I preached this sermon on Sunday, November 29, the First Sunday of Advent. I used Luke 21:25-36 as my text.
Luke’s words sound ominous. “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.” (21:25-26)
Jesus spoke those words during that week in Jerusalem which began with his triumphant entry into the city and ended with his gruesome death on a Roman cross. By those words Jesus said that everything will change. The world they knew will pass away.
Those words are meant to awaken us, too. We’re called to prepare to meet the Son of Man and repent of our ways.
Welcome to Advent. Striking isn’t it? We hear these ominous words to set us up for Christmas. Dark forebodings leading to joy and happiness and angels and shepherds and glitter and tinsel and presents and Santa Claus. Does it seem jarring?
Let’s rewind and think about Christmas, which then might help us to understand these dark forebodings. We really shortchange ourselves and the world if we only look at Christmas as the birth of Jesus. Seen that way, the birth of Jesus is a one-time event. Then, all the hoopla which we typically associate with Christmas makes sense. If, however, we understand Christmas as nothing less than the in-breaking of God into our world, now we’ve got something else. Christina Rossetti’s poem expressed it succinctly:
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas
Star and angels gave the sign.
It captured the profound theological point that on Christmas night God came into our world in the form of a baby boy named Jesus. In Jesus, who loved us more than we could ever know, God grew in stature to teach and to serve the world and by his life shared our common lot, struggling and suffering in order to free us from our own frailties and sinfulness so we will live together in true peace and justice rooted in steadfast love to create nothing short of heaven on earth. Christmas, then, is not a day but a state of the world.
The world that must pass away is the world in which we live now. Our world is a world where God’s abundance is not shared by all as evidenced by too many people, especially in the richest nation in the history of the world, not having their daily bread. Our world is a world where fear overwhelms hope such that our leaders choose to transform the world using weapons of destruction rather than the bread and the cup.
In less lofty terms expressed from recent headlines. Our world is a world where serious candidates for President of the United States openly declare religious intolerance without serious repercussions by advocating that we only allow Christian refugees into our country or that we close mosques to thwart Islamic fundamentalism. Our world is a world where terrorists shoot innocent people whether they are in a Beirut market, a Paris café, a Mali hotel, or a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic.
I want this world to go away. I want a world filled with hope. I want a world where no one has to know deprivation or scarcity. I want a world where people don’t feel they must carry guns in public for their own protection. I want a world not organized by fear, but organized by love. I want a world not predicated upon scarcity, but a world that lives out God’s abundant creation. I want the world that Jesus promised. I want a world where all are loved into freedom.
Symbolically, Christmas is a mini-second coming. We celebrate Christmas with joy, not because we got the right gift under the tree, but because there are signs that some aspects of the world in which we live do pass away and in turn reveal a new beginning. Consider that Tuesday, December 1, is the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ defiance. By not giving up her seat, she sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, which ultimately led to integrated seating on the city’s public buses and catapulted a young pastor, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into prominence. If we really think about civil rights, most of us lived when separate public restrooms and water fountains for whites and blacks were the norm throughout the South. And I would say that for most of us, we never thought we’d live long enough to see a black person as President of the United States. We’ve made tremendous progress. Listen to the refrain of the great spiritual “We’ve Come This Far by Faith”:
We’ve come this far by faith,
leaning on the Lord;
trusting in his holy word.
He’s never failed us yet.
Oh! We can’t turn back,
we’ve come this far by faith.
Yet, we still have a long journey before us as evidenced by the Black Lives Matter movement.
The other day I was speaking with a person about the state of the world. We both agreed that things are looking pretty bad right now. However, we acknowledged that when we regularly attend church and devote ourselves to God, we can more readily see kernels of grace which remind us of God’s presence in the world. And then, even when things seem bleak and God is nowhere to be found, we realize God was really here and never left us.
Here’s an example of a kernel of grace, which is probably better to rephrase as a flicker of hope. Last month a hummus restaurant in Tel Aviv made the news. Its owner offered a 50% discount on a meal if Jews and Arabs ate together. He posted on his restaurant’s Facebook page, “Are you afraid of Arabs? Are you afraid of Jews? By us there are no Arabs, but also no Jews. We have human beings! And real excellent Arab hummus! And great Jewish falafel!” His offer might not end the violence between Israel and its neighbors today, but then Rosa Parks’ defiance didn’t end America’s problem with race either, but it was definitely a catalyst to much better racial relationships in this country.
This was Luke’s version of the mini-apocalypse. Just as the early Jesus followers were challenged to stand before the Son of Man, so are we today. We won’t have true Christmas if we narrowly define that day as the birth of Jesus. Luke’s challenge makes us responsible to continue the work Jesus began. We are to defy oppression, to speak truth to power, to proclaim love’s transforming power, and to live courageously in hope. Each of us can hasten the day when Christmas truly arrives by taking seriously our responsibility to be flickers of hope even when so much that we see around us disturbingly strangles life’s affirmations. When we are flickers of hope, we become lights shining through the darkness and when enough light comes together, darkness is gone.
Christmas will come, but not all at once. We will see progress on some fronts. On others it will stall. But we must have faith in love’s transforming power and let the Holy Spirit lead us and guide us. We must lean on God because only in God will we get the strength and courage to persevere for true peace and true justice. Let’s remember the words to the second verse of that same spiritual:
Just remember with good things he has done;
things that seemed impossible,
oh, praise him for the vict’ries he has won.
Christmas will come, even if today it seems so far away. Christmas will come because the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. Christmas will come, but we can hasten that day by meeting the challenge Luke left for us to continue the work Jesus began to love our world into freedom.
Note: I wish I could say that God loves us into freedom was my expression, but I give that credit to one of my systematic theology professors Dr. Christopher Morse. The story on the hummus restaurant was from NPR broadcast on Oct. 23, 2015.