Grace Presbyterian Church
December 2, 2018, Advent 1C
The Awkward Part
I know what you’re thinking.
You’re thinking: really? This is how Advent starts? This is “hope”?
Well, I’ve got news for you: you are not alone. In fact, I can promise you that a whole lot of preachers had the same reaction when they sat down to start sermon prep in earnest for this week. And I can promise you that a whole lot of those preachers ran right to the reading from Jeremiah that the lectionary offers for today – a lovely little passage about God’s promises to Israel and Judah, and how “the Lord is our righteousness” – rather than hang around for the Apocalypse in Luke.
But at some point we need to deal with these apocalyptic readings; it doesn’t work to put them off forever and wish that they didn’t exist. For one thing; all three of the synoptic gospels – Matthew and Mark as well as Luke – have such an apocalyptic text at about this point in the story. Here in Luke this bit of teaching actually represents the end of Jesus’s public teaching ministry; the final three chapters of the gospel are given to the Last Supper and the betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus, and of course the resurrection as well. If this is important enough for all three of these gospels to make a point of including, we need to deal with it.
We also need to deal with it in this case because this particular bit of teaching in fact does have something to say about Advent, and it does have something to say about hope.
First of all, we should deal with it because the church, for good or ill, has long had a fascination (to put it kindly) with this apocalyptic business. The church in this country in particular has been particularly fascinated with it, and has read this obsession with the apocalyptic into much of its own history. Take that hymn we’re singing right after this sermon. I’m guessing you never expected to find this in a service order from me, much less during Advent. But look at this hymn, look at all the apocalyptic imagery in it (especially the first stanza), and look (down at the bottom of the page) at when it was written; just as this country was plunging into the Civil War. Again, for good or ill, we’ve taken the apocalyptic to heart, and it has permeated much of our theology, both religious and civic.
But in our context today, this particular bit of apocalyptic literature operates differently, or should. For one, placed as it is on this day, it does remind us that the waiting we do in the season of Advent is not all “past waiting,” so to speak; even as we mark the first coming of the Christ child, we are reminded that we also await the coming of the Christ again, in a very different appearance than that of a child in a manger. And if we’re not actually waiting that return of Christ, that ultimate reunion with our Lord, then frankly, why are we here? Seriously, if we do not live in expectation of being united with Christ, why are we bothering with all this? I don’t know about you, but I could use the sleep on Sunday mornings. But no, that expectation is part of our faith, even if we have to be reminded of it sometimes.
But also, and ultimately, today’s reading really does remind us to hope.
Many times, when one reads such apocalyptic texts, one gets the warning to hunker down into a defensive position, or even to go into hiding – “flee! fly! run to the hills!” or such warnings. But that’s not how Jesus finishes his teaching here, is it?
We get the warning that “there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars” – I suspect the folks out in California who had to run for their lives from those wildfires have seen quite enough of those; “distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” – well, a tsunami in Indonesia, a monster typhoon in Saipan, Hurricanes Florence and Michael in the US…we’ve seen plenty of that too. “Fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world”? Yep, got that too.
But look what’s next.
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. (emphasis mine)
No fleeing to the hills, no hunkering down, no hoarding in a ultra-fortified bunker – just “stand up and raise your heads.” It’s like knowing summer is near when you see the fig tree sprouting leaves, is how Jesus describes it. You know what these signs mean. It’s not about fear and uncertainty for us, not if we’re really following Christ in faith and being led by the Spirit. We stand; we watch; we wait – not in fear, but in hope.
Finally, we are instructed not to get distracted or weighed down with the things of the world – keep living as Christ has taught us, and keep watch. That’s how to live in end times.
Of necessity, this sermon ends with a hymn. Between today’s scripture and the liturgy of the service, the ending of the sermon came out as a hymn, and it’s one we can sing, I promise.
[Congregation sings “When the world tells us“]
For hope in the darkness, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #83, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus; #352, My Lord! What A Morning; #354, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory; #348, Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending