Advent 1C November 29th 2015
Is it really the first Sunday of Advent? Are we sure about that? This week I opened a new folder on my computer; I have one for each church year which begins with the first Sunday of Advent and ends with Christ the King. “Sermons Year C 2015-2016” and only one little sermon in it now. And I see blue on the altar, so yes, it must indeed be the first Sunday of Advent. Happy Church New Year! A whole, fresh, new cycle lies ahead of us.
On Monday of last week, we had a campus ministry thanksgiving dinner in the fellowship hall and all of the students brought food for a covered dish dinner. Someone once told me that’s what you call a Friendsgiving—thanksgiving with friends. I like that because, since you replace “thanks” with “friends” in that little made up name for a big dinner gathering, it makes “friends” and “thanks” synonymous. At that dinner we told stories about funny or interesting family and friend traditions or experiences we’ve had during the holidays.
Thanksgiving in particular has always been a curiosity to me because it was not a huge celebration day for my family. It mostly centered around football and relaxing. Each year I remember the many times I spent Thanksgiving afternoon watching my mother’s neighbors decorate their home for Christmas, with their blinking lights, six foot candy canes, and a colossal half inflated Santa that never seemed quite able to stand up straight and always spent most of December in a half bow, bobbing up and down with the breeze. And of course the inflated NASCAR with three snowmen climbing out. As over the top it all was, watching them was part of my Thanksgiving tradition and I will admit that I miss it just a bit.
One month ago today I was in a store and the clerks were already shifting over Halloween costumes and autumn themed decorations to make way for the earliest Christmas items. I heard Christmas carols on the radio on Monday and I will even confess to a brief post-thanksgiving shopping trip where there were swags of red and green everywhere. It was nearly impossible not to see the angels and santas and sleighs and elves in all directions. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. But it’s still November.
I don’t know about you, but I feel a little like that giant half inflated Santa. Tired already.
The thing is, we Christians are a bit fickle when it comes to Christmas. In one way, we love getting started early on all the celebration and decoration, we sing along to those carols in the radio, and revel in Christmas specials on TV. We debate decorations on coffee cups from Starbucks and whether to say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, doing our best to find the most faithful way to greet others and keep Jesus as the reason for the season. But we also reject the hyper commercialization of Christmas and do not truly want retailers and salespeople to define what is and is not the right way to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
That is why Advent is both out of sync with the rest of our culture, and also deeply needed by us and by the world. We do not have red and green, but blue and purple in their place. We do not yet sing Joy to the World. We sing hymns that cry out to the long expected Jesus. Instead of celebratory jingling bells, we are in a minor key, singing of the Savior of the Nations, the mystic breath of God, the Word made flesh. Advent is all about waiting, anticipation. Advent is living in the moments just before the big day. Advent is standing in the early pre-dawn darkness, watching eastward with eyes hungry for light but hearts full of stars.
In this incongruity with the rest of the world, we are reminded of who we are. We are reminded that as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are not to be conformed to this world but are to be transformed by the astounding good news of Jesus Christ.
However, before we get that good news, before we see the baby in the manger, open the gifts on Christmas day, get to sing joyously with the choirs of Angels away in the manger on the silent and holy night, we get some kind of bad news. The world is not how God intends for it to be. This is not really new to us, we know that by a simple reading of the paper or even a few minutes of watching the news or if you simply scan the CNN website. The media has two questions it tries to answer for us every day: what should I be afraid of and who is to blame? They excel at giving us countless answers to both.
Regardless of our feelings about particular military conflicts in the world, we would probably all like to have our military women and men home for Christmas. Conflict and struggles in our government and governments around the world as well as other economic struggles are frustrating at best, frightening at worst. No matter what we may think about refugees coming to our shores, we all pray for those who run in fear for their lives, and have compassion for those who no longer have a place to call home because they must flee from terror. We see the damaged caused by the increasing number of natural disasters and wish there were something we could do. Perhaps there is even a nagging feeling in the back of our minds that war and disaster could be a sign of the end. We wish the world were a better place and we may even feel helpless to do anything about it. That might be part of what drives us to try so hard to make Christmas PERFECT! Even if everything else is falling apart, Christmas should be WONDERFUL!
The world, both the wide world we all share and our own intimate personal worlds, are not as they could be. Sometimes, it seems no wonder that we are so enchanted by movies and stories about the cataclysmic end of the world or dystopian societies like the Hunger Games. These are not direct reflections of our world as it is now, but they are reflections of our fears.
In listening to our gospel text for today, we know that when we worry about these kinds of things, we are not alone. Jesus talks about these same kinds of fears. In fact, he says that terrible times are a real part of life. Destruction, war, political problems, suffering and persecution, natural disasters. It’s all there in his words to his disciples and to us. Truth is, it is hard not to stop there. To stop with all the negative, to see all that hopelessness and to see nothing else. To see only the destruction and damage of all that is good and beautiful to us. But that is not all we hear in this text. That is not all we hear in Jesus’ words for us. That is most definitely not all that we hear in the Gospel itself.
For one thing, at no point does Jesus say: and I think it’s a good thing that all this bad stuff is happening. Although he shows us that these difficult struggles are a part of life, he also clearly does not mean that it is the way God wants it to be. In fact, quite the opposite. He reassures us that it is at the times of our greatest suffering and confusion that we may have the greatest hope.
Jesus says—when you see these things, stand up, raise up your head because your salvation is drawing near. In other words, take heart! Have courage! Do not be afraid! He does not try to minimize difficult things by saying any one of a thousand platitudes like—it’s not really so bad, look on the bright side or something like: when God does this, we know he has a plan. Jesus definitely knows there is a plan, but he also knows that the suffering and pain that we experience is NOT part of that plan. Our salvation from our sin, from brokenness, the redemption of this world and all creation IS part of that plan.
In our OT lesson, the prophet Jeremiah speaks to the people on behalf of God—God who says that very thing: when things look bad, take heart, have courage, I am on my way!!
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill my promise I made to my people. It is then I will bring out a righteous branch from the house of David and he will make things right again. All will live in safety and peace. There’s that Good News we’ve been waiting on. There is the good news that our world is desperate for. There’s that thing that transforms us—the astounding Good News of God.
You see, that righteous branch from the house of David is the one who tells the disciples and us to have hope. That righteous branch, the descendent of David who will bring justice and peace to the people of God, is Jesus Christ and he promises us all that although Heaven and earth may pass away, his words, his promises, do not pass away. It may look like everything around us is falling apart, but God’s promise in Jesus Christ will not fall apart. Nothing can stop God from fulfilling his promise. Nothing will ever be able to keep God from coming to us again to make all things new.
There isn’t anything wrong with Christmas decorations going up in November, Black Friday sales and even over the top inflatable snowmen and santas. There isn’t anything wrong with however we choose to wish someone well during these Holy Days or if we only get plain red coffee cups because the truth is that none of it is as important as what we are really waiting for. While we may all want to rush forward for the instant feel good of gifts, decorations, and other quick fixes to ease our anxiety and fears, we also wait through the anticipation of Advent for our Lord’s return. We have our own share of paper, boxes, ribbons and bags, sugar plums, holly and trees with stars, but we can also know there is something more here too. We are waiting on the fulfillment of that promise—the coming again of Jesus. As the baby in the manger and as the king in the clouds. Coming again to fulfill the promises God has made to us. Coming again to make all things new.