by Danielle Jones
Happy New Year! Today is the first Sunday of Advent which means it’s also the first Sunday of the church year! So Happy New Year!
The Liturgical Color has changed from green to purple, decorations are up and preparations are underway for yet another beautiful and magical Christmas in the church. As you can see, the elves around Colonial have been hard at work cleaning, decorating and preparing this space to be used for the worship of God over the next 27 days.
And if you have been around the church for any number of years, you know by now that Advent is a season of preparation and waiting for Jesus to come. There are so many ways of preparing this season. We prepare by rearranging our homes, we prepare by shifting our schedules, and we even prepare by extending our bank accounts to celebrate by giving; but the real preparation we are called to throughout Advent is the preparation of our hearts, minds and lives to make room for Christ to come again.
So with preparation on our minds and the joy of Christmas on our hearts, why on earth is our scripture passage about the apocalypse yet again? This morning’s passage was not randomly selected out of the blue but happens to be the assigned lectionary passage for this morning. One would expect that our scripture passage this first Sunday of Advent would be from the beginning of the book of Luke — not the end.
It seems more appropriate to read the story of Mary’s visit from the angel or even the story of John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord but instead of obvious hope, our passage first strikes fear in our hearts as we trade stories of songs, babies and donkeys for words of pending struggle.
Foreshadowing the apocalypse is not the story we like to tell at Christmas. We want to hear good tidings of great joy and make room for the beauty of the season and the gatherings of loved ones but here we are contemplating how this world will one day end and whether or not we will be ready.
This isn’t the only passage in Luke that describes the end times. All of chapter 21 speaks to what the end of the age will look like. Tales of war and insurrection are predicted, nation rising up against nation and earthquakes, famines and plagues fill this chapter that speaks of the signs and persecutions that will come during the last days. And if we are honest, these are all things we don’t really want to think about any day but especially at Christmas.
When you do stop to think about them, talking about the end in a season that welcomes new beginnings isn’t really that strange. After all, it always takes an ending to have any sort of new beginning.
You can’t go to college without completing high school. You can’t find a new job opportunity without saying goodbye to the place you are currently working. You can’t expect your kids to make a life for themselves without first encouraging them to leave the comforts of home. In fact, you can’t embrace any new season of life without first releasing what has been, and having faith that something new will come.
Any joy-filled new beginning, at the very least, costs the price of an ending.
And who isn’t longing for some sort of new beginning these days? These far flung images of the apocalypse we find in Luke today sound quite a bit like the world we are living in right now.
Luke tells us that there will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars and on the earth there will be distress among the nations. Right this very moment wars are raging. Some wars are the latest flare up of centuries old grudges, and others are new wars that are being waged in hopes of, ironically, one day finding peace. The earth does seem to be groaning and giving us signs of the end too. In recent months we have seen hurricanes strengthen, earthquakes shake landscapes, and the climate continue to dramatically change. And Luke says when you see these sorts of things happening, soon after you will see the “son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory.
As difficult as this passage is to hear and as troubled this text makes us feel, it is important for us to think about the ending. Especially in a season where we like to bury our cares in beautifully wrapped packages, schedules that are filled to the brim, and by drinking a little too much eggnog to make it through the “joy” of the season. Christmas can be hard. Broken families, lost dreams and painful past memories creep up or even flood in and leave us feeling hopeless that anything can really change in this season of hope.
Many of us put on a happy face throughout these weeks of Advent just hoping we can simply make it through and get on with our lives, but within this unlikely passage we can find certain gifts from God nestled in between the fear and the unknown. In fact, if we look closely Jesus is offering us three gifts in this passage.
The first gift Jesus offers is the invitation to look up. Luke says, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near.” When was the last time you paused to look up? When was the last time you put down what you were doing and really paused to take in all that was happening around you in a given moment?
As you may remember, a few months ago at the end of September, we had the rare chance to get a crystal clear view of the Super Moon or Blood Moon as it is called — a full lunar eclipse.
Brian and I and our girls live at the corner of Highway100 and Excelsior Boulevard. It is a perfect location in that it is close to everything — downtown, the lakes and uptown — but it is also a very busy intersection with lots of action at almost any time of day.
At our house that night we had a perfectly clear sky so viewing the moon was not a problem but to really see it in our busy urban area required some preparation.
First, we set up some lawn chairs in the front yard, careful to find the one little spot in our well lit Saint Louis Park yard where the sky was not obstructed by a tree or a house and where the city lights were not blazing directly in our eyes. Then we had to shift our chairs just behind a tree to make sure our neighbor’s porch light wasn’t shining right in our eyes and finally we had to actually just sit down. This was the hardest part for us! We had to make a choice to let go of the tasks and things we like to do after a long day of working and parenting to just sit and look up for a while.
And that night we did. We put our kids to bed and sat outside, looking up into the sky for more than a moment, for the first time in years. And so did the rest of our neighborhood and likely your neighborhoods too. It was magical. I remember feeling like the whole state was looking up at that moon at the same time that night and there was something comforting about it. Our neighbors stopped by and we all commented that you could feel that everyone felt more connected that night as we all paused to look up in the same direction. And it was beautiful. The moon was beautiful and that feeling of connectedness was beautiful.
Looking up requires some preparation. You have to stop what you are doing, and take a break from your daily activities to raise your head to see what is happening above you and around you. And in the life of faith to look up means we actually take a break from our striving, our planning and our ceaseless activity to pay attention to what God is doing around us and to what God is trying to say to us. And when we do pause to look up, we will see our redemption is drawing near.
The second gift Jesus offers us in this passage is to pay attention. This gift is buried in a story about a fig tree. Jesus says, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also when you see these things taking place, you know the kingdom of God is near.”
It’s easy to miss the signs of God at work around us. We miss the signs because they are so familiar to us that we no longer recognize them as the work of God. We simply expect them.
Frederick Buechner addresses how we miss God’s signs in the community around us. He writes: Matthew the tax collector and Thomas the doubter. Peter the Rock and Judas the traitor. Mary Magdalene and Lazarus’s sister Martha. And the popcorn eating old woman. And the fat man in the pick-up. They are all our family and you and I are their family- because that is what Jesus has called us as the Church to be.” Everyone around us and everything around us is a sign that God is with us now and that Christ is coming back.
It is so tempting to think it is easier to build a life for ourselves that doesn’t pay much attention to God or to the people around us. Instead of looking up and looking for signs, we prefer to bury our heads in our work and personal matters to just keep going in an attempt to keep it simpler for ourselves. It’s not that we would say we don’t believe in God. We just don’t do much to orient our lives around God and his call to us to pay attention to Him and what he is doing in the world.
Luke tells us that when we see these things taking place we can know that the kingdom of God is near.
We pray at least once a week in this place that the kingdom of God would come when we pray the Lord’s prayer. The coming of the kingdom was central to what Jesus professed and is tied to Jesus coming to us, first as a baby and someday again as the Son of Man in the clouds. And in between those events, the kingdom of God is to be at the center of how we live — now.
In that same passage about the popcorn-eating old woman or the fat man in the pick up truck, Buechner fleshes out what we are to do when we sense the kingdom is coming. He writes: Jesus calls us to live as if our peace and our happiness are all mixed up with the peace and happiness of all the others in the world.
Our own happiness, our own peace, can never be complete until we find some way of sharing it with people who the way things are now have no happiness and know no peace. Jesus calls US — to show this truth forth, to live this truth forth. Be the light of the world he says. Where there are dark places, be the light especially there. Be the salt of the earth. Bring out the true flavor of what it is to truly be alive. And be truly alive. Be life givers to others. This is how we pay attention. By recognizing the signs around us and by seeing all as connected and doing our part to work with God in the bringing of the kingdom.
The third gift and encouragement Jesus gives us in this passage is to be ready. Jesus told a lot of stories to encourage people to be ready. In this one he says, “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 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. So be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place and to stand before the son of Man.”
Getting ready for any event in our lives takes time, intentionality, honesty and preparation. Jesus invites us to ready our hearts and our lives now so that when he does return we can take our place before the son of man. Paying attention to how we are living, making right our wrongs, owning the places we have fallen short and harmed others and doing all we can to make things right by extending love to others is how we get ready.
So many over the centuries have painted Jesus’ return as one full of doom and gloom but Luke’s painting of the apocalypse resists this fearful interpretation. Despite some frightening images, this apocalyptic text from Luke offers not fear and damnation, but hope and expectation. God in Christ came once because he loved us. And he will come again because he loves us. And it is this great love that gives us the courage to be ready.
With this we begin a new church year and a new season of Advent. In these weeks to come we wait expectantly for the baby in the manager to arrive once again to usher in a new beginning that will fill us with real hope, bring us redemption and offer us new life.
At the same time this Advent we wait expectantly for the end. It is an active waiting that means looking up toward Christ, paying attention to God’s work around us and joining him there, and getting ready by cleaning our slates, asking for forgiveness and working with God toward the bringing of the kingdom.
As the people of God, every day of the year, our story of redemption begins with the baby Jesus and finds its fulfillment in the return of the Savior Jesus, which is still only the beginning. This world as we know it will come to an end. It could be today or it could be another thousand years from now. Not even Jesus knows when it will come. These challenges we face, this pain that we live with, these injustices we see, and this longing we have, will one day culminate in the return of Christ who will set all things right once again.
And in the meantime, you are invited to prepare for Christ’s arrival in your own life. You are invited to trade fear of the future and the troubles of this world for a chance to look up to Christ who is longing to show you where to go and how to live. Because the little one who was clothed in bands of cloth will one day be clothed in clouds and glory and he asks us to live our lives in readiness for his return so that one day we may fully embrace one last ending for the ultimate new beginning.