Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Art of Interruption

Third Sunday in Advent
December 12, 2010
James 5:7-11

Recently Steve Martin was interviewed at a place in New York called the 92nd Street Y. It’s known for its focus on the arts and the tickets aren’t cheap. Steve is an avid art collector and he recently wrote a novel called Object of Beauty. He and the interviewer were having a grand time talking about his book, his art collection, and his love of art and the art world. Apparently many in the audience weren’t as thrilled with all this talk of art. They wanted to hear about Steve. They wanted one of the most famous and funniest comedians to talk about his career. Halfway through the show, the people in charge of this event took matters into their own hands, as they apparently felt the same way. They handed notes to the interviewer with such things as, “Talk about Steve’s career.” This threw both of them off and the evening kind of fizzled, with some forcing of letting audience members ask questions themselves.

Afterward, the Y sent out a letter of apology as well as a full refund. They wanted people to know that they would see to it in the future that they could count on the quality they had come to expect in events at the Y. Needless to say, Steve Martin wasn’t happy about how it all transpired, including the way the Y handled things afterward. He wrote an editorial in the New York Times called “The Art of Interruption.” In it he expressed his frustration at being interrupted, but because you never know how things are going to unfold. He stated his case that here you had a consummate entertainer being interviewed by a seasoned interviewer and that given time something memorable could happen. When people are antsy they don’t want that time given, they feel like their time is being wasted.

When we’re impatient we interrupt. We attempt to stop whatever it is we’re bored with in its tracks. But there is an art to interruption. I’m not sure if any of us are very good at it. I’m as impatient as anyone. Every day for about a month and a half I have been thinking about what is under the tree in my home. If I could interrupt things and open up my presents now, I would. So during this time of Advent when I have an opportunity to focus on the Gift God has given, wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, I am thinking about how great it will be to get home from church Christmas Eve and open up those presents! I can only imagine what kids are going through right now.

But it’s not that there shouldn’t be interruption. That’s why I like the title to Steve Martin’s editorial. There is an art to interruption. Finding that art, achieving that art, that is the challenge. In fact, I think that may actually be the brilliance of the season of Advent. It is itself an art of interruption. What happens during this time of year? Wherever you go, people are wishing you a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. They are talking about the Christmas season. You drive around and see lights on people’s homes and on buildings. Offices are decorated, Christmas music is played, some people actually are in a better mood, just because it’s the time of the year for peace and goodwill toward men.

I don’t want in any way to imply that these things are wrong. Or even that they shouldn’t be done. In the Willweber household we got up the tree and the decorations right around the same time the neighbors did. And if people wish me a Merry Christmas I don’t correct them by telling them that it’s Advent. But when we come here we see it’s different. When we come here we’re not saying Merry Christmas yet. When we come here we’re doing a thing called Advent.

The reason I love Advent is not so much because I love it. It’s because it forces me to focus. It forces me to see Christmas for what it really is. Just as we don’t celebrate Easter without Lent and Good Friday, we don’t celebrate Christmas without Advent. It is, in a very practical sense, an exercise in patience, just like what Steve Martin was talking about. Instead of interrupting the Church Year and going right to celebrating Christmas, we patiently go through Advent. And yes, that might even mean that we’re bored. Or we’re just going through the motions, waiting for our celebration of Christmas on the 24th and the 25th. It might mean that others look at us as if we’ve forgotten what this time of year is about, when everybody is celebrating Christmas and we’re still talking about things like repentance and the Second Coming of Christ. But there is an art to this. Patience is hard. Sometimes we need help to be patient. Do we even dare to say that sometimes we need to be forced into it? That’s one of the things Advent can help us with.

It’s tough for us Lutherans to slosh through the Book of James. So much Law. So much focus on what we are to do. And here is another example, our Epistle reading today. Be patient. Establish your hearts because the Coming of the Lord is at hand. Don’t grumble against one another. And the scare tactic: the Judge is standing at the door. Try laying those sentiments on people when they wish you a Merry Christmas. Don’t you know the Judge is standing at the door? Be patient. Prepare your hearts. Don’t grumble.

This is what Advent does. It forces us into a mode where we see we need to be patient. When we want to talk about peace on earth the Bible is telling us not to grumble against one another. When we just can’t wait to tear open those presents under the tree the Word of God impresses upon us the need to establish our hearts, preparing for that Day when our Lord will return in glory. I know whatever gifts I get under the tree won’t compare to the Day when Christ Returns to take me to the eternal glory of heaven. So why is it I think more about what presents I’ll get than about Christ coming again? It’s so easy for us to think about the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and not have to think about what that means for us in our daily lives. That the notion of Peace on Earth means things like repenting of our own grumbling against one another, our impatience with one another, let alone God bringing about His last and ultimate promise: Returning in Glory on the Last Day.

This isn’t about us being in some private club where we know we’re observing in a better way this time of year. Advent isn’t about thinking higher of yourself, but rather cutting you down to size. Patience requires humility. It requires repentance. It requires your focus to be outside of yourself, not within yourself.

This is why James goes on to give examples. As much as we Lutherans would love to put the Book of James into a box of Law and exhortation to right living, we can’t do that, because he himself doesn’t do that. He gives his exhortations in light of the Gospel, not the Law. What are his examples? The prophets. Job. If we think patience is hard, we’re in good company. If we’re not hot on repentance, join the club. These things are never easy. They are hard by their very nature. Why would there need to be exhortation of things that are easy? It is the hard things we need to forced into.

His example of the prophets, he says, is of suffering and patience. He then says we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. When you walk into this church on Good Friday you expect to hear of suffering. If you can remember a whole year from now, you should expect to hear it also on the Third Sunday in Advent. Suffering. Patience. Remaining steadfast. These are things we so often need to be forced into because we want to jump right to, well, what we want. What do you think the prophets thought when they were being persecuted? God, it would be really nice if we could get beyond this. It would be great if this could go a lot more smoothly. I’d really appreciate it if this weren’t so hard. And that’s saying it in polite ways. The prophets weren’t always so circumspect in praying to God.

But here’s what James is getting at: God got them through. Here’s how he tells us this: you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. God was patient with those prophets. He remained steadfast to them. They weren’t strong enough on their own to make it. They needed God. James gives another example that has become the quintessential example of suffering: Job. How did Job make it through? God. God got Job through the intense suffering he endured. This is one of the greatest gifts our Lord gives to us: faith. When He gives faith we can endure. The prophets were patient because God granted them the faith to endure. Job was steadfast because God imparted to him faith that relies on God alone, as the one who is more powerful than hardships and the one who delivers us from hardships. And we could add the one from today’s Gospel reading of John the Baptist.

There is an art to interruption. At its simplest, it’s knowing when not to interrupt. It is having the patience to let God carry out His plan and will. God’s people in the Old Testament constantly tried to interrupt the plan and will of God. If God had not had the patience to endure His people’s obstinance, He never would have sent His Son. If Advent shows us anything it’s that we try to interrupt His plan and will. Thank God He is patient with us. Just as He sent His Son to take on human flesh in His birth and carried out His eternal plan to send Him to the cross, He has promised to send Him again. Don’t interrupt that Plan, it’s a good one. Contemplate it. Meditate on your sins but even more your Savior. Don’t think so much of peace on earth as you do your patiently enduring others’ faults and even their sins against you. Don’t grumble against them, love them as Christ has loved you!

When you look to the examples James gave, you see the purpose of the Lord carried out. He knows what He’s doing. That’s why He went to the cross. That’s why He was willing to endure the insults, the pain, and patiently suffer your sins and mine, humbly submitting to the punishment you and I deserve. That’s why He stepped forth from His grave. If He has done that, we know He will make good on His promise yet to be: to come again in glory on the Last Day. On that Day will be the glorious interruption. Our Lord bringing to a screeching halt the affairs of this world, the sin, the evil. He will raise all, some to eternal death, some to eternal life.

What you know now is the end. Do you have to wait for it? Yeah. But you know. You know God’s promise—you know His love for you in His Son, you know He steadfastly keeps you in His care. It’s because of that we interrupt our daily lives to hear His Gospel proclaimed. To take into our mouths the body and blood of Christ. To daily meditate on His Word and repent of our sins. This is the art. Don’t interrupt Him. But when He interrupts you, that’s a good thing. Amen.


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