the autopilot

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Second Sunday of Advent; December 10, 2017, Year A

Isaiah 40.1-11; Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3.8-15a; Mark 1.1-8

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson


Grace and peace to you from the One who meets us in the wilderness, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

In the latest issue of “Living Lutheran Magazine,” our presiding Bishop, Bishop Eaton writes about disengaging the autopilot. She said that one day she was driving the nine miles to work, and she was thinking about her schedule—meetings she needed to attend, reports she needed to finish, preparations still to be completed for upcoming travel, emails she needed to answer, phone calls she absolutely had to make, and compiling a grocery list in her head so she would pick up what she needed for supper on the way home from work.

She realized that all of the sudden she found herself pulling into the parking garage at the Lutheran Center, where she worked, and she had no idea how she got there. She didn’t remember the traffic lights, the turns, the scenery—nothing. She had been so absorbed in what was coming up that she was completely oblivious to the present.

Maybe you’ve experienced this in one way or another. What I’ve heard from some of you is how easy it is to get caught up in the list making, the planning, the constant schedule juggling, and feeling like you are always on overdrive. You hardly know how you get from one day to the next.

All the sudden you step in this chapel on Sunday morning and you hardly know how you got here. Or the month of December becomes such a rat race, that before we know it, it’s the day after Christmas and we don’t know what just happened.

Another version I have heard with the autopilot, is that some of us this morning have found our lives a blur because of something that has happened to us, or choices we have made, or feeling numb, or constantly being high that we could care less what was going on around us, or literally waking up at YCC and not knowing how one got here. This has happened.

No matter our situation this morning or what we’ve experienced in life for whatever reason, perhaps all of us can relate to what it feels like to not be truly present or engaged in what’s going on around us. Often times we long for the next thing or something other than right here, right now.

We can’t wait to no longer be at YCC. We can’t wait to be on Christmas break. We can’t wait to finish paying off our mortgage, or our car, or school loans. We can’t wait for church to be over so we can eat lunch or watch the Vikings add another “W” to their record.

In our household, I have a certain toddler who cannot wait for Christmas. Last week every day I heard: “Mommy, is it Christmas yet?”

“No, honey” I say.

We have an Advent calendar in our home in which we open one of the doors each day. Inside is an M&M and a piece of paper with a Scripture reading and a hymn number to sing. We are trying to focus on and enjoy the present and the season of Advent. Now what we hear each day is: “Can we open a door on the Advent calendar?”

The excitement is really about the M&M at this point, but who’s not excited to eat an M&M?

But more seriously, we become anxious for test results, or we await a diagnosis, or we have chronic suffering and we can’t wait to feel better. It’s hard to wait, or to be present right here, right now, especially if we are suffering, or truly in a difficult place.

Scriptural language for difficult places, or times of suffering, is the word, “wilderness.” No one likes to be in what is called, “the wilderness.” It is hard, often times it seems like there will be no end to the wandering. Life seems to not progress. Times of wilderness can be lonely and those of us who have there can describe a profound sense of emptiness and feeling of uncertainty.

The wilderness can be literal, or it can be a metaphor for feeling abandoned, or going through a time of trial. It’s a word to describe grief, or even isolation. It can also be a word that describes when we struggle having faith.

In the wilderness we ask these kinds of questions: Is God really with me? Does God care about this world? Is God near?

We say things like: I wish things were like how they were 5 years ago or 10. We say things like: Once this or that happens, or once I have this or that, life will be better. We want to be anywhere be here … anywhere but the wilderness.

This being said, what we learn from the stories of Scripture is that the wilderness is exactly where God is present and shows up. Hagar and Ishmael are banished to the wilderness, God shows up and cares for their needs. Jacob lays his head on a rock in the desert, God shows up in a dream. He wakes up and says, “Surely, God is in this place!” The Israelites wander 40 years in the wilderness, God is in the tent, and on the mountain, and in the manna given.

In fact, when the Israelites reached what is called, “The promised land,” something they longed for every day in the wilderness, after some time, they yearned once again for the wilderness because they could look back on their experience and know for certain the ways God was present with them and loved them through their wandering. These are only a few of the many examples.

The wilderness shows up again today in our reading from Mark. John the baptizer appears in the wilderness. In other words: the sticks. He is proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People are flocking to him from all over. He is saying, “Turn off your autopilot. Get in this water and wake up because someone is coming.”

We hear who this someone is in the opening line of the Gospel according to Mark: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” John calls people out into the wilderness to hear this message of good news.

Well, what is the “good news?” you may wonder. The good news for you and for me is that: God is near; that God is with you.

There is a name we call Jesus and that is “Emmanuel.” It literally means, “God is with us.” This is the message of Christmas, that God comes into this world in the flesh to be with you.

Now when our life in on autopilot or seems to be going quite well, maybe we don’t think about God being with us very much. We may even come to think that we are just fine doing life on our own thank you very much.

But in times of wilderness, when every cell of your body longs for the presence of God, you come to find that God is right by your side, never leaving you. God loves meeting you in the wilderness of your life.

God knows we need time in the wilderness. In Sundays and Seasons (Year A 2017), it is written: “We know incubation is what we often most need: for grapes to become fine wine, for a novel to be written, for dough to rise, for a crop to grow, for a baby to be born. It is in the waiting that we learn about ourselves and others … (p. 16).”

When we take our lives off autopilot, we get to just be. We dwell where we are at and notice the ways God is near and present in our lives.

I think YCC is a prime place of wilderness and incubation in a way. You are pretty much forced to slow way down, to reflect on life, and just be. Is this hard? Oh yeah. It is fun to deal with all the emotions that come up and uncertainty about the future. No way. And yet, so many of you have shared with me that if you weren’t here you’d probably be dead.

The wilderness and dealing with our stuff, we can call it repentance or whatever, is not fun. But it is as cleansing for our souls as water and it is good and holy work.

God is making all of us new in the wilderness of our lives. Jesus goes straight into the mess that can be our life and stays right there with us in it. Through repentance and forgiveness he untangles what can seem like knotted up Christmas lights in our chest, and prepares a way through the wilderness.

The season of Advent is about life engagement and paying attention. It’s a letting go of wanting the past or the future, but a waking up to my life right now.

After Bishop Eaton realized she drove 9 miles to work on autopilot and didn’t even know how she arrived, she spoke with her spiritual director about it. Her spiritual director suggested she meditate on 4 words: “Just this. Just now.”

No matter what state we find ourselves in today, whether that be on autopilot, or wilderness, or peacefully present, may we pause and think: Just this. Just now.

Perhaps in the pausing, we may come to hear and know the good news of Jesus Christ this day, Emmanuel, God with us.