Luke 21:7–11, 25–36 (NRSV)
They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
“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. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 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. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Today, we’ve officially entered Advent—the season of waiting. If the world around us still knows what Advent means at all, everyone at least knows that it means waiting. The market is saturated with Advent Calendars of all kinds: chocolate, cheese, wine, and every kind of toy. These twenty-four day calendars help our world to count down the days until Christmas—the day of gifts and presents.
Many of us, looking back to our younger years, remember gifts that forever imprinted feelings of joy and fun onto our Christmas memories. We remember begging our parents for that special something. We might remember the sacrifices that our parents made so that we had something special under the tree.
While I was home over the Thanksgiving holiday, Mallory and I spent time going through photo albums from my childhood. The opening of presents was always one of those times in the year when my mother had her camera at the ready. Each year, my Lego collection grew and I would spend countless hours putting the pieces together and then destroying what I had made to make something else.
My favoite of all those Legos was the electric train set that I would put together every Christmas after I got it to place it under our Christmas tree.
Of course, such reflections on presents received in the past aren’t quite spiritual enough for our time together this morning. What we have come to wait for isn’t any present wrapped in paper and tied with a bow. The gift we are waiting for is the presence of God! The Christ child. Emmanuel. God with us.
We’re waiting for Christmas Day, to hear the story of long ago, perhaps retold by Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas from Luke 2: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night…”
If that sentimental story is what you think this Advent waiting is all about, you were no doubt surprised to hear our Scripture reading this morning: “there will be signs in the sun, moon, and starts, and on earth distress among nations…then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
The truth is, Advent isn’t really a season of waiting for the birth of the meek and mild Christ child at all. Look around! Jesus has already been born. There are signs of it everywhere—the manger has already been occupied by a baby, that baby has already grown up, given us the teachings of the Gospels, and was crucified, died, and was burried. Jesus has already been resurrected from the dead and now sits at the right hand of God the Father in Glory. That’s why we could sing with confidence “Rejoice the Lord is King!”
The thing we’re really waiting for in this season of Advent is what the Apostles’ Creed says next: and Christ “will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
Yikes. That Jesus isn’t meek and mild at all. That Jesus is powerful and glorified.
What an unexpected gift that our Gospel lesson gives us on this first Sunday of our Advent waiting: a teaching on judgment.
We don’t usually think of it as a gift. And if you came to church today expecting to hear something about the lead up to the birth of Jesus, you’re already sorely disappointed.
But these teachings of Jesus are a gift.
I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that this year has been long. There’s been one thing right after another at the front of our minds: the Winter Olympics in South Korea were this Februrary, as was the deadly shooting at Marjorie Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh is still fresh on our minds. Every day seems to bring a new political controversy and a new sexual harassment scandal. Add to those events the various struggles of our own lives and the life of our church and 2018 has been a long, hard year. This year certainly isn’t alone in that respect. Every year there’s a new reason that these strange, apocalyptic teachings of Jesus are a gift.
These strange visionary words show us the true nature of things. They wake us up from our comfort and show us the wounds of the world.
These words of Jesus remind us that evil is on the move. This isn’t anything new of course, ever since that first sin in the Garden of Eden, sin and death have corruped God’s good creation. Each generation since has had its signs of this evil. In the days of Jesus, it was the growing threat of Roman oppression and the looming destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem. In more recent history, we think of the horrors of genocide, violations of civil rights in our own country, and the terror of September 11th, 2001.
But it’s not just those tragedies that remind us that evil is on the move. As we come to the Lord’s table, we are asked to remember the ways that evil lurks within us. As it is written, “there is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one that seeks God.” Not even us.
The world is groaning and filled with ongoing signs of the presence of evil in our midst. As Jesus tells his disciples, you will hear of wars and insurrections. You will see nation against nation, great earthquakes, and even famines and plagues.
We have seen these things. Every generation has seen them in various forms.
In every generation, there are also those who “faint from fear and forboding of what is coming upon the world.” Each era has its sidewalk prophets that proclaim doom and gloom, trying to manipulate people through fear.
But the response Jesus teaches to these signs of evil, sin, death and destruction is not fear. What Jesus tells us is that God cares about the presence of evil in our world. God is ever attentive to the things in this would that we would rather ignore or forget about. God cares about human suffering, so much so that God promises a day of reckoning, a day when all that is wrong with this world will be made right.
The good news of the Advent season is that God cares about the groanings of this world and God will set things right. After all, our Scriptures teach us that our God is a God of justice and righteousness. Whatever evil looks like in our lives, in our community, in our world—evil will not win the day! The worst things to happen to us will not have the last word.
We know that we ourselves do not have the power to do make things right! We may be people of righteousness, we may strive to follow the way of Jesus, but our own frail humanity gets in the way. Human sin gets in the way of our efforts to make right what is wrong in our world.
Only God—the one who created the universe, the one who rescued the Israelites from slavery, the one who sent Jesus Christ as a baby into our world—can make things right. Only God, the great power outside of us, coming from the future that is unknown to us, can save us and save our world.
Because of what God has done in the past, we know that God is trustworthy. God is faithful in doing what God promises! As Jesus teaches in Luke 21—God is dependable like a fig tree. You can see for yourself that the seasons are changing, that the time of fruitful harvest are coming. “You know that the kingdom of God is near!”
A poem by the great Emily Dickinson expresses this hope well. She says,
“It was too late for Man—
But early, yet, for God—
Creation—impotent to help—
But Prayer—remained—Our Side—
How excellent the Heaven—
When Earth—cannot be had—
How hospitable—then—the face
Of our Old Neighbor—God—“
As human beings, we live in this time that is too late for us, but still early for God to do what God promises to do.
Jesus tells us this truth in Luke 21 and he tells us to take up the posture of the Advent season, in essence saying: “Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord, be strong, take heart!” (Taize).
As we open the doors of our advent calendars and take out whatever might be inside, Jesus reminds us that we are waiting for God to make things right.
The way that Jesus tells us to wait for this future hope is simple: don’t listen to those who proclaim doom and gloom. Don’t be afraid of wars and rumors of wars. Don’t faint as the things of our world are shaken. Instead—stand up, raise your heads! Cast off the weight of dissipation, drunkenness, and the worries of this life and be alert for what God is doing! Pray for strength! Stand firm.
Throughout this season of Advent, we’re focusing on how we can give the best gift that we have to give to God, how we can give our entire lives over to God’s love and power. And this is the thing that we give to God this first week of Advent: the gift of hopeful waiting.
When we wait, we give over the primary agency. We acknowledge that, even with our best effort and confident opinions about how we could make this world better, it is only God that can truly make all things new. In giving God our waiting, we give God the rightful place on the throne of our lives. We give ourselves and our worries over to God’s power and love.
Yet, this waiting does not mean that we do nothing.
We often wonder, in the face of unspeakable tragedy, in the wake of signs of evil not unlike what Jesus’s early disciples faced: what can we do? We want to do something to alleviate suffering. We want to show others signs of this hope that we have.
As we wait for God to make all things new, I think we are tasked with mirroring, reflecting the faithfulness of God. Our imitation will be imperfect, to be sure. Yet, we have seen what God has done, we hope for what God will do. In our lives then, we hold up a mirror to thse things as we do small works of love.
Maybe the gifts that we were given as children or that we give to children aren’t worldly and unspiritual after all. Because I think that Lego sets are a great illustration of the holy work we do in our waiting.
Each of us have an assortment of pieces of the kingdom of God. We each have gifts of time, talent, treasure. We each have circles of influence, people in whose lives we can make a difference. In our lives, we assemble these “Lego sets” one piece at a time. We’re not sure exactly what shape the bigger object will turn out to be. It might even get knocked over and broken a few times before God places those pieces in their final position in the greater whole.
In this Advent time of waiting, God has given us the building blocks of love, hope, and faith. God has given us time, talent, and treasure to use. And this is part of our gift to God of hopeful waiting—putting together these pieces, making a small but significant difference in the world.
This has been the task of Christians for centuries—Millennia even! Loving because God first loved us. Doing small things because of the great things we know that God will do.
As a church, we constantly busy ourselves with these simple acts of love. Just this past Friday, a few of us gave a sliver of our time and comfort away to ring the bell at Pettruci’s for the Salvation Army. For a few weeks now, we’ve collected food items for students in the Burgettstown schools and our tree is filling with winter gloves and hats.
Each of us, in our daily lives, give of ourselves in other small, but significant ways. We create with our hands, we learn new things, we visit the sick, we care for our families, we engage in well-being of our township and region, and we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.
One of the signifcant ways many people in our community give of themselves for others, in this spirit of hopeful waiting, is by serving as first responders, especially as firefighters.
As of late, I’ve been especially moved by legacy left by those who responded to the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City in 2001. There are scarcely any better examples of humanity reflecting the grace of God in radical self-giving in the face of overwhelming odds.
There’s no better embodiment of this season of Advent.
In an article published in the New York Times just over a year after 9/11, reporter Jim Dwyer reflected on an audiotape of the firefighters’ communication as they trecked up 78 floors in the south tower to reach a sky lobby where many of the injured had become trapped. At 9:56am, Fire Chief Orio Palmer arrived to the 78th floor, joined by men from Ladder Company 15.
Imagine what their arrival must have meant for those who had been trapped there with no hope of escape for almost an hour. In their final two minutes of life, they glimpsed their salvation, they saw before their eyes the promise of deliverance.
At 9:58am, the South Tower collapsed and the radio went silent. But those who had no hope of escape had glimpsed the promise of rescue in the faces of those who had given of themselves to go up the tower.
This story pains up because we know that it ended without any earthly deliverance. And yet, those firefighters had reflected the work of God. They had given all they had to give to show hope to those who had none.
This is what it means to give ourselves to God in this season of Advent as we wait for God’s kingdom. It means doing what we can with the pieces of God’s kingdom we’ve been given, being beacons of hope, love, and faith in all that we do. All the while, leaving the final deliverance up to God.
Jesus reminds us:
“Don’t be weighed down with the worries of life!”
“Stand up and raise your heads!” Don’t look so sullen!
“The redemption is drawing near.” The advent of Christ is approaching.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
Link to NY Times Story: https://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/12/nyregion/in-rescuers-voices-9-11-tape-reveals-a-gripping-history.html. Quoted in Fleming Rutledge, Advent, 307.