FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Readings for this Sunday:
Jeremiah 33:14-16 | Psalm 25:1-10 | 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 | Luke 21:25-36
Today is not about threat. It is about promise.
This first Sunday of Advent, this first Sunday of the church’s New Year’s that looks to the stars and sees signs all around—of destruction and new life, of endings and beginnings, of fear and distress and hope that is guarded and tended—this is about promise.
It’s easy to look at it all and be overwhelmed. These texts are thousands of years old, after all, yet it’s not all that different from what we know. Storms of all kinds, political chaos, social displacement. And love that takes root and grows.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I read over my daughter Claire’s shoulder yesterday a message from Western’s president about threats against people of color that led to cancelled classes on Tuesday. It’s tricky addressing fears and protecting people and deconstructing broken systems and encouraging steadfastness in daily living when you have the power. It’s probably trickier when you don’t.
What’s happening on Western’s campus is a little like what happened on campus in Missouri, but the administration is trying to learn from the mistakes of others, and it is trying to learn from its students. It is a sign, this story. It is a sign that it is one of those times that our life is pregnant with possibility. It is out of moments like these that something new is born.
The prophet Jeremiah has seen the fortunes of his country rise and fall over the course of three turbulent generations of leaders. The roller-coaster is the norm, it seems. It’s always been tricky for his people too.
And now the mighty Babylonian Empire with all its fire power bangs on the door. Families will be torn apart. Homes will be uprooted. The first temple destroyed. Jeremiah will follow the people into exile, and he will weep at the destruction of his homeland and the hardheartedness of his people.
If he is anything, he is truthful. Jeremiah knows how to read the signs. He knows the hammer that is coming down on his people. He rails against those who lead the way down a shiny path that ends with destruction and emptiness and disappointment.
It’s not much different for Luke. The story has Jesus predicting the destruction, but Luke has seen it. The worst has already happened by the time this gospel is written. The revolution has been suppressed. The power has been shut off.
He writes to a community who guard their hope after what they’ve known has been lost. The glorious Temple of Solomon leveled save for that one wall at which people to this day still wail, that wall from which saplings of prayer grow—of pain and hope that dream of a new generation where love abounds among a people as varied as the stars in the sky.
And yet, there is no sense from Jeremiah that God has abandoned the people. There is no sense that even as the country is defeated, that their trust in God should be a casualty. Luke agrees. There is no sense from Luke that the end is anything but a beginning. Indeed, these are the moments when God is closest, when the God who will be known as a refugee and most fully known on a cross is in fact nursing newborn life. It is in suffering that God shines.
It is only in the dark that we can see the stars.
Winter’s death heralds the rebirth of another spring. In endings the seeds of new beginnings are planted. A fallen tree becomes a womb of life for new shoots to spring up. A cross is nothing less than a nurse log. Don’t you see the signs?
Luke wants us to know how to read them.
25 “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. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
But, you see, that’s not the end; it’s the beginning.
27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Now, let’s not be naïve. Luke’s description feels very familiar not because the writer was peering into a crystal ball two millennia ahead to 2015. It’s that all times are like this time. It’s that while everything changes, nothing changes. Storms happen. Buildings fall. Wars break out. People are hungry.
And the Spirit works in us to protect hope. To keep us moving forward, to see the signs for what they are—promise, not threat. Calls o action not to despair. Cycles of life. Today is not about threat. It is about promise.
It should be no surprise, then, that the early church understood baptism as an ending that led to a new beginning. The old ways, the dead ways are drowned. In baptism we die so that we might be reborn to a more durable and promising way no matter what comes. That’s why we gather around the waters whenever we remember the promises of God that shape our lives, whenever we seek to bless and be blessed. We gather around the font to remember that endings always lead to new beginnings and new possibilities.
Always. Remember that.
Today is not about threat. It is about promise.
The early church envisioned baptism as a portal into paradise here and now on earth, and after death. We’re not talking about magic here. It never was that trivial. We are talking about a deep and vast mystery, an ocean of promise, a Spirit that washes over us and drowns our hopelessness because we are, after all—all of humanity and all of creation—one vast body, with the oceans and beaches and the forests and with those whose lives are broken in Syria and Sierra Leone by the brutality of war and in Honduras where orphans take in other orphans and make a home, and in Renton where the homeless and the housed seek solutions while they break bread together, and even in our city halls and political institutions.
There was this small little article in the Seattle Times on Tuesday: 35,000 without power in Spokane” the front page headline read. And then, just in passing the mention that, and I quote,
Public safety officials, teams of volunteers and others went door to door in the hardest hit neighborhoods, canvassing households for elderly, disabled or otherwise vulnerable residents who already spent days in frigid homes without electricity, phone service, or both.
Our much-maligned institutions are set up to care for our communities. And they do it, usually without us knowing it.
Look at the signs! This Sunday is not about threat. It is about hope. We tend to others because God in Christ has tended to us. We give of ourselves because of this Way, and in the doing we get our own life back.
I don’t know how Christ comes in the future, except that it is a matter of our faith. I do know this: God comes in the now. And I know this too: God does not abandon the heavens and the earth in the coming, but renews them, and so will we if we follow in this way. How else do we consider the fig tree and its new shoots except that God is near in life and in death, and God is near to you now. Do you believe this?
Jürgen Moltmann, the 20th century theologian gets at it when he sums up his life’s work: "I tried to present the Christian hope no longer as such an 'opium of the beyond' but rather as the divine power that makes us alive in this world."
So, protect hope. Guard it carefully for yourself and for that beloved one who sits across from you and who drinks from the same waters you do, and eats at this table from this same loaf that reminds you that we are one with one another, that our hope is a common hope. It doesn’t belong to any one of us; it is ours together, a gift of God. It is a precious thing, to be cherished and protected and watered and tended.
Do not let your heart be weighed down. Do not give into the worries of this life. Resist that urge to escape in your heartbreak into the fog—whether it is alcohol or consumerism, scapegoating or isolation. Do not give in to despair when the signs are all around that God comes to us, and in the most vulnerable of places and people like crushed prophets, and poor, young pregnant girls. Get to know the signs. Put on the practice of Advent. Listen to its invitation. Go out on one of these cold, dark nights and look to the stars. Or go to the forest and learn your lessons from old, dead trees who hold signs of new life sprouting. Or come in here and remember with these seekers.
If you are feeling particularly vulnerable today, perhaps God is coming to us in you, perhaps you are ripe for something new, ready to be born once again for a new day in your honesty and your weakness and your courageous self-offering.
Today is not about threat; it is about promise. Remember that. Hold it, tend it, protect it, for it is a precious thing, the Christ newborn in us today.
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