"But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
"Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."
Here we are. The unexpected hour is at hand. This is the first Sunday of Advent. We prepare to celebrate the coming of our Savior over two thousand years ago, to remember his life and the Word of God, and to prepare ourselves as faithful Christians for the different missions God has set upon us.
This is the start of a special time. Thanksgiving celebrations have just concluded and now we have a month of special holiday worship services, concerts, family gatherings, parties, and children's pageants to look forward to.
Our consumer culture tries to drown out the real meaning of this time. For many it is simply a season of buying and receiving. Commercials on television focus our attention on the more material aspects of this season. The spiritual message of the season is hard to get through.
In a world so torn apart by war and violence we need to always be reminded that our God is a living God that still speaks to us. God still wants for us the things God sent Jesus to preach: a world without war, a world without discrimination, a world where we put the needs of others ahead of our own self-interest.
In the midst of all those commercials selling the latest must-have toy will be another message this Advent season. The United Church of Christ will launch our long awaited national "God is Still Speaking" advertising campaign on December 1. A new television commercial will air across the country promoting our denomination and local churches. This is the first national television advertising campaign undertaken by our denomination.
Over 2,000 UCC congregations (out of 6,000) signed up for special training sessions in advance of the campaign. Many more churches have already signed-up to take part in the second run of ads that will be seen during Lent. St. John will be one of those congregations taking part in the second session of trainings.
The spot is edgy and has an important theological message. Bouncers, like those seen at trendy nightclubs, are seen in the ad standing outside a church. As people try and enter for Sunday services the bouncers are deciding who gets into church and who doesn't. The bouncers exclude anyone who doesn't fit the definition of the "normal" Christian. Then the screen fades to the message "Jesus didn't turn anyone away and neither does the United Church of Christ." At the end of the commercial there is a group of diverse people standing together at the entrance of the church. It symbolizes the openness which our denomination strives for.
Before committing to run this commercial it was test marketed in Springfield, Massachusetts; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Tampa Bay, Florida; and San Diego. There was a 27-percent increase in new people coming to UCC churches in those cities after the commercial aired.
There are going to be some people who dislike the commercial. The sad fact is that there are plenty of Christians who do want to exclude people from church and from positions of leadership. Over the centuries many denominations have excluded women and African-Americans, for example, from being full participants in the life of the church. Our forebears in the UCC understood this mistake when in 1785 they ordained the first African-American minister and in 1853 ordained the first women pastor. God was still speaking to these early American church leaders and they were brave enough to answer.
We are fortunate today to be part of a denomination that still hears God speaking and is willing to act on it. There are countless stories of how local UCC churches have acted on God's call for us to act compassionately and with justice.
World AIDS Day also falls on December 1st and it is appropriate to link this special day with the launch of our new advertising campaign. According to a report just released by the United Nations, "the total number of people living with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) rose in 2004 to reach its highest level ever: an estimated 39.4 million people are living with the virus. This figure includes the 4.9 million people who acquired HIV in 2004. The global AIDS epidemic killed 3.1 million people in the past year." In many areas of the world, including the United States, women now account for 50% or more of new HIV infections.
The people of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago have heard God speaking in the face of the global AIDS crisis and have decided to tackle the problem head-on by starting programs in their community to combat the spread of the disease. They work with local health agencies and non-profit groups to provide case management services for people living with AIDS, primary health care, mental health and substance abuse programs, and spiritually based support groups.
Other churches in our denomination are hearing God speak about different but equally important issues.
Genocide should be one of those issues being covered 24/7 in the media. Churches should be praying about it every Sunday and organizing relief efforts. Our politicians should be reaching a bi-partisan consensus to rally the world to intervene. Instead we ignore the genocide taking place in Darfur in the Sudan.
Somewhere around 293,000 people have been killed so far. "The Sudanese Government, using Arab `Janjaweed' militias, its air force, and organized starvation, is deliberately and systematically killing the black Sudanese of Darfur," reports darfurgenocide.org.
The United Church of Christ of Petaluma, California is working to address this crisis. Their fall forum focused on the genocide, local high school students are being invited to take part in an essay contest, and the church is asking people to donate money to Church World Service to help the victims of the crisis.
Jesus preached a theology of the open table and called God's people to be inclusive as we live out the Scriptural mandate to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8 NRSV). As we've noted, many Christians seem to spend all their efforts trying to find ways to exclude people from the table.
That is not the case with Northshore United Church of Christ in Woodinville, Washington outside of Seattle. The church offered to allow a homeless camp to move onto their property earlier this year. Nearby residents were fighting hard to keep the homeless out of their community. One resident, Stacy Meyer, told the media having those who are homeless in her neighborhood amounted to "terrorism" on the part the church.
All of these congregations have heard God speaking to them and have acted on that faith in new ways. One danger in a tradition as old as ours is that we can be come stagnate and resistant to expanding our vision in how we conduct ministry. One way that we describe the United Church of Christ to others is this:
"The UCC affirms the responsibility of the church in each generation and community to make faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God. It looks to the Word of God in the Scriptures, and to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to prosper its creative and redemptive work in the world. One of the UCC's distinguishing characteristics is its penchant to believe that ... God is still speaking, ... even when it puts us out there alone. History has shown that, most often, we're only alone for a while. Besides, we receive so many gifts from our ecumenical partners, being "early" seems to be one of ours."
Being part of the United Church of Christ means that our local churches have an enormous amount of independence. We are not forced, as in some other denominations, to all agree on one theological vision over another. Some cities might have two UCC churches on the same street that look very different in how the conduct worship services and in what issues they hear God speaking to them about. That diversity makes us unique. The only draw back is that those differences allow us to sometimes forget we are part of a larger denominational body. A benefit of this advertising campaign will be to strengthen our denominational identity. St. John United Church of Christ in Manchester, Missouri is part of the same denomination that includes that church in Chicago working to fight AIDS, that church in California trying to raise a voice against genocide, and that church in Seattle working to help those who are homeless.
This is also an opportunity for all of us to invite people to visit our church. It is estimated that 60% of the American population will see our commercial 4-5 times during the Advent season. There is no doubt that people will be talking about this spot. It is memorable and has already attracted press coverage before even airing. You can watch the commercial now by visiting the web site www.stillspeaking.com. All of us must be evangelists for the Gospel. Take advantage of the opportunity and ask your family and friends if they see the commercial and invite them here to see how God is still speaking to our congregation.
Two thousand years ago people waited for their Savior to arrive. People are still waiting today. Let us lift up our voices this Advent and let people know that God has issued an invitation for all to sit at the table. The unexpected hour does not have to be faced alone. Let us make ready for the coming of the Lord together as a united church.
God is still speaking.