Sermon for Sunday, November 29, 2015 || First Sunday of Advent, Year C|| Jeremiah 33: 14-16; Psalm 25: 1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3: 9-13; Luke 21: 25-36 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Two weeks ago, you may remember, the assigned Gospel reading we heard was from part of what’s known as the “mini-apocalypse” in Mark’s gospel. Just now, we heard part of Luke’s version of the same thing, written about 15 years later than Mark’s, but drawing heavily from his account–with bits of the Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Amos added in.
This reading – our first from what will be a year of readings primarily from Luke– speaks of cosmic confusion and chaos… mysterious signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars…distress among nations…roaring seas and waves…people fainting from fear and foreboding… and the powers of the heavens shaking.
For modern Jesus-followers like us, it may seem a rather strange and overly dramatic way to prepare for a “merry” Christmas. Luke paints such a dark scene of chaos and confusion that, to borrow from the vernacular, it’s basically a buzz-kill. All his talk about the end of the world disturbs the serenity of our Sunday worship and casts a dark shadow over the beginning of the holiday season.
The timing of this reading is also disturbing because it’s so un-chronological. We’re getting ready to deck the halls with boughs of holly and this 21st chapter of Luke’s Gospel is sounding the apocalyptic alarm clock—announcing not glad tidings of great joy about the birth of the Christ child in the City of David, but announcing instead the Second Coming of the one who at this point in Luke’s story is just days from his crucifixion and resurrection.
It’s all more than a bit confusing, not to mention unsettling. And against the backdrop of world events it is even more so. So let’s see if we can make some sense out of all this, and figure out what it has to do with our lives today.
When we join Luke’s gospel this morning, Jesus is at the Temple in Jerusalem. What we celebrate as Palm Sunday has already happened—Jesus has entered the city on a donkey, then driven the moneychangers from the temple. He’s been teaching the people in parables, and sparring with the scribes. But in today’s reading Luke has Jesus alone with his disciples at last, teaching them about the coming of God’s reign. The disciples have been waiting with anticipation for this alone time with their teacher, and now Jesus speaks for their ears only. And for ours.
“There will be signs,” Jesus tells his disciples. He says that yes, there will be distress and confusion, anguish and perplexity, fear and foreboding. There will be chaos and confusion…and the un-doing of creation. But, Jesus adds, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus tells his disciples that when they see this terrifying chaos, their deliverance from oppression and persecution and all the death-dealing powers of the Empire– is near!
The way our Bibles translate Luke’s account of Jesus’ words really doesn’t do them justice. In the Greek in which Luke wrote, there is a play on words here that drives home the joy-filled hope behind this seemingly counter-intuitive advice to stand up in the face of destruction and disaster. In the Message Bible, it’s rendered as, “When all this starts to happen, up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!” The Greek actually says, “Be elated!”
Luke’s Jesus, knowing his death and resurrection are just around the corner, is giving his disciples advice to remember after he’s gone. “Remember, when you see the confusion and chaos, when all the world is faint with fear, remember, and do not to be afraid. All around you folks will tremble, but you- my friends– remember that your freedom from all that binds you is near. Remember that I will be near.”
So when they see the signs, the disciples are not to be fearful. For them, apocalypse will mean freedom from fear and persecution, from sorrow and suffering, from the seemingly endless waiting for God’s Kingdom to come. When remembering these words, 15 or more years after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, these words will indeed be heard as Good News–wonder-filled, hope-filled good news that God will make things right.
So where does this leave us? Because while the apostles still waited with anticipation for Jesus to return, for us it’s been so long that we may not take seriously the promise of his coming again—beyond something we recite by rote in the Creed. It’s probably safe to say that most people today are more likely to anticipate the end of history coming with a terrorist riding in on a nuclear warhead than with the Son of Man riding on a cloud of glory.
But then, most people are not Christians—those crazy people like us who are called to share what Jurgen Moltmann called “a resurrection hope in a crucifixion world.”
Christians stake their lives on the reality that the Creator Of All That Is has intervened in history once already to rescue mankind from the power of death. And Christians stake their lives on the promise that He will do so again to restore all of creation to the freedom and joy that is His will for us.
Christians know that the end of history will be God’s doing–no one else’s—and certainly not that of terrorists. We know that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has already overtaken the powers of death and darkness that oppose His will. And we are assured that God will come again—on God’s time schedule– to lay claim to what is already his and to make things right. Because the end of history as we know it will be but the beginning of God’s dream for us realized– on earth as in heaven.
David Lose writes that, “This ‘in-between time,’ [in which we live] though fraught with tension, is nevertheless…characterized by hope and courage, because we know that the end of this story, while not yet here, has been written by the resurrected Christ.” Yes! And every week we affirm this mystery of our faith in the Eucharist: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” we say. “We remember his death. We proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory.”
And I wonder if this isn’t exactly where we should be focusing our gaze during this Advent season: In the apocalyptic–revelatory– anticipation of the Eucharist.
When we respond to Jesus’ imperative to break bread in remembrance of him, we invite the Risen Christ to break into the chaos of our lives and remind us not to be afraid. In the mystery of the Eucharist, Christ waits, whispering the same words to us that he offered to his disciples: “Remember. Remember when you see the confusion and chaos, when all the world is faint with fear, remember, and do not to be afraid. All around you folks will tremble, but you– my friends– remember that your deliverance from all that binds you is near. Remember that I am near.”
The late Leonel L. Mitchell, one of the foremost liturgical scholars in the Episcopal Church, wrote that in the Eucharist “the timelessness of eternity overcomes the centuries to proclaim, ‘You are risen with Christ.’” Imagine that: You are risen with Christ! Now that is an apocalyptic—revelatory–moment.
Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Into the mystery of the Eucharist and the darkness of chaos, Christ comes to remind us of his promise that we have nothing to fear, because he is near. This world will be restored, God will reign on earth as in heaven, God’s will will be done– and no one and no thing –can stop that.
This is indeed Good News. It is wonder-filled, hope-filled Good News. So stand up, people of St. Stephen’s, and raise your heads high–for we are risen with Christ! And we’re called to share our resurrection hope boldly, with a crucifixion world so sadly desperate to hear it. Amen.