus tells the disciples in Mark to squint and strain their eyes as they peer into their open wound. The temple will become desolate. The land will groan and quake. Nations will rise up against one another. The heavenly bodies will convulse as they destabilize, as the powers that hold the cosmos together tremble. And Jesus tells his disciples to look closer, even if it’s painful. The pain, the loss, the homelessness, the exile—this is the source of our longing… that longing that feeds our desperate waiting, our shuddering watchfulness.

That was only the beginning of the end. Our time is still the end time. Maybe we are near the end… maybe we’re at the very end of the end. We can’t be sure. Jesus tells us we don’t know the day or the hour. But, nonetheless, Jesus tells us to watch. And Paul, in our passage from I Corinthians tells us to “wait eagerly for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed” (1:7). Eagerly wait. The watching and waiting I can do. But how do I wait eagerly? I mean, do any of us really desperately long, eagerly await, the return of the Messiah? I am willing to wager that a lot of you are like me and don’t really think that much about it. At least, we don’t eagerly wait and watch and cry like the Psalmist, Isaiah, or the disciples. These are my questions on the eve of Advent, as we remember and anticipate: How do I call on the Messiah’s return like the Psalmist does—with tears? How do I plead for God’s final redemption like Isaiah does—with a trembling question? And how do we wait and watch for the return of the Son of Man like those disciples do—with an open wound?

That’s the question I have as we move through Advent. During the time when we remember the birth of Jesus and anticipate his return, I wonder how I, and maybe some of you, may discover what it means to long for the Messiah to set us free, to heal our wounds, to redeem Israel.

Earlier we heard Paul say, “You do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed” (I Cor.1:7). Does that mean we can look at one another and find spiritual gifts there that show us what it means to wait expectedly? Paul tells us we already have all we need. But, again, why don’t I long for the Messiah? Maybe some of you do, maybe some here know the longing that flows from open wounds. Maybe that’s a spiritual gift. Maybe the season of Advent is a call to draw near those wounded ones who know how to long, whose painful existence begs for Christ’s return. And they will be our guides as we wait and watch at the edge of history for the arrival of a new creation—a new heaven and a new earth. But how may we wait for it if we do not long for it? How may we watch for it if our eyes have not yet seen through the tranquilizing facades at the dark reality of a world heading toward self-destruction? For this, we must pray for the gift of wounded ones. Friends or strangers who bear wounds like those of our crucified saviour.

Tags: sermons · theology

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Scott Langford // Nov 29, 2005 at 7:06 am

    Isaac,

    Great sermon. I really enjoy the skill with which you weave the lectionary readings together.

    As I read your sermon, I am reminded of Dan Bell’s commentary on forgiveness as the refusal to cease suffering (the last chapter of Liberation Theology after the End of History). I think you are absolutely right in identifying this open wound, and that Advent is the truthful recognition of this wound. For me, Bell’s account is much richer than Derrida’s because it avails itself of the resources of Christian faith, practice, and tradition, without cheapening grace and making it meaningless. I like Derrida’s careful exegesis of texts, and his refusal to avoid difficult questions of such topics even like the Holocaust. That said, I always feel like Derrida is limited by the lack of a transcendant God. I realize I am thoroughly Radically Orthodox at this point, but for all his brilliance, it seems that Derrida stumbles almost at the same point as Kant (and probably all of us).

    I liked your determination not to make Advent a cheap and quick passage to the Christmas steeped in sentimentality. I cannot help but think this kind of preaching makes the Christmas celebration that much richer- that God does answer the question in Isaiah 64:12 with the gift of his Son.

    Thanks for this sermon.

    Grace and Peace,
    Scott

  • 2 isaac // Nov 29, 2005 at 9:16 am

    Scott,
    thanks for reading my sermon. Yeah, I think Bell’s book is great. When I read it a few years back he got me pretty intrested in Foucault and Deleuze’s work. Now I can’t stop reading them! I’ve been keeping up with your engagements with Bell’s book and find them totally helpful—a great refresher. Thanks for that. I have some questions about the book that I hope to post soon. Hopefully you can help me out. Anyhow, Bell’s description of the “crucified church” of Latin America is a great way to think about what I was saying about finding those who are wounded and learning from them to see what it means to long for the Messiah’s return. But I wonder if we need to travel that far. I’m not saying we shouldn’t seek to discover the ways our lives are linked to those across the world in all sorts of ways the the “powers” seek to keep hidden. But I think about how it’s much easier to point to strangers far away, then look deeply into the world of our everyday to find the woundedness of creation, the crucified ones. Just a thought.

    The other thing I wonder about is the relationship between our present participation in “the gift of the Son” (to steal your phrase), and his very real absence: “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him” (Heb.2). I think you are right, God answers Isaiah 64 with Jesus, but in a very real sense Jesus is not fully here. Right? And Isaiah still longs for that apocalyptic “new heaven and new earth” that God promises in chapters 65 and 66. Or to turn to the New Testament’s development of this hope, at the end of Revelation, after the cycles of human self-destruction through the power of the beast, everyone joins the Holy Spirit in cries of longing: “Come Lord Jesus.” That’s the bit that I find hard to get a handle on. Sure, eucharistic theologies can give us something of Jesus’ presence, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t still absent at the end of the canonical story. That’s what I’m trying to think about.

  • 3 Scott Langford // Nov 29, 2005 at 12:37 pm

    Isaac,
    I think, at least in my denomination, we lack both an ecclesiology and a proper view of the sacraments. We have tried to pull in a Zwinglian view of Holy Communion into a vision of practices and holiness that are thoroughly catholic. The result is real confusion. I wonder if the way forward is a sort of ressourcement, a return to transsubstantiation, minus some of the negative baggage that attached to it in the late Medieval period.

    Somewhere, Graham Bell wrote an article about the presence and absence of Christ. I read it early on in my theological training and much of it escaped me. I do believe that Christ is both present and absent. Isn’t this the desire that emerges as we experience a foretaste of Christ and long for his fullness? Would this help us to get at the deep pathos expressed in Isaiah, Paul, and Augustine?

  • 4 Eric Lee // Nov 29, 2005 at 3:31 pm

    Scott,

    I think you mean Graham Ward and his essay on Bodies called “The Displaced Body of Jesus Christ” found in the Radical Orthodoxy: a new theology reader. I kind of liked that one. [Alexander] Graham Bell is the one who invented the telephone, no? 😛

    Great conversation, guys. While it is indeed true that Jesus is present by the giving of the Spirit to the Church at pentecost, there is also the reality that the Son isn’t quite fully present in the same sense as he was to the disciples and stuff. Although, if the Holy Spirit as part of the Trinity isn’t exactly entirely different from Jesus in the sense that it is a part of the one, Triune God, then I don’t know exactly how removed we really are.

    Isaac, I know I haven’t made a post yet on Proverbs 25:2, but I think that could even be applied here: we find glory, perhaps, in seeking out the hidden Son through the presence of the Spirit as given from the Father.

    Oh, and Isaac, wonderful sermon! I must have missed earlier that you attend a Mennonite Fellowship. Very cool.

    How do we really wait? While reading the above sermon and then the above comments, one model that came to mind is the l’Arche community founded by Jean Vanier in which Henri Nouwen also took part. Here we have people who look to other people for their gifts. From what I know of l’Arche, it is a gift-oriented community where they are dependent upon one another for such gifts. One group takes care of the other that society would normally deem worthless, and in turn, the people with disabilities end up taking care of everybody else through their gifts.

    I have some friends that lived in the D.C. l’Arche community and one of them told me, “If I have the gift of leadership and can write novels but my friend Bill has the gift of patience and I do not particularly have that, then whose gift is more important?” Of course there isn’t a real answer that, but it’s rhetorically asked to show how we truly can learn from each other in this time of waiting.

    I think we might be able to keep such interactions in mind as most of us who don’t live in a l’Arche community can indeed rely on each other and each other’s gifts in similar ways.

    As far as addressing the issue of our open wounds, I know I have plenty of them still from things that have happened to me and the pain I have caused others in the past. I don’t exactly know how to address or always recognize others’ wounds, but I know it helps me in relating and understanding others’ pains in ways I wouldn’t have had before. Here I think Romans 5:1-5 is helpful:

    Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access* to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we* also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

    Peace,

    Eric

    Peace,

    Eric

  • 5 Scott Langford // Nov 29, 2005 at 3:55 pm

    Eric,
    I’m running on fumes. Somehow I tried to merge Graham Ward and Dan Bell! It is the article that is in Radical Orthodoxy.

    I think in an era where we separate action and prayer we struggle to see that there is a false dichotomy made between prayer and action. Prayer almost becomes passive, when in the NT it is anything but passive. To me, the beauty of L’Arche is their devotion to a common way of life embodied in the Spirit and given to hospitality and faithfulness. I wonder if MacIntyre is right and that the future for Christianity holds a return of monastic communities.

    Peace,
    Scott

    Peace,
    Scott

  • 6 anon // Dec 9, 2005 at 8:22 pm

    Isaac, thanks for the great sermon. I never said how I appreciated your response to my comment on your sermon that you preached at the Murdock Center. I can’t say that I agree with you, but I thought your response was reasonable—and made some good scriptural sense. But I do have a question about the end of your sermon. Please don’t think that I don’t like the stuff you say. I know it may come across that way since all i’ve said in the past has been negative. But, it’s just my way of critically engaging the great stuff you share on your website. I’m just curious about how you ended your sermon with thinking about how wounds are spiritual gifts. On the one hand I can see how that can make sense—it solves the issue about why some of us don’t really long for the Messiah’s return, and it doesn’t allow us to resort to some mental games under the guise of prayer. But I also wonder if it isn’t a good way to go because it gives you (and me) an easy out. In other words, if we say that longing is a spiritual gift of those who have been wounded, then it lets me and you off the hook. You don’t have it because we don’t have it and that’s just the way it is. What if it’s just plain wrong that we don’t long for Christ’s return and we just make excuses for something that we must repent about? That’s what I wonder about at the end of your sermon. But, other than that, I think it’s a great sermon. I also think this book Scott is talking about sounds really interesting. I might just go pick it up. Thank you everyone who makes comments. This conversation is a great education!

  • 7 isaac // Dec 13, 2005 at 1:34 pm

    Thanks Scott, Eric, and Anon for reading my sermon and offering great engagements. Scott, I am completely on board with what you said about God’s presence and absence in the church. I just think so many times we forget the absence and thus loss the beautiful wonder of the presence. That’s something that comes up a lot since I am surrounded by a bunch of Methodists who talk about a service of Word and Table where Christ comes every time and in fullness in the Eucharist. I am a little more Barthian, and worry about what these sorts of confident practices say about the “freedom of God.” I haven’t read the Ward essay in the RO reader. I will take a look at it as soon as I can. I loved his book on Barth and Derrida. (And i just read this essay he wrote in the Queering Theology series about Jesus Jewishness that is pretty interesting).

    I also wonder about MacIntyre’s dream of a new monasticism. Have you read that book of essays by folks who are trying to see what new monasticism might look like? If you have, I am interested to know what you think about it. It’s called School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism, edited by the Rutba House. Along these lines, Fergus Kerr’s editorial comment in the last issue of New Blackfriars makes an interesting connection between MacIntyre’s now famous ending to After Virtue and Ratzinger’s choice of name: Pope Benedict! Is there a link? Is the new Pope saying something about the future of Catholicism?

    Anon, thanks for your faithful readership! I hear your criticism: once I say that the longing is a gift, or that the wounds are a gift, then that lets all of us off the hook who don’t long. Good point. I actually wrestled with that point for awhile as I was working through my sermon. I guess I didn’t give a great way through that dilemna. Maybe it would be better to say that those who already long, those who know wounds, are a gift to the community because they show us what it means to long—they become our worship leaders. That wouldn’t let us off the hook, it would just show me the inadequacies of my Christian life and turn to me my brother and sister. This wounded other helps me see my own woundedness—that is, painful events that hide themselves from me because my pysche knows that they are too much to deal with. And then this intimate knowledge of my wounds, shown to me as I learn from other’s wounds, turns me to feel all the ways my wounds are tied to the groaning of creation. Maybe that would have been a better route. Next time. Anyhow, thanks for the interaction with my sermon. I should try to post them earlier so I can benefit from all this helpful critique.

  • 8 Eric Lee // Dec 13, 2005 at 2:38 pm

    And how odd that I just met my first Benedictine Monk just 6 days ago! A rather gorgeous place.

    Peace,

    Eric

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