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The Time of Our Lives

November 27, 2011

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church

on the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2011

 Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19          Isaiah 64:1-9

Do you all remember C.S. Lewis’ classic children’s story, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe? If you didn’t read the book, perhaps you saw the Dreamworks film a couple of years ago. The Wardrobe was the first of seven books that comprised Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.  For those of you who may not know the story, or for whom it has been many years since you have read the book, it is about

Two boys and two girls from England who stumble by magic into a snowy forest, where a good Faun and his Talking Animal friends recognize them as Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve. They are in Narnia, they learn, a land once created and still dearly loved by the great and good Lion, Aslan. But now, however, Narnia is caught in the cold, cruel grasp of the white witch. (It is, as Lewis describes it, as if it is always winter, but never Christmas.)

To imagine a year without seasons of warmth, and seasons without days of special gladness,” as C.S. Lewis did in this children’s novel, “is to imagine a world that is frozen in hardship and frozen in time. Evil has triumphed so completely that the earth is forbidden to tilt toward the sun. Creation can bring forth no shoot or flower, and the creatures are denied the smells and colors and tastes of new life. They wait, and wait, but nothing happens. Advent is endless. Life is all fasting, with never a feast.”[1]

Perhaps the opposite of Narnia is another land of talking animals, a land we can actually visit, a land envisioned by Walt Disney, and now open for business in Florida, California, Japan and France. After my father died in 2004, my sisters insisted on taking a family trip to the Florida incarnation of this land on Christmas Day. I had a week full of feasts and fun and rides and parades with my niece and nephew. We signed up for two breakfasts with Disney Characters, and a couple of dinner shows. But I kept my wallet hidden because, with my nephew at my side, we saw what one author has called “toys and trinkets glittering in countless windows along the streets, so abundant as to put Santa’s workshop to shame.” The weather in December was chilly, but no so chilly that it prevented Noelle and I from enjoying a hot tub in the evening. “It was as if Lewis’ wardrobe door has opened onto a land where it is always Christmas and never winter.”

I found this juxtaposition of Narnia and Disney in a small book on by Dorothy Bass about “time.” She writes:

“Though Walt Disney World and captive Narnia are utterly different, they are alike in this: in both places, days follow one another without meaning. They are all the same. The White Witch allows no Sabbath rest, and Mickey Mouse is always on a working vacation. The dance of sun and earth between solstice and equinox is stilled, and the seasons stop. The music of rejoicing is either completely silent or so loud as to grow tiresome. The food has little taste after a while. In neither place can anyone flourish for long — not people, not fauns, not animals. Aslan, knowing this, would arrive to free Narnia, setting the seasons in motion once again.

A few years ago I was invited to spend two days with a group Christian Educators talking about time: about the shape of time, and our experience of time, and the ways in which we meet one another and God in time. During that same week, during a Tuesday night conversation as part of a youth group, one of the kids, attempting to define ‘life’, said that life was the space of time we are given to learn, to grow, and to be, the time that we have to do what is right and good, and contribute to fixing what is broken in our world.

If time is life, and life is time, and time has a shape which helps us know ourselves, and God, we do well to pay attention to it. “Within the Christian practice of living through time, season also follows season. As we live through a year together, the gift of time becomes a means of entry into the Christian story, a mysterious opening into participation in the life of God.”

I’d like to reflect this morning, as we enter the season of Advent, on the shape of time. “Years are round. Each one begins at a certain point, and arrives back at that point before it can run its course once more. It forms a circle. Lay one year on top of another, however, or tens on top of tens, and a thick line comes into view. This line runs from long ago toward a distant future. The completeness of each round year guarantees that the unfolding minutes, hours, and days, that pass one after another, add up to something. But what of the line? What is to gather this long series of years, what is to help us understand its span and shape?”

As Dorothy Bass writes,

“The spinning of the seasons, the marching onward of a thick line of years — these are powerful forces. Sometimes their pace slows to a cruel plodding: a year a chemotherapy seems to take forever, as so does a year of mourning or a first year away from home when school or work is not going well. But often the tempo quickens, and years fly past. It is only yesterday that he was a little boy, we think, we parents and godparents, we uncles and aunts; now he counts his age in decades. Where did the years go?

He who was once a little boy can tell us where they went by telling us his story. He can offer a narrative of what he has learned and how he has learned it, of friends he has had or missed having, of illness and health and accident and escape. This story recount his years. If we listen closely, we can also hear in it the echoes of larger stories. He was the first in his family to attend college, he says. He has flourished economically, but he still grieves the loss of his brother, who was killed in Vietnam.” (Bass, 81-82)

I have found this way of thinking about time, the line of days, the circle of years, the bends and curves and ups and downs that telling our story adds to our lines, a helpful way to think about time. The birth of a child, the ending of a relationship, a call to ministry, the onset of an illness, the highs and lows of our stories remind us that not every day if the same. And we have the sense in telling the stories that our years do add up to something, even if we are not quite sure what that something is.

We measure time not only by its direction, but by the circle of a year, as season passes to season and circles around again. The circle of time embraces us, as it brings us back, time and time again, to visit the stories of our lives, and the story of our faith, from different angles. Those of us who worship God through the rhythms of the Christian year encounter recurring patterns of longing and fulfillment, of repentance and grace, that invite us to encounter different dimensions of the mystery of God at each point in time, all year long, as we journey from Advent to Christmas, from Epiphany to Lent, from Easter to Pentecost. We reflect differently upon what God is doing in our midst during a season of longing and yearning, of hoping, dreaming, waiting, and watching, like Advent, than we do during Christmas, when the mystery of God’s presence as well as God’s hiddenness take center stage, where vulnerability and weakness reveal not God’s power but God’s love come close. The season of Epiphany, of baptism, and calling, turn attention to the creation of a community of faith, while Lent turns attention back to each of us as individuals, complicit in and benefitting from the brokenness of the world, even as we grieve the pain we cause others. The drama of Holy Week exposes the way our world works, the operations of empire, the violence upon which so many plans for peace and security finally rest, while at the same time showing the vulnerability of God and God’s people in the face of such violence. And God’s persistent presence in Easter and Pentecost remind us that such vulnerability, love, and grace are exactly how God will transform our world from the inside out. In such ways God is at work in our midst.

The rhythms of the Christian seasons help us know where we are supposed to be right now. While the Christmas shopping season which fuels our economy is already well underway, Advent begs us to stop and enjoy the winter questions. Advent is a time of waiting and longing. We ask ourselves, what is it that we are working and waiting for? These are not idle questions, for in our working and waiting we give shape to our hopes for the big picture, the in-breaking Kingdom of God.

I find the coincidence of Advent and the Christmas shopping season deadly, for Advent reminds us of the many ways we are not fulfilled, we are not yet what we would like to be, that God’s kingdom is still adventing – still coming, while the shopping season seduces us by offering to fill our needs while equating generosity with purchasing. Advent reminds us that our deepest longings are for those gifts only God can give, while stirring us to actively seek them in the community of God’s people and in fervent prayer (the kind of prayer that isn’t finished on one’s knees but in one’s actions to become an answer to our prayer) in fervent prayer for the healing of God’s world. Advent highlights the many ways that grief and hope are related. We wear purple, just like during Lent, to signify a deep awareness that we do not live the way God wishes for us to live. But we do not wait in vain.  God is always coming, always comes, God comes.  God is not forever delayed.

In this season of Advent, the prophet’s cry “O that you would rend the heavens and come down” is the cry that comes from seeing the relentless, regularized, destructive power of “the way things are” – and the stakes involved in challenging them and changing them.  We ask the larger questions in Advent that force us to look at our lives and ask “what is it that we’re working and waiting for?”  And if we discover that our daily work and our waiting fosters death rather than life, then to take responsibility to engage, as the Hebrew prophets encourage us, in tikkun olam – the healing of our world.

This Advent, we too are called to ask “what is it that we’re working and waiting for?”  And to enter with faith into a partnership with God and with all people in bringing about the incarnation of that new world.


[1] This, and subsequent quotations, come from a marvelous little book by Dorothy Bass, Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time. (The Practices of Faith Series), Jossey-Bass, 1999. This develops themes first described in Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People, now in a second edition. Jossey-Bass, 2010. Don’t forget, if you are shopping for books, visit White Plains Presbyterian online so that a potion of you purchase can support our congregation.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lynn Dunn permalink
    November 27, 2011 9:38 pm

    I love the title of your sermon, and it just gets better and better from there.

  2. Dianne permalink
    November 29, 2011 9:17 am

    I need to have my kids read this. Excellent comparisons

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