Advent 1, Year C, Sunday, December 2nd, 2012
Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, John 18:33-38a
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Salem, OR
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Stores are decked out for Christmas, radio stations are playing Christmas carols, people are putting up Christmas trees, there’s a crèche out in the narthex … and in church we’re reading about the end of the world again. Somehow, it doesn’t really seem to fit into the season. Today is the beginning of Advent, the season of preparing for Christmas, and yet you wouldn’t know it from today’s Gospel lesson. We’ve been talking for weeks about the end times, and while that may be appropriate for the end of the church year, it seems somehow odd for the beginning of it. Particularly when we’re getting ready to welcome a new baby into our midst—Jesus, born in a stable in Bethlehem.
Yet Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is not the only coming of Christ we need to worry about. In Advent we prepare not only for Christ’s coming at Christmas, but also Christ’s coming again. We welcome not only the baby Jesus in Bethlehem who was born two millennia ago, but also the Christ who will come again in glory.
Advent is a time of waiting. It is a time of preparation. Advent is a time to remind ourselves that we as Christians live caught between the already and the not yet. Already, because Jesus Christ was born two thousand years ago, taught, died, and rose again. Not yet, because Christ’s promise of the Kingdom will not be fulfilled until he comes again. And so all of the Christian life is, in that sense, a time of waiting; Advent is the time of year that reminds us what we are waiting for.
And that’s why today’s lesson is assigned for the first Sunday in Advent. If I asked you what Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading, I bet I know what you would say. For most people, what sticks out in their mind is the negative stuff: fear and trembling, distress among the nations, the need to escape, etc. We hear about the Son of Man coming in a cloud and our mind goes right to thinking about judgment, hell, and damnation. Some people hear and are afraid that they will be among those judged harshly. Some people hear and think how unbelievable and out of touch Christianity is. And some people hear and seem to get positively gleeful about all the sinners in the world who are going to be judged harshly, who are finally getting their comeuppance.
And yet, that’s not what Jesus was talking about at all. Listen closely: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” And again: “The kingdom of God is near.” And again: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” And again: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down.” And again: “Be alert at all times.” Jesus is not focusing on what’s going to happen, or when, or to whom. Instead, Jesus focuses on the waiting itself. How are we going to wait for what we know is coming?
What’s our response going to be? Will we cower in fear, seeing the troubles around us? Will we let the bad things in our lives and in our world weigh us down so much that they’re all we can see? Will we hunker down with a bunker mentality, shutting out all the world’s problems out of fear? Will we ignore the troubles around us and be caught off guard when Jesus comes, surprised that Jesus actually did what he said he was going to? Will we distract ourselves with the minutia of life? Will we accept that the way things are is the way they will always be, and forget the promise of the Kingdom of God?
Waiting isn’t easy. Any child on Christmas Eve, waiting for Santa Claus, could tell you that. I don’t think anyone in the history of the world has ever been happy when told they have to wait. Waiting is boring. And our society doesn’t make it any easier. Our culture is increasingly based on speed, on response times, on getting things immediately. If you want it, buy it, even if you can’t afford it, and pay it off later. Stores start putting out Christmas displays earlier each year, so no one has to wait for Christmas fun. If you have free time, find something to do: a TV show to watch, a website to surf, music to listen to, a text to send. We spend incredible amounts of time, money, and energy to avoid having to wait for anything. Last night I went to see A Christmas Carol in Garrison, and I had ten minutes between when I got seated and the beginning of the program. A whole ten minutes to wait? I got out my smart phone and checked FaceBook, and then played a game. When they flickered the lights because the show was starting, for a second or so I was annoyed because I had to stop the game. For that second, the thing I had used to distract myself from waiting was more important to me than the thing I was waiting for. Here’s another example: I have a friend who will drive blocks out of her way to avoid hitting red lights. She’ll take a longer route to avoid having to sit and wait. In the end, she’ll spend more time avoiding the wait than she would have spent actually waiting. She’s not alone—I bet a few of you here have done that sometimes.
The thing is, sometimes waiting is good for us. The anticipation can heighten our desire for the thing to come. And waiting can help to focus on the goal, the end point, The time in between can give us an opportunity to get ready. When a couple finds out they’re expecting a child, the nine months a pregnancy lasts gives them time to arrange things—get supplies, make space for the baby, figure out how to rearrange their lives without the baby actually there to demand their attention. Can you imagine what it would be like for a baby to be born at the same time its mother figures out she’s pregnant? How hard it would be to do everything at the same time!
But even when it’s necessary, even when it’s good for us, waiting is hard. The longer the wait, the easier it is to lose focus, to wander off in search of something new, to decide we didn’t really need it, anyway. So it’s no wonder that Jesus took pains to tell his disciples how they should wait for him to come again. First, we should remember that there is something to wait for. Christ will come. Second, don’t be afraid. When Christ comes, he comes for the redemption of the world. Jesus Christ comes to save. So stand up and hold your head high, even though the world around you may be trembling in fear. Trust in God’s Word; no matter what else changes (and things will change), God’s Word will remain. Don’t get dragged down by the cares of the world. No matter how bad it gets it’s not the end of the story, because something new is coming. And always, always, remember to pay attention, and look for the signs of God’s kingdom which is close at hand.
Advent is a season of waiting, of preparing, not just our homes and our trees but our lives as well. Advent is a time to remember that we don’t just celebrate the birth of a baby two thousand years ago in Bethlehem; we celebrate the Son of Man whose work is not done yet. Advent is a time to remember that we have our feet in two worlds, the world around us and the kingdom to come. Advent is a time to remember that we are always waiting, and a time to focus on the one we are waiting for, who comes to save. May we wait with hope for the coming redemption.