First Congregational Church
Sunday, November 28, 2021
First Sunday in Advent
“Time after Time”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
In the Peanuts comic strip, Linus and Lucy are standing at the window looking out at the falling rain. Lucy says to Linus, "Boy, look at it rain...What if it floods the earth?" Linus, the resident biblical scholar for Peanuts, answers, "It will never do that...in the ninth chapter of Genesis, God promised Noah that would never happen again, and the sign of the promise is the rainbow." With a smile on her face, Lucy replies, "Linus, you've taken a great load off my mind." To which Linus responds, "Sound theology has a way of doing that.”
This is such an interesting Sunday. For those who haven’t been able to keep up, we begin a new church new year, which is so out of step for the rest of life - in terms of calendars. It’s also a new season, being the first Sunday in Advent, during which we prepare for our Savior’s birth - once again. Of those four Sundays in Advent, the first one is so much more obtuse, dark, and just plain strange - especially as it sits against the white backdrop of the northern Michigan landscape that makes us think more about Christmas than Advent.
I hadn’t really looked at it before, but wanting to see if there were better options than today’s scripture passage, I looked at the others - in other years - prescribed for this first Sunday of Advent - and they’re all dark and gloomy. Not wanting to be out of step from where God really wanted us to go, it seemed that maybe the message was through this passage, so the shoulder got put to the yoke.
Just so it doesn’t seem to come out of nowhere, today’s passage comes not from the very end of Luke, but near the end - three chapters from the end - when Jesus was in Jerusalem during his last week, most probably on his last Tuesday morning while he and the disciples were leaving the temple. He’d been on the topic of “the future,” using parables, interacting with nearby leaders and answering questions. Outside the temple, while they were listening, the disciples were probably looking at the great temple and all its grandeur when Jesus told them that all of it would one day be destroyed.
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, Jim. On the threshold between Thanksgiving and Christmas, now you know why I was hedging away from this passage. But like every mature person knows, just because something is hard or dark doesn’t mean that it should be avoided. In fact, sometimes those are the places we need to explore in order to move forward.
For those who may be wondering, the sermon title this morning is not a reference to the famous Cyndi Lauper song, “Time after Time,” but a subtitle to a comment from Audrey West of workingpreacher.org. And it’s a great comment. “The season of Advent is a sticky-note reminder to the church: God is doing a new thing. Again.”
Being human, it’s so easy to think that within this current world and realm, it’s all about me - or you - or us - as the case may be. Except that the Jews needed that reminder in 586 BCE when Solomon’s first temple was destroyed by Babylonians. And they needed to be reminded in 70 CE - AD - when the second temple was destroyed by the Romans.
Maybe the people of Constantinople needed to be reminded that God was doing a new thing again in 1453 when their city fell to the Turks. Same for the people of Europe and Russian in the 1800’s after a guy named Napoleon had them thinking about God’s kingdom coming near - sooner rather than later. Those events, along with all the other events of our world history don’t negate the fact that God has been in place far longer than any mere human event, and will continue to be there far longer than we can get our heads around.
And maybe a fair number of us can agree that this idea of God being around, the backdrop of human history, is all well and fine, but what good is it? What difference does it make? We’ve heard it time and time again. And why should we get up the gumption to get all excited about a baby - who was born in history - coming again in just a few weeks?
And don’t forget that almost dorky little parable - maybe the world’s shortest parable - about the natural course of life and agriculture. The seed goes in, the roots go down and the plant goes up, and as Robert Fulghum tells us, nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that. That’s got to have a piece of this morning’s sermon pie.
It was Neill Hamilton, instructor at Drew University, who made the foundational crust of the theological pie. He once observed how people in our time lose hope for the future. He said, “It happens whenever we let our culture call the shots on how the world is going to end. And with a new covid variant on the horizon, it’s really easy to slip into a doomsday state of mind.
At this stage of technological advancement, maybe the only way the culture can make sense of the future is through the picture of everything blowing up in a nuclear holocaust. But the culture doesn’t take into consideration what we know what we know, that everything has changed in the death and resurrection of Jesus, that the same Christ is coming to give birth to a new creation. And so, people lose hope.
As Haag put a little twist on how Hamilton put it: This substitution of an image of nuclear holocaust for the coming of Christ is a parable of what happens to Christians when they cease to believe in their own end time heritage. The culture supplies its own images for the end when we default by ceasing to believe in biblical images of God's reign at the end. The good news of the gospel is this: when all is said and done, God will still be standing.”
During his 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy often closed his speeches with the story of Colonel Davenport, the Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives: On May 19th, 1780 the sky of Hartford darkened ominously, and some of the representatives, glancing out the windows, feared the end was at hand. Quelling a clamor for immediate adjournment, Davenport rose and said, "The Day of Judgment is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. Therefore, I wish that candles be brought." Rather than fearing what is to come, we are to be faithful till Christ returns. Instead of fearing the dark, we're to be lights as we watch and wait.
Virginia Owens in her book, And The Trees Clap Their Hands, suggests that we lose the wonder of life, because along the way everything becomes "merely." Things are "merely" stars, sunset, rain, flowers, and mountains. Their connection with God's creation is lost. During this Advent season many things are just "merely." It becomes "merely" Bethlehem, a stable, a birth -- we have no feeling of wonder or mystery. That is what familiarity can do to us over the years.
Owens goes on to say that it is this "merely" quality of things that leads to crime. It is "merely" a thing - I'll take it. It is "merely" an object - I'll destroy it. It is this "merely" quality of things and life that leads to war. We shall lose "merely" a few thousand men, but it will be worth it. Within the Advent narrative nothing is "merely." Things are not "merely" things, but are part of God's grand design.
Common things, such as motherhood, a birth, a child, now have new meaning. This is not "merely" the world, but a world that is charged with the beauty and grandeur of God's design. It is a world so loved by God that God gave God’s only Son. What is so great about the Advent season is that everything appears charged with the beauty and grandeur of God.
Theologian Leonard Sweet was bemoaning this time of year as we close out one season and open another. “Our sentimental — yet always cynical — culture likes to start singing Christmas carols the moment Thanksgiving turkeys come out of the oven. But listen carefully: You’re hearing a lot more choruses of “Jingle Bells” and “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” than carols like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” or “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The world wants, the world needs, to celebrate Christmas. But the world does its best to keep Jesus out of it.
Perhaps the first “Christmas carol” Christians should sing, in keeping with the theme of “Advent,” is the Willie Nelson special “On the Road Again.” As stores keep having cut-rate sales and on-line deals; and as holiday partying, parades, and posturing swamp every level of our lives: it is good to stand back and look at the bigger picture. What is the purpose for which Jesus came into this world in the first place?
Mr. Sweet also tells a story of standing in front of Harrod’s, the great London department store. Outside the store, apparently there is a statue of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed (whose father owns Harrods). As Mr. Sweet and his twelve-year-old daughter stood in front of it, the girl innocently asked, “Who is Princess Diana?” As lights in the dark, we have the privilege to retell the story of Christ coming to earth, becoming like us, to save us to eternal life
The story is told of English Anglican priest, John Henry Newman, who went on a religious pilgrimage in the 1800’s. He eventually wound up as a Cardinal in the Catholic church, the most well-known priest at the time. While serving as Cardinal, he received a message from an English priest from the tiny village of Brennan, a dirty little mill town north of Birmingham. It seems that an epidemic of cholera had decimated the village and the priest was asking for help, for another priest to assist him in the giving of the sacrament, administering the Last Rites, and to do funerals, so many people were dying.
Newman read the letter in his office, an office that is still there today - unchanged since the day he left it. After an hour of prayer, Newman determined that he had to go himself. If Christ didn’t send an substitute, how could Newman send one?
And the message we carry with us is so simple, we don’t even really need to write it down. For God so loved the world, that God gave God’s one and only son, that those who would believe in him would not perish, but have eternal life. So let us get back on the road and shine as we pray.
Light and Love of the World, thank you for loving us as if we were your one and only. And thank you for giving us a cause, work to give us value, of spreading the promise of new life that confronts us so vividly this time of year. Forgive us when we get off track in our modeling and message, and impassion us to even greater work in your kingdom. In this world that can seem overwhelming and oppressive, give all your people the ability to lift up our heads with your coming life. For all your moments of redemption, all your light and forgiveness and purposes, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.