Sunday, December 2, 2018. Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36
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Advent is a four-week season of preparation and anticipation. It is a time to get ready for the coming of Jesus, which means first that we each must become consciously aware of how much we need Jesus. Because if we don’t think we really need Jesus, then the coming of Jesus will not be a big deal at all.
The logic of the Christian liturgical year is helpful here. The liturgical year teaches us that God pours out the Holy Spirit on the church at Pentecost. From Pentecost forward – the largest part of the liturgical year – the church works in the power of the Holy Spirit – doing all of the things that you all do: serving the poor, teaching children, providing for a safe, secure, functioning world, loving our neighbors, working for the reconciliation of our communities, standing up for what is right and what is just, building the Beloved Community, one relationship at a time. That is what you have been doing since Pentecost.
But when we reach the season of Advent, we look around us, and we notice that – despite our best efforts, despite our prayerful attempts to heal our neighborhoods, despite our thoughtful work to bring about justice, peace, and reconciliation – even though we have been working diligently and hard at those things, our world is still a mess. This would seem to be an empirically verifiable fact. Polarization is deep and hostile, we cannot agree on how to respond to the situations of immigrants and refugees, we cannot agree on how to respond to the ecological crisis, the opioid crisis deepens and grows, the Center for Disease Control reported last week that life-expectancy in the US declined for the 3rd straight year, in large part due to an increase in the number of suicides and drug overdose. The list goes on and on. We need help.
And so when we come to Advent, there is a real sense in which we have come to the end of our ropes, and we need God’s help. That is why we sing the hauntingly beautiful tones of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” That is why we sing, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus, come and set thy people free, from our fears and sins release us, set our hearts at liberty.” During Advent, we do not shy away from the recognition that we live in a troubled world. In the language of our gospel lesson today, “there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, on the earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” It is as though the gospel reading is reaching for exaggerated language to describe the extent of the turmoil and pain that is around us and within us.
But we may notice that our texts today from Jeremiah and Luke, though they face the hard realities of the world, are shot through with hopeful energy. Jesus tells his followers that they should respond differently to these things than the rest of society does. Other people, Jesus says, “will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” When things are coming unraveled, the people around you may be freaking out, thinking that there is no hope. And when people have no hope, we can become incredibly fearful and very mean.
But Jesus tells his followers, “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Jeremiah says the same thing in a little different way: “The days are surely coming” – surely coming – when I will fulfill the promise I made to Israel and to Judah.” “I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
The intellectual and spiritual challenge of Advent is that the Christian faith is what some scholars refer to as an “already, not yet” faith. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has already accomplished everything that is needed for our redemption. It is done. Easter has happened. The power of death has already been swallowed up by the mercy of God. So we do not need to be afraid. But that victory is not yet evident everywhere, and so the powers of fear and death still rage and try to have their dreadful way with us. So we still need to work and struggle and serve. It is already done, but not yet fully evident.
Our dualistic, either-or, black-and-white minds usually want it to be one or the other. Has it already happened? Or not yet? Has Jesus defeated the powers of death? Or is the battle still going on? Which is it?
Advent teaches us that our redemption in God has a past, a present, and a future aspect. During Advent we are preparing to give thanks for the way that Christ came 2000 years ago, as a vulnerable little child in a world bent on violence. During Advent we are preparing to welcome Christ into our lives right now, to heal us, guide us, and show us the way. And during Advent we are preparing ourselves for the day of final consummation when Christ will come again in final victory, to set all things right, to bring about the Beloved Community of shalom and peace and justice and reconciliation for all of creation. That day is surely coming. To God and to God alone be all the glory. Amen.