A sermon preached on the First Sunday of Advent at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
December 2, 2012
Welcome to Advent!
I know some of you think “Advent” is Latin for “why won’t Marci let us sing Christmas Carols?”, but in fact, adventus means “arriving”, or “coming”. It is the beginning of the church year, and is a period of preparation and of active waiting for Jesus to arrive.
This coming of Jesus has multiple meanings. In 4 weeks, we will remember the night when a child was born 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem. We prepare for his birth, we prepare to welcome Immanuel, God With Us, to open our hearts to welcome him into our lives in new and meaningful ways.
But we are also waiting for his return.
Which means that Advent is not a period of linear time. It is a period of God’s time. Yes, Christmas will be here in 23 days, but we wait for a baby to be born who has already been born. Time in advent is disorienting and calls us to loosen the grip on our calendars in which we place so much trust. Because the Advent, the arrival of God, is beyond our scheduling and control. And so Luke calls us to Keep Alert! Constant Vigilance!
By the time Luke and the other Gospels are being written down, the Temple—which had been rebuilt since the time of Jeremiah—is laying in ruins again. Jesus predicts that earlier in this chapter of the gospel. “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another. All will be thrown down!” But he doesn’t leave people with destruction. There is more to come. And they are to prepare for it. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” Once the Divine enters the world, even the heavens themselves will be shaken.
By making reference to sun, moon, and stars, Luke is cluing us in to the truth that God’s reign is a cosmic reign, it isn’t just a change of administration. As different—for good or bad— as we think a change of leadership in Washington would be, for instance, that’s not a fitting metaphor for this in-breaking of the Kingdom of Heaven. It isn’t just new people taking over. It is an entirely new creation.
So, all of those systems on earth that enslave people? They’ll be gone.
Credit card debt and second mortgages? Gone.
Child abuse? Gone.
That is an unrecognizable world for us. Stars falling from heaven. Sun darkened. The waves roaring. Peace on earth.
This language from Luke is difficult for us. But for the original audience, it would have been comforting. Because they would have recognized it as apocalyptic literature.
Whatever notions you have about the word “apocalypse”, try to let them go. The authors of “Left Behind”, while they may have written best-selling fiction, have done a dis-service to a scriptural understanding about apocalypse. Apocalypse is not about getting your individual self right with Jesus so that when he comes back in glory, you’ll be on the winning side and will be able to watch the fools who didn’t choose Jesus suffer torments for their sins.
Apocalypse is, simply, a Greek word that means, “Revelation”. Apocalyptic books in the Bible are rare—Daniel and Revelation are the only fully apocalyptic books we have. But Apocalyptic was a common genre in the biblical world. And Apocalyptic themes run through books—the Luke passage we have this morning is a good example. The Apostle Paul’s writings speak of “revelation” a fair amount too.
What Apocalyptic literature reminds its hearers, or reveals to its hearers, is that until the end, when God wipes away every tear from our eyes, our redemption is not complete. It is not finished as long as anyone on earth is in pain. Our freedom is restricted as long as people are in bondage and suffering. Our longing is not for just ourselves but for everyone.
In the coming weeks, as we light the candles and prepare for Christ’s return and for Christ’s birth, I invite you to consider the communal nature of these texts. In Luke’s reminder that this revelation is for the entire earth, remind us that God’s Kingdom, our redemption, is Good News for all of creation.
So, as we prepare for the Advent of God, let us do so for all of God’s children. Whether we’re collecting Christmas dinners for families at the school next door or coats for Joesph’s closet or supporting missions across the world, Christ’s arrival brings hope for all, not just for a few. We remain alert not by sitting there, looking up at the sky, waiting for his return, but by making a difference in the world.
And part of this preparation in this new church year involves our joy and hope. Apocalypse should, ultimately, not be depressing news. There have been some apocalyptic sounding comments from a few pastors on the news who were not happy with the presidential election. Franklin Graham went so far as to say “We have God’s blessing as a nation. Scripture is clear. God blesses countries, but God also brings bedlam when countries turn their back on him. If we don’t obey his laws, he will withdraw his hand of protection.”
A pastor in Texas declared that while President Obama isn’t, himself, the antichrist, his election will lead to the reign of the antichrist.
But if these pastors were truly apocalyptic, they would be calling us to hope, not to despair. Mr Graham is entirely wrong about many things, I believe, but specifically about the idea that God would ever withdraw from the creation God so lovingly created.
And here is how we know that. Because 2,000 years ago, God chose to become one of us. God chose to enter the world as a helpless baby, to live life as we do, with scraped knees, and broken hearts, and birthday parties, and laughter, and tears, and hugs, and wounds, and loss, and even death.
The revelation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is a decisive claim of hope, and life, and joy, and a promise that at the end, God is victorious, even over death. The incarnation of Jesus is proof that God did not, and will never, abandon us.
If God were an abandoning God, as TV preachers might threaten, then the incarnation would never have happened. Incarnation, God becoming flesh and moving into the neighborhood, is our ultimate reason to have HOPE, even as we read the news of violence, suicide, war, and loss.
This past week, there was a giant lottery drawing, or so I’m told. Odds were 1 in 175 million that someone would win. Which were pretty dismal odds. One of my friends shared some things that were more likely:
1. Odds are better that you will fall off a ladder while being right handed and using a left handed tool and dying after landing in the bathtub where you drown. 1 in 50,000,000
2. Killed by a vending machine? Odds are 1 in 112,000,000
3. And a personal favorite…there is a 1 in 150,000,000 chance that you are Brad Pitt.
So, we have greater odds of being Brad Pitt, but many of us likely purchased those $2 tickets. And even if we hope in Jesus and not in the Powerball, perhaps the lottery is a good illustration of hope. Despite the odds, despite the appearances of the world around us, we have hope. Despite the odds, we keep showing up here each week, we keep believing it to be important to claim something larger than ourselves, we have HOPE.
One of my friends shared this quote this week from a book by Phillips Brooks, who wrote 100 years ago:
“We rejoice in life because it seems to be carrying us somewhere; because its darkness seems to be rolling on towards light, and even its pain to be moving onward to a hidden joy. We bear with incompleteness, because of the completeness which is prophesied and hoped for.”
In a few minutes, we will gather around the Table, which is also an apocalypse, a revelation. Here at the Table, God reveals God’s love for us by reminding us of the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth.
Much like Advent, the Communion Table is also an event in God’s time. God calls us to this Table to remember a meal 2,000 years ago, a meal we couldn’t possibly remember. But like the birth of a child in Bethlehem, we do remember. We remember that Jesus was one of us, ate dinner with his friends, laughed and shared fellowship. We remember his betrayal, his death, and his resurrection from death. He tells us to remember this meal until he comes again.
And so Advent begins with, our church year begins with, a revelation, an apocalypse. A reminder to enter into God’s time. A reminder to prepare. A reminder to hope. So, however you prepare for Christmas—as you decorate the tree, as you bring friends to the Christmas Concert and the Cantatas, as you shop for gifts— I invite you to prepare for Christmas in God’s time, with hope.
And let’s “rejoice in life because it seems to be carrying us somewhere; because its darkness seems to be rolling on towards light, and even its pain to be moving onward to a hidden joy. We bear with incompleteness, because of the completeness which is prophesied and hoped for.”
May it be so. Amen.