Sunday, November 29, 2015

Do You Know What Time It Is? (Luke 21:25-36, The First Sunday in Advent)

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.”

One of the advantages of living in this part of the country is our access to college sports.  In this part of North Carolina, we have our pick of great schools with great athletic programs, where loyalties run deep.

Camping out for Duke basketball seats in the tent city known as Krzyzewskiville is an honorable tradition reserved for the undergrad students, who have the privilege of camping out from the beginning of second semester until the game against the Tar Heels – over a month, usually, in January and February.

The graduate students got to do it a little differently.  In order to get our tickets, we camped out for one weekend, in September.  Campout lasted from 7pm Friday until 7am Sunday, and the rules were simple.  A whistle would be blown at random times throughout the weekend, and you had to check in.  Miss two check-ins, and you were out.  Those who survived, their names were put into a lottery, in order to be given the chance to purchase a student season ticket.

The whole weekend was a social experiment in 36 hours of sleep deprivation.

After my first year of campout, I went home, took a shower, and collapsed into bed.  When I awoke, I looked at my clock, which said 7:00.  I looked outside; it was cloudy and twilight, but I couldn’t tell if the sun was rising or setting.  Was it 7:00 pm?  7:00 am?  How long had I slept?  Was it Sunday evening?  Monday morning?  I was so disoriented and confused.  I just kept asking myself out loud, “What time is it?”

Coming into church in the weeks leading up to Christmas can be similarly disorienting.  All around us, the world is celebrating Christmastime.  You don’t have to be particularly religious to celebrate Christmastime.  Christmastime is a made-up season invented by retailers to get us to spend money at the end of the year.  The season starts earlier and earlier every year – I saw Christmas displays in some stores by the end of August this year – all in an attempt to get us to spend more this year than we did last year.

Christmastime is a season marked by excess – over-eating, over-drinking, over-partying, over-stressing, over-spending – with the illusion that we can purchase happiness tied up neatly with a big bow on top.  And yet, the only lasting gifts we receive are a few extra pounds, and a January credit card bill from you-know-where, not the lasting joy we were promised we would find at the end of the meal, the bottle, or the shopping list.

In the church, a completely different season happens at the same, and we call this season Advent.  Christmastime is a secular season, Advent is a holy season.  We become so accustomed to Christmastime being constantly in our face and we expect it everywhere, and when the church is keeping the rhythms of Advent – traditions that are a bit slower, more subdued, reflective.  It can be disorienting, and refreshing.

For the church, practicing Advent instead of Christmastime opens us up to a world of surprises.  Just take the lectionary Gospel passage from the 21st chapter of Luke we read a few moments ago.  Were you paying attention to it?  It doesn’t sound like what we expect to hear at this time of year.  It reads, "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the seas and the waves..."

I know what you're thinking – what does any of this have to do with Advent? Our thoughts already have turned toward putting up the Christmas tree and decorating our homes.  When you come to our house on Tuesday evening, you’ll see that it is definitely Christmastime, in our home, although we have wrapped our light post with blue and purple lights, and placed a purple bulb in the globe, as a sort of advent candle standing in our front yard.  But in the rest of the house, it’s definitely Christmastime – I’m not sure if elves or Martha Stewart have secretly been in to decorate.

On this first Sunday in Advent, we all would rather hear a message about Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. Why does the church encourage us to consider this passage today?

Because, many of us need a wake-up call at this time of year. It is so easy to become distracted by the shopping, the stress, and the endless parties that we miss out on the "peace on earth and good will to all people."  We can get so focused on the presents we will buy or receive that we overlook the presence of Christ. "Wake up and don't miss out on the coming of Jesus!" is one message of Advent.

Not only does Advent try to wake us up, but it also invites us to look in two directions—back upon the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and forward to Jesus' return as he brings God's kingdom on earth to fulfillment. Therefore, Advent always begins with a Scripture that looks toward Jesus' return. In other words, we begin by looking deep into the future—to the end of history.

The story is not just about baby Jesus.  To focus only on baby Jesus is to miss the point of the whole story.  There’s more to it; Advent invites us to consider the whole story.  We remember that Jesus came as a baby, he became one of us to redeem all of us, and we prepare for the time when he will come again to finish what he started, righting every wrong, overcoming every evil with grace and love.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  It makes me wonder why when so many teachers and preachers talk about Christ coming again, they present it in such a way that it’ll scare the living daylights out of you.

In 1970, Hal Lindsey wrote a book entitled The Late Great Planet Earth. On its pages, Lindsey predicted that Christ would return by the year 1988. The book sold over 28 million copies! Well, when 1988 came and went and Christ did not return, they merely adjusted their numbers to buy a few more years and sell a few more books. Nearly thirty years later, we're still waiting.

Christ’s return isn’t a guessing game, it’s not a gimmick to sell books or raise money for ourselves, though we see countless prophets today who are doing just that.  Not a ploy to frighten people into faith.

The promise that Jesus will come again is something that should fill our hearts with hope, such that we lift our heads and rise up and soar to greet him in newfound heights, and yet it’s often delivered as some sort of veiled threat to get us to shape up and fly right.  “Jesus is coming, and boy, is he ticked!”  That can’t be the Gospel, the “good news” about Jesus, can it?

No, and here’s why.  The Scriptures consistently tell us, “God is Love,” as in 1 John 4:8.  They tell us that Jesus is the perfect embodiment of God, “the visible image of the invisible God,” as Colossians 1:15 puts it, the love of God with a human face.  The Bible further says, “Perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18).  And so, if God is Love, and if Jesus is the most perfect embodiment of that love, and if perfect love casts out fear, then anything to do with Jesus can’t also be associated with fear.

Our reading for this first Sunday in Advent proclaims that Christ's return is a source of hope.  In preparation for his birth, angels consistently brought the message, “Fear not.”  Lest we miss the point, Jesus and fear simply don’t go together.  If we’re practicing our faith in a way that induces fear, then we’re doing it wrong.

I would add that many of the events Jesus predicted have already taken place. In the year 70 AD, the Roman army invaded Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and the earth shook with violence. Jesus warned his disciples that life would be difficult for all who sought to serve God in his time, and that certainly was true. It can still be difficult.  The promise to return was Jesus’ assurance that even when all hell breaks loose, we are not alone, help is coming, he is coming.

Further, to get fixated on the exact day and time of his return – something Jesus said no one other than God the Father, not even himself, knew – is to miss the reality that Christ comes to us and walks among us all the time.  Would it be that we would greet Christ in everyone we meet; would it be that they would see Christ in us.  Christ is among us all the time – would it be that we have the eyes to see him in our midst.

We cannot scare people into the kingdom of heaven or frighten them into faith.  They say you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and you witness more faithfully to the activity of God in our world by offering hope to people rather than condemning and threatening them.

In our Scripture reading, when Jesus said, "Now when you see these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near," he wasn’t trying to frighten us or scare us straight. Those signs do not signal the end of the world; they signal that it’s time to start looking for Jesus.

Do you hear that? In the midst of tragedy, in the midst of war and rumors of war, in the midst of oppression and poverty, in the midst of our own personal losses, we can raise our heads and look for the Lord because he is near. Doesn’t mean that all our troubles get taken away.  It does mean that even in the midst of our greatest difficulty, we are not alone.  God is near.

Let me see if I can get at it this way. In the beginning God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. Where was God? In the darkness. On Easter morning, while it was still dark, Jesus rose from the dead. Where was God? In the darkness. When we sense that we are lost in the darkness, Advent reminds us that we are not alone. The God of hope is with us. Jesus warns us not to get distracted by the worries of this world. Lift up your eyes and look upward toward God because even in the midst of difficult times our Lord comes to us.

No matter how dark things may get, we are called to be the people who scan the horizon for light, confident that the sun will rise.  Christ will come. That is the message of Advent.  That is what it means to be a people of hope.

What time is it?  It is Advent – a time to watch and wait, and look for the coming Light of the World, especially when everything around us seems dark.  It’s time to look for Jesus, who is coming soon.  What time is it?  It’s a time to prepare.

This year, let’s prepare by turning away from fear, and turning toward hope.

Gracious God, for this season we are grateful. Wake us up. When we find ourselves in darkness, teach us to hope for your light.  In the midst of the busy-ness of this season, help us to hear your voice, sense your presence, worship you, and serve you in both word and deed. This we pray in the name of the Jesus the Christ. Amen.

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