It occurred to me that this lectionary passage from Luke is probably being read in churches all over the northeast coast this morning. It must be eerie for those who were victims of Hurricane Sandy. The sea and the waves indeed roared one month ago. Fear and foreboding, as Jesus indicated, were certainly the experience of the thousands affected by the largest storm in the Atlantic’s history. We can also understand why for two millennia various communities of zealous Christians were convinced at one time or another that the signs for end were upon us, and that Christ’s return was immanent.
Reading the dark texts on the first Sunday of Advent is always jarring. What a strange way to begin the season of celebrating the birth of Jesus. These are certainly not children’s stories.
Advent stands in stark contrast to the way our cheery culture anticipates the coming of Christmas. Consumerism puts monetary values on happiness. Getting our shopping finished becomes our biggest anxiety. My email Inbox was filled with Black Friday and Cyber Monday specials, as I am sure yours were too. The 5 pm news has given its daily update on whether we are buying enough stuff-we-don’t-need in order to keep our economic system rolling along.
Advent is about courageously facing the darkness of life.
This week’s newspaper headlines were a testimony to the kind of darkness we face: A toddler’s life was taken by his young mother; an escalating international crisis over Syria continues; Egyptian citizens continue to protest in Cairo; Israel approved thousands of new settlements in the West Bank in retaliation over the U.N.’s recognition of Palestine as an observing state; there was a deadly police car chase Friday night; the Earth is currently releasing unimaginable amounts of methane in the Arctic, and the permafrost is melting in Alaska more rapidly than climatologists expected.
Advent is about waiting patiently for the world to be redeemed. The season for us begins with sharp words exhorting us to stay alert, to watch, and to wait with patience for God to come into the dark places.
The late Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen, said this, “Waiting for God is an active, alert, joyful-waiting. Waiting patiently is not like waiting for a bus to come, the rain to stop, or the sun to rise. It is an active waiting in which we live the present moment to the full in order to find there the sign of the One we are waiting for. It takes Patience, and the Latin verb for patience means ‘to suffer.'”
Advent calls us to take seriously our deepest longing, our most profound yearning, to wait for God to come into our lives to set us free from the crazy world we’ve created, and in which we now suffer the consequences. In the time of Jeremiah, the people longed to be set free from the consequences of their own un-just behavior.
It’s a challenge, is it not, to live between the values the world, and the life God offers us that will give us deeper meaning? We know-in here– that we are not meant to live like slaves to the values of overconsumption and immediate-gratification. That’s why at the beginning of Advent we sing, “Come, O Come Immanuel. Ransom captive Israel.”
Luke wrote his account of the gospel to the small community of believers in the first century who were being persecuted for their new faith. The words of Jesus exhorting his disciples to remain strong gave hope to the persecuted that they would be saved from their temporary afflictions.
What are the signs of Christ’s coming that Luke speaks about?
First, when you feel the tectonic plates of your life shifting, God is near.
Life will not feel stable, consistent or predictable. All things will be shaken up! There will be signs in the sun, moon, stars, and on the earth itself, Jesus said. When God’s reign is upon us, we won’t miss the signs! God’s coming and the shaking up of humanity are somehow connected.
The shaking of the foundations of our lives might be what it takes to open us up to the coming of God. The foundations we build our lives upon that seem so essential to our sense of security- such as our military capability, personal success, wealth, beauty, good health, the right colleges-all of these false foundations can crumble when we begin to see life through God’s eyes. A relationship with Christ can turn one’s understanding of the world upside down. Christ’s coming into our lives should shake us to the very core because then it makes it easier for us to loosen our grip on what we’ve been clinging to.
Second, when you see signs of hope, God is near.
Jesus says in the midst of what might feel like an uncertain future, Do not be filled with anxiety. Hold your head up and be strong. Do not be afraid. Hope in God.
We frequently use the words hope and joy during Christmas. Those two words get inscribed on Hallmark cards. But hope and joy are not to be mistaken for happiness. Hope is borne out of the experience of going through a dark tunnel in one’s life and making it through to the other side. Joy is being alive to the fullness of the present moment.
20th century theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, wrote about Christian hope:
“I tried to present the Christian hope no longer as such an ‘opium of the beyond’
but rather as the divine power that makes us alive in this world.”
I’ve heard many people say that it was actually right in the middle of their darkest time, facing their deepest pain, that they felt God’s presence as near to them as their own breath. Hope springs forth in unexpected moments but be certain that God is near.
Third, when you see signs of new life, God is near.
Jesus used the example of the fig tree and its green leaves as a metaphor for the signs of new life. When you see green shoots from what looks like a dead branch, you know that summer is near. Wait and watch for the signs of new life!
We lost a dear friend twelve years ago from an undetected congenital heart defect. She died suddenly at the kitchen table on the eve of her 33rd birthday. Her partner understandably was overwhelmed with the grief that ensued. She wore her grief like shackles and for so long that she feared it would cripple her life. She said though that one morning she got out of bed, and, unexplainably, she knew the cloud had lifted, just a little. The curtain had been pulled back a wee bit. The shadow of grief was not as encompassing as it was the day before. Life was returning to her.
Those who know about grief work or depression and the healing process speak about this experience in similar ways. Clearly, there is no formula for one’s own healing timetable. Martin Buber, 20th century Jewish theologian: “Everyone must come out of his Exile in his own way.”
Signs of new life will emerge and God will be near.
Finally, when you see the work of justice being done, God is near.
In this congregation alone the signs of God’s nearness are made visible through your compassion and your work for justice. Here are SOME examples of the work you are doing: addressing issues around climate change and the need for renewable energies; for the many faces of poverty; for people who are without homes and are hungry; for equitable education for all children; for health care for all; for the healing of bodies and spirits; for the fair inclusion of GLBT persons; for those who suffer with mental illness; for the work against racism; for full equality for women; for Fair Trade for farmers in the southern hemisphere; for ending wars; for the care for soldiers and their families; for those who their live in prisons; for food justice and nutritional education; for bringing beauty and joy into our world through creativity and the arts-and I could go on and on. These are all extraordinary signs of God’s compassion for our world and its people. God is near.
Are we ready to recognize the signs of the coming of God into our lives?
Is there space inside of us for the Christ to enter in?
Advent is our time to stay alert to where God might show up. God came in the most shocking form– and to some of the strangest people. There are signs everywhere of God’s immanent nearness, if we are paying attention. Raise your heads. Stand tall. Watch, and do not be afraid. The Holy One has come, is with us here, and will come again.