May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
Welcome to the first Sunday of the church year, the first Sunday of Advent, or as I like to call it, “The Church's Proclamation of God's Alternative Reality.” If you have been in some Christian churches at all in your life, especially those who follow the traditional calendar of seasons, including the four week Advent season leading up to Christmas, you know that we like to begin our years by contemplating the ending … not the end of the year, but the end of our lives and/or this world as we know it. Before we hear the angels tell Mary and the shepherds, “Be not afraid,” before Mary sings for joy at the news of her child, before Joseph has to decide what to do, and before the marvel of that night when Christ was born, we think it is pretty important to consider why this all comes about.
You may label our Gospel lesson from Luke 21 “apocalyptic” in nature, since it seems to be revealing something to us about the end times. As we consider this text, then, we must avoid temptations that we have to focus on the “when” of the events described in apocalyptic literature. We get hung up on that, don't we? Many, many books have been written about interpreting the signs of the book of Revelation, and other types of passages from the Bible, so that we know when it is all taking place. But we know from what Jesus has told his disciples that no one knows the time or date of his return, so we may as well not even try to figure it out. After all, some have tried to figure it out in the past and have failed. Even the readers of Mark's gospel thought that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD was tied to the end of it all, as we heard in our Gospel two weeks ago from Mark 13 when Jesus foretold that the Temple would be destroyed. But by the time Luke's gospel was written a decade or two later, there is no talk about this in relation to the end of the world; the horror of that day passed; it was endured and those who survived have gone on with their lives, still looking for signs of the end. Luke seems to link the end times with seasonal, cyclical changes like the budding and dying of the fig trees, and the changes in the celestial bodies that often cause tides and other phenomena like the “blood moon”. When I hear Luke's words in verses 31 & 32, I have an immense sense of hopefulness: “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” Most people read this and say, “Well Jesus hasn't come again yet and that generation has passed away, so these words cannot be trusted.” But I find hope.
To me, Advent is a season with three-fold significance. For sure, it helps us to prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus over 2,000 years ago; but Advent also centers us on the fact that this one has promised to come again and to completely and finally heal God's world, re-establishing the Eden that was first created. And thirdly, Advent encourages us to open our eyes to see the in-breaking of this same Jesus Christ into our lives and into our world regularly. This is where the hope in that passage hits the road for me. Honoring Advent in this way, we can see how the promise that this generation will not pass away until all of these things have taken place has been applicable to every generation in the history of the world. There are regularly signs in the skies like the blood moon and other phenomena; tides are daily affected by the moon; people are fearing and foreboding at what is coming upon this world; fig trees sprout, bear fruit and die on a seasonal basis; AND the Son of Man has come near to each and every person that hears these words and takes them to heart! Jesus has continued to heal this world as we continue to follow him as his disciples. Luke uses phrases like, “Be on guard…” and “Be alert…” to encourage us. And when I hear those verses I am reminded that we are neither to get too caught up in the enjoyment and trappings of life, nor the threats or fears of life so much that we do not remember what is most important: that Jesus was born, will come again, and is present with us daily to comfort, encourage, forgive and give us joy and peace.
In this gospel lesson for today, Jesus actually makes it sound like the ominous and foreboding events that are happening around us are signs of our own redemption, our healing and salvation. The reason is because we live and work, love and struggle between the two great poles of God's intervention in the world in the birth of Christ, and the coming of Christ in glory at the end of time, triumphing over the powers of earth and heaven. This, “in-between time” is fraught with tension and we cannot deny that. But it is also characterized by hope and courage because we know that the end of the story (which is coming soon after this passage in Luke's gospel) has been written by the resurrected Christ. This is God's Alternative Reality!
So, when people are afraid to be out during the holidays for fear of terrorist attack, we can remind each other to stand up and raise our heads, for our redemption has already drawn near in Jesus. When we are too afraid to admit into our country those seeking a safe home for fear that they may be terrorists, we can remind each other to stand up and raise our heads, for our redemption has already drawn near in Jesus, himself a refugee as a child! When the violence in our city streets push us to abandon civil rights and protections for all people regardless of their race or ethnicity, we can remind each other to stand up and raise our heads, for our redemption has already come near in Jesus.
In all of these circumstances, it is NOT violence that is the greatest threat to us today; it is FEAR; Fear that drives us to forget who we are, to see people in need as the enemy, and to place securing our safety and comfort above meeting the basic needs of those in distress. Fear is more dangerous than violence because fear can lead us to forget our deepest identity as children of God, and lead us to betray our most cherished values, like trusting in God to provide, guide and protect.
Advent is such an important season, for it sets the tone for the entire year that Jesus is the Lord of history and because we trust that he will in time bring all things to a good end, we can (in the “in-between time”) stand together in courage and compassion and treat all persons with the love of God we have known in him. This is the hope that is the shining feature of Christian community, the hope that rings throughout scripture each time a biblical character hears the words from an angel or other being, “Be not afraid…” It is a message that has never been more needed than today when so many actions and decisions are motivated by fear, lack of confidence and an overwhelming sense of scarcity.
In the midst of this reality, we are called to proclaim and live out God's Alternative Reality, where we actually stand up tall and raise our heads and keep alert and on guard for the presence of Jesus in our community. As people of this reality, we then are communities of light and hope, courage and confidence that welcome all who struggle with fear and darkness. We remind each other of the words that come at the end of this Advent season: that the light of Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. As we embark upon this Advent season, let us encourage one another to stand up and raise our heads, knowing that in Jesus Christ our redemption and the redemption of the whole world draw near! May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.