11-29-15 Sunday Sermon, Advent 1
First Congregational Church
November 29, 2015
First Sunday in Advent
“Doing Our Duty”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
In trying to wrap my head around this day being the first Sunday in Advent - while far away in Minnesota and deep in Thanksgiving with my family, I read an article called Nine Tips to Help You Survive Advent. (There’s just nothing like a family holiday to remind one of survival technics!) I won’t read all nine, but I thought a couple would be helpful for any of us.
Since Advent is often a time of welcoming relatives to the home, make an effort to include them in the family Christmas traditions they missed out on last year, such as loading the dishwasher, making their own beds, and picking up after themselves.
Decorating the outside of your house is a great way to show the neighbors how important Advent is to your family. And remember, it’s not a competition to see whose house is the best on your block, although if your lights are not bright enough to interfere with the navigation of passing jetliners then, frankly, you’re just not feeling the true Christmas spirit.
Advent begins the Christian year, and this year, the lectionary cycle is C. Year A highlights Matthew, Year B focuses on the gospel of Mark and this year, it’s Luke. What’s interesting is that Luke is where we get so much of what we might consider the Christmas lead-up: the prediction of John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ births, Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth, Mary and Zechariah’s songs and John the Baptist being born. But what’s really crazy, is that rather than beginning with any of those passages, Lectionary Year C begins with a passage near the end of Luke, a passage that seems anything but Advent-like.
25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
32 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
Thank you, Mary Ann. It is interesting that today’s passage is somewhat close to the one from last week - in terms of describing the end of time as we know it. Last week, in the book of John, Jesus said that his “kingdom is not of this world,” and this week Luke tells of things that could be imminently anticipated by people from any age, much less this one.
It was a story from the pen of Scott Hoezee of Calvin Seminary that began the process of making sense of this passage. According to a story that Os Guinness tells, two hundred twenty years ago the Connecticut House of Representatives was in session on a bright day in May, and the delegates were able to do their work by natural light. But then something happened that nobody expected. Right in the middle of debate, the day turned to night. Clouds obliterated the sun, and everything turned to darkness. Some legislators thought it was the Second Coming. So a clamor arose. People wanted to adjourn. People wanted to pray. People wanted to prepare for the coming of the Lord.
But the speaker of the House had a different idea. He was a Christian believer, and he rose to the occasion with good logic and good faith. We are all upset by the darkness, he said, and some of us are afraid. But, “the Day of the Lord is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. And if the Lord is returning, I, for one, choose to be found doing my duty. “I therefore ask that candles be brought.” And men who expected Jesus went back to their desks and resumed their debate.
Before Jesus’ birth, there is no mention of the “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of Heaven” in the Bible. As much as Jesus’ second coming seems incongruent with this particular time of year, it was the gift of Christ that began to direct us even more pointedly toward that time when there shall be no more tears, no more pain, no more struggling with the limitations of this earthly world.
The kingdom will be God’s grand reversal of fortunes, God’s glorious return of this creation to what God intended in the beginning. But it may be a while. Meanwhile faithfulness is called for and gospel “success” is defined by all those times we notice the unpopular people, the down-and-outers, the sick and marginalized and proclaim to them Good News. It may not grab headlines—and in a world plagued by so many problems it may look like the equivalent of trying to empty the ocean one thimble-full at a time—but kingdom vision sees things differently!
It’s interesting how short our memories are. Every year I hear people - myself included - saying things to the effect, “can this world get any crazier and/or dangerous?” I’m sure there were folks that said that same thing when Gatling guns and nuclear bombs were invented. I’m guessing that those sentiments were uttered during each of the wars prior to this year. There are, undoubtedly, accounts of overwhelming certainty of end times from writers during the bubonic, polio, smallpox, cholera, yellow fever and aids epidemics.
Like other years, we end up holding the juxtaposition of War and Peace in our hearts as we anticipate the celebration of Christ’s birth. We will undoubtedly hear about more bombings, shootings and riots in the coming days.
And just like it has so often been, it will be an Advent to test what we really believe. It is not news that there are nations of this world in disarray and responding the way they mostly know how: meeting fire with fire.
Yet we in the church are supposed to believe that the kingdom of God is the greater reality. We are supposed to believe that the kingdom is spreading like yeast in dough, like a seed germinating and sending down roots silently in the soil. We believe Jesus HAS come once and WILL come again - and all that we do - how we pray, how we worship, what we say and do - especially in times of fear and tumult - is a witness to our belief in the power of Jesus to heal.
Just like in other years, given the news of the day, it may not feel like a very “Merry Christmas” this year, and the traditional greeting may even stick in our throats a bit, feeling more like an effort to cover over the world’s mayhem than a genuine expression of heartfelt merriment from our hearts.
We forget that our hearts seek the deeper things of joy, not mere happiness. Without always realizing it, we innately strive to celebrate the coming of shalom - when everything is at that feeling of contentment, completeness, wholeness, well being and harmony - that which is our true home.
So we celebrate the One who came to this world to remind us and show us the way toward that shalom. Not saying that the holiday season is senseless, or that the greetings we offer one another are trite, we do well to keep in mind that Jesus said to be on guard - whatever the season - that we don’t get weighed down with narrow anxieties and amusements. Be on guard against fatal absorptions with self! Take care! Stay alert! “Stand up and raise your heads because the Kingdom is coming.”
Jesus’ words - in this passage - are an antidote to seasonal and worldly cynicism. If the Messiah was prophesied - and came - and Jesus’ words are meant to raise our heads and hopes, then we can do some real believing in other prophecies, like justice coming to earth, real peace on earth, and enemies not only being able to look into each others’ eyes, but able to live together - in shalom.
If we are to survive this Advent season, we will need to be at work: believing in the Kingdom of God, praying , and hoping for those without much hope left. We will work in the same direction as we hope.
In a book entitled Standing on the Promises, Lewis Smedes said that hoping for others is hard, but not the hardest. Praying for others is hard, but not the hardest. The hardest part for people who believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ is in “living the sort of life that makes people say, ‘So that’s how people are going to live when righteousness takes over our world.”
The hardest part is simple faithfulness in our work and in our attitudes-the kind of faithfulness that shows we are being drawn forward by the magnet force of the Kingdom of God. So shall we pray.
God of all days and times, we thank you for this new season, that can offer us a homecoming of heart and a hopeful expectation of the future, despite what the world around us seems like. So remind us to stay on task, and help us to do our duty - in praying and reaching out and caring for and all the other things that we are called to do as your followers. Thank you for work, that we don’t have to fall into hysteria or head for cover, but that we can go about our work, secure in the knowledge that your kingdom will come, has come, and is here, if we can simply stay on task. So for your guidance and encouragement and all else that is good, your people thank you with our Amen
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