November 27, 2015 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for this Sunday, November 11, 2015. First Sunday of Advent, Year C.
Scriptures: Jeremiah 33.14-16
The soundtrack of this sermon’s composition includes Bob Dylan, “When the Ship Comes In” and “Let Me Die in My Footsteps“; Sly and the Family Stone, “Stand!” and “Life“; and Mahalia Jackson, “Walk in Jerusalem.”
Click on the link below for sermon audio.
A mission of hope
Well, Jesus sure shook things up in our Gospel lesson today. All that talk about signs in the sun, moon, and stars. Dismay among nations. Roaring waves and surging seas. People fainting from fear. That seems like an odd way to kick off the Advent season, doesn’t it? Isn’t Advent supposed to be a season for hope? But tsunamis, planets veering off-course, and panic in the streets don’t sound very hopeful to me.
Then again, maybe it does sound hopeful if you’re one of those people who think bad news is good news. There are some Christians—I like to call them heaven’s ambulance chasers—who make every fire or famine, every epidemic or earthquake their own personal soapbox. There they go—after every mass shooting. Every terrorist attack. Wearing sandwich signs with doom scrawled across them. Shouting into bullhorns. While the smoke is still clearing. Before the bodies are cold. While the blood is still fresh on the pavement. For them, the shredding of the social fabric is just another bully pulpit to beat on.
Sometimes they come to gloat. See, we told you so. Others are there to terrorize the public into conversion. Turn or burn! Repent or perish! You’re next! Others see these tragedies and traumas and terrors as confirmations that it’s almost time to evacuate this terrestrial ball.
A few verses before our Gospel lesson today, Jesus already told us how to respond to the ambulance-chasers: Watch out that you aren’t deceived. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ and ‘It’s time!’ Don’t follow them (Luke 21.8).
And I have to believe that the church has a better response to tragedy and terror than that. In this post-911, post-Great Recession, ISIS-tormented world facing a massive refugee crisis; a world where so many people are too isolated, too cynical, too afraid to be good neighbors; a time when human life has been so cheapened—the church has a mission of hope.
This season of Advent is a hopeful season. A time to celebrate the Messiah—the Human One, or Son of Man; the really real human, Jesus. The One God sent to set us free. We celebrate a child born in poverty. A tiny refugee. Someone who suffered with his people. Thrown under the bus. Scapegoated. Railroaded. A victim of state-sponsored terror. An innocent person murdered. But he reveals a God who will not let those things have the final word. A God who vindicates his faithful Human One by resurrection. A God who invites us to share in his resurrection. In a world full of suffering and poverty and humiliation and alienation and terror and refugees and scapegoats, we have this story to tell about Jesus. A hopeful story shining in a hopelessly dark world.
Our Gospel lesson today isn’t about an escape plan. It doesn’t invite us to dwell on signs in the sun, moon, and stars. Or dismay among nations. Or the shaking of the heavenly bodies. No, our Gospel lesson today is about how people who have invested their hope in Jesus live when the foundations are shaken. When the world seems to be crumbling beneath our feet.
It’s Jesus teaching his church how to be an Advent people.
Stand up straight and raise your heads
Church, here’s what we tend to miss when we come to the apocalyptic-sounding, end-of-the-world passages like the one we heard today. They hit us with shock and awe, disorient us, leave us spellbound, and then we miss the imperative verbs. We miss the things Jesus actually tells us to be doing. Jesus didn’t tell us to watch the skies and the seas and the nightly news looking for signs.
No. When our world is caving in, when everything is unsettled and uncertain, Jesus tells the church: Stand up straight and raise your heads. Be expectant. Be waiting. Be watchful. Be hopeful.
Thing is, our Gospel lesson today isn’t the only place we find Luke highlighting life-altering, earth-shaking, world-changing goings-on. Luke’s Gospel is just full of images of the present order of things being overthrown. Of systems being toppled. Of the foundations being shaken. Of the world being turned over.
When Mary finds herself with the Son of God growing in her womb—and what could be more of a shake-up than that—she runs to her cousin Elizabeth and composes a psalm right there in her living room. She sings:
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed (Luke 1.51-53).
Scattered. Pulled down. Sent away. Yep, that’s life-altering, earth-shaking stuff there.
It’s the same story when Mary and Joseph take the newborn Jesus to the temple for his dedication. An aged prophet named Simeon scoops him into his arms and says: This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition. Jesus will overturn the old order. The prophet continues: so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. Jesus isn’t just going to turn the world upside down, he’s going to turn it inside out, too. And then he tells Mary: And a sword will pierce your innermost being too (Luke 2.34-35). He’s going to turn everything upside down and inside out, and it’s going to hurt.
What Jesus was trying to tell us with all this talk about heavenly signs and surging waves is this: The tide is turning. The course is shifting. The stars are re-aligning.
And all that stuff needs to happen. Cataclysmic changes that rock this world to its core, and make people faint from fear are necessary.
But when all that’s going down, the world doesn’t need a church that’s also falling over from fear. Hunkered down. Circling the wagons. Awaiting evacuation orders. No—the world needs a hopeful people who can stand up straight and lift our heads when everyone and everything else is falling to pieces.
Our world needs an Advent people living among them, perhaps now more than ever. The terror and tragedy of our time tempts us to be apathetic, cynical, gloomy, and mean. But Jesus is calling on us to be an Advent church: Hopeful. Ready. Joyful. Loving.
Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled
So Jesus has told us to stand up straight and lift our heads, even in the darkest times. Perhaps especially in the darkest times. He has told us to watch and wait. Now that raises a question. How do we watch and wait?
Does Jesus want us to watch like a sniper, waiting for his target to move into position? Or is he inviting us to a different kind of watchfulness—more like a child who eagerly awaits Christmas?
Now, that’s an absolutely critical distinction to make. Not just that we watch and wait, but how we watch and wait.
See, we can be watching and waiting—we can keep our eyes peeled—while so much is uncertain and unsettled and unknown. And we’re afraid for ourselves and our families and our churches and our communities. And we are watching and asking ourselves: Will we live? Will we survive this thing? Are we going to make it? And that’s not how Jesus invites us to watch and wait.
Jesus didn’t tell us to ask, Will we live?, as we watch and wait. He calls us to be a people who ask: How will we live?
In the midst of all the turmoil and terror and trauma and tragedy of our time, Jesus warns us: Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life.
Does it seem odd to you that in the middle of all this end-of-the-world sounding talk, Jesus warns us to make sure our hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties or drunkenness? Like: Really Jesus? There’s all this ruckus in heaven and earth, and we’re going to be getting blitzed like it’s New Years Eve? Actually, that doesn’t seem strange to me at all. Seems like the most natural temptation in the world. Who doesn’t want to take the edge off while their world is caving in?
But maybe drunkenness isn’t your thing. Maybe you haven’t played beer pong or logged a 60-second keg stand since college. Maybe your thing is more like mine: cocooning and binge-watching. Maybe we need to focus on the warning to take care that your hearts aren’t dulled.
When our hearts become dull, we are no longer moved by the cries of the poor. The hunger of the orphan. The tears of the widow. The grief of the prisoner. The isolation of the lonely. The displacement of the refugee. And if we are so dulled that we are not moved by the need of our neighbor, how can we offer them hope? How can we have any hope for them?
When our hearts are dulled, we also don’t notice the stunning and dazzling and holy things that are going on all around us. Seasons change. We meet a new friend. We cradle a newborn. The dog curls up in your lap. We embrace our loved ones. We share a homemade meal with family and neighbors. All these tiny, holy moments—they foster hope. We draw hope from them to share with those who are fainting from fear. Because these stunning moments of beauty and delight and embrace and sharing—that’s the stuff that goes on. That’s what endures when Jesus returns. That’s the material the world to come will be built from. All that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise (Phil. 4.8) everywhere, everyone, all the time, world without end.
That’s the hope of Advent.
Jesus needs his church to be an Advent people for the world. A people with hearts on fire with hope, watching and waiting for our redemption to draw near. And kindling that same watchful, waiting hope in our world. In our time. Whatever time it is.
Stay alert and pray
I love how Eugene Peterson has translated our lesson today in The Message: Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. I mean, isn’t that exactly what our TVs and billboards and magazines tell us to be doing in the weeks leading up to Christmas?
By contrast, Jesus describes what an Advent people will be doing while the foundations are being rattled. While the current is shifting. While the stars are re-aligning. While the world falls apart. Jesus tells us to: 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.
Someone might say, Aha, preacher! So there is an escape clause, an eject button, an evacuation plan, after all! Jesus said it himself: pray that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen.
Not so fast, though. One of the cool things about the Bible is that you can skip forward to the end. And the resolution of the story looks like this:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” (Rev. 21.1-5)
I saw a new heaven and a new earth, it says. We hear God’s voice—and I always imagine God a little giddy when he says this—we hear God proclaim: Look! I’m making all things new.
So our hope as Advent people isn’t that Jesus evacuates us just before the world is blown to smithereens. Our hope isn’t the destruction of the world. It’s the redemption, the reclaiming, the renewing, the remaking, the re-creation of our world.
What is our escape, then, from whatever is about to happen? What is the strength we pray for that will let us stand before the Human One—the crucified, resurrected, glorified Jesus?
It’s hope. It’s the hope that is born from knowing God’s surprise climax to the story of the world: that a poor Jewish refugee who was murdered by the state is the meaning of life, and history, and the whole universe. We watch—trembling in the darkness—as our dawn breaks across the horizon. It is God resurrecting Jesus—this most Human One of us all. God letting it be known that not even terror and mayhem and death gets the final word over the life of his faithful One. We hear God proclaim that this promise is also for all of his faithful ones. And that evil and sin and destruction and death do not get the final word over any of his creation. We have heard God proclaim: Look! I’m making all things new!
That’s what the hope of Advent people looks like.
And so in hope, we stay alert—expecting not only our own redemption, but the redemption of all God’s good creation. We pray for strength, so that we aren’t consumed by what is happening around us or to us. So that our hearts aren’t dulled. We keep on praying that we are strong enough to stand up straight and lift our heads.
That’s what Advent people do.
Prisoners of hope
While I’ve been wrestling with this text, preparing for this first Sunday of Advent—the Sunday of Hope—something Cornel West once said has been echoing around in my head: I cannot be an optimist but I am a prisoner of hope.
Fact is, Advent hope—the hope instilled in us by the coming, the crucifixion, resurrection, and return of Jesus—isn’t the same thing as optimism. Jesus didn’t come to make us into Pollyannas perpetually looking on the bright side of life. Pretending the nasty and brutal and heartbreaking stuff in our world isn’t really all that bad. Trying to minimize the pain that plagues creation. That’s a cop-out. That’s irresponsible. That’s not hope. That’s sloth.
The world as it is grinds up optimists and sprinkles them like sugar over its Cheerios.
The Advent of Jesus doesn’t make us optimists. The Advent of Jesus makes us prisoners of hope.
To be a prisoner means to be constrained. It means that your options are limited. It means you have a limited amount of space to work from.
So to be prisoners of hope means that certain possibilities just aren’t open to us anymore. When the sky is falling and the planets are tilting and the tide is turning, prisoners of hope don’t have the privilege of fainting from fear. Prisoners of hope don’t have the option of dulling our hearts. We are not allowed to tune out, turn off, or drop out.
Prisoners of hope stand up straight and raise our heads, because our redemption is near. We take care that our hearts aren’t dulled. We stay alert at all times—we know what time it is, and we know the flavor of the day. We keep praying that we are strong enough to stand before the Human One when he comes. We are able to do all those things because we know what God has promised us through Jesus: He is making all things new. So in the face of terror and tragedy and trauma and even death itself, we defiantly live out our hopefulness. We still plant trees and gardens. We embrace refugees and strangers. We offer forgiveness and reconciliation. We feed the hungry. We birth children into the world. We wipe away tears, even as we cry with those who mourn. Because that’s how you live hopeful for the new creation God has begun in Jesus.
That’s basically our story, church. That’s what it means to be Advent people. A people living in between creation and new creation. Sealed in on either side by hope. Hope on one end kindled by the first Advent of Jesus. Hope on the other end fed by the second Advent of Jesus, when all things will be made new.
Church, I’m going to let you in on something, then I’m going to be done for today. The earth-shaking stuff Jesus spoke about in our lesson today: the planets shifting, the tide turning, the realigning of the stars. Those have continued through every century, every generation, since he spoke those words. Most everyone in the world can see them. But everyone tends to watch them through a different set of lenses: Fear. Rage. Mistrust. Despair. Denial. Some people look through lenses that might not seem as destructive, but they are. Optimism is one kind of lens. Sentimentalism is another—the longing for the good old days. Sentimentalism doesn’t let people see that the good old days weren’t good for everybody.
But the church has the lenses of Advent hope. And that’s what lets us see things for what they truly are—the good, the bad, the ugly, and the just plain weird—and go on anyway. Standing straight. Heads raised. Eyes looking forward.
And church—that’s why the world needs an Advent people. Maybe now more than ever.