Calvary Episcopal ChurchPhoto of Doug Bailey
Memphis, Tennessee
November 28, 1999
The First Sunday of Advent

God Hidden in the Shadows
The Rev. Douglass M. Bailey

Gospel: Mark 13: [24-32] 33-37

Come, o come, Emmanuel. But more importantly, compel us to come to you, that we might be still and know that you are God, the very center of life. Amen.

There is a different mood in our worship today. It is the season of Advent. A first candle has been lit. This church, like churches throughout the world, is decked out in royal purple. We sing the haunting melodies, carols, and hymns of Advent. The scripture stories invite us to stand on our tiptoes, to move to the edge of our seats -- and lean forward.

In the words of today's Gospel lesson, Advent is a season of watching, a season of expectation, and a season of wakefulness, because you might miss the Messiah. Advent is not about preparing for Christmas, at least not the way we celebrate Christmas in the year 1999, 2000, or beyond. Advent is about preparing for the Messiah, the Christ, who comes not just at Christmas, but comes in the hidden times of your life and mine -- times when our eyes don't see, our ears don't hear, and our hearts don't know. We need to be awakened, to be on alert, because the Messiah, like the hound of heaven, seeks you and me.

Early in every Advent season I do two things. I first listen to a CD or tape of Handel's majestic Messiah, but I listen only to the Advent section - -the beginning, haunting strains of the pastoral overture and the words of the prophet, "Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people." Then come the words, "Oh, thou that tellest good tidings to Zion," and the passage, "And He shall purify." This is rich preparation for being on watch, for being alert, for staying awake.

The second thing I do is to get out an old copy of Thornton Wilder's play Our Town, which was so popular in the middle of this past century. It was written about events that occurred in the very early years of this century in a small town called Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. The main character of the story is named Emily. This story is so appropriate for this season of the year. It deals with the preciousness of time and the gift of life, the meaning of which we often miss.

Emily dies, and in a conversation she has with the saints departed, she asks to go back to Grover's Corner for one day. She chooses her twelfth birthday. It tears at my soul, because the words are really about your life, and mine.

She goes back and watches what happens in the kitchen, the living room, the dining room, and outside the house. She notices that people, even the people in her immediate family, don't seem to notice one another. They go about their busy lives preoccupied. She finally cries out, as if her mother might hear her, "Oh, Mama, Mama, just look at me, look at me for a minute, as though you really see me, just for a moment now, while we're all together. Mama, let's be happy. Let's look at one another and really see each other." But their life goes on, preoccupied and fleeting. Emily turns to the stage manager, the character off to the side, who plays a very important role, and she says, "Life goes so fast. We don't even have time to look at one another. I didn't realize this while I was living. We never noticed."

At the end, almost broken-hearted, she asks to be taken back to heaven. As she's just about to leave, she looks back, over her shoulder, and she says, "Good-bye world, good-bye Grover's Corner, good-bye Mama and Papa, good-bye good taste of coffee, good-bye new ironed dresses and clocks ticking and hot baths, good-bye sleeping and waking. Oh life, oh life, you're too wonderful. Why don't we realize?" She then turns to the stage manager and says, "Does anybody do it? Does anybody really notice?" The stage manager answers, "Some do, poets, saints, artists, but very few."

Advent tells us about the great gift of God, Emmanuel, right in the midst of us, and we don't notice. We don't even notice.

When our children were young, we loved to play hide and seek together. Our middle child, Margie, never seemed to understand. I would be counting, with my eyes closed, against a tree, and she would hide with all the rest of the kids in the neighborhood. When she found a good hiding place, she would yell out, "Ready." I'd say, "Margie, no. That's not the way you play the game." It was only later, when the lightbulb came on inside of me, that I realized that I didn't get it. I didn't get what she loved. She loved to be found. She knew the game better than I did.

There's a great Hasid story about the teacher Rabbi Zolman. One day his six- or seven-year-old son came bursting into the house, just sobbing, crying his heart out. He said, "Daddy, we were playing hide and seek," ...he may have addressed him in Hebrew... "Abba, Daddy, I was hiding way out in the woods, and I waited out there, behind the trees for hours. I didn't know that the kids had decided not to play anymore. They didn't come and tell me, and I waited out there." That wise and wonderful rabbi took his little boy in his arms, and he rocked him and said, "Ah, my son, that's the way it is with God. God plays hide and seek with us. God hides behind the trees, but we have quit playing the game."

God loves to be found. God cries out, like a stage manager, clearing his voice, "Ready," but the children don't come to play. The world doesn't come to play with God. We miss the Messiah. God seems hidden. Why don't we go in search?

Strange, crazy and wonderful things happen to me seemingly all the time. Several years ago, during the Thanksgiving weekend, after Carolyn's mother had died, Carolyn and her sister flew up to the family homestead in West Virginia to clear things out. I drove the station wagon in order to carry things home in the car.

It was a clear, sunny, cold morning. I reached the Bucksnort, Tennessee, interchange, and I pulled off to get some gas. There were hunters everywhere, all wearing their camouflage outfits.

After I pumped the gas, I went inside the gas station to pay. There were hunters all around, munching on sandwiches and drinking hot coffee. As I made my way up in line, I noticed the lady behind the counter seemed bored with what she was doing. I gave her my credit card and said, "What season is it?" She looked at me like I lived on another planet, and she said, "It's guns." "Guns?" I asked. "Yes," she replied, "bow season ended last week. It's guns this week." "Well, what are the guns hunting?" I asked. She looked up at me like I was nuts and said, "Where do you live? Are you a city slicker?" I said, "Well, no, I live in downtown Bucksnort." Then she turned to this guy behind her at a desk and said, "Hey, Jess, we got a wise-ass out here.

"Tell me," she said, "don't you know anything at all about hunting?" I said, "Well, you know, I don't know anything about bow and arrow hunting, and not much about deer hunting." She asked, "Do you ever hunt?" I said, "Yeah, I hunt a lot." "What do you hunt for?" I said, "I hunt for shadows." "What?" she said. "I hunt for shadows," I said, and she smiled and said, "Hey, Jess, we got a wise-ass preacher out here."

We began to talk, and it was just wonderful. She said, "I'll tell you, if you really want to know where to find shadows, look for the shadow of God in people. That's where God hides out most of the time, right in the middle of God's people."

The line behind me began to back up, so I turned to leave, and she said, "I want to tell you, I hope you have a good hunt," and all the hunters' ears perked up. I said, "Thanks for all those hunting tips," and I paid, and went out the door. I walked across the parking lot thinking my God, here I've come to a BP gas station in Bucksnort, Tennessee, and I run into a theologian who understands Advent. She understands the meaning of God in hidden places, like the shadows of people's lives, and how we don't even notice it.

So we light candles, and we hear Gospel stories with Jesus telling us, Wake up-- your life is passing you by. Don't miss it; don't miss the meaning of it all. Most of all, don't miss the Messiah when the Messiah comes out of the shadows and reveals Herself or Himself to you. When that happens, it's not just chronos time, like the ticking of a clock. It's kairos time, a God moment, and it changes you and me.

So stay alert, keep on watch, be surprised. It's Advent time. Emmanuel is hanging around.

Copyright 1999 Calvary Episcopal Church

Gospel: Mark 13: [24-32] 33-37
["But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

"From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very
gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.] Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake--for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in
the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake." NRSV

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