Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Advent Sermon: Lift Up Your Heads

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and already we feel ourselves in preparation: the beautiful tree has been decorated, the banners hung, and I’ve heard some of you have started your baking! Our calendars are filling up! Tonight, already, we kick off the celebration with the city's Carolfest. Christmas is coming! 

So perhaps it is surprising to find that the passages of scripture studied by many churches around the world today are not passages about baby Jesus, or about joy and peace, but about a coming time of conflict and judgment. My plan for this morning is to look at the words Jesus tells his followers in Luke 21:25-36, and then to talk about the lectionary’s Old Testament passage from Jeremiah, in order to explore the significance of Advent--what it means for us, how it challenges us, how it is good for us. Praying over the passages for today, the message I think the Spirit wants all of us to hear is this: the very act of expecting something transforms us; waiting with hope changes who we are in the meantime.

I didn’t grow up really celebrating Advent. We would have an advent calendar on the back of the kitchen door, one with little pictures behind the cardboard windows, and my brothers and I would take turns opening the day’s little squares. Mostly, it was a countdown to Christmas morning, to presents and the big family celebration.

My aunt’s family, though, had an advent wreath in the middle of their dining table that I know she lit at night for dinner, one candle for each week of advent. Some of my friends at school went to churches with special services leading up to Christmas, and midnight services with candles. The church I grew up in--and maybe this was the same for you--was very simple, though, without all the bells and whistles. Lent and Advent seemed a little suspicious to me, maybe even sort of superstitious.

It wasn’t until I started going to a different church at university that I realized what Advent was about: like Lent, it’s not meant to be a legalistic show of religious goodness. It’s a season of preparation. We celebrate Christmas each year, and I know that for myself it’s easy to get caught up in the decorations and the cookies, the gift-wrapping and even the warm-fuzzy glow of hot cocoa and twinkle lights. All of these things are beautiful. But my soul needs time to take in the enormity of what Christmas is: we are celebrating God becoming human, growing as a vulnerable little baby in Mary’s womb, being born into the world in the usual, not very dignified way, and coming to set everything right. Advent is a four-week season for us to slow down and contemplate what it means for God to have come into the world in this way, and what it means for God to come again. It is a time for those of us in the northern hemisphere, as the days grow shorter and shorter and the darkness descends, to contemplate what it means for the light to come and shine in darkness, as we sang this morning.

The term “Advent” is actually just a more English-sounding version of the Latin word “adventus,” which simply means coming. If we want to go even deeper into the language, that Latin word “adventus” is a translation of the Greek word “parousia,” the word used throughout the New Testament to signify Christ’s second coming. In other words, Advent is a season when we contemplate both what it meant for Jesus to come the first time as a baby and what it will mean for him to come a second time with power and glory. We slow down and admit that just as the world groaned for a savior two thousand years ago, it still groans for the fulfillment of God’s promises: it groans for justice and righteousness and peace. Advent gives us a time and space to admit how deeply our world and our own hearts cry out for a Redeemer, before we skip ahead to the merry celebration of Christmas. We need to admit our brokenness before we can fully experience the joy of healing. 

This, I think, is why many wise church leaders decided that the passage we’ve heard from Luke 21 is a fitting way to open the season of Advent. Our passage begins in the middle of a talk Jesus is giving his followers about the future of the temple in Jerusalem: how it will be destroyed, and how persecution will follow God’s people, and how even the planet and the solar system will begin to show signs of change. On a first read-through, the passage seems to be about fear and confusion in the last days. But let us pay attention to what Jesus actually says in this passage. He admits that the signs of the sun, moon, and stars, and the roaring and the tossing of the sea will cause the nations to be in anguish and perplexity, will cause people to faint with terror and apprehension. Honestly, sometimes, looking around at the mess of this world, at the wars and lies, at the homeless, at the abuse of children and the storehouses of nuclear weapons, I could nearly faint with terror. 

But Jesus says, “When these things--when these signs of a falling-to-pieces world--begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Stand up, he says. Lift up your heads. Your redemption is drawing near

Don’t cower in the basement or the bomb shelter; don’t fight for the last gallons of milk at the grocery store; don’t sit with your eyes glued to the TV, bemoaning the fate of civilization as we’ve known it. Do not fear. Do not worry. Stand and lift up your head: open your eyes with hope, because the kingdom of God is nearby. Watch for it, even now. Notice the signs of God’s commonwealth--sparks of justice and peace and kindness and abundance--even as you also see the anguish of this planet and its people.

Jesus goes on to tell a parable to explain himself further. “Look at the fig tree,” he tells them, “look at all the trees. When they sprout leaves you can see for yourself and know that summer is near.”
Summer is something we look forward to: it is a season of warmth, and light, and growing things. It is a season of food, of fruit. After the dark and cold of winter, who hasn’t had a little jolt of joy at the sight of a seedling pushing up through the mud, or that hazy green lace that suddenly appears on the trees. This was perhaps more strongly felt in the old days, after months of living off cold storage and canned foods--the promise of a bit of rhubarb, or asparagus, or tender lettuce leaves. The promise of sun on our faces and bodies freed from our bulky layers of wool. 

This is the kind of anticipation Jesus is talking about. When we see the signs of the end of winter--the end of this cold and dark age on the earth--we should not fear what is coming, but unwrap our scarves and raise our faces with expectant hope to the rising sun, to the Son of Man who will come on the clouds with power and great glory. 

After telling the parable, Jesus warns his listeners to be careful that their hearts don’t become weighted down, or numbed, with “dissipation, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life.” I’ve been told that one of the ways people cope with the cold and darkness of these northern prairie winters is by drinking a lot, watching a lot of television, and keeping very busy with work and social life. Jesus seems to be warning that these impulses to medicate or distract ourselves from the troubles of the world aren’t unique to Saskatchewan--they’re what humans do. One commentary I read said that having our hearts “weighted down” could also be translated having our minds dulled, and I think at points we want to dull our minds. Sometimes we want to be less sensitive to the horrors on the evening news, the threats of war, even the arguments next door. But Jesus says that our response should be neither anxiety about this world nor a lack of sensitivity. 

No, he says, we should be alert, praying for strength to keep our eyes on Jesus. We are not called to pretend the world is better than it is, not called to live with our eyes closed to the brokenness of this planet and all the people on it. Another way of saying this might be, Jesus does not want us to cover up pain and violence--our own pain and the the pain of the world--by decorating it with bows and gift wrap. But neither does he want us to live in the doldrums of bitter, or cynical, or overwhelmed sorrow at the state of things. 

Instead, he tells us, to stand up, to lift up our heads, because our redemption is drawing near. We wait every day, not with fear, but with hope. We watch for the branch to begin blooming. 

Jesus’s fig tree parable brings us to the Old Testament passage, Jeremiah 33:14-16. Jeremiah the prophet, who lived in terribly difficult times when God’s people were being threatened with captivity and exile from the nations that surrounded them, shares with them this prophecy:

“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
      “In those days and at that time
               I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
               he will do what is just and right in the land.
      In those days Judah will be saved
               and Jerusalem will live in safety.
      This is the name by which he will be called:
               The LORD Our Righteous Savior.”
Notice two things about this passage. First of all, the house of Judah was in dire straits--they were being threatened by political enemies, and they wanted a solution then. But the prophet Jeremiah doesn’t come to them with hopeful news of quick salvation: he gives them a prophecy about the days to come. God’s timing is not the same as theirs, and their kingdom did fall into captivity and exile after this prophecy.

Second of all, notice the image of the righteous branch sprouting from David’s line. It’s kind of like the fig tree starting to sprout that Jesus talks about. God created the world and loves to use images from nature to teach us lessons. As Christians, we interpret this passage to be talking about Jesus--the “branch” that sprouts from David’s line is the Messiah who ends up being added to the family tree that runs all the way back through King David and his father Jesse. This is the reason why some families, rather than an advent calendar, keep what they call a “Jesse Tree” during the month of December, a tree to which they add daily ornaments that remind us of the story of God’s faithfulness to the world, all the way from creation through Abraham and David and the prophets and Jesus. 
The Jesse Tree, and this passage from Jeremiah, remind us that God keeps promises. In this passage, the LORD promised the “first advent,” or “first coming,” of the Messiah, and as Christians we believe that this promise of God was fulfilled. Jesus is the “righteous branch that sprouted from David’s line”; he is “The LORD Our Righteous Savior.”

So when Jesus, the fulfilment of that promise, gives us another promise, that he will return and make everything right in the second coming, with power and great glory, bringing deliverance and the beautiful, whole kingdom of God, we know that we can trust him. We look back at this fulfilled prophecy to give us the strength and courage to look forward to the next coming of our Righteous Savior. We face the world not with fear, then, but with hope. 

Hope is traditionally the theme of the first sunday of Advent. We begin this season by admitting that our world is dark--sometimes it feels that it’s growing darker and darker, though I’ll admit that as I’ve reviewed the history of Christianity this term in order to teach the history of English literature, I’ve been reminded that our world has been a dark and at points scary place for a very long time. We begin by admitting that when we look around with our eyes wide-open, even when we look into our own hearts, we can grow discouraged. Advent calls us to mourn these pains--but also to stand, and lift up our heads, and look to Jesus with all the hope we can muster. We say, with the Psalmist, In you, LORD my God, I put my trust. No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame. My hope is in you all day long. 

Putting our hope in Jesus means living every day open to the pains and beauties of this world. It means praying to God for strength and righteousness, for the courage to live each day not for the sake of merely getting by, but for the sake of being Christ’s body here on the earth while we wait for him to come with righteousness and truth. It means waiting with the expectation that any given day, now, Jesus could return, bringing with him full resurrection. 

Waiting with hope in this way changes who we are in the meantime. When our hearts are shaped by this expectant longing, when our lives in Advent and every day are a living, breathing prayer of Come, Lord Jesus, Come, our attitudes and behaviors change. What parents among us haven’t begun to see the world differently during the nine months of waiting for their child to be born? Who hasn’t worked harder in anticipation of a much-beloved guest soon to arrive? Even children’s excitement over Christmas morning, and their good behavior in hopes of Santa’s reward, gives us a picture of the way anticipation can change our day-to-day lives. 

Article 24 of our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, titled “The Reign of God,” gives us a good summary of how waiting and daily life relate: 

We believe that the church is called to live now according to the model of the future reign of God. Thus, we are given a foretaste of the kingdom that God will one day establish in full. The church is to be a spiritual, social, and economic reality, demonstrating now the justice, righteousness, love, and peace of the age to come. The church does this in obedience to its Lord and in anticipation that the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord.

In living lives shaped by anticipation of the coming of our liberating Lord, we are so shaped by the desire for that good kingdom, or commonwealth, that we begin to live it out, here and now. We become, as a church, a glimpse of his light, a tiny taste of the coming banquet. And our flavor and shining invite others into the feast, here and now.

We have no reason to fear or to dull our minds from the brokenness of this world: Jesus has saved us, and Jesus will save us, and he calls us to stand, and lift up our heads, in trust that our redemption is drawing near. The righteous branch sprouted two-thousand years ago, and he has promised us, even in the deepest winter of our human history, that the tree will sprout leaves again. In the meantime, may he strengthen our hearts so that we will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Creator when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones. 

Even so come, Lord Jesus.

1 comment:

  1. Amen!

    Hope is hard for me. Thank you for these words.