Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sermon: "People Get Ready"

West Newton, Massachusetts
November 29, 2009

“The house lights go off and the footlights come on. In the orchestra pit, the violin bows are poised. The conductor has raised his baton. In the silence of a midwinter dusk, you hold your breath to listen. You are aware of the beating of your heart…The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens.
Advent is the name of that moment.”
— Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark

Scripture Lessons:
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Luke 21:25-36

“People Get Ready”

When I was six years old, it was during Advent that I became well acquainted with the word anticipation.

In church every Sunday we’d watch the lighting of the Advent wreath, eagerly counting how many candles were left to burn.
A few weeks before Christmas, my father would bring home the tree and lean it against the back of the garage, and we'd wait for the day when we would haul it into the living room, cover it with lights and tinsel, and pull out the tattered box containing my mother's fragile glass ornaments from the 1950's, marveling at how much prettier they were then all the others.
And like many children of the 1970’s, during Advent I spent an inordinate amount of time pouring over the pages of the Sears and Roebuck Christmas catalog. Imagining how complete my life would be if I found a Barbie Dream House AND a GI Joe Headquarters under the tree.

Yes, when I was six years old it was during Advent that I became well acquainted with the word anticipation.

I have a vivid memory of lying awake on Christmas Eve night. The cold wind rattling against the windowpane, while the old radiator in the corner of my bedroom clanked and clanged filling the room with a dry hissing heat.
I lay perfectly still under the covers. Not daring to move.
My eyes clenched shut but my ears wide open.
Straining to hear beyond the rattling and the clanking, to every sound that did not belong. Every creak, every knock, every thump on the ceiling above had me convinced that St. Nicholas and his reindeer had arrived, and Christmas had finally come.

Oh, if only we as adults could await the arrival of Christ with the same anticipation and excitement of a six-year-old waiting for Santa Claus.

Advent for many of us is unfortunately a time of hurried business, as we prepare for Christmas day with shopping, cooking, decorating and traveling. We pack our schedules with visitations, parties and pageants, and while we enjoy the ride we can’t wait for December 26th to arrive, when we can stop, put our feet up and exhale for the first time since Thanksgiving Day.
The anticipation associated with Advent is there humming in the background as we make our holiday preparations, but we have to ask ourselves, what is it that we’re preparing for?

Now, lest you think this is going to be yet another Advent sermon bemoaning the fact that we’ve lost the true meaning of Christmas to the evils of consumerism, think again –

That’s a road that’s been trod down too many times before,
and in the enduring words of Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by…

Advent is when we typically talk about anticipation and hope as we await the birth of the Christ Child, but this week’s scripture readings have something ELSE in store for us.
Before we head off running down Main Street toward yet another Christmas, decking the halls and singing songs of joy as we go, we’re going to take a little detour down the road less traveled by - as we talk not about the first advent, but the second advent.

The word Advent means “arrival” or “coming.”
Every year on the first Sunday of Advent the lectionary gives us a text that deals not with the first coming of Jesus, but the second coming. Right off the bat we’re reminded that the anticipation we feel as we prepare for the arrival of the newborn babe in the manger is only part of the story.
Before we get to the beginning, we have to look at the ending - and as modern day Christians, particularly here in the United Church of Christ, we tend not to dwell too long on the ending

We love the story – During Advent we spend a whole month preparing for Jesus’ birth, and in the spring, during Lent, we spend another month preparing for his death, but there’s a whole other part of the story that we would prefer to just skim over, if we give any attention to it all.
But in reality this is the part of the story that we’re preparing for, this is the Advent - the coming - that we’re anticipating.

The first Advent, the birth of Christ, has already happened. It’s a past event for us.

It’s the Second Advent, the return of Christ to this world - this is the event that lies in our future.

Yet we can’t bring ourselves to talk about it.
Because it involves a cataclysmic change that we just can’t wrap our minds around.
It involves terminology and theology that for many of us is not part of our every day vocabulary or our confessed beliefs. It’s where we encounter words like Eschatology - Armageddon – Apocalypse – and Parousia (which is just a fancy word for ‘second-coming’).
Words like these often catch in our throats as we say them, or need to be proceeded by qualifiers like “some people believe” or “the tradition has it.” But no matter what words we use to describe this future event, the result of the cataclysmic change that both Jesus and Jeremiah predict in our scripture readings today involves the end of the world as we have come to know it.

Perhaps the reason why we’re reluctant to talk about it is because we don’t quite understand what “the end” means. But as any good storyteller knows, endings often lay the groundwork for extraordinary new beginnings.

The prophet Jeremiah tells us:
“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

And in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says:
“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.”

This is apocalyptic language.
Apocalypse is another word for “unveiling” or “revealing.”
Apocalyptic writings revealed the things to come.
Viewed in its historical context, this is the language of a people who are experiencing a cataclysmic event or pain that they have no other means to comprehend. It is the language of a people who feel persecuted and small, to the point where they express their hope for deliverance, and their trust in the God who is really in charge of everything, by speaking in large, dramatic terms. How else would God upend the power of something as mighty as the empires of Babylon and Rome than by doing big things in big ways, even bringing down the heavenly bodies from their orbits?
For people in need of a dramatic reshuffling of the cosmic deck, metaphorical images like the moon and stars falling out of the sky signify the end of one age and the birth of another.

In our time we may leave apocalyptic language such as this to the writers of the Left Behind series or to our Christian brothers and sisters on the opposite end of the theological spectrum, but seeing worldly events as having apocalyptic meaning was fairly common in first century Jerusalem, as it was in Jeremiah’s time some 600 years prior.

Jeremiah’s words sent a mixed message to the struggling nation of Judah. In the aftermath of the destruction of the first Temple, his words were both comforting and distressing.
The people liked the parts about Yahweh’s protection and coming reign. They did not like the part about exile and laying down their strategies of resistance against the power of Babylon. Jeremiah’s words offered hope, but not the kind of hope they were looking for.
They wanted to act, and he was telling them to wait.

Be patient for just a while longer – a Messiah will soon come to set us free.

600 years later, the author of the gospel of Luke offered his first-century readers a similar message. The apocalyptic passage that we heard today from Luke is also found in the gospel of Mark, but in Mark it carries a greater sense of urgency. In Mark’s gospel, the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem was to be a sure sign that the end times had begun. Yet, unlike Mark, who wrote his apocalyptic predictions soon after Jerusalem fell to Rome, the author of Luke wrote his gospel some 15-20 years later.
If the destruction of the Temple was to be THE sign that the end of the world was soon to follow, why had the end not yet come? Why were the people of God still suffering when Christ had supposedly set them free?

This is a question that has echoed down through the ages.
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” Yet twenty years later, the generation who had heard Jesus’ claim with their own ears, began to die off, and the people began to ask, “Why has the end not yet come?”

Another twenty years went by, Jerusalem fell, and Mark said surely this is a sign that the apocalypse has begun!
But again the people were left to ask,
“Why has the end not yet come?”

Twenty years after that, the author of Luke said the fall of Jerusalem was NOT the beginning of the end, but the beginning of the time of the Gentiles, for the Gentiles were now invited into God’s covenant along with Israel, and both were called to hear the Good News that the Kingdom of God is near.
Fast forward through 2000 years, and a multitude of doomsday predictions that have yet to come true, and still the people ask: “Why has the end not yet come?”

Some would respond, when Jesus said “this generation” shall not pass, he was referring collectively to all the generations that will live between the first and second comings.
We are still in that time, the time in-between, the time of the Gentiles and the Church. The end will come when all have heard the Good News.

Others would say that it is not our place to even ask WHY the end has not yet come.
Jesus said that even he did not know when it would occur; only God was privy to that information. It is enough for us to know that we need to keep alert, to be on guard, for the Kingdom will come when we least expect it.

As writer and pastor Barbara Brown Taylor describes it:

Jesus will come like a thief in the night,
“with a wool cap pulled down low on his head and socks on his feet so that you do not even know he is there, until you wake up to the sound of someone breathing over you in your bed.
You can lock your windows and deadbolt your door, there is no way to keep him out. All he has to do is watch you, and you will show him the way in.”

But as Jesus tip toes in without a sound, the Kingdom of God will arrive with a mighty roar. As Luke tells us, just as the budding leaves on a fig tree announce the arrival of summer, the shaking of the heavens and the earth will announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God.
And there is no reason to fear when this happens, for it is Good News that this day will soon be here!

But for those of us sitting here comfortably or uncomfortably in the twenty-first century with our mortgaged homes, upwardly mobile careers, and 401K retirement plans, this is not good news; in fact it’s rather disturbing news. This is not the future that we are planning for.
Few of us have a ten-year plan that includes the Apocalypse.

But to the first century fishermen and artisans living under the oppression of Roman rule, to hear Jesus say that soon all of this will be gone - this was GOOD NEWS.
Soon, it would all be over, the persecution, the poverty, the pain. All of it will pass away and be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth. Where there will be no more gnashing of teeth, no more tears. Death itself, will be defeated, and humankind will be redeemed, restored to its original form as one who is made perfect in the image of God.

We don’t have to be a first century fisherman to welcome Jesus’ promise of the coming of the Kingdom of God. There’s plenty of poverty, persecution and pain in this century to understand why there is a need for an apocalypse – a revelation of things to come. There are plenty of us who are teetering close enough to the edge that we’d welcome the sight of Jesus descending from the clouds, as the world as we knew it crumbled beneath our feet.
Because we know the second part of the promise is that a new world will grow in its place.
A world free of war, poverty, and disease.
A world where greed, genocide, violence, oppression, and injustice in all its forms no longer exist. A world where love conquers fear, hope conquers despair, and light conquers darkness.

But isn’t this the world we’re already anticipating?
Isn’t this the world we’re working towards making a reality, right here, right now?
Isn’t this the world we see when we say our faith calls us to make the world a better place?

Isn’t this the world we help to bring into being every time we help our neighbor, love our enemy, give to the poor, spend time with the sick, visit the imprisoned, clothe the naked, and stand up for those who are oppressed, marginalized or suffering injustice?

As members of the United Church of Christ we may not spend much time thinking about the end times, or worrying about the impending signs of the apocalypse.
But we do know how to envision the Kingdom of God.

My suggestion during this Advent season is that we take the time to sit with our anticipation of the things to come.
To spend just as much time thinking about what the second coming might bring, as we do fussing over the details of what the first coming has already given us.

To step off the well-trodden path lined with Christmas lights and Nativity scenes, and take a stroll down the road less traveled by.
To wander down the darkened road of what will be.

If we do this often enough, perhaps, just perhaps, we may find ourselves lying awake one Christmas Eve night, with our eyes clenched shut and our ears wide open, listening for the sounds that don’t belong.....the thump on the roof, the creak in the floorboard, the breath in our ear, the cries of joy rising up from the world outside, letting us know that the Kingdom of God has finally come.

*Barbara Brown Taylor quote from Home by Another Way, 1999