November 29, 2020
First Sunday of Advent (11/29/2020) Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.
I’d like to hold it in my arms and keep it company.
Remember that Coca-Cola commercial? Some of you will remember seeing it live on TV after twisting the rabbit-ear antenna around to get a good picture. Others of you may have heard about it as part of television history: the most successful commercial ever written.
The author of the song was Bill Backer, who was the creative director for an ad firm that had the Coca-Cola account. He was flying to London to meet with other members of his team when his flight was diverted to Ireland because of bad weather. He was irritated and angry by the change. Everyone aboard was required to spend the night in Shannon and then wait for a flight the next morning. The next morning, back at the airport, as he stewed about the delay, he noticed that people seemed happier. Strangers, from many countries, all on their way to London, had been meeting one another, sharing a cup of coffee and several, a Coke. It dawned on him that they were keeping each other company as they waited through the disruption of their plans. He wrote on a scrap of paper, “I’ve got to teach the world to sing. I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love”
I could be cynical about a multi-national corporation hijacking humanity to sell a product, and I am a little. But the commercial caught the imagination of the globe in 1971, a time when it seemed to so many that the structures of the world were falling apart. Assassinations, riots in cities, division around tables in families over the Vietnam War, presidential politics that was trading in racists dog whistles of law and order. The world was waiting for a new word.
According to Holly Whitcomb “loss of control is the hallmark of waiting” I would add that the loss of control, the disorientation of a changed plan, as difficult as it is (especially for those of us who like to have lists and goals and schedules), is exactly what allows us to be ready for something new, even to see the truth that our regular lives keep us from seeing.
Each Advent, we start reading a different gospel for the next church year. We just finished Matthew, now we start what is my favorite gospel, The Gospel of Mark. Maybe because it’s the shortest. Even though it’s not the first one in the new testament, it’s the first one written, probably around the year 65 of the common era. It was a tumultuous time. There were rumors of violent uprisings in Judea, the global economy in the Roman world was changing more and more toward wealthy investors in faraway places, impoverishing the vast majority. Starvation was the norm. The experience of Mark’s readers was that the very world they lived in was unraveling. They felt out of control and afraid about what was coming next.
No wonder the imagery from ancient scripture about the end of things–the stars falling from the sky, the moon turning dark, the foundations shaking—made a lot of sense to them. Mark takes those images, and pairs it with Jesus’ own preaching that the ways of the world are about to turn, and he writes this “little apocalypse” in Chapter 13.
And truth be told, it makes us a little scared, too. We hear these dire warnings to “stay awake” and to “watch,” as something akin to “You better get your act together because ‘God is coming and she’s pissed,” as one t-shirt says.
This is, of course, what a feeling unraveling often creates. It hardens divides; makes people more judgmental. Fear raises the anxiety and stress, and we all know what happens to us when we’re under great stress: those parts of ourselves that we can keep managed on the good days, flood into our hearts and mouths like striking oil in the Texas panhandle. All our woundedness, our trauma, our collected hurts and grudges surge upward.
And we cover the world and all those around us with our “stuff.”
Let me be clear about something. This is NOT what Mark, or Jesus, are trying to do: an end-of-the-world prediction that makes us so afraid that we decide to be good. Mark is using the disruption that the people were experiencing, the anger about their current situation, the fear of the unknown to say, “Watch for the real thing.” Behind this current historical moment, God is about to do an amazing and good and loving thing. You just don’t want to miss it.
The best time to hear a new word, or have a new insight, or scribble a new world view on your napkin, is exactly when you’ve had to stop and wait; when you’re out of control of your future. For most of us this year, Advent started about March 15th at the first shutdown or May 31st at the death of George Floyd. We’ve been waiting ever since to know what’s going to happen. It’s so frustrating that we still don’t.
Yes, we have some hope that a vaccine is coming, or that maybe we’re understanding the systemic nature of racism more clearly, or that a new administration might tamp down, at least, some of the vitriol. Yet we don’t know what “normal” will be like when we’re done. We don’t know what jobs will survive or even what the church will look like. We know that racism has a tendency to morph and disappear into new depths once it’s been seen. We know that the politics that both parties have created are unlikely to change overnight.
Yet Mark seems to tell us that if we squinch our eyes just right, or even open them as wide as they can go, we’ll notice little signs of a new world beginning to emerge. He instructs the faithful to look at the fig leaves curling into life to see truth. Look at this. (Show picture) These are the violets at my house. As all the leaves were falling off the trees outside, the infection rate soaring, this happened inside. As I was sitting at my desk this week praying for all the people who have to spend Thanksgiving alone this year, I got an email from a member saying, “Could you send the addresses of some people that might need a little love. Our family would like to create some bouquets and cards to deliver.” This morning, I pulled a bit of communion bread out of the freezer, still left over from the batch at Easter; and poured some wine.
Before long, yes the snows will come, sundown will move earlier and earlier, with dawn a little farther off. We’ll plan for a Christmas that we never imagined last year when we tucked all the decorations away. Yet with all this, we’ll pull out the creche’ and we’ll put the baby Jesus in the manger. We’ll set the angel just at the edge of the scene, presiding over a birth that no one noticed except a bunch of scruffy, foul-mouthed shepherds. We’ll hear the stories and soak in the images and metaphors of pregnancy and birth, baptism and repentance, wandering and giving, hope that what appears to be intransigent and oppressive is really passing away, falling from the sky, leaving only the words, written on an ancient scrap of paper:
To you is born this day in the city of David, a savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Human life, a home, furnished with love; God holding all things; keeping us company.
 As explained in Sundays and Seasons, Seven Spiritual Gifts of Waiting; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2005, pg. 37