A sermon for the first Sunday in Advent.
(Luke 21:25-36, Jeremiah 33:10-16, 1 Samuel 2:1-10)
God of light, we wait for you. Spirit of hope, we catch glimpses of you here among us. Christ of glory and vulnerability, come quickly. Grant understanding to our minds and courage to our hearts. Amen.
Over and over, lately, after people tell me their stories of illness and tragedy, of hope and healing, people have been talking to me about their sense that the world is crashing in on itself. Many of them point to particular events that make them especially fearful that “the day of judgment” is coming – that a biblically predicted apocalypse is around the corner. I have to admit, it makes me uncomfortable to have those conversations, but I am there to listen, so I keep listening.
Every year, the first Sunday of Advent, when we follow the lectionary cycle of readings we hear Jesus tell us of terrifying things – wars and rumors of wars, religious foundations destroyed, heaven and earth passing away, the day coming like a trap. And I don’t know about you, but every year I squirm a little. In this season of Santa and evergreen boughs, I don’t want to grapple with this passage. Yet there it sits, a speech often called “the little apocalypse,” in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. God calls us to listen to the words of Jesus, so we keep listening.
So today we listen again together and see what we can make of it…. See if we can tease out what good news God is speaking into our lives through it.
I was sitting with a family, mostly in silence, as their loved one was in surgery to repair a ruptured aortic aneurism. He had been in surgery for 11 hours and it was going well until it wasn’t. I had been called to gather the family in preparation for the likely news of his death. As we waited for nearly an hour together, his wife said very little, but at one point she turned to me and said, “God has brought him through so much. He wouldn’t have brought him through so much just to take him now, would he? Surely God doesn’t want this, does he? Surely God wouldn’t do that.” Later, after the surgeon had delivered the news of her husband’s death, after she had collapsed and regained strength to stand, after some stories and many tears, after goodbyes in the presence of her husband’s body, she turned again to me and asked, “What do I do now? How do I live? He was my everything.”
In those days…. In the times when something so cataclysmic happens that there is an instant severing of the timeline of life, those are the questions people ask – What does it mean? Where is God? What do I do now?
In our passage for today from Luke, Jesus is approaching his own death. He knows he is leaving the disciples. They are wandering through the temple and the disciples are oohing and ahhing over the beauty of the structure and its decorations. Jesus brings them up short with the declaration that the temple will come crashing down. They ask two questions – When will it happen? And How will we know? – which sends Jesus into a long speech filled with terrifying predictions. The scripture from Luke for today is the end of that speech. Jesus, frustratingly, doesn’t answer the “when will it happen” question, I think because that isn’t the important question. The closest he comes to that answer is to say that it will happen to everyone on the earth. The question he does answer, alongside the “how will we know” question, is the question of “what do we do?”
In those days… when cataclysm seems to be on our front porch, beating down the door, when it seems that nothing can save us and the world can never be the same again, what do we do?
When I listen carefully to people who want to tell me about their fears of the apocalypse, I have noticed that they are asking the same kinds of questions. One man, whose wife was dying, told stories of her and then told me of the uncertainty and the waiting. But most of what he wanted to talk about was that she was suffering and he didn’t want her to suffer. When, later, he talked about the fear he had of the end of the world, he was asking the same question – What do the faithful do in the midst of suffering?
And this is a question that nearly everyone I meet in the hospital is asking in one form or another. I don’t have a ready answer for people, but after as much silence as is needed, sometimes I say something like this: I’ve seen suffering close people down into bitterness and vengeance and pettiness. I’ve seen suffering open people up into generosity, gentleness, and wisdom. I haven’t figured out exactly what makes the difference, but I think it is somewhere in the realm of hope.
Blessing When the World is Ending
Look, the world
is always ending
the sun has come
it has gone
it has ended
with the gun
it has ended
with the slammed door
the shattered hope.
it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone
the hospital room.
it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
this blessing means
to be anything
It has not come
to cause despair.
It is simply here
because there is nothing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.
will not fix you
will not mend you
will not give you
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.
It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
as the world begins
When Jesus wants to tell the disciples what to do, how to be, in the face of global suffering, (and I think we can also include local, even personal suffering), he describes a posture – literally.
Imagine for a moment a situation that makes you fearful. Sit with that sense of fear for a moment. Imagine your body molding itself into that fear. What do you see? What do you sense?
Now, in the same situation, imagine that you can miraculously be certain that you are safe and strong. Then, bit by bit, you move into that posture of safety and strength. What do you see? What do you sense? What happens next in this scene?
In the fearful posture, I imagine many of you imagined yourselves frozen, curled in, hands over heads, faces, eyes. Perhaps you imagined yourself curled around someone you love or curled inside the embrace of someone else. Perhaps you were ultra alert, fists or weapon raised. Perhaps you were ready to run or hide. What is common to all of these postures is that the world is severely narrowed and fear often becomes its own perpetuation.
But when and if you were able to sense safety and strength, I imagine many of you found yourselves drawing up to your full stature, raising your head, opening yourself. This is the posture Jesus describes.
What should we do, Jesus, when all this happens? The question the disciples didn’t know they were asking, but the question Jesus knew to answer. What should we do, Jesus, when the world turns upside down?
Lift your head.
Stand up. Uncurl yourself. This is the same word that is used when Jesus heals a bent over woman. Find your rooting in the earth, find the strength in your legs and back, claim an openness in the center of your chest. Remember who God created you to be. Uncurl yourself. Stand up.
Lift your head. Look around. If fear, pain, suffering has a tendency to narrow our world, Jesus invites us to take a step toward broadening it again. When you look around, what you might see is that your suffering is not so different from others’ suffering. You might see that you are connected in a network that offers healing and companionship. You also might see that your suffering has not just an interpersonal context but a societal and perhaps even global context. You might look to the hills and see that your help is coming from God. Look around. Lift your head.
Wait. Don’t move just yet. Don’t rush into action. Action will come but it comes from a rooted place, not a purely fearful place. Take a beat. Wait.
And pray. Pray that you might escape. Pray that you might be strong. Pray that you might be connected and compassionate. Pray to express your trust in God. Pray in order to discover some trust in God. Pray that you might stand before Jesus – that you might stand with Jesus. Pray.
Stand up. Lift your head. Wait. Pray.
This is good news because this is a choice. What happens around you or to you may not have much to do with your choice. What happens inside you, in your feelings world, may not have much to do with your choice. But your posture, internal and external – that is your choice.
Stand up. Lift your head. Wait. Pray.
The difference between suffering that closes us down and suffering that opens us up? I think it is this – our ability to, in the midst of fear and uncertainty, stand in the truth of who God made us to be, look around and broaden our vision, wait on God, and pray.
These are momentary decisions that don’t often seem all that heroic. This choice of posture is in the daily routine, in the incidental interactions, in the small anxieties and pains. Those moments of standing and lifting our heads, practiced over and over in small ways, form us into faithful people, people of courage and integrity.
All of this calls for a sense of hope. Hope isn’t always a flowering and fragrant garden in the soul, although beautiful when it is. But there needs to be a seed of hope, however small. Jeremiah’s words from this morning’s scripture reading bring a vision of hope that is an oasis in the desert.
The ability to stand in the truth of who we are created to be, the ability to lift our heads and wait, relies on the kind of vision Jeremiah holds up for the Israelites in exile. In the midst of a desert, in those days God will bring lush pasture. Where there once was rubble, in those days God will raise dwellings. Where there was mourning, there will be wedding feasts. The scattered sheep will be gathered together and brought home to thrive in the protection of the caring and guarding shepherd.
It’s beautiful imagery. Jeremiah spends much time berating the Israelites for their sins elsewhere in the book, but in this passage, his apocalyptic imagination is overflowing with peace that seeks to comfort their yearning hearts.
There are many people and organizations in this world who will offer us ways to protect ourselves in the midst of societal chaos and fear. There are many ways we each will try to cover up the sense of powerlessness inside us. But many of those attempts, though they seem to save us, will make us smaller and more fearful.
Standing in the truth of who God made us to be, resting in the promises of God, means relying on the kind of vision that Jeremiah presents. Jesus says, “Stand up and lift your heads…” Why? “Because your salvation is drawing near.” Somewhere on that horizon you will see before you when you dare to look up, somewhere coming toward you, coming toward us, is salvation, restoration, reconciliation for the whole of God’s creation. And that includes you, and me, and all of us together.
So we steep ourselves in these traditions, in these visions. Hannah’s song in the scripture this morning may have seemed familiar to you because echoes of it are in Mary’s song. Hannah’s song rings with the tones of justice and reconciliation, celebration and confidence. Mary immersed herself in this tradition so that when her time came to imagine the salvation drawing near to her – when God called her to stand up, lift her head, and sing of a world not yet seen – it was Hannah’s vision that she turned to, Hannah’s vision that she refashioned.
In this advent, in these days, we begin with apocalyptic imagination in order to remind ourselves that God can make a way where there seems to be no way. To remind ourselves that the God who promises is faithful. To remind ourselves that though chaos is all around, God is even more deeply present and is bringing her realm ever more fully into being.
In this advent, in these days, we steep ourselves again in the stories so that when it is our turn to choose a posture of fear or a posture of courage, we are tuned to ring with the vision of wholeness that God has placed in us.
We stand up. We lift our heads. We wait. And we pray.
And as we glimpse the Alpha and Omega, the One who is and who was and who is to come, we wait in courage, hope, and breathless wonder, for him to come as a baby once again, and somehow – somehow – reconcile the world to himself.
When you seek courage in this life, heed the clarion call of Jesus that echoes through the ages: stand up, lift your heads, wait, and pray.
And now may the God of hope fill you will all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.