So, it’s the Second Sunday of Advent. I don’t know how you feel but I’m looking for a baby shower invitation from Joseph and Mary. Or at the very least I’d like to hear the story of John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth’s womb as a pregnant Mary visits her cousin.
And what do I get? A dystopian future novel that rivals The Hunger Games: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
Seriously? How am I supposed to put THAT on a Christmas card? In all fairness, this is the gospel lesson that is assigned for the First Sunday of Advent. However, John Propst and I switched weeks, so he could do his John the Baptist skit while I was in Europe. Little did I know that when I said “yes” to him, this is what I would have to preach on. I guess that’s the price you pay for taking a vacation at the beginning of Advent!
So what do we do with these ominous words from the gospel of Luke? How are we to understand this apocalyptic reading in the midst of our preparations to celebrate the birth of a baby? I gave this some thought before I left for Europe, and the insight that was the most helpful to me, was something I told our Sunday school class last fall as we studied the book of Revelation. I give the credit to Pastor Tim Caniff-Kuhn for this insight because it helped me to understand Revelation in a new and different way. This insight applies to our gospel lesson as well, since its language is apocalyptic in nature.
Are you ready for it? Here it goes: The key to understanding Revelation is to ask the right question. Most people ask “What does it mean?” or “When will it happen?” The real question we need to ask is “How does it make us feel?” The answer to this question is that in the midst of events that cause us to be anxious and afraid, Revelation reminds us that God is in control and has already won the battle. When we see Revelation in this light we come to understand it as a book of comfort, hope and encouragement.
When we apply this same insight to our gospel lesson, its meaning becomes a whole lot clearer. Let’s start with the right question, “How does it make me feel?” Well, it’s clear from the opening verses that they make us feel a little scared, worried and anxious. The world is in an upheaval. The cosmos itself is behaving in strange and alarming ways. Jesus tells us “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
It sounds a bit like what we’re experiencing in our nation this past year. I lost count of the natural disasters that have left ravaged our nation. We experienced two hurricanes on the East Coast and devastating wildfires on the West Coast. Hawaii had a volcano eruption. Some states are dealing with extreme drought, while others, like ours, have had record rainfalls and devastating floods.
Furthermore, politics is more divided than ever. People are downright hostile to those who dare to disagree with them. Even Christianity is being shaken as two very different views of who Jesus is and what it means to be the Church have emerged. Gun violence and mass shootings are out of control. And I never thought I would see the day when white supremacy and hate speech would be so visible and pervasive.
I could go on, but I know you’re well aware of what’s happening around us. The heavens are being shaken, alright, along with our nation and our lives. And it leaves us feeling scared, worried and anxious.
We can choose to stay in this scared, worried and anxious condition. We can let the “distress among nations” get the best of us. But this is only the beginning of our gospel lesson. I believe Jesus intends for us to look at the world in a much different way than this. In the midst of things that cause us to be anxious and afraid, Jesus tells us, “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Like the book of Revelation, Jesus is tells us that we should not lose heart. We should not give into despair. God is in control and has already won the battle. It’s a done deal. The reign of Christ will prevail. God’s kingdom will replace all the earthly kingdoms that are being shaken at this present moment. And so I believe Jesus is trying to encourage us here. He is trying to remind us that God is bigger than all the troubles we are facing at this moment in our nation’s history. Jesus, himself destroyed death forever. This is our hope in the midst of our despair.
At this point in the sermon, you might be wondering “What does all this have to do with preparing for the birth of a baby?” Well, we know that this baby is no ordinary baby. He is Emmanuel, God With Us. He is the light who shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not defeat him. Without his presence in our lives i would be easy to give into despair. But because he promises to journey with us we have hope.
This hope is grounded in the signs we see all around us that another kingdom, another way of living, is being born in our midst. Like the fig tree in our gospel lesson that begins sprouting leaves, we see signs of this kingdom sprouting all around us. These signs are the things that give us hope, and remind us of who is ultimately in charge.
“Look at the fig tree and all the trees, Jesus says. “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 that the kingdom of God is near.”
This is how I begin to reconcile the terrifying vision in our gospel lesson with our preparations to celebrate the birth of a baby. We, as people of faith, believe this baby changes everything. He was born in an era where people felt like their world was being shaken as well. Rome was a brutal occupier that demanded much from the people of Israel. Justice was something that only the powerful and influential could experience. A small handful of people lived well, but most folks struggled just to feed their families and have a roof over their heads.
It’s the kind of despair that is articulated so powerfully in the well-known event hymn: “O come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel”
And so, a people who felt shaken, who mourned in lowly exile, were looking for a baby shower invitation. They were looking for God to birth something new in their midst. We believe that God delivered on this promise in the person of Jesus, the Word made flesh, who came to live among us. Jesus give us a vision of how the world could be if God were in charge and all the other rulers of church and state were not. We love to tell this story because it mirrors our reality. As a people who also feel like we’re being shaken, our hope lies in this same baby who changed the world forever.
The way we navigate this scary and uncertain time is to continually be “on the watch” for signs of Christ’s kingdom that are already among us. These signs are the very thing that give us hope. It is where our shalom, our sense of peace and well-being, take root and grow.
In our gospel lesson, Jesus ends his apocalyptic vision by telling us to be “alert.” I take this to mean we see the world for what it is. We don’t turn a blind eye to all the sadness and injustice we witness in our world. But it also means we don’t let all this sadness and injustice get the best of us. We continue to look for and become the living signs of the reign of Christ, our world desperately needs. We continue to be the faithful, humble, and compassionate servants Christ has called us to be. We don’t give up. Don’t give in.
Because we know that in the midst of things being shaken to us a Son is born,
to us a Son is given, authority rests upon his shoulders. And his name is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. This is our hope and strength in good times and in bad. In life and in death. Amen.
Copyright ©2018 by David Eck