Before you read the sermon, check out the Gospel Lesson.
Also, watch this video:
We are living in the meantime. Do you realize that? That we are living in the meantime? We are living in a time between two realities. A time between what has already come to pass and what is yet to come. We are living in the meantime.
We are all pretty familiar with living in the meantime. We judge our lives by major life events–births, weddings, graduations, birthdays, Christmases, deaths. The time between these events is “the meantime.” And almost all of us are there, now.
It is a strange place to be, the meantime. We know what has already occurred. We have records and stories and traditions that point to that. We also know that something is coming. We have other stories and traditions and prophecies that point to that. But, for now, we live in the meantime somewhere between what has been and what is to come.
Advent is the perfect time to talk about living in the meantime. It is a season of waiting and preparing. It is a time during which we sweep out the cobwebs of our outside lives, throw away the trash of the worries that have been piling up since last Advent so that we might have room to witness and hold the miraculous beauty of Christ. We wait and we prepare for the coming of Christ–not just as the babe in the manger, but also as the Son of Man on clouds descending from heaven. Advent is one of the most confusing seasons for most Christians. Many simply don’t understand the point. Can’t we just get to Christmas, already? Christmas, of course, is the fun part–presents, food, family and friends, fun.
But we aren’t to Christmas yet. In fact, we have a ways to go until we get there.
The church year is a curious way of organizing time in the church. It has grown out of two millennia of Christian tradition, and is influenced by millennia of Jewish tradition before that. The church year, or liturgical calendar as it is often called, calls Christians to remember the life of Christ within the life of the church. As we walk through the church year, we walk with Christ from the manger to the cross to the triumph of the resurrection.
And it begins with the season we start today, Advent. The word advent comes from the Latin “adventus” meaning coming. In Advent, we prepare for the coming Christ. At Christmas, we witness his arrival and celebrate the implications of the Word made flesh. This is the reason that the nativity on the old Communion Table features an illuminated Bible. On Christmas eve, we will find Jesus in its place–the Word made flesh, indeed.
Next, we look toward Epiphany–toward a time of new beginnings and miracles. We then start to walk with Christ through the first part of his ministry. Soon, we arrive at Lent.
At the beginning of Lent, of course, is Ash Wednesday when we are reminded of our mortality and sinfulness by wearing ashen crosses on our foreheads. The forty days of Lent are penitential ones–days where we are particularly mindful of our shortcomings. Yet, through these days of refinement and cleansing, we still find ourselves called by Christ to follow him to the cross.
Soon, the day is upon us. We share the meal and wait in silence hoping against hope that it isn’t true–that Christ isn’t really dead. Then comes Easter morning and the fresh breath of the Resurrection. We find ourselves reassured that life has indeed overcome death. The next months are ones of reflection on the teachings of Jesus as we work to align our lives with his life. With all of these celebrations and teachings and miracles piled one upon the other, we have no other choice but to acknowledge to reign of Christ, so we celebrate Christ the King Sunday (which we celebrated just this past week). We sang songs of rejoicing in the Lord our King who is sovereign over heaven and earth.
It seems strange, then, at least to me, for us to suddenly leave such a triumphant frenzy in the midst of our church life to sit and wait and pray–which is exactly what Advent calls us to do. It is a dramatic move from celebration of Christ’s reign to the anticipation of it.
And it’s a surprisingly counter-cultural shift. A little over a week ago, we were confronted with a barrage of sales encouraging us to buy early and cheap. Calendars are filling up with Christmas get-togethers and holiday parties–our own on Dec. 14 included. It’s overwhelming. The voiceovers of advertisements and our own wants drown out the call to wait, to hold tight, to be on guard and to keep awake.
But the scripture lessons today offer a different vision of what we should be doing to prepare for the coming Christ. The readings for this first Sunday of Advent are always apocalyptic in nature. This isn’t done out of intimidation; but rather, to remind us of the ways that God is working in the world. These texts remind us that the story of Christmas is far larger than a manger and a star. As beloved preacher Fred Craddock puts it the fact that “God comes to us is certain, however uncertain the when and how.” It is this certainty that God comes to us that causes us to move, to keep awake and pray as we wait.
The first part of the Gospel reading is undoubtedly intense. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
We hear the words and become a little uncomfortable. It is easy to look around and see these things happening. it is easy for us to read our particular situation into Luke’s Jesus. We think back to the past years: the devestating earthquake in Haiti, the floods in the mid-west, our own Hurricane Sandy. Is this what Jesus was talking about?
We think of wars and nuclear weaponry, and the way that hatred seems to pervasive. Is this what Jesus was talking about?
The culture we live in champions terrifying perceptions of the end times. In the past decade alone, we’ve had a deluge of motion pictures that imagine our world during apocalyptic times. Books have been published which try to guess what it will be like when these signs occur, not to mention pop-culture’s obsession with the end of the Mayan calendar is 2012. Are these stories true? Is this what Jesus was talking about?
Here is the question it all boils down to: What will happen next?
It’s a simple question, really. What’s next? It’s a question we all want answered. It comes in all sorts of forms, some more mundane than others. What will I eat for the next meal? What will my child’s next tantrum be about?
Sometimes, it is asked in far more significant terms: What happens when we die? What will happen when the world ends?
The simple fact is, we are obsessed with knowing what will happen next.
Jesus, of course, realizes this. The gospel lesson for today is smack in the middle of the long Lukan journey to the cross. For a while, in the middle of Luke, we hear the parables–stories Jesus used to make a point about the spiritual life. Soon these parables are interrupted with some of Jesus’ most noted conversations (like with the Rich Young Ruler and Zacheus), miracles of healing, and prophecies. Jesus repeatedly foretells his own death.
Then, starting in the 21st chapter, Jesus begins an apocalyptic pattern–a Biblical TV guide of sorts. First, he tells of the coming destruction of the temple, then of signs and persecutions. Jesus then tells of the destruction of Jerusalem, followed closely by the passage we read today. You can image the uneasiness that swept through his followers. It is the same uneasiness we felt today when we heard these words read. You can imagine the confusion that must have descended upon them. In a way , it parallels our own confusion about what the end times just might be like.
Jesus keeps talking about the coming of the Son of Man. Now the structure of Luke, and of all the Gospels for that matter, is about proving a particular point–that Jesus is the Christ, or as the gospel writers often put it: the Son of Man. Yet here, Jesus keeps pointing to the coming Son of Man. But isn’t Jesus, who is already here, the Son of Man? Then why does Jesus say the Son of Man is coming?
This only adds to their confusion. But Jesus doesn’t seem particularly concerned with their understanding of the details. Instead of delving into the theological implications of his return, he instead gives them these instructions: “Now, when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.”
Notice what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say run around frantically stocking up on bread and milk and plywood. He doesn’t say head for the hills. He doesn’t say to grab the nearest helmet and elbow pads. No, he says to stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near. Besides this there is no action on our part to be done. You see, God doesn’t need our help to make these things come to pass.
To prove his point, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree. Now the fig tree is a common fruit tree to the Middle East. Those hearing this parable would have certainly been familiar with it. Like our own spring and summer seasons, the shift to warmer weather brought with it an explosion of flora. Jesus tells us to look out for even the simplest ways, like the fig tree blooming in summer, that the kingdom of God draws near to us.
His final words about this are not ones of desperation. Rather ones of instruction: Be on guard, keep watch, so the things and worries of this world won’t weigh you down and cause you to miss the glory that is coming.
You see, Jesus himself reminds his followers that even he doesn’t know when he will return, but he knows it will happen. We hear echoes of his earlier discourses of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. Let God take of it. Instead of worrying about when it will occur, Jesus is far more concerned with how we live our lives while we are waiting. Jesus is most concerned about the how we live in meantime.
What is important to him isn’t that we perform the right ritual or are part of the the right church. Rather, what matters to Jesus is that we keep awake, that we keep watch and pray.
In that classic movie musical Sister Act 2 a showgirl played by Whoopi Goldbergis lured to a school staffed by her old nun friends from the first Sister Act. She is assigned to teach music to a class of misfits and troublemakers. After a few sessions of tough classes where the students are nothing but disrespectful, her character, Sister Mary Clarence, begins to take care of business. After setting the class straight, she offers her first lesson: If you wanna be somebody, if you wanna go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention.
Jesus encourages his followers with similar urgency: “Be on guard 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.”
Wake up and pay attention. Put down the things that distract you from this great day. Live in the anticipation of hope, not the expectation of fear. To merge the two: If you want to be somebody who follows me and tastes my glory, you better wake up and pay attention. Pay attention to the things that really matter–which incidentally are not necessarily holiday parties or sale bargains.
His words are not ones of desperation. He doesn’t want his followers to be on guard so that they can avoid terrible happenings, for there is nothing terrible about Christ’s return. He doesn’t want us to run to the cellar and hunker down. He wants to stand up, pay attention and pray for the day that is coming–the day that is not of judgment, but of grace. We have no reason to fear, only reason to rejoice.
And so we find ourselves here on this first Sunday of Advent. Looking forward not only to the coming of the Christ child, but also to the coming of Christ in glory. We see our future in the manger and in the clouds. We remember the story of our Salvation and look toward its completion. In the meantime, that is to say now, keep awake. In the meantime, keep watch because, friends, God is doing great and glorious things, even in the meantime.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.