Please click on any of the name links below to jump directly to that preacher’s sermon manuscript for Advent 1C.
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Grace to you and peace from God, and from our savior ever dawning upon our world in Jesus the Christ. Amen.
My mom never did sleep easily in a real bed again. She said it was because of her scoliosis. She said that after the divorce she was never again able to afford the kind of mattress that met the curve in her back. She said her sofa was just right.
It took me some years and the advent of my own nights in the midst of upheaval — nights sending me to the couch in fitful, disoriented, angst-ridden wakefulness — to realize that while poverty and her scoliosis was certainly a factor it was something more than that. It seemed to me my mother never was able to leave the state of shock and disruption, the dissolution of core identity and the basic trusts of her life brought on by the immediate crisis of the divorce. Though eventually life went on for her in some fashion she was in many respects chronically in a state of emergency, chronically tuned to disaster, ever in the midst of the nightmare of apocalypse and the aftershock of earthquake. She was never again quite able to relax and luxuriate into the expansive embrace of a secure and trusting slumber in a real bed.
I thought of my mom’s couch-sleeping late last summer after President Obama’s surprisingly sober convention acceptance speech. There was nothing of an easy unlimited possibility just on the horizon. Yet the rhetoric was full of the hopeful potential of the strength of sacrifice toward common goods and emboldening community. The message was that together getting to that place of more abundant life was possible in the midst of continued challenge; indeed, was already visibly dawning in our country in recovery from the tumbling apocalypse of the Great Recession.
What struck me most wasn’t the speech itself but the analysis. The commentators saw this speech as a threshold, liminal declaration of the times. The crisis of the great recession was over. We had entered the new normal. We may be at bottom but we were on something firm. This was life now. Life we could count on and grapple with and make something out of, not with a president messiah but with a “we” orientation.
Is the crisis over? You’ll be hearing from now ‘til doomsday, and certainly from now until December 21 with the supposed end to a Mayan calendar, that doomsday is just around the corner. We’ll be giddy for Armageddon, waiting for, or scorning, the next predicted apocalypse in a long line of predictions.
The new TV show Revolution features Illinois after the end. Fifteen years after power and grid failure it’s a hardscrabble, cruel, violent and lawless world in the decay of suburban estates, stadiums, rail yards, institutions of higher learning and grand old hotels of the Loop. But it’s only TV.
Globally, the environmental evidence of further and faster polar ice melt and release of greenhouse gasses is just the latest warning that threatens a different kind of doom. Record heat and drought has made us uneasy.
Bodies mount up in Syria and in Chicago streets. The stock market wobbles daily with news of financial collapse in the eurozone. We are playing economic and political chicken with the poorest of the poor and our children’s children on the line as we peer over the edge of “the fiscal cliff.”
What about the church? We talk about the end of denominations. We lament decline in authority, moral power, numbers, vitality and general attractiveness to this or any generation.
Is it all just hype? Disaster-chic? Who knows. But what put me in mind of my mother and her couch sleeping was the announcement, even while life remains troubled, that the crisis was over. What if we were already living in the life to come, after the cataclysm?
This year as we remembered the 11th anniversary of 9/11 mourners reflected on the more “relaxed” and less formally public nature of the commemorations, now that the mark of a decade had passed. I recalled being at the still-smoldering pit six weeks after the catastrophe. The burned out tea-kettle smell stung with each breath and ash clung on such ordinary things as a postal box. How hard it was to turn from the shocking chasm of death and walk uptown toward a friend’s birthday party and celebration of life.
These announcements, these commentaries balancing the end of life as we’ve known it and … life made me realize how tensed and tight I’ve become. How habitually crisis-minded. On guard, steeled and cocooned against the next blow, arms wrapped around myself to defend against the winds of winter and a long drab gray. Or perhaps even addicted to the next hopped-up disaster media event. That may be a little dramatic. But the moment of release I felt in these announcements of a new day was palpable. What if there was a place to stand, trust and act? What if the sap was rising and shoots shooting and summer was coming and it was time to get out and say hi to the neighbors … and I just hadn’t noticed?
Today Jesus stands just outside the city of Jerusalem with his disciples. The massive stones of Herod’s temple plaza fit together so snugly they didn’t need mortar to hold them. The gleam is blinding as marble in the noon sun. In the fading of the day they glow and radiate as if they are pulsing with the lifeblood of the very heart of God the temple was to house.
They stood on the threshold of that place out of which Jeremiah had once spoken to the people in the midst of catastrophe. In the crossfire of nations at war not one stone had been left upon another in the ruin of Jerusalem. Wise King Solomon’s first temple was rubble and a people of God were shaken to the core of their identity. They were scattered in the devastation of the city or carted off into exile. There was no place to stand or rest in security.
Into this desolation Jeremiah announces a summery shoot, a new reign and reality of restoration. Salvation. Safety. Justice. A day of God’s reign to count on even in the midst of terrifying indictment. A day of redemption to come already bringing healing, prosperity and joy through God’s power to save and God’s unfolding loving desires for the world. This piece of poetry comes as a sliver of consolation. A slender shoot acknowledging the gravity of the stump of truncated expectation, all the more vital and astounding in its surprising potency and daring insistence for renewed life.
While the winds and political fortunes of the nations shifted and God’s people returned home, the restoration, the closeness to the heart of God and the fruits of that life they were seeking, seemed to elude them. It wasn’t as they remembered and had longed for. The eventual rebuilding of God’s house of prayer for all nations, recently financed by Herod’s patronage to the empire, was resplendent. But the people remained oppressed, occupied, impoverished and nervous.
On the threshold of what will be the worst days of their lives Jesus’ disciples gape at these stones as a reflection of dedication to life close to God’s heart, but Jesus redirects their attention to a day of salvation. To the Word which was the power of creation. To the power of life and the power of life that will never end despite the imminent dashing of their dreams this Messiah will take on the Empire for them to restore security and safety. Jesus is led to the cross in front of their horrified eyes and they scatter.
Luke, whose Gospel of Jesus we journey with this year, fills the specter of the still coming devastations out of which God’s power for life will arise with details of Rome’s siege of Jerusalem and the tumbling of those massive stones to the ground. He brings us, with seekers drawn to the way of resurrection through the healing power and the acts of the apostles, right to the still-smoking ruin of the city within a decade or so of its demise. He redirects the attention of his readers, Gentiles grafted to the tree of promise for all peoples, a people who may very well wonder if they should bet their fortunes, their safety and their security, their trust and their confidence on this God. They are redirected to the living stones, to the corner stone, to the beating heart of God as flesh beats. Luke’s Jesus points them to the fig tree, ancient tree of Israel’s wisdom, and all the trees of the nations for that matter, and the signs of summer’s tree of life leafing in the shadow of death.
We come to this threshold of a new year of grace and hear Jesus’ words with the disciples of every age and with the same questions. Where is security? Is God…trustworthy?
Our shaking isn’t always the work of God. Tragic deaths are not the work of God. The chaos that results from drug and alcohol abuse is not the work of God. The suffering that arises from a culture of violence and greed and prejudice and individualism is not the work of God. That there is a life-span of the cosmos may be God’s work, but the consumerism that abuses the environment until it cannot sustain life, is not. Sometimes it is the work of evil, the power of sin that has a grip on us and a grip on this world that is doing the shaking. Mary’s song, upon hearing that she will bear the redeemer of the world, points to God’s work. The mighty will be thrown down, the poor will be lifted up and the oppressed will experience freedom. This is not good news for the status quo, but it is good news for those who look for deliverance. For those who have longed for a new life. For those who have longed for a savior. God isn’t limited to God’s first creation, but is free to make a new creation. If sun, moon and stars are not eternal, if heaven and earth are open to change… then so are we.
Restoration brings us to the heart of God, the new city of God. It does not give us back the past. That truth dawns on us here. The worst has already happened. The sky has darkened, the savior of the world has died in humiliation and cruel agony and in the time of God’s fulfillment has been raised. We are getting ready for the reveal, for the curtain and heavens to be torn so we can glimpse God’s true glory: Life where life has no business being. The very heart of God beating in a virgin’s womb. In a stone cold tomb. A shoot from a stump. A shooting star in the night come from heaven to earth.
My mother did eventually have to leave the couch, for the hospice bed in the living room. She wasn’t looking forward to that. She complained that it wasn’t as comfortable as her beloved old couch, but as we puffed her up on her cloud comforter, she reflected that in the end she believed she had made something of her life. I hope to believe that at the last, as we promised new life was ahead, she was wholly able to meet the expansive embrace of safety and security.
It is in this promise that new life is God’s work, that we claim our fullest identity in community. On the day of our baptisms we were made as dead as we are ever going to be, restored to the heart of God with Christ to the life of the Word that never ends. What is there to fear? Today we hear the impossible news that when the stars fall out of the sky, when the waves swallow us up, when whole nations are in anguish and others are fainting for terror in the shaking of our universe those who know Christ are to stand in the promise of life. It is this promise which can bloom within us. God’s kingdom comes indeed without our prayer, of itself. But we pray today that it will come among us also.*
What do you hope for now? What do you hope for in the day to come? Today Jesus invites us to live as if. Jesus invites God’s people to stand up, to live and to act as though that promised day of justice, of safety and security, has come. We walk into summer’s expansive life, engaging the world, meeting our neighbors. We are led by a babe born in a stable in a House of Bread, a scrap of divine love in human life whose story unfolds in a time of Empires and their rulers, who comes to a poor young peasant woman named Mary, and our weary world, and to us.
Amen, Come Lord Jesus.
Hymn of the Day: “Light Dawns on a Weary World” – ELW 726
Light dawns on a weary world: the promised day of justice comes…
Love grows in a weary world: the promised feast of plenty comes…
Hope blooms in a weary world: the promised green of Eden comes.
*Luther’s explanation to the Second Petition, “your kingdom come.”
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“Every shakable thing has to be shaken,” a sermon for Advent 1C
In Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, his title character reflects, “History overflows time. Love overflows the allowance of the world. All the vessels overflow, and no end or limit stays put. Every shakable thing has got to be shaken.”
Every shakable thing has got to be shaken. Love overflows the allowance of the world.
If ever there were a poetic way to make sense of today’s readings, these two statements might just be it.
It is the first day of the new church year, and the beginning of the Advent season. Once again, we pour ourselves into intentional watching and waiting for the coming of Christ. Once again, we enter into a story of hope, where God’s promises shine brightly amidst the darkness. Once again, the contemplative space of Advent draws us near to the image of God’s love overflowing the world and coming to birth in Christ, the word of love made flesh.
But Jesus’ apocalyptic vision in today’s gospel jolts us out of contemplation and into a curious space where we have to reconcile the hope and promise of Advent with a difficult picture of a trembling creation and a world turned upside-down.
Every shakable thing has to be shaken. Love overflows the allowance of the world.
Advent reminds us that Jesus’ coming shakes things up. Even as we spend the season waiting to hear again the story of Christ’s first entry in the world, we recognize that our entire lives of faith are spent waiting for Christ’s re-entry into the world. And just as Jesus’ birth was heralded by a crazy traveling star and a sky full of angels, at the end of the ages, Christ’s return will be marked by “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.” Jesus says that even “the powers of the heavens will be shaken” when the kingdom of God is near.
The message here is clear: when love overflows the allowance of the world, when Christ breaks in — and I mean really breaks in — to our existence, every shakable thing will be shaken. Nothing will be as it once was.
Growing up, I shared a room with my two younger sisters. We slept on bunk beds that were opposite a wall filled with shelving, which held books and records and toys and games. One afternoon when I was about nine years old, we were charged with the simple task of cleaning up our room. The expectation was that we’d put the Legos back in the box and return our stuffed animals to our beds, and really just tidy up the clutter.
But since I was nine years old, in charge of the situation, and, apparently, a Type A personality, I took one look around the room and decided that the only way to truly get things cleaned up was to take everything off of the shelves and completely reorganize the room. A quick-fix tidy-up-the-clutter mentality seemed insufficient to me. So I started pulling books off the shelves. Berenstain Bears and Angelina Ballerina and Amelia Bedelia flew from shelf to floor. CandyLand and Chutes and Ladders sat at the bottom of a pile underneath “Wee Sing Silly Songs” and “Wee Sing Bible Songs” cassette tapes.
You should have seen the look on my mother’s face when she walked into the room, expecting to see things neater, and instead seeing absolute chaos. I calmly and rationally explained to her, “the room will be cleaner if we just take everything down and start over.”
Yes, out of childlike and overflowing love for my appointed task, I turned everything upside down with the hope of making my little world better than it had started.
This is what Jesus is trying to teach us in today’s gospel: that out of God’s overflowing love, he promises us hope and life and reconciliation and redemption, even if it means turning the world upside-down to bring us all of those things.
I suppose that if God loved the world just a little bit, then God would be content to send us quick fixes and temporary patches for the worn and broken parts of our existence. And honestly, I think that most of us, when we pray “thy kingdom come,” only pray it half-earnestly, because we really just want God to send down bits and pieces of a kingdom to fill in the gaps in our human existence.
But is it not true that there are yearnings and fears that need something bigger than merely a taste of the kingdom? Are there not longings and hopes that can only be soothed by a full reversal of life as we know it?
I think of a day earlier this fall when my senior pastor and I spent a Sunday afternoon in two different and very sacred spaces that left us longing for more than just a taste of God’s kingdom.
He spent the afternoon at the bedside of a dying woman from our congregation, having been summoned by her hospice care-givers. He anointed her and prayed with her, as he had done so many times before over the preceding months. He held her hands and held the hands of her grown children, offering them words of God’s peace and hope. And in that moment, the prayer on his heavy heart was an earnest, “thy kingdom come, Lord.”
Meanwhile, I spent the afternoon at church, trying not to embarrass myself dancing at a community-wide fundraiser for a two-year old girl in our congregation who suffers from a rare, chronic, and ultimately terminal illness. I watched this sweet child observing the action from her bright pink power wheelchair, her wispy blonde hair held back by a purple clip that matched everyone’s matching purple shirts. I thought about the bittersweet hope that her family and friends cling to for a cure that may someday come, but likely after this young life will have already passed away. I, with them, longed for a cure, yes, but for true healing as well, for full restoration of body, for wholeness. And the prayer on my own heavy heart that afternoon was an earnest, “thy kingdom come.”
Yes, sometimes each one of us faces the truth that we need more than just a taste of the kingdom. We need God to rush into our world, riding on the clouds, spilling out love and peace and redemption into our world…even if it means turning the world upside-down in its wake.
Every shakable thing has to be shaken. Love overflows the allowance of the world.
As you look at your own life, what are your wounds of body, mind, or spirit that require something more profound than a spiritual Band-Aid for healing? What are the aches and pains in your soul that need deep comfort? What are the temptations and longings that weigh you down? What are the anxieties that paralyze you? What are the dark places in your life that need the dawning of God’s new day to brighten them with new life?
Jesus promises us that he will return, and that our lifetimes of advent waiting will not be in vain. Jesus promises us that when all creation trembles about us, and when we feel certain that chaos is about to rule the day, we will yet be able to hold our heads high, for God has promised us his kingdom, and we are not without hope. Jesus assures us that when the world finally breaks open under the weight of God’s love, it is our redemption – and not our destruction – which is drawing near.
Because Jesus has already broken into our human existence once before. He shook a star loose from the sky, he calmed the raging seas, he walked on water, and he reversed people’s fortunes: sick people were healed, outsiders became insiders, justice became mercy. And, on the cross, death became abundant life.
God’s kingdom is already stirring among us. The promise of restoration has already been given to us. And in this waiting gap, we raise our heads in hope, looking to the day when the love of God so overflows the world that it comes crashing through all of our limits and shakes the final foundations of the world. For in this sweep of change, we can see through to a glistening picture of God’s restoration for us and for our world.
Every shakable thing has got to be shaken.
For God’s love overflows the allowance of the world.
And so we pray, “Thy kingdom come, O Lord. Amen.”
St. Timothy Lutheran Church
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The movie 2012 about the end of the world according to the Mayan calendar and, less recently, the Y2K scare are examples of phenomena in our religious culture aimed at dealing with the future. Many people are engaged in those discussions about the end of time. Thirteen years ago around Christmas, my wife was cooking and I forgot to buy tomatoes. I went to the store and I found two ladies arguing about the end of time and the amount of water they needed to buy to survive those days, because the end was imminent. Y2K was just 20 days away.
The Gospel of today insists on the watchfulness and hope of the believers in the midst of adversity either temporal or eternal.
A.) How bad is it going to get? Can things ever get worse than now?
The whole proclamation of the Gospel includes an element of final judgment. In the creed, we say that we believe that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. Jesus does not come the second time to give us a second chance or to forgive people. Jesus brings in the image of Daniel 7:13-14, where the son of Man is coming in glory to reveal and show his will upon the earth. Jesus wants to convey that He is the King we need to serve. Especially, because we may not be serving or glorifying God with our lives. No wonder the commentary of Daniel himself about his vision — or we may say his nightmare — was: “I was disturbed,” “I was terrified.”
In our society things are not that bad, and so we do not consider God’s commandments and the demands of the Gospel. Let’s go and get drunk with wine or maybe with things which we are able to buy. Let us live in the delusion of the reality which we create. We would like to remove from us this persistent view of a God who will come to be the King, to judge, and who expects us to serve him. Somehow an idea of God has emerged: God is my buddy, my friend who will tolerate and even support my misbehavior because he loves me. This is hardly the attitude that we can observe in this passage. This God as described in this Gospel is becoming harder to proclaim because we fear the idea of being accountable as Christians in the midst of this mess that we call our post-modern society. We have become prisoners of relativism. I want to re-define myself and even God on my own terms. We want to subordinate God to our desires and indulge our own fancies. If the image of God does not work for you, just change it. This god is the one which you made up.
In the Gospel of Luke, this image of the son of Man coming in clouds confronts and judges the Jewish ritual of the temple and the whole Roman empire filled with pagan gods and idolatry. The whole idea that every knee will bow down to God certainly confronts both realities. The world of Jesus Christ was filled with created gods. Some churches in Palestine decorate their ceiling with images of Christ in the center and the zodiac signs under his feet, just to let the pious know who was in charge of the whole cosmos, not just the inhabited world.
The World does not recognize that anything is wrong with it, especially if the true God is not in it; everything is roses. Our world gets in trouble when we stand in front of the true God who has a personality, who acts — the one that commands not suggests: Love the Lord your God. Using Martin Luther’s methodology this text is about the First Commandment.
B.) How are we going to behave? How should we live? Where is the Hope?
We can see clearly that the admonition of the Gospel differs from the slogan, “Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll.” It is: “Lift up your head, believe my words, be watchful and pray.”
“Lift up your head.” When we live in a world without God, we get anxious trying to heal the wounds of the world like poverty, illness, injustice and abuse. Sometimes, we call these activities Outreach; it is our feeble intent to proclaim the kingdom of God present and forthcoming. Lifting up our heads means to orient our body and soul to the Savior in spite of this fallen world. Living in the kingdom as we continue to walk in pilgrimage in this exile.
“Believe my words.” We are called to understand that Jesus’ words are different than those spoken by prophets and kings. They are equal to the words of God because he is God. One of my students said: “My word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). I replied, “Dear Selena. Your word and my word will not lead us in anything good, but the Word of God, Thy Word, this will lead us through the dark night of our soul”. We had lost the art of memorization. Learning by heart the word of God becomes a beacon of light in our desolate world.
“Be watchful.” The parents go out grocery shopping and they tell the youngest girl, “You will clean your bed and fix your room,” and to the oldest, “You will clean the dishes by the time we come back from the store.” The parents go and arrive at the super-market to discover as they enter the aisle with the ketchup that they had forgotten the coupons at home. The father returns home to find out that both kids are just spending quality time in front of the Gameboy. He looks at them and says: “You better be prepared.” This Gospel comes to us like the Parent returning for the coupons, and finds the kids distracted. And He says: “Better be prepared”.
“Pray.” With one word or many words, but Just Do It. In our tradition, we have “Christ in our Home.” This helpful devotional will lead you day by day during the year with a portion of the scriptures, a reflection and a small prayer. When I was finishing college, I lived in the house of my elderly aunt, Tia Clara. She was Roman Catholic, very active as a catechist. She saw one of those “Christ in our Homes” and she asked to borrow it once; after a week she returned and she complained that it was a long book to pray. I was astonished at her complaint. She explained that it took her two days to finish the whole prayer book. In my aunt’s mind when you start a prayer book, you need to finish it. She finished three months of devotional reading in two days. And she showed me her Trisagion of the Holy Trinity, twelve pages long, fewer than 15 minutes of prayer.
Joachim Jeremias wrote that Jesus was born in a nation who knew how to pray, and he described that Jesus’ prayer life was not different from pious Jewish people of his time. He described a cycle of prayer with fixed prayers and recitation of scripture. We need a way to establish our order of prayer in order to dwell in the presence of God. In a world so saturated with information and Facebook updates, a quiet time to chat with God should be a priority. At least, Jesus’ advice in the gospel is to pray. At the chapter’s end, Jesus does what he is asking us to do: he spends the day in the temple pondering the word of God, and the night in the Mount of the Olives, praying. I guess that Jesus never asked us to do something that he was not able to do himself.
Iglesia San Esteban Martir / St. Stephen’s Church
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I’m considering a boycott of the nightly news. I used to think that it made me a more informed citizen, a better conversationalist, just generally more in touch with the world around me if I watched the news each night and got a recap of the day, but no longer. After decades of nightly news watching here’s what I gather I am to have learned:
today, somewhere, a house burned down and a family is now homeless;
today, somewhere, someone was shot or mugged;
today, somewhere, a war rages on and a parent has just learned that a child will not be coming home.
The cumulative effect of hearing this same story on a nightly basis, I have discovered, is not the creation of a new, more informed, conversant, aware version of myself. No, the effect of all this news is that I become weary, sad, often angry, sometimes frightened, and generally cynical. People are the same everywhere and nothing will ever change. Calling it news is misleading, really. They should call it olds — the same old story.
What makes it worse is that it comes on just as we’re preparing for bed. It’s like a violent lullaby, the news, dulling our hopes and eroding our conviction that this is not how the world was created to be. It’s as though there’s a subliminal message woven into the newscasts that whispers, “give up, give up, give up.” And this is what we go to sleep with, the last voice many of us listen to before we try to rest, try to dream. Is it any wonder then if our sleep is fitful and the visions waiting for us there are troubling?
Having said all that, I fully expect to find myself back in front of the TV watching the nightly news later this week. It’s familiar, and even if it’s not what I want to hear, there’s something comfortable about the predictability of a routine: put in a day of work at the office, come home, fix dinner, do some more work, watch the news, brush my teeth, go to bed. Sleep, rise and repeat. It’s like the good book says in Ecclesiastes, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
Except there is something new about to happen. Something new breaking into the world.
I was eighteen years old the summer after my freshman year of college, and I decided to spend it in Costa Rica. My parents were confused by my decision not to come home. After a year away at school, I think they were looking forward to having me around for a while. Instead I announced that I would be staying with a host family in San José. When my parents asked me why I was doing this I told them that I needed to go somewhere where no one knew me so that I could become myself. A year away from home had given me a chance to spread my wings and I could tell that I was no longer the same kid that had left Des Moines nine months earlier. Trying to imagine a summer at home was like trying to figure out how to cram a size 12 foot into a size 9 shoe. All the familiar places and people and relationships felt threatening to me. “If I come home now,” I told my family, “I’ll just fall back into being the person I used to be — and I need to keep growing right now.” So I went somewhere where I was completely unknown, where I hardly spoke the language, where no one had any expectations of me and by the end of the summer I had come out to myself. I’d just needed the space to become.
Something new is breaking into the world. We are becoming a new creation.
As a season, Advent is like my trip to Costa Rica — except in reverse. During Advent we do not leave in order to find ourselves, instead we wait for God to come and reveal us. Still, a change of scenery is good. It makes us more attentive to the subtle movements of God in our lives and in the world. With the world in such a state of chaos we can sometimes find ourselves retreating to the church, counting on the safety of familiar images and traditions to lure us into a misty nostalgia: memories of our childhoods, of holidays past spent with family. It’s not the violence of the nightly news, but it can have the same effect: it lulls us to sleep by pointing our attention toward the past, the time we remember as “the good old days.”
Advent is not about the good old days, or our most cherished memories. Those things are in the past. As a word “Advent” comes from the Latin, meaning “coming.” “Coming” is not in the past, we have another word for that: “came.” “Coming” is a wonderful word that is both present and future focused. If you call me while I’m in the car, on the way to work, and you ask where I am I’ll say, “I’m coming.” It’s happening, right now. If you invite me to a dinner party next weekend, and you promise me good food, I’ll say, “I’m coming.” It’s a promise, a commitment, something you can count on: “I’m coming.”
By now you’ve noticed, of course, that the sanctuary is pretty bare. The liturgy has been stripped down as well. That is a part of our Advent preparations. Stripping down the worship is like rolling the windows down in your car during a long road trip. It helps us stay awake. “Be on guard,” warns Jesus in the gospel from Luke, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” (Lk 21:34-35a) The trap we too often fall into during Advent is that we think we are the ones making space for God to come. Like we are making a bed for the baby Jesus to lay down his sweet head. We can spiritualize all the silence and the barrenness and interpret them as symbols for the room that we’ve made in our lives for the Lord Jesus to come. But when we do that we’re missing the point.
In addition to its English translation, the word “Advent” is also the direct translation of the Greek word “parousia” which is the word the early church used to refer to the second coming of Christ. That’s the “coming” to which Advent points. That’s the “coming” today’s gospel imagines when Jesus describes “the Son of Man coming in a cloud.” That “coming,” my friends, will happen whether we’re ready or not. We strip down our sanctuary, our songs, our lives – not so that there will be room for God to enter in, but – like a blast of cold air to the face – so that we can “stand up and raise our heads” – so that we can get a better view of the in-breaking reality of God, the redemption that is drawing near. We pull those things out of our worship space that would draw us into looking back so that we can be sure to look forward to the One who is on the way.
Something new is happening. Not only under the sun, but through the Son. We are becoming a new creation. As God comes to us, as God has been throughout all of history, we are coming out as well. We are coming into a new way of being. We are becoming more truly and fully ourselves. As Christ comes into the world, restoring and recreating it, God’s promised reign of justice and righteousness envisioned by the prophet Jeremiah becomes reality. As we come into ourselves, we are able to let go of our hostilities and respond to one another with the kind of holy love that Paul prays the Church will show to one another when he writes,
And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
(1 Thess. 3:12-13)
That new reality has not fully arrived. Not just yet. There is still a strong desire to look backwards, to cling to our hostilities, to be “weighed down with … the worries of this life.” But this Advent we are invited to strip ourselves down, to look and listen for the signs of life that are budding all around us, like leaves on a tree, and to take those signs as evidence of God’s continual coming toward us in love.
St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square
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Do you know what time it is?
One of the things I remember loving most about the Chicago Bulls during their more glorious years in the 1990s was a ritual they did just prior to the game in the hallway leading out to the stadium. They would all gather around in a circle, and put their hands into the middle of the huddle, and one of them would shout, “What time is it?” And the rest would respond, “It’s game time! Huh!” Everyone watching knew after that moment, the Bulls meant serious business. There was no more preparation to do, no more talk, no more waiting. Now was time to put it all out on the floor and hold nothing back. Now was not just game time, it was the “appointed time” when rehearsed possibilities could now become improvised realities.
Today we begin an appointed time in the life of the church, a time to “put it all out on the floor.” Today begins a time of in-between, a time of already and not yet. Today begins the advent of Christ, God’s possibility made real for us.
We know what’s coming at the end of this Advent season: yet another year of gift exchanges, egg nog and mistletoe. So why is it then that the lectionary begins this season with gloom and doom — visions of the end-times?Jesus gives us a vision in Luke’s Gospel that jolts us as we begin the season of Advent.We come today perhaps already looking ahead to the end of this season. But we hear Jesus say, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken…Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place…” (Lk 21:26,36)We’re confused — what timeisit?Do you know what time it is?
It turns out that Advent is not about God breaking into our lives in four weeks’ time. Advent is about “being alert at all times.” It’s about allthe ways that God comes to us — not just at Christmas, but at the end of all time. And by coming at our end, then God’s future promise gives us hope in Christ’s advent here and now, in this season too.Today in painting a picture of the end times, God is breaking in and breaking open our time, and turning our time…into God’s time. Today we begin the first Sunday of the church year at the end of time. We’ve skipped to the end of the story before even starting. But God knows that we need this assurance, this promise, in order to for us to let go and trust that if Christ will reign with us at the end of time, then surely he can break in and become real in our present time, too.
In so many ways we’re told that the end times are something to be afraid of. Back in 1999, many were wondering if the world would end, if the apocalypse would come, if computers would crash and planes would fall out of the sky. Today belief in the so-called “rapture” continues to thrive, depicting the end of the world coming through violence and destruction. These visions of fear could turn us in on ourselves, and even worse, make us believe that time is not on our side.
But Jesus depicts a much different future time. There’s plenty of uncertainty and fear — distress among nations, people fainting, the heavens shaking. But it is also a time when Jesus’ presence endures: he comes with clouds descending, and his words do not die. Jesus’ faithfulness in the end-times forces us to change the question we ask ourselves at the beginning of this Advent season. Because Jesus holds our future, no longer do we ask “what time is it?” but we ask “whose time is it?”This advent time is God’s time to come to us anew. As we live in the hope of God’s future promise, Christ promises to come to us right here and now. God is on the move, bringing an Advent apocalypse, not of fear or despair, but an apocalypse of appearing, of dawning, of hope.
So many things already tell us that Jesus has already come, that December 25this already here. Today’s gospel promise that Christ will stand with us in the end changes us, and wakes us up to see his advent today. How will Christ show up between now and Christmas? That’s up to God. But we can “be alert at all times,” because God promises that there is no time when Christ can’t appear.
As yesterday was December 1st, World AIDS Day, we stand with our brothers and sisters who are ill. As Advent begins we proclaim God’s hope that there will be a future-time in the world where this disease that affects more than 34 million people will no longer reap such devastation.We do not have control over exactly when that day may be, but we will keep hope alive, because God does not sit by and watch this devastation happen.The advent of Christ comes now to stand with the afflicted, to bathe our present-time of suffering in the future-time hope that this is not all there is, this is not how it has to be. The ELCA, even in this time of such disease, has said we are not on AIDS’ time; we are on God’s time, and God’s time has time for hope, for healing, for prevention and for solidarity with all who carry this disease. In 2009 the ELCA committed to funding a three-year $10 million dollar strategy towards global AIDS and malaria reliefas a way of saying we want to witness to God’s advent-time, where “hearts are not weighed down…” (Luke 21:34); where God strengthens our hearts in holiness and blamelessness (1Th 3:13) as we walk with our stigmatized and sick brothers and sisters.
“What time is it?”It is a time when we look to the apocalypses happening all around us — the visions of God in action in the world.Advent is a time to watch for God moving to bring healing and reconciliation to all things.It is time to hope in God who is Emmanuel, Christ with us, with us whatever may come. It is time to watch, to “stand up and raise [our]heads, for [our] redemption is drawing near.” (Lk 21:28)
Advent: it is a time not to forget whose time it is.It is God’s time. In God’s time, God will initiate, God will speak. The words of our worship — “Christ will come again” and “your kingdom come” — will renew our trust that yes, Christ is with us. He will speak to us that we are not bound to the suffering of our present age, but free to live in hope that we live on God’s time, a time in which a new age can begin taking shape through us.
Do you know whose time it is? It’s Jesus’ time. Let’s huddle up, and then head out onto his court. The clock’s about to start, and he’s ready to appear.
Pastor of Faith Formation
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
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It’s beginning, the arrival, waiting for something else. Advent, washed in blue and candle-light, is the beginning of our expectation. That’s what the word means: the beginning of the church year. And even though our calendar of time says it’s yet a few weeks off, all the signs of newness in time are arriving, too. The table will be set for a meal, the candles are being lit, and our songs have us looking and listening for the guest of honor. So lift up your heads, attune your senses, reach out your hands for an embrace because our New Year is upon us…
So why does it seem so… uncertain, so shaky, this coming of a new year, this looking for something to begin? Why all this talk of sun and moon and earth and stars in distress, and signs of foreboding, and heaven and earth passing away? We’ve had enough of that in the grip of November, with its end-time texts; we’ve heard enough on that, with the signs and the birth-pangs… Why is Advent so resisting my Christmas and New Year’s merrymaking?
Advent is not about ignoring Christmas. After all, this labor has a delivery. We are indeed looking for the incarnation, the birth of God in human flesh, the divine being made known to us in intimacy of flesh and bone. And so in Advent, we do wait for that. And we prepare. In the next few weeks we will greet with a New-Year’s embrace some old friends: angels and shepherds, John the baptizer, young Mary and her fianc&#eacute; Joseph. The story gets more and more familiar, more and more comfortable, more and more like what we are waiting for as the sun rises on this new year and light burns more brightly and more hopefully…
But this morning, this first day, the warmth and light of the coming Christ are still but a distant hope. Jeremiah prophesies that when the Messiah comes, the city will BE, not just know, “the Lord is [its] righteousness.” Paul gives thanks for a burgeoning little flock in Greece looking from the middle of the first century for the signs that these things are happening, that this world is passing away in its sleep. And he rejoices with them, and us, in this hope.
But specter lurks in all this warming expectation. Like December for most of us in this day and age, amidst all the joyful preparation, flashes of something else… that panicky feeling that no matter how much we buy, it will never create in us a Season’s Greeting or a Happy Holiday… that moment of terror that turning up the Christmas tunes will not cover the din of a world in crisis being reported on the next station over… that sinking sadness that tidings of comfort and joy seem to be better suited to someone else’s life…
In Tony Kushner’s epic, sweeping, blunt, and sometimes uncomfortable play “Angels in America,” he is exploring life at the end of the millenium in a New York City in the grip of the AIDS crisis, still not well understood in its deadly sweep. Before the hope of wonder-drugs and long lives after diagnosis, he captures the panic among gay men and the women in their lives, and digs deep into the religious landscape of an America not well suited to handle what is happening. As yesterday, Dec. 1 was World AIDS Day, we remember that although this disease has become — gratefully for some, but sadly not always — something that can be lived with here, people across the globe are still suffering and dying needlessly for lack of education, access to treatment, medication, and the social frameworks that would prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS.
And so early on in Kushner’s long play, a depressed but spiritually awakening woman, Harper, reflects on her absent husband, her hopelessness at a life that did not follow the pattern she was taught to expect as a woman observant of her strict religious tradition, and is reading the signs. She observes to and of her husband:
People who are lonely, people who are left alone, sit talking nonsense to the air, imagining… beautiful systems dying, old fixed orders falling apart…
When you look at the ozone layer, from outside, from a spaceship, it looks like a pale blue halo, a gentle, shimmering aureole encircling the atmosphere encircling the earth. Thirty miles over our heads, a thin layer of three-atom oxygen molecules, a product of photosynthesis, which explains the fussy vegetable preference for visible light, its rejection of darker rays and emanations. Danger from without. It’s a kind of gift, from God, the crowning touch to the creation of the world: guardian angels, hands linked, make a spherical net, a blue-green nesting orb, a shell of safety for life itself. But everywhere, things are collapsing, lies surfacing, systems of defense giving way… this is why, Joe, this is why I shouldn’t be left alone.*
Sounds more than a little like Luke’s gospel to me… Because Luke and much later Kushner are both tapping into a reality we avoid in Advent to our own self-deception: we, and this world, are broken. We long, we wait, and even, and maybe because things crumble, we dare to hope. Sometimes Advent is called a little Lent, and I can understand why, but it is something else entirely also: Advent acknowledges that new life cannot begin without something else passing away. That a new branch cannot spring from the root until the old tree has withered and been cut or come crashing down. That the earth, blessed in every cell and molecule to live, has a life cycle, and no amount of denial or head-burying can change the fact that we, human creatures, effect that cycle with our own.
Advent is not the season to build up our powers of denial so we can “ENJOY” a postcard Christmas that has been purged of reality and real hope at the same time. Advent is not some psychotic consumathon to numb and dull every pang of acknowledgement about how the world really is. You can’t drown it in booze, shower it in pills, spend your way through, or cover it with enough pretty decorations to make it go away: that knowledge of dying systems, of sun and moon and stars, of heaven and earth even right now, in this generation, passing away by our own hands.
Advent is to acknowledge what is dying around and in us, and to, in the midst of it, be reborn in strength to stand before God. Because of the one who is born in Bethlehem, who will live, die, and rise on this blue-green orb, who will call to himself all things. And our things. Rise up, look, listen, light one candle… prepare. It’s a start, and we are not left alone. Prepare for something new to grow in your most barren and desolate place. Prepare by stopping, by being in the reality of a world that is passing away. As incarnation comes to Mary’s womb, so Jesus comes to us in baptism, and we are filled with his new life, his unexpected incarnation, his new in the midst of old. We are empowered, even quietly, to spread life amongst the ashes. To lift up those left behind. To live with purpose that has nothing to do the consuming.
Rather, we are consumed by God’s love, and are created anew. The Lord is our Righteousness. Something – someone being born. Living. Dying. Rising. In this generation…
*From Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches. Act 1: Bad News, scene 3, by Tony Kushner. Copyright 1992, Tony Kushner.
Ebenezer Lutheran Church
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This sermon was delivered December 3, 2006 (Advent 1, Year C) at St. Andrew’s/Lutheran Campus Center, University of Illinois, Champaign
[Giant bare magnolia branch — just cut a couple of days earlier! — on the carpeting in the chancel. Blinds on west windows open so people can see the trees outside.]
Why did Christ have to tell his friends to be alert? Because it was finals week, and he knew they were all sleep-deprived.
Why did he have to warn them to be on guard against dissipation and drunkenness and the corrosive effects of worry? Because they were on a university campus, and he knew the temptations all too well.
But seriously, folks: why do we have a passage telling us about “summer” already being near just as we’re bundling up against the winter frost?
And as we set out to begin a new church year, why is our gospel passage all about the end of all things?
Sun, moon, and stars…shaken heavens…roaring seas…fainting people…distress among nations….
Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by the Romans — and, we believe, raised by God — around the year 30. Forty years later, following a couple of generations of what the Romans might have called “insurgency,” the Romans finally put an end to the various attempts by Jewish warriors to win independence.
In the year 70, the Romans came in and utterly destroyed the city of Jerusalem. Flattened it to the ground. Drove away forever all the people they couldn’t kill.
Our gospel passage comes from a good dozen years later — we think, the mid 80s. Our passage is written to a community of Christians whose hearts are weighed down; who aren’t sure, any more, what to think or to believe.
Jesus said he would return, but there sure don’t seem to be any signs of it. Roman brutality certainly had the last word in Judea. “What’s the point of trusting God?” “Was the violent end of our holy city the end of the world, and the end of our hope?”
And so our passage has Jesus taking on these very questions.
“Be on guard” so that your life isn’t taken over by self-medication or fear. “Be alert,” he says.
Well, when is it that you and I stop being alert? When do we zone out, with or without an alcoholic assist? When is it that we try to escape from pain in ways that destroy our life?
Well, we stop caring, we stop trying, when we’ve given up hope. When the darkness of the night, when the wintry cold of the grave, seem to be the only reality there is.
And so Jesus does a very odd thing here: he distracts us from our hopelessness by capturing our attention: “Look at the trees!” he says.
Not just the fig tree, symbol of the Israelites, but all the trees, standing for all the nations.
Look at the trees! When they lose their leaves and stand bare against the sky, you know that winter is on the way. When people start bringing evergreen trees indoors and decorate them with sparkly things, you know Christmas is coming. Well, he doesn’t actually say that; but it amounts to the same thing.
Look at the trees! Once they sprout leaves, you know what that means: summer is near.
Look at the trees! You know how to look at the world around you and figure it out. You can do this.
Look at the trees in the books of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah: in today’s reading: The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made… I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David… [Jeremiah 33:14 – 15]
A righteous branch: that’s wordplay on the name of the king, Zedekiah — tzedekah, righteousness — tzede-kiah. Far be it from me to “drag politics into the pulpit”… but it would be as though we were to do a little wordplay with the possibilities of God speaking through a flaming “Bush.”
A righteous branch from the house of King David: echoes of Isaiah, chapter 11: A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse (that’s King David’s father); A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. [Isaiah 11:1]
A righteous branch. A shoot from the stump.
In the ancient world, monarchy was envisioned as a great and noble tree. A stump is what’s left of a tree after it’s been chopped down by an axe or felled in a storm. A stump is a sign of life abruptly destroyed.
And so, the shoot sprouting from the stump, the branch pushing its way up through the soil from the tree’s roots, is a sign of life growing out of the ruins. God’s gift, amazingly, unaccountably, persisting — in spite of all the human and natural forces that seek to kill.
Look at the trees! Jesus says. Not only the noble cedars and oaks, but the little signs of life like the tender shoots, the righteous branch. Not just the forest, but the trees; not just the trees, but the little tiny signs of growth — signs of hope.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. [Isaiah 11:10]
In today’s gospel passage, Jesus is telling his friends that there will not be any one particular sign of the end of the world. The destruction of Jerusalem was indeed horrifying, but it was not to be the end of all things.
There won’t be any one particular thing you can point to. No; it will be a whole constellation of things. But, you know what? You’ll be able to tell. Trust me on this. Just as you know where we are in the year by watching what’s happening with the trees; you’ll know.
(Now, maybe with finals approaching it doesn’t feel like you “know” much of anything — but, really, you do!)
And if and when you see all this stuff happening, what should you do? Stand up! Raise your heads! Don’t cocoon — but rise to greet the one who is coming.
Yes; pray to escape harm; but take courage: the end of things as you’ve known them is the beginning. What seems like all hell breaking loose is the start of the new creation, when God will rule all in all.
Stand up! Raise your heads! Your redemption draws near.
Stay sober. Don’t worry. Look at the trees. Stand up!
Where do we get the strength and hope to stay sober, not worry, look at the trees, and stand up?
From our relationship with the one who fulfills all promises: who is and was and is to come; the one who is coming at the end of time on the clouds of heaven; who has already come, in Bethlehem of Judea, and already dwells in us; whose Spirit has been poured into our hearts; into whom we have been baptized.
Our readings today call us to look at the trees, the branches, even the stumps. To look at the chopped up, devastated places in our own lives — our own failures and ruins — and learn to recognize the signs of God’s presence in us and among us already; God creating something new — like the little shoots of life sprouting up from the roots.
Carmina Gadelica means “Songs of the Gaelic People.” It’s a collection of ancient Celtic songs and prayers. This is one of them:
in my deeds,
in my words,
in my wishes,
in my sleep,
in my thoughts,
in my heart and soul always,
may the promised branch of glory dwell.
in my heart
and soul always,
may the fragrant
branch of glory dwell.
[Greeting card — CA 5006, The Printery House]
Christ the Mediator Lutheran Church
I read all seven sermons at one sitting. They all relate the Advent 1 texts to contemporary contexts. Some start with a context (personal, social) and move to the readings. Others began with the liturgical context, in which the readings are a part, and move to contemporary contexts. I pondered which direction I liked better. I think beginning with what we have been doing in the liturgy, and the readings we have just heard, makes the sermon more a part of the liturgy; it is less jarring. The jarring comes with what the sermons lead us to consider. It’s kind of a replication in the sermon of the whole direction of the liturgy itself – from being gathered as the church into the divine presence to being scattered into the world in ministry. I like that pattern in the sermon.
Frank C. Senn
I so appreciate having these sermons and commentaries! During my Bible study with campus ministry students on these texts, one of the students noted the phrase “and all the trees” as an expansion of God’s care beyond the original chosen nation. Another student, who is from Palestine, noted that the fig tree is always the first to bud in the spring, which adds another element of meaning to Jesus’ words. I happily pointed both of these students toward Julie Ryan’s sermon to read more about the fig tree symbolism.
As I was sitting in church last Sunday (Advent I) listening to another good sermon on these texts that also bid us to “look at the trees,” my husband leaned over and whispered, “But what about when the trees sprout leaves out of season? when nature no longer tells a sure word about what’s coming?” He’s worried about climate change, about the usefulness of signs, about nature’s brokenness and our culpability. In light of these questions, which I have continued to ponder, I appreciated Rev. Ryan’s use of the tree imagery in her sermon, bidding us to look for signs of hope that come from beyond us.
That’s what I listen for in a sermon–a word that proclaims God’s activity, even now, even here, even in these broken signs and seasons. I listen for a word that, as Robert Saler wrote, cannot be domesticated. I listen for a word of hope strong enough to offend my own fierce clinging to fallen human reason.
Many thanks to each of the preachers and authors for breaking open these texts, helping me to hear this good word.
Mary Emily Duba