First Congregational Church
December 2, 2018
First Sunday in Advent, Communion Sunday
“The Promise of Paradox”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
One of the illustrations I read this week commented on a photo from Life magazine, back when John Kennedy was president. It was a picture of his children, John Jr. and Caroline, playing with their toys on the floor of the Oval Office. Apparently the photo captured the hearts of Americans because for the first time, the people were most vividly reminded of the multiple natures of Kennedy: as president and as father, and by extension, husband.
He held ultimate political power in the Free World, but playing at his feet were two little kids who called him Daddy. I’m pretty sure I’d have had barbarian Viking sorts of children, so mine wouldn’t have been allowed to play there. But his kids were because he was their father.
The season of Advent presents us with paradoxes of all sorts. We prepare for the birth of a baby that has already been born 2,000 years ago. We often start Advent with the passage about John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin preaching from the book of Isaiah about preparing a way in the desert, rather than with Jesus’ actual birth. Looking out into the Advent and Christmas season and we come to the crazy idea of a baby threatening a king to the point that it caused the king to order the deaths of children that might live into that potential. And then we have this morning’s gospel passage.
About a month ago, the lectionary covered Mark’s version of a poor woman making a meager offering in the temple. Luke 21 begins with his shorter version of that account, and then he launches into 32 verses of what would make for a sci fi movie, our passage being part of those 32.
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, Chris. Gosh. Don’t you all just love a warm and fuzzy advent scripture? Another passage could have been chosen for this morning, but sometimes the easy way isn’t the good way. So here we are, and there is almost always something good to be found, if we look for it.
Take away the first sentence of the passage, and one might be apt to think that Luke was writing about today or yesterday or tomorrow: nations in anguish (Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Brazil, Afghanistan, North Korea, the United States); perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea (Hurricanes Florence and Michael, Irma and Maria, the Alaskan earthquake two days ago). There have been natural disasters as long as there has been nature, and probably always will be. The earliest disciples were constantly thinking that Jesus would return any minute, but here we are.
In the middle of this passage, there is that little parable about the fig tree. Maybe when you stand back from it, you get the picture of the circle of life: new birth, full bloom, preparation for sleep and the circle goes on and on in our earthly world. Perhaps it is a reference to the circle of life as it relates to the whole of life on planet earth. There was creation, life and then one day, all will be as it was long before God created anything. And while that may be a small, esoteric thought to people who like thinking such thoughts, it doesn’t do much for us in our day to day lives.
But Jesus also suggested that we ‘be careful, or our hearts will be weighed down’ with all sorts of anxieties of life. So we should be on the watch, praying that we might be able to escape all that is to happen.
I don’t know that we can escape all that is to happen - or that we should necessarily even want to. In the sentence before, Jesus had just said that it - it being the weighing down of hearts - will come on all who live on the face of the earth. Those two thoughts don’t really make much sense - in the same paragraph - unless you think about them in terms of the intent of our hearts.
There is an account of a session from the Connecticut House of Representatives two hundred years ago. The house 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. It was said that he was a Christian believer, and he rose to the occasion with logic and 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 apparently, they went back to their desks and resumed their debate.
As we sit in the midst of this first Sunday in Advent, here in this particular church family, we celebrate our Lord’s Supper today. There’s another paradox - lifting up Christ’s death and resurrection on the day we begin a new church year.
But it’s also the very reason that we are together as a church family - in our belief of Christ’s death and resurrection and ascension back to God - in what ever way that might look. We could decide to be an art family, and center our gathering around great works of art. Or we could determine to be a charity family, and focus funds on helping others. But we’ve come together around this oddly hopeful, if somewhat gruesome, life of a man that came to us as a gift and blessing of God’s love.
Christ didn’t come to cause everything make sense, and he didn’t come to make life peachy keen. He came that we might have life - more abundantly - now and in the life to come. So we can sit in the paradox of understanding and seeing only a reflection as in a mirror. We can prepare our hearts for a birth as we celebrate death and resurrection and ascension. So let do just that.
Gracious God, we thank you for all the blessings and life you have bestowed on us, even if we don’t always completely understand your will and ways. Help us to appreciate the both/ands of life, not getting caught up in the either/ors. We may not think of paradoxes as blessings, but we thank you for the fullness that they can bring. Thank you, too, for the vision you have for us as your people, and the call that you extend to us to be your ambassadors of love. For you and all your blessings and love, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.