(Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 11/29/2015)
Advent 1C Scriptures: Jer 33:14-16; Ps 25:1-10; 1 Thess 25:1-10; Luke 21:25-36
25 [Jesus said]”There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. 26 The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. 27 Then they will see the Human One[a] coming on a cloud with power and great splendor. 28 Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.”
29 Jesus told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.31 In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near. 32 I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.
34 “Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life. Don’t let that day fall upon you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. It will come upon everyone who lives on the face of the whole earth. 36 Stay alert at all times, praying that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen and to stand before the Human One.”[b]
Here we are on the first Sunday of Advent, we FINALLY get to sing Christmas carols in church, and I read that passage, about destruction and confusion, the last days and the return of Jesus? What is our preacher doing? I don’t want to hear about that today. Is this anyone’s favorite Scripture? Right, no one really likes to talk about this.
I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t have chosen this text from Luke if I had a choice. This was one of the assigned texts in the lectionary for today. In case you didn’t recognize that word, the lectionary is the calendar of Scripture readings that assigns four Scriptures to each Sunday, used by a whole lot of churches around the country and the world.
Now, you might ask that if I didn’t even want to preach on this, why don’t I just not use the lectionary? Because I think that would be taking the easy way out. My trumpet professor at ONU always told me that I was never going to improve on trumpet if I did not work on the difficult parts of playing trumpet. I don’t want to avoid this text just because it’s difficult, how else do we grow? I don’t want to avoid this text just because it’s not very Christmas-y.
But this is Advent. It’s an ancient tradition of the church, and it’s a season that invites us to prepare for Christ’s birth not by simply hearing the birth narrative stretched out over four weeks, but through deep self-examination.
It’s very different from what our culture and our world tells us about this time of year-we hear everywhere that we need to be happy and joyful, we need to decorate, we need to throw parties and max out our credit cards getting that perfect gift.
The tradition of Advent tells us that Christ’s birth at Christmas is a huge deal. Our almighty, everlasting, creator God came down to earth as a human baby. The divine nature and the human nature fused together. That’s a big event in history. And the tradition of Advent says we need to really prepare for that each year.
But Advent is not just a time to rehearse the Christmas story over and over again. Advent also points toward the good future that God has ahead of us. At Christmas, we remember that at a concrete point in history, God came down to our world and became one with humanity in the birth of Jesus. In Advent, we remind ourselves of our belief that at another concrete point in the future, Jesus will come again and bring about God’s good future. And during this season, we are called to anticipate that day of Jesus’ return.
And so we come to the passage from Luke I just read for you a few minutes ago, all the stuff about signs in the sun, moon, and stars, natural disasters, Jesus coming on a cloud with power. There’s all of this frightening, apocalyptic imagery. But Jesus says that somehow, all of this bad stuff happening is a sign that Jesus is coming again, that God’s good future is near.
So Jesus is calling us to live in anticipation of Jesus’ return. What in the world does that mean?
Obviously, we can think of stories like the Left Behind books and movies. We might think of the idea that the end times are actually upon us now, that Jesus is coming back soon, because it does seem like a lot of things in the world are falling apart.
Now, most biblical scholars are in agreement that the earliest Jesus followers after Jesus’ death and resurrection also believed this. The earliest Christians believed that this Day when Jesus would return was almost upon them, they thought it would happen in their lifetimes.
Obviously, they were mistaken, right? Just like all of the other predictions about “The End is nigh” throughout history have been a bit mistaken, right? Because it simply hasn’t happened yet. So what do we make of this? How do we live in anticipation like Jesus taught us to without repeating the mistaken ideas of those before us?
I found a metaphor that might be helpful to us. Maybe Jesus was just saying that life isn’t like a baseball game. In baseball, there’s no game clock, right? I mean, I know recently they’ve been adding stuff to speed up the game, but it used to be that the game just kept going as long as the batters keep hitting the ball, right? Maybe Jesus is saying that life’s not like that.
Now, we might realize this in our individual lives, but I think Jesus also means that the world, the cosmos in general, this plane of existence is not like a baseball game, without a game clock. I think he’s saying that it’s more like a basketball game, where the buzzer’s going to ring eventually, no matter how good you play, right?
But it’s still different from that. I think Jesus is kind of saying that in the cosmos, when the buzzer rings, that’s when the real game begins, that’s when real life begins.
Ok, but what does all of that really mean? I heard about this really cool idea put forth by a few philosophers that might help us out here. There are some philosophers that say the past and present are actually formed by the future. Here’s why that’s a cool idea.
Let me set this up. So we have the past, present, and future. Normally, we think of time having a linear progression, thinking of a timeline, right? We normally think of time and history like they’re built by building blocks. The past built the present and the present builds the future. But these philosophers say that actually, in the BIG picture, the future forms everything that comes before it, and pulls everything into it.
For example, I’m in seminary to get my M.Div. and to eventually get ordained in the UMC, right? But those goals of getting my M.Div. and ordination are in the future, they’re future goals. They aren’t real yet, they haven’t happened yet. I hope they’ll come about in the future. BUT even though those goals haven’t come about yet, even though they’re a future hope, they’re still shaping what I do and how I spend my time in the present. The future affects and forms the past and the present. Make sense? I think it will in a minute.
Theologians have taken hold of this idea and say that that future that those philosophers were talking about is the power of God pulling everything into fulfillment. It’s God’s good future that’s ahead of us and is pulling us into the future, affecting what we do in the present and what we’ve done in the past, always moving toward and getting closer and closer to God’s good future ahead of us.
We see this in Jesus. In Jesus, God became human. That’s what we remember this time of year-God became human and dwelled among us. The divine joined humanity in an inexplicable and inseparable bond. And in that event, on that night in Bethlehem, Jesus brought the future Kingdom of God into the present. In Jesus, the future becomes the present.
But Jesus says that God’s good future is still ahead of us. We can see signs of it right now, but it’s not all here yet. The Day is coming when all things will be fulfilled, when the world will be remade into the image of God, and God’s good future will come to us.
So what does this really mean? If you don’t get anything else out of this, if you’ve been asleep for the last 15 minutes, wake up and hear this, elbow the person next to you, hear this: We are to be a people of anticipation. We are to be a people anticipating the future work of God.
We know that God’s good future is coming. In fact, we know that in Jesus, God’s good future has already come. So we are called to live like God’s good future is here among us right now.
What that means is that we are called to seek the values of God’s good future in the present. This is what that future will look like.
In God’s good future, life will triumph over death. Wholeness will triumph over brokenness and decay and illness. Justice and equality will triumph over injustice. Freedom will triumph over everything that binds us-our sinfulness, our addictions, our captivities. Unity and community will triumph at all levels. Refugees will have safe homes to live in. Our black and brown sisters and brothers won’t have to worry about violence or discrimination against them because of the color of their skin. The dictators and despots and tyrants will be pulled down from their thrones. Poverty and homelessness will be erased. Hope, peace, love, and joy will win.
At Christmas each year, we remember that Christ has already come. We remember that, at a distinct, concrete point in the history of the world, God came down to our world and became one with humanity. In Advent, we remember that we are still waiting for a distinct, concrete point in the future of the world when God will again come down to our world, when Christ will return, and God’s good future will begin. So we are called to actively anticipate Christ’s return.
So what does that mean, to actively anticipate? It means that we are called to seek lives that are whole, just, free, peaceful, and in unity with each other. Because that’s what life will look like in God’s good future. Not only that, we are called to extend those values of God’s good future to all of those around us. Be Christ to those who need it most. Do what you need to do so that others can live whole, just, free, peaceful, and unified lives.
Imagine what a change would happen if we all lived as a people of active anticipation, not just waiting for God’s good future to come to us, but looking for ways we can live into God’s good future right now, looking for ways we can bring Jesus to the people who need Christ most. What would it look like if we all said “God’s good future is coming. This broken life is not all there is. God is coming to redeem and transform our world, and that good future is breaking into the present right now! How can we be a conduit, how can we be an instrument that passes on that good future? How can we help others live whole, just, free, peaceful, and unified lives? How can we help others realize that God’s good future is coming? I think that’s our true calling this Advent season church.