Sunday Night Worship – 11/18/07

“Ordinary Time”

Isaiah 65: 17-25

Today marks our last Sunday in Ordinary Time. “Ordinary Time” is what the church calls the seasons in between the special liturgical seasons. The colors of paraments and vestments – green for ordinary time – help us keep track of where we find ourselves in the cycles of the Christian year. Next Sunday, Christ the King (or Reign of Christ) Sunday, the color is white. The Sunday after that Advent begins and we’ll have four purple Sundays before Christmas white. And on it goes.

The “juicy” parts of the Christian year begin with Advent and end with Pentecost. The story of Jesus from incarnation to resurrection is retold each year in that swath of time between Advent and Pentecost. It’s a good half of the calendar year and it starts with the incarnation cycle of Advent-Christmas-Epiphany, then there’s a small blip of green ordinary time in there sometime in January or February, depending upon the year. After that blip then it’s Transfiguration Sunday (white) and the transcendence cycle of Lent-Easter-Pentecost beings. We hit Ash Wednesday and it’s purple again all the way through Lent until we reach Holy Week, where we get black on Friday and then Easter white. The several Sundays of Easter are all white, too, and then it’s red for Pentecost.

At that point in the Christian year, except for an occasional day like All Saints when we pull out the white again or the occasion of someone’s baptism when we bring back the red, it’s green, green, green all the way to Christ the King. This coming liturgical year the Ordinary Time green starts on May 25th and lasts through November 16th.

The church also designates Ordinary Time by referring to how many Sundays a certain Sunday is after the preceding special season. So, for instance, today is also referred to as the 25th Sunday after Pentecost. (And those blip Sundays in the winter are referred to as the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, etc.)

But I like “Ordinary Time.” Actually, it may be my least favorite liturgical season, but I like calling it what it is: the ordinary, week in and week out, passage of time.

But we all know that there is nothing ordinary about this time, don’t we? The interesting, frustrating, soul-filling, confusing, holy thing about the church’s liturgical year is that it does not conform to any other version of the year. We don’t start with January 1st and we don’t start on an exact date each year. We start four Sundays before Christmas. We start with waiting on a promise.

It might be nice if we could schedule Advent to being after exams are through or to never have spring break fall in the season of Lent. For those of us who hike up Humpback Rocks for our Easter Sunrise worship it would be convenient if the “spring forward” time change never happened on Easter weekend.

But here we are in our last Sunday of Ordinary Time, simultaneously getting ready to go home for Thanksgiving….and dreading all that looms on the other side of that holiday. It may be Ordinary Time but there is nothing ordinary about it!

Ordinary Time began in June this year and I suspect that, contrary to the season description, these months have been some of the most extraordinary of your life. Some of you have begun college and some began their final year of college. Some of us are struggling with sickness and loneliness. Others are wondering about sexuality and what it means to be attracted to someone else, to be really attracted to a certain someone else. You have experienced deaths this year during time called “ordinary.” You have wondered about your own usefulness in the world and where God is calling you to study or work or live. You have loved and struggled with your parents. You have stayed up all night for a good grade and you have wondered if grades matter as much as everyone says they do. You have probably felt ordinary a lot but there have even been some extraordinary moments. But these last few months, “ordinary”?

The words we read from Isaiah 65 were written about 2500 years ago for Israelites returning from the Babylonian exile. And they were written for us. But they can be hard to decipher. I can’t explain why God’s words “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” seem to be taking a long time to come true (Isa. 65: 17). Does it make sense in 2007 to read that weeping and cries of distress won’t be heard in Jerusalem (Isa. 65: 19)? With prayers that seem to go unanswered, how can we read “before they call I will answer” (Isa. 65: 24)? “They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity” (Isa. 65: 23). Would you like to read that with the mother of a solider stationed in Iraq? These beautiful, inspiring, confusing, maddening, poetic, prophetic words were written 2500 years ago. And they were also written for us.

Gene Tucker, a biblical scholar and retired seminary professor, advises that the worst thing we can do in our biblical study is to reverse the miracle at Cana (New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. 6, p. 27). You remember, that’s the one when the wine runs out at a wedding and Jesus helps the celebration continue by turning water into wine. Tucker says that when we read a passage of scripture – even as we are straining for its meaning and learning about its context – we must be careful not to turn wine into water. Let it be complex and hard to explain and poetic and enigmatic and alluring and frightening all at once! The wine of God’s Word is there for us to enjoy and drink from deeply, not to water down.

So I’m not going to try to explain away the hard places in today’s text. I’m not going to try to recast it all so that you can “really see” how all this prophecy has come true. All I’m going to do is try to imaginatively restate it, to help you hear this more as the exiles did, as God might speak to you today…

For I am setting out to create new heavens and a new earth. Completely new life for you! Transformed so that it barely resembles what you now know. All those things you want to forget you will no longer remember or be able to bring to mind. What you have done before is all in the past. What you have failed is over. Even now, don’t focus on those things, but know that I am setting out to create my people as a joy and a delight. Weeping and cries of distress will cease and no one will recognize their sounds. No longer will you grieve for those whose lives are over too soon. From now on, when hundred-year-old people die they will still be considered “young”! Parents, grandparents, family, and friends will live long lives of joy. No longer will you grieve over broken relationships, lost loves. No longer will you fear giving yourself to love. No longer will you fear the taste of Thanksgiving turkey because it reminds you of the end of the semester crunch. You will study for exams and pass them easily; you will pick the major you love and find fulfilling work in that field. You are my chosen and you will enjoy the work of your hands, the calling for which I made you. Your work, your love, and your life will not be in vain. From each one blessings will flow. Before you form a prayer in your mind or before you can call out my name, I will answer your prayer. The whole world is being created as new. The worst enemies – Hokies and Hoos, Israelis and Palestinians, American soldiers and Al Qaeda soldiers – these will break bread together and sit at my table like family. There is nothing you fear, nothing you flee, no place you have failed where I am not creating life and abundance. You are part of this creation that I am renewing and I take delight in you.

With God, no time is ordinary. The interesting, frustrating, soul-filling, confusing, holy thing about God is that God does not conform to our notions of time. The time is at hand and the kingdom is very near. We believe in the already-not yet of Christ’s reign. We’ll taste it here in a moment even as we long for the full feast to come. It’s both at once, it’s maddening and inspiring and it is the God who never changes working transformative, miraculous change in each of us and in the life of this world. All time is ordinary and extraordinary at once. And we start with waiting on a promise.

Thanks be to God!

© 2007 Deborah Lewis

Weekly Meeting Schedule
  • Sunday
    • 11:00 Morning Worship at Wesley Memorial UMC (next door)
    • 5:00 Sunday Night Worship
  • Tuesday
    • 6:00 Tuesday Night Dinner
    • 6:45 Forum — Discussion/speaker on a variety of faith topics and student life.
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