What are we to expect?
by Stephanie Berkas
Some of you know that I spent a year living and volunteering in the country of South Africa through the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission program. I was called to serve along ELCSA – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa, one of our global church companions that covers four countries in sub-Saharan Africa. My home and community were near Cape Town, but I spent the first week of my year in Johannesburg for an orientation to the country and to the church body that was to host each of us volunteers for the year.
On just our third day in the country, we attended a worship service in the Zulu township of Alexandra, the densest and poorest black township in South Africa, still ravished by unemployment and crime in the wake of apartheid. But those realities were not the focus on this revival day in worship – an 8 hour service of joyous song, abundant offerings, and an endurance of dance that I had never experienced in worship. Despite this overwhelmingly hospitable welcome, I was feeling, on day three, like I might never feel at home in this new place. I didn’t understand the hymns or the sermon, I was a little ill from the new foods that I had eaten in the days prior, and I was just – too – different to ever immerse myself or find community in this new place.
Amidst the dancing and the singing and the movement – all in Zulu – I realized in about hour number 3 that it was time for communion. Now, I had never in my life received communion via common cup and when I observed that the folks in front of me were touching their mouths to the cup, I thought to myself “Nope, okay. There’s no way I’m doing that.”
As I waited in line for communion, the reality of that place in time sunk in. We were in the township of Alexandra, which continues to have a reported HIV and AIDS prevalence of over 40%. 40% of that room had HIV or AIDS. Most likely, the women on either side of me at the communion rail, were positive. As the cup was passed from person to person, it finally reached my hands. And with a gulp of sour wine, my life, my faith, and my understanding of the body of Christ was transformed. The blood that is given for us at this table; the blood that is shared with all of our sisters and brothers; the body of Christ… is HIV positive.
That moment, opened my eyes and my heart to the presence – the abundance – of God in our midst. A glimpse of the Holy, breaking into my life and all that I knew.
What is it that we expect from this new church season? What does Advent mean for us and for our lives? Is it a time for us to prepare? Is this a time of waiting and watching for glimpses of the Holy, breaking into our every day lives? Is it a time of joyous reunions and of family time? Of nostalgia or remembering? Or, is it a time of stress and anxiety, piled under mounds of to-do lists and attempts at pulling of a holiday to remember? Are we completely over that barrage of advertisements and promises wrapped in bows? The “Groupons” and two-for-ones and freebies and discounts?
Whichever state we find ourselves in, this beginning of a new church season is pregnant with possibilities: What are we expecting?
Our texts this morning invite us to explore this holy expectation. Both Paul and Jesus challenge us to wake from our slumber. Jesus reminds us that we know neither the day nor the hour that the Lord will come. Isaiah proclaims for us the day when God will gather all the nations on God’s holy mountain, when there will be no more war or suffering. Though we watch for this promised day of salvation, we awaken to God’s presence: Christ is among us this day. We are prepared to encounter Jesus in all of the expected, and especially the unexpected, people and places and ways that God shows up.
This message of “keeping awake”, Jesus’ assurance that “no one knows” when this breaking in will happen, is not intended to cause fear of judgment, as these texts promise. Rather, we are called to the opposite of fear; we are called to hope. Because as we enter this Advent season once again, there is much gift in these texts as they startle us out of our comfortable notions of a safe, easy Jesus; our unintentional tendency to ignore or to take the edge off of notions of judgment.
Our Christian faith and understanding of a God that promises judgment doesn’t end in judgment. For with judgment comes justice. The prevailing basis for judgment in both Hebrew Scripture and in the New Testament is, in fact, how well we listen to God’s concern for how we treat one another, and especially the most vulnerable. God enters into the world with unrelenting justice, simultaneously unsettling and enlarging our hopes and expectations.
We expect to find Jesus in the unexpected. Like at that table in South Africa, in the common cup that was shared, when God showed up in relationship, in community, and in the humility of that moment. We anticipate a change to all that we know, as the Spirit moves people and situations into our lives. We join in God’s story as agents of divine disruption of the status quo, walking in the light of God.
We do look toward the coming reign of God, as Matthew reminds us to, “Keep awake!” But we also hear the words of the Psalmist who is intimately aware of God’s presence, “Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.” We are here. God is here.
On this World AIDS Day, we hear the promise that God never abandons. And from the townships of South Africa, to the city streets of Chicago, from HIV and AIDS to violence and war, from yesterday to tomorrow, we know that we are in desperate need of God’s presence, and of the hope that is given to us in the breaking in of God’s kingdom. God is always seeking to reconcile and restore and bring hope to the suffering and pain of our lives.
Joe Scarry is spending the month of December leading an adult forum conversation, before worship every Sunday, about the plight of our sister and brothers in the Holy Land, specifically the ongoing pain of our Palestinian sisters and brothers who remain under occupation. And what a season to be gathered in prayer around that little town of Bethlehem, where the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land holds its breath in anticipation of peace and freedom. Advent is when we await a promised coming; words from Jesus’ own mouth. As our Palestinian sisters and brothers await justice behind separation walls and checkpoints – modern-day apartheid – we hear loud and clear the words of the Psalmist,
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.’ For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’ For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.”
Our hope as we enter Advent is full of divine expectations. Anticipation that all that we know – even and especially our ultimate transgression toward others, acts of war and violence – will be transformed. Hope that through God’s presence, swords will be beaten into plowshares; spears in to pruning hooks; tanks into tractors; aircraft carriers into cruise ships; missiles and machine guns and drones and bullets melted into anything but violent.
In God, nation shall not lift up their sword against nation, and neither shall we know war any more. Together, nations will stream to the mountain of the Lord and walk in the way of God.
And so we wait. We wait with expectation of divine disruption, of audacious mercy, and of wild grace. And as we wait for this coming, we “keep awake” for the abundance of the Holy in our midst.