Forward, Back, Forward Again: A Sermon for Advent 1C


Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

How
do we know when the big day is drawing near? We look for the signs.
They are unmistakable. 15% off all holiday candles. Trees for sale. Red
bows appear along fenceposts, polar bears drink Coca-cola, and Rudolph,
Frosty, and Charlie Brown make their annual appearances. Thousands and
thousands of lights fill the darkness with a soft white or merry
multicolored glow. Inside we hear holiday music, outside we hear
Salvation Army bells. 21 shopping days left….The signs are all there!


How
do we know when the big day is drawing near? We look for the signs.
They are unmistakable. Pageant rehearsal tonight. Caroling at the
nursing home. Shades of purple and blue appear where there has been
green, green, green for so long, and the Holy Family makes their annual
appearance somewhere in the back of the church, making their way to the
creche. Four candles on an evergreen wreath begin to fill this space
with the promise of light increasing. We hear new service music, we
sing beloved hymns, Come, thou long expected Jesus….

How
do we know when the big day is drawing near? We look for the signs. A
growing belly. Birth pangs intensifying. A star filling the sky with
light as the Light of the World fills a stable with love.
How do we know when the big day – that last
big day – is drawing near? There are signs for that, too. Fire,
earthquake and flood, scripture tells us. In this morning’s gospel
Jesus says there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars.
Distress among nations, roaring seas, confusion, fear, foreboding. ‘The
Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.’

How do
we know when the big day is drawing near? Look for signs like this,
Jesus says: growth. Greening – like leaves sprouting on all the trees.
Beginnings where there seemed to be endings. Life where there seemed to
be death, life exploding outward into the world, nourished by roots
deeper than winter’s soil, warmed by the light that fills the sky.

Today
is the first Sunday in the season of Advent, the first day of a new
liturgical year in which we celebrate the mystery of salvation
beginning with the adventus, the coming, the arrival, the
birth of Jesus in the world. Since the 6th century, these four weeks
have been set aside as a time to look forward, and backward, and
forward again to the coming of Jesus.

We look forward to
Christmas by looking backward to that night when God became incarnate
in a baby boy, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God,
with tiny fingers and toes and cry that melted his mother’s heart. We
know these stories, we know the signs, and of these signs we are
certain.

But in Advent we also look forward to Jesus arriving – Jesus coming – again.
We know these stories, we know these signs, but of them we are less
certain. They do not lend themselves to candle-lit pageants or jingling
bells. So many of these signs are frightening, full of foreboding, full
of disaster and dread. Foundations, earth, and even heaven are shaken.

It
is important for us to remember that prophecy, and in this morning’s
gospel Jesus echoes so many of the great prophets, prophecy is not
about predicting the future so much as it is about attending to the
present, about living fully as God’s people in the world now, in each
and every present moment. All those prophets – and Jesus – lived in
times when the world was growing dark, when nations were troubled, when
the air was full of foreboding.

And so in every age believers
have wondered if the big day, the last day, was drawing near. The signs
always seem to be there. Terrible natural disasters. Distress among
nations. Fear. Suspicion. Hatred. Violence. Poverty. Hunger.
Exclusivity. Just pick up a newspaper, or watch the evening news. Signs of endings all around us, poet Dean Nelson, writes. Signs
of endings all around us: darkness, death and winter days shroud our
lives in fear and sadness, numbing mouths that long to praise.

While
global events press fear and foreboding upon us, the signs that for us
take on cosmic significance are those that are most personal, most
intimate. We are distressed by war in the middle east; our foundations
are shaken when a loved one is deployed. We are concerned about
national statistics on drug and alcohol use; our foundations are shaken
when a drunk driver doesn’t swerve in time to avoid our friend’s car.
When we lose a job. When a relationship is strained or broken. When we
fail a test. When a pet dies. When illness threatens. When we aren’t
welcomed. Signs of endings all around us. Stand up and raise your heads, Jesus says, when what we really want to do is run and hide.

In the season of Advent, looking forward and looking backward, we remember that Jesus has already come,
born in a stable, in the midst of instability. Jesus has already come.
The kingdom of God is at hand. The day of redemption has passed, and we
are already saved. But it seems the fruit of salvation grows slowly in
us. We don’t make it easy: we forget to nurture it, we let doubt and
fear and pride grow like weeds around it, so that the Light of the
World can barely shine through. And yet it grows, despite us, and like
the fig tree and all the trees as summer approaches, our salvation
begins to sprout leaves. It begins to show. When we begin to live as
Jesus showed us, with hands and feet and eyes and ears just like ours,
when we begin to live in the kingdom of God at hand, the leaves begin
to appear. New life. Hope. And so, rooted in God’s saving love, we become living signs of what will be when the end finally does come.

For what is beyond that great ending, and was before the great beginning and is present in each and every moment, is God, whose compassion and love, the psalmist declared, are from everlasting.
In Jesus Christ, God came literally into our midst, and yet, Madeleine
L’Engle writes, “The second person of the Trinity was with us ‘before
the worlds began to be, he is Alpha and Omega, he the source, the
ending he,’ as the ancient hymn says. All of God has always been part
of creation, part of the story, taking us in the everlasting arms as
the shepherd clasps a lost lamb,” as a mother clasps her newborn son,
singing to him by the light of a star.

How do we know the big
day is drawing near? We look for the signs. And although there are
signs of endings all around us, the same poet urges us to pray, Come,
O Christ, and dwell among us! Hear our cries, come set us free. Give us
hope and faith and gladness. Show us what there yet can be. Can it be
that from our endings, new beginnings you create? Take our fears, then
Lord, and turn them into hopes for life anew: fading light and dying
season sing their glorias to you
. Look for the signs. Look for
what brings light, life and hope. Look for wonders growing deep within.
Look for transformation. Look for invitation. Look for compassion and
love. Perhaps we will see signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
but my guess is we’re far more likely to see signs right here. In a
Christmas card from a long-lost friend. In a plate of cookies shared
with a neighbor. In gifts wrapped up for families whose trees would be
bare. In smiling, however wearily, at the person in front of you as you
wait and wait and wait and wait to check out at Walmart. In remembering
that this crazy season is not about us, not about our loved ones, not
about turkeys or gifts or cookies or reindeer, but about Jesus Christ.
This season is about the big day arriving, the day of redemption, the
day when darkness was filled with light. This season is about the
beginning of a story filled with signs and wonders in the midst of
ordinary everyday life – the story of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel,
God-with-us – a story that calls us, as the Body of Christ, forward
each and every day into a world that needs so desperately to know that
it is loved.

Goodness knows Advent is not a calm or peaceful
time. We may pause more often in our worship, we may sit in darkness
for a time, we may steal a few moments of stillness, but not as a way
to run and hide from traffic, endless parties, and stringing lights.
Well, not just a way to hide. In Advent we are called to
reflection in order to deepen our awareness of God’s presence already
planted within us, God’s salvation already taking root and growing and
revealing itself in our lives. Preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ
– in a stable, in a cloud, or over and over again in our daily lives,
in the people we meet, in the experiences we have – preparing for the
coming of Jesus Christ is about seeing signs all around us and knowing
that the kingdom of God is at hand.

How will the world know the
big day is drawing near? May they see us, and we see them. And in
seeing one another, God-willing, may we see signs that the kingdom of
God is at hand. In words from our old prayerbook, let us pray: Eternal
God, who commits to us the swift and solemn trust of life: since we do
not know what a day may bring forth, but only that the hour for serving
you is always present, may we wake to the instant claims of your holy
will, not waiting for tomorrow, but yielding today
. Amen.


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