Sermon for November 28, 2021

First Sunday of Advent

Listen to this again: “There will be… distress among nations confused by the roaring of the seas and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world….”

While it is true that there’s always been distress among nations, and the seas have forever in the human imagination been places of foreboding mystery and danger, maybe this passage from today’s gospel speaks in ways unique to our age.

Given the changing climate, sea levels are rising throughout the world, threatening the ever-increasing numbers of people who live in coastal areas. Moreover, hurricanes and other storms are gaining in intensity, also adding to the threat of the seas and the waves.

Increasingly, people report to those in helping professions that the threat of climate change is affecting their sense of well-being and even decisions about whether or not to have children, given the precarity of the world into which children will grow to adulthood. So, in a sense, more and more are perhaps “fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”

Our days, thus, can be filled with terror. We may be inclined to bury our heads in virtual sands, or to seek escape or ways to numb ourselves from the claims of impending stark realities. Some may want to stay in bed with the covers up over their hands.

I’ll admit to you that I no longer watch the news on TV. Yes, I read the news each and every day, but I find that watching it on TV is more than I currently want to bear. Reading about the news is one thing, and a step removed. Seeing it pictured in videos is quite another.

But these impulses to put our heads down and cower are the exact opposite of what Luke reports Jesus said in response to apocalyptic times. Immediately after talking about the distress among nations and the fear and foreboding, Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Stand up and raise your heads – this is not what I or perhaps most people are inclined to do in the face of distressed nations and the confusion of the roaring seas and waves.
Moreover, Luke reports that also Jesus said this: “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the dominion of God is near.” How on earth can the dominion of God be near when so much seems so very God-forsaken?

Jesus spoke of the nearness of God’s dominion in relation to his brief parable recorded in Luke about the fig tree and all the trees, about their sprouting leaves as a sign of the coming of summer.

When we see these things taking place, that is, trees coming into luscious foliage, then we know the nearness of God’s dominion. With the hindsight of reading today’s gospel through the vantage point of the Passion, how can we not but see the fig tree and all trees as anything but the cross of Christ, our tree of life?

Indeed, in Luke’s Gospel, the beginning of the Passion story immediately follows today’s passage. So, today’s reading becomes yet another pointing to the cross and the empty tomb.

Moreover, as we begin Advent and approach Christmas, we catch glimpses of the cross perhaps in today’s first reading from the prophet Jeremiah, a prophecy we associate with the Incarnation and Advent and Christmastide: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, who shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jeremiah 33:14-15) That branch, born to Mother Mary, grew to find his culmination on the cross, the tree of life. The little branch becomes the full, flowering tree to give new life, shelter and shade to the whole world.

Centered, and indeed carried on the cross, is all the distress among the nations, all the roaring of the seas and waves, all the fainting from fear and foreboding when the powers of the heavens are shaken. It’s all there on the cross.

On the cross, because of the empty tomb, we catch a glimpse of the Son of Man’s coming with power and great glory.

On the cross and in the empty tomb, God’s dominion is near and our redemption is in fact here.

In sure confidence of these bedrock realities, Luke reports that Jesus also concludes, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

And so it is to this very day, in this very place, at this tumultuous time in world history, Jesus words of promise echo through the centuries in our ears here and now.

But even with this wonderful assurance from Christ Jesus, these are not easy times to endure. It may be the challenges of apocalyptic times that motivated Jesus to say and Luke to record, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.”

Well, that’s exactly where many find themselves, namely, weighed down by dissipation, drunkenness and worry. Remember that dissipation is defined as the wanton squandering of our resources. Is such dissipation not on almost pornographic display in our new gilded age? And drunkenness, numbing ourselves through many and various means, is common. And so very many people are weighed down by worry.

In such states of mind and habits of behavior, the day of the Lord may catch us unexpectedly like a trap, as we hear in today’s gospel.

Thus, Jesus offers this exhortation, again, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down… 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.”

Stay alert and be on guard are some of the common refrains of this Advent season. “Wake, awake, for night is flying” so the beloved hymn has us sing.

How do we nurture the alertness to which Christ calls us? We cannot really do it ourselves, on our own. As always when it comes to Jesus’ exhortations, we need help. And the good news is that we have help from the very one whose words will not pass away. In fact, these eternal words are our help.

For God’s word, Christ’s word, comes to us from outside of ourselves to wake us up and enliven our faith. A well-said, salient word from our Lord emanating from the pages of the Bible, has that effect doesn’t it, to arouse us from our lethargy? The word sounds the alarm to rouse us. Truly, scripture is like that.

We are also jolted awake and made alert and on guard with a splash of bracing water from the font. Those baptized, are aroused to new life in a cold-water bath, with the word and the Spirit. When the presiding minister walks through the assembly sprinkling water on us for baptismal remembrance and thanksgiving, we may be startled and brought to greater attention, roused to renewed faith.

Likewise in preparation for the sacramental meal, at this very table in the dialogue between you the assembly and me as presiding minister, I intone “Lift up your hearts” and you reply in singing voice, “we lift them to the Lord.”

So, at this meal, our hearts are indeed lifted up and not weighed down, as Jesus warned against. And with hearts so lifted, we take into ourselves the bread and the wine, the body and the blood of Christ, and leave this place rejuvenated, made more attentive, in body and spirit, to a fearful world’s needs. A good healthy meal has that effect on us, doesn’t it, to make us more energetic and alert? All the more so with the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Thus, awakened in this place of assembly around word, water and table, alert, on guard, we are in a better position to fulfill Paul’s exhortation from 1 Thessalonians featured in today’s second reading, “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may the Lord so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13)

In such godly love for one another and for the world, we leave this place to engage in the mission that God has entrusted to us, waiting, enduring, but alert, on guard, and active as we serve our neighbors in love for Christ’s sake. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.