03 December 2006

advent sunday sermon

Texts: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Psalm 50:1-6, Luke 21:25-31

I don’t have many memories of Advent from my childhood. I can remember preparing for Christmas, but it didn’t have much to do with God. We would spend hours during the weeks before on decorating the house, putting up a tree and loading it down with ornaments. Advent was just how we got to Christmas, where the good stuff happened.

In actuality, Advent is a season of preparation, in which we anticipate not only the birth of Jesus, but also – and more importantly – the expected coming of Christ and the kingdom of God. Advent is how we get to the ‘good news.’ We already know the story of Jesus of Nazareth and the course of his life, ministry, and death. But we are also watching and waiting for the story that is yet unfolding. The story of Jesus’ journey from humble beginnings to Easter morning is only the opening salvo. God isn’t through with us, and that is what Jesus tells us in the reading from the gospel of Luke.

Jesus tells of the signs in the cosmos and of the distress of the earth that would portend the coming of the Son of Man. He is speaking of an event so momentous that both the physical and social worlds react. But catastrophic events were not a distant possibility for the early Christian community. At the time when the gospels were being written, catastrophe was a present reality. The Roman armies held siege to Jerusalem, surrounding the city with three legions on the west and another to the east. After six months, they had seized Jerusalem, destroyed the city, burned the Temple, and decimated the Jewish population.

The apocalyptic passages in Luke were good news to the followers of Jesus, then and now. They speak to the teleos – the end – that the world is moving inexorably toward, and this end is the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not a physical territory in the way we think of kingdoms. It does not have a geographic location with boundaries, a flag, coat of arms and currency. It is, instead, a radical experience of the world in which God lies at the center. Because of this radical reorientation, we are brought into right relationship with one another, with the world, and with God.

The kingdom of God is already inaugurated, brought into being at the incarnation of Christ in Jesus. It is already among us, but it is also not yet fully realized. The signs in the stars and moon and in the very earth itself were a way of knowing that the end was in sight. At the same time, Jesus warns us of the limitations of our knowledge, for ‘about that day and hour no one knows’ (Matthew 24:36). No one knows what the future holds. We can look for signs and watch carefully to discern what might lie ahead, but we should always be prepared.

There is a danger, though, in imagining that one day – perhaps far off, or perhaps tomorrow – God will swoop in and bring the world to an end. The temptation is to let go of attachments to this world and just wait for the beginning of the end. The temptation is to wait, passively, for God to show up and make everything new. That is not what Jesus asks of us.

Instead, we are called to watch, attentive to the signs and promises of hope, without neglecting the troubles of the world. We are called to live as citizens of God’s kingdom, not in a distant, imagined future, but here and now. We are called to be disciples.

For Luke, one is not a disciple alone. Discipleship means living in community in a manner consistent with God’s intentions for human kind. Discipleship is a way of life that isn’t limited an hour on Sunday or a personal, private relationship with God. It is deeply transformative and affects every aspect of life.

Discipleship is fundamentally relational: love for one another is the hallmark of Jesus’s disciples (John 13:35). It is this vision for the community of Christ that lies at the heart of Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians: ‘may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all’ (1 Thessalonians 3:12).

We respond to the call of Jesus Christ, in the same way that the cosmos and the physical world respond to the coming of Christ: it affects our very being, it is not easy, it is both a burden and a great joy.

These apocalyptic texts envision what Creation's true end is, what God intends for this world: the redemption for which the world groans is found in Jesus Christ, not simply in the events of his birth, but also in his anticipated return.

But in preparing for the full realization of the kingdom of God, we cannot forget our obligations to one another. We are the people of God, whose intentions for the world were shown forth in life of Jesus Christ. We are participants in God’s kingdom, not tomorrow, not in the day and hour that are yet to come, but today. How might we answer the call to discipleship today? What does the Lord require of us, ‘but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God?’ (Micah 6:8)

When we are consumed by the desperate circumstances of the world – the enormous disasters and the commonplace travesties – Jesus prompts us to think of the fig tree. The fig tree is among the last to bloom in Palestine. Its blooming serves to remind us that the end is near, that there is an abiding hope for a future in which God brings all things into harmony with one another and with their creator, that the hour of redemption is at hand.

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief.
Do justice, now.
Love mercy, now.
Walk humbly, now.
You are not obligated to complete the work,
but neither are you free to abandon it.” (The Talmud)

We are an integral and essential part of what God is up to in the world. In Advent we remember that God enters the world in unexpected and wonderful ways in order to bring creation to its fulfillment. We are not free to abandon the work of the kingdom, but we know that its completion lies in the hands of God.