Advent 1C, 2018, December 2, 2018
Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
At last, it is December. Christmas is less than a month away! Cheery holiday songs are on the radio, Christmas trees are going up, presents are being bought, parties are being hosted, charitable donations are being made … even the Grinchiest person concedes that it’s finally time to start thinking Christmas. For those of us who are Christian, it’s time to start contemplating the reason for the season, Jesus Christ, born in a manger, come to save us from our sins and bring forth the reign of God. And, in church, it’s time to hear about the apocalypse! Every year, regular as clockwork, on the first Sunday of Advent we read Jesus’ words about the end days. It’s quite a contrast from the sweet, pretty
Why? Why do we do this? It is such a bummer! I don’t know about you but I am ready for holiday goodies and peace on earth, goodwill among mortals. Especially after the last couple of years. Last year, hate crimes in America increased by twelve percent, and it was the fourth year in a row of hate crime increases. This should not be a surprise since hate speech has increased even more than that, and just general nastiness seems to be pretty common in the world today. So are fear and anxiety. If there was ever a time we desperately needed peace on earth, good will among humans, it is now, because there seems to be precious little to go around. There is enough darkness in the world; what we need is light. So why, then do we start preparing for Christmas by hearing Jesus talk about everything being shaken and people being afraid?
I think it has to do with acknowledging reality, and facing it directly. Because we human beings aren’t that great about acknowledging the deepest problems we face and facing them. Either we fiddle while Rome burns, pretending things are great while they’re not, or we don’t do anything, becoming cynical and apathetic.
December is a time when we do a lot of papering over deep problems with superficial fixes. For example. A lot of people have long-standing problems with family members which they just sort of ignore in the spirit of Christmas for a bit. But it’s not a genuine attempt at reconciliation. They don’t actually heal the wounds or try to forgive, they just sweep things under the rug. It’s like the first Christmas in World War I, when the two sides stopped fighting on Christmas Day and sang Christmas carols together, played games, and shared their food. And then, the next day, they went right back to killing one another by the millions. The ceasefire was a good thing, but actual peace would have been so much better. Another example. Charities get a boost this month! There are so many donations to food pantries and homeless shelters and all manner of other charities that do good work. But then most people don’t do much the rest of the year. The need still exists—the problems those charities address are still there—but the generosity is not. We drop that change in the Salvation Army kettles, and think warm thoughts about how generous we are, and then we go about our business and forget about it. As a society, we do just enough to make ourselves feel nice and Christmassy, but don’t put in the hard work of dealing with our society’s deepest needs on a regular basis.
And all too often, when we actually do take a good, hard look at just how messed up the world is, how close our lives are to falling apart, how deep the wounds in our society, our community, our family, ourselves? All too often, we let it make us cynical. The problems are big, and we can’t fix them, so we might as well just ignore it. Or we let our fears and anxieties control us, and we either end up paralyzed in indecision, or turning to anger to cover up our fears. We attack the ones we blame for our problems, even if they didn’t actually do anything. We give in to knee-jerk reactions that do more harm than good. Or we turn back to ignorance, drowning our fears and anxieties in activities, or we blame people for their own misfortunes to try and convince ourselves it could never happen to us, or we try to numb ourselves with booze and drugs, anything to keep us from feeling so badly. It is no coincidence that as the levels of hate and fear and fighting in our country have grown, so have the levels of addiction and mental health problems.
Jesus’ words to us today are a reminder that even in the worst the world has to offer, redemption is near. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees,” Jesus says. “As soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” When there is evil in the world, God’s reign is near. Where there is darkness, God is working to bring light. When things are terrible, God is present, breaking in to the world to make things better. We may think that the world—or some parts of it—are a God-forsaken mess, but there is no place or person that God is not working to heal, to save, and to bring into God’s kingdom.
I grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers had a lot of really good advice. One of them was this: Whenever there are disasters or problems in the world, look for the people who are helping. Because there are always people who are helping. Every time something goes wrong, even in the darkest places, some people are working to make things better and help those who need it. In the same way, even in the darkest places, God is always present and at work. Often through those helpers Mr. Rogers talked about. And God is calling us to be those helpers. Sure, we can’t fix all the world’s problems, but we can make things just a little bit better. But in order to do that, we need to be paying attention, we need to see what the problems are, and we have to face them.
There will come a day when God’s kingdom will be made manifest in the world, when Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and all the world will be healed and made whole, and heaven will come to Earth. There will come a day when there will be no pain, and no need for fear or sorrow. There will be a day when hope will be fulfilled and love will win and all creation will be as good as God created it to be. We don’t know when that will be because frankly we are terrible at reading the signs, and have been continually getting that wrong since before Jesus told us to be on the lookout for them.
The thing is, we don’t have to know when Christ will come again. We just have to trust that he will. As surely as Christ once came at Christmas, Christ will come again in glory. And in the meantime, we have to stay alert. Keep watch. And not be discouraged by the world’s problems. We know that Christ will come again, and we know that Christ is present now. We know that God is at work in the world, and that God’s kingdom is near. “Be on guard,” Jesus said, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength.” We pray, and we wait for that day of Jesus’ return. We pray that we may have the strength to face reality and open our hearts and minds to the light of Christ, and carry that light forth into the world, to shine that light into all the places that it needs to be. So that all may know the love and joy of God.