Sunday, December 2, 2012

Signs of the Times (Luke 21:25-36)

25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. 26 The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. 27 Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor. 28 Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near. ”

29 Jesus told them a 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 In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near. 32 I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.

34 “Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life. Don’t let that day fall upon you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. It will come upon everyone who lives on the face of the whole earth. 36 Stay alert at all times, praying that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen and to stand before the Human One.”

You can tell when a person came of age by the skits from Saturday Night Live they quote.  For me, it’s Celebrity Jeopardy - watching Will Ferrell playing Alex Trebeck as he becomes increasingly frustrated by the failure of his famous contestants to comprehend even the dumbed-down questions befitting their celebrity status.
In one particularly difficult round of Final Jeopardy, he asks the contestants, “Where are you right now?” and even offers suggestions of possible answers - “California,” “a television studio,” “earth,” “here” - and is astonished when Sean Connery gives a seemingly correct answer - “In doors.”

On this first Sunday of Advent, through the Scripture we have just read, Jesus asks us to consider two similar questions - “Do you know where you are?” and “Do you know what time it is?”  The signs of the times are all around us, but it will take the eyes of faith in Jesus to read them correctly.  May we pray.

The signs of the season are hard to miss.  Most stores were patient enough to wait until after Halloween to put out the Christmas items, though there are a few every year who jump the gun.  The  malls are packed with frantic shoppers who are spending money they don’t have on things people don’t need.  Our social calendars are filled with opportunities to “Ho-ho-ho” the night away with a month of over-eating and over-drinking, and every gas station I’ve been to in the last week has had “Oh the weather outside is frightful” blaring over its speakers, which is at least somewhat amusing on a sunny afternoon with temperatures in the mid-60s.

On the Sundays in December, many who come to worship are disappointed to discover that it’s not yet Christmas at Church; it’s Advent.  The church keeps time in its own way.  This season of Advent, when the world around us in the full throes of cultural Christmas, the church has the nerve to say, “Wait a minute.  Not so fast.  Don’t rush - because you’ll miss the whole point, if you do.”  Christmas will come, but not before we spend some time reflecting, and soul-searching, and waiting and preparing.

Preparing for what?  For the coming of Jesus, of course.  We may come to worship on these Sundays in December expecting angels and shepherds, pregnant virgins, disbelieving husbands, and sweet little baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers and tinsel halo, and I promise you, that will come.  But on this first Sunday of Advent, the lectionary Gospel reading brings us not little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay, but stern, adult Jesus teaching in the temple courts about the signs that will accompany his second coming.

He says, “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. 26 The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. 27 Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor” (Luke 21:25-27).
We may see these signs as a daunting image of a frightening sky, we may see something bold and beautiful, or we may see a glimpse of the glory of God.  What we see in Jesus will depend on the degree to which we have prepared our hearts for him.  His instruction comes with a somber warning to each of us to pay attention, to heed the signs, and to prepare our hearts.  Will the signs fill us with dread or with joy?  That’s what Jesus asks us today.

Pop quiz this morning:  Where are we? What time is it?  Is the world is a better or worse place now than it was 50 years ago?  If you think it is better, please raise your hand.  If you think it is worse, please raise your hand.  If you refuse to participate, please raise your hand.

My grandfather was born in 1908.  Here is how he described “the good old days.”  Papa remembered his own brother dying in the bed beside him when they were both younger than five, he remembered walking down the street, and seeing signs posted on people’s front doors that said, Quarantine: smallpox or diptheria he remembered unsafe mine conditions in his small West Virginia coal town that took and impaired the lives of his peers – if the town of Farmington, WV rings a bell, it’s because the Number 9 mine exploded there in 1968, killing 78 miners.  He remembered close encounters with the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups who were widespread and influential through society.  Sure, a kid could go to the corner store and buy as much candy as he could carry home for a nickel, but if you didn’t even have a nickel, what did it matter?  No, he said, the good old days weren’t really that good.

Whether things are better or worse depends on perspective.  Charles Dickens’ opening from A Tale of Two Cities actually makes more sense than it seems at first read: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  It is often both, happening at the same time.

In many ways, the world is a better place than it used to be - violent crime is down, life expectancy is up, personal income levels are higher, illiteracy is down. In many ways, the world is also a worse place - the division between rich and poor is wider, worldwide pollution has increased, and while I celebrate that things are definitely better for women, non-whites, gays and lesbians, and people with various handicaps than they used to be, we still have a long way to go to attain anything resembling genuine equality.  I find the world to be both a better place than it used to be, and a worse place than it used to be.  The current of history is not moving in only one direction, but is rather a perpetual tide of ebb and flow.  It is both the best of times and the worst of times.

But as Christians, the time is always right for hope, whether we believe the world around us to be better or worse than it used to be.  Today Christians around the world light the first candle in a four-week journey through the darkness of Advent, waiting, preparing, yet solidly believing that the Light of the World will come.  Susan Andrews says we are called to recognize with a God’s-eye view both the beauty and the terror of this world.  These days of Advent are a time to wait and prepare for God’s promise to be fulfilled, rejoicing in the small wonders and the simple graces of these dangerous days.

For many, the hope we feel is often tied to our circumstances.  But on this first Sunday of Advent, I invite you to simply remember that true hope rests in Jesus.  Circumstantial hope is fleeting.  If we place our hope in towers that can topple, we will be subject to constant fear and anxiety that what is most important and precious to us can be taken away.  But if our hope is in Jesus and Jesus alone, we have nothing to fear.

Brothers and sisters, as Christians, we need to learn not to be so fearful. Our hope is not circumstantial.  A national election is now about a month behind us.  As a pastor, I said very little leading up to the election or since, because the Church is at its best when we are a sign along the road pointing constantly to Jesus and nothing else.  As a private citizen, I actually like politics.  When John King starts shading in the states on the magic wall, I just can’t take my eyes off of his beautiful slender fingers.  I have, from time-to-time, even considered making a run for office myself, but my wife, wisely, says I’ll be running as a recently-divorced candidate if I do.

On a personal level, I love politics.  But as a pastor, it is my job to keep pointing us to Jesus and only Jesus, to constantly invite you to live as citizens of his kingdom of hope, peace, joy and love - the themes we celebrate in this Advent season - and to remind us all, myself included, that our hope, in the best and worst of times, ultimately rests in Jesus.

It is my joy to remind us all today: when it comes to the hope of the world, that position has already been filled.  Jesus is the hope of the world; let us not be so deceived that we assign that role to any politician, political party, government, or nation.  The Bible says, “Some trust in chariots, some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:8).  Kings and kingdoms shall all pass away.  Rulers and leaders, governments and nations are all going to end, but the name of Jesus endures forever.  Jesus says in verse 33, “Heaven and earth shall pass away” - that means everything in it, too - the best and the worst this world has to offer is all fleeting, but he says his words will never pass away.

Jesus is the hope of the world.  Put all your hope in Jesus; do what your financial advisor told you not to do, and go ahead and put all your eggs in one basket.  Put your trust in Jesus and him alone, and I guarantee that no matter what happens in this world, no one can take your hope away.

Back in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is asking us to pay attention and prepare.  The season of Advent is an opportunity to prepare for the comings - plural - of Christ: God coming to earth in the infant Jesus, and Christ returning to earth at a time we do not know.  The question of this second coming is not “if,” but “when” Christ will return, and Jesus wants us to be ready.  We do so, Jesus says, by keeping alert, by constantly preparing, and continually putting our hope in God and God alone - the one who loves us so much that he came to us as one of us in Jesus.  This Advent season is a time to prepare our hearts - whether for the first time ever, or yet again, for Christ to come and dwell in us and change us.  If we are not open to our hearts being changed by him, then we still have some preparing to do.

Jesus calls us beyond a sentimental infant faith to one that wrestles with grown-up questions about where our hope and our identity ultimately lie.  Whether the signs of which he speaks give us fear, hope, or wonder largely depends on how well we have prepared for him, and how wide we have opened our hearts to him.

So wherever you are on your spiritual journey, take some time this Advent to prepare.  Open yourself more fully to Jesus.  Invite him to come and live in you.  Invite him to move from room to room in the house of your heart, to sweep away the things that don’t belong, and to fill you with his Holy Spirit.  Ask him to let you see the world through his eyes, to cover you with his grace, to fill you with his love.  Let Jesus change your heart; he’s the only one who can give you the hope you truly need.

On this first Sunday of Advent, Jesus is asking us, “Do you know what time it is?”  The response of the faithful is, “Yes, it’s time to prepare.  It’s time to hope against all odds, whether the world around us becomes a better place or a worse place, we are prepared to be people of hope.”

Maybe things are worse than they used to be.  Maybe they’re better. If your hope is in Jesus and Jesus alone, it doesn’t really matter.  The signs of the times are all around us, and those who prepare their hearts for the coming of Christ will find very little to fear and much for which to hope.

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