Jeremiah 33:14-16, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-26
On Halloween, I walked into a drugstore and noticed little drummer boys marking the edge of each aisle. It had started. Was I surprised? Not exactly—I’ve heard people say that each new commercial holiday scheme is rolled out immediately after the last one ends (if not before). But it was definitely strange to see it beginning as trick-or-treaters were still tramping about at that very moment.
Drugstores, grocery stores, and departments stores have been at preparing for quite some time, but we—as a church—are officially starting our preparation towards Christmas today. As you heard earlier, this is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent, comes from a Latin word which means coming or arrival. Historically, it’s been seen in the church calendar as a season of preparation for the coming of Jesus at Christmas.
If you look around on TV, in stores or online, the idea of preparation is everywhere: getting ready for Christmas through shopping and gift-buying, eating, and celebrating with family. ‘Tis the season of shopping, lots of food, and a really big credit card bill at the end. Our culture tells us we have a month of buying and celebrating from Thanksgiving to Christmas, but that message doesn’t match with what we see in our Lectionary passages today. Advent, we know in theory, isn’t really about presents. But Advent is also not about rejoicing. Christmas is a time to rejoice and feast and celebrate, for sure, but we aren’t there yet. We’re in Advent.
In our gospel passage this week, we see chaos and terror. The Message bible paraphrases Luke this way: “It will seem like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all around the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking” (The Message, Luke 21:25-26). This clearly isn’t angels or shepherds or joy to the world. If Advent is not about rejoicing, what is the message of Advent?
Advent is about recognizing our world’s brokenness and longing for God’s intervention. It’s about seeing the violence and terror and hopelessness in this world, and looking to Jesus’ coming for hope. What do today’s Scriptures have to teach us? Though the world might be overcome by fear, Christians are called not fall prey to fear and terror. Jesus instructs his disciples to fight fear with hope, saying, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (NRSV, Luke 21:28).
Why a Messiah?
This year, two countries dear to my heart held elections: Nigeria and Canada. In both of them, many people were unhappy with the ruling party and the trajectory being set for each country. People longed for new leaders to bring the country in another direction. So the ruling parties were kicked out: each country has a completely new government that, at least in word, is seeking to make a break from the recent past. I’m watching hopefully: in Nigeria, I’m hoping to see less corruption and more peace between Christians and Muslims; in Canada, I’m hoping for better care for the environment and more justice for indigenous peoples (Native North Americans).
When we read the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament, we see a similar longing for a new leader. But the people of Israel weren’t just waiting for a new political leader to give them a fresh start. They were waiting for a Messiah, an anointed person sent from God. This leader would rule in righteousness and lead the people to worship Yahweh in peace. Today’s Old Testament passage illustrates this Messianic hope, with Jeremiah prophesying about a Branch from David’s family line, a ruler who would deliver Judah and allow the people of Jerusalem to live in safety.
After experiencing judgment and exile, the people of Israel had returned to the land, only to be overrun a few years later by the Roman Empire. When we think about the setting for the first Advent, we shouldn’t picture a happy country. There was a foreign army occupying Israel, militants causing havoc, massive social inequality, and general uncertainty about the place of God’s people in the world: this was the first Advent.
I say first Advent because the season of Advent has a dual purpose: to reflect on Israel’s longing for a Messiah and its fulfillment in Jesus, Immanuel; and to look ahead to the second Advent, when Jesus will come again. Advent is a bit strange because we look at texts that talk about the Jesus’ first coming and we also read texts with Jesus describing about what is to come. Forwards and backwards and present: expectation then that speaks to our expectation now, of Jesus coming once, and of Jesus coming once again, finally ridding our world of violence and fear and hatred and pain.
Fear is everywhere: U.S. politicians are telling us that we should be afraid of certain people; Daesh or ISIS also want us to be afraid to live here in Washington, DC. When I read our Luke passage this week, I couldn’t help but think about our present context, where it seems like terror and fear are pervasive, overrunning the world.
Our gospel text in Luke is set at the tail end of Jesus’ ministry. We are just a few verses away from the last supper, the trials, and the crucifixion. Jesus is trying to teach his disciples about what is to come next. He says to the disciples, “It will be like the world is ending and the earth is being ripped apart. Chaos and fear will reign; people will be terrorized. Then, the Son of Man will appear. So when you see all of this, stand up and raise your heads because God’s redemption has come” (paraphrase, 25-28). The disciples are instructed not to be afraid, even though everyone else will be afraid. They are to stand up without fear because of their hope that Jesus will return and reign as the righteous ruler, making things whole and bringing peace.
Jesus continues on and tells his disciples a parable about fig trees. In the Middle East, the fig trees were the first to get their leaves. You really knew that summer was at hand when the fig trees had leaves—everything else would follow in green and springing to full life. The disciples were to pay attention to the fig trees, to be alert, observing the state of the world around them and looking forward to the future hope of Jesus’ reign. “When you see these things taking place,” Jesus says, “you know that the kingdom of God is near. God will not abandon humanity without bringing it fully to redemption.” Though the signs may say the world is overrun in terror and chaos, followers of Jesus are called to choose hope instead of despair and fear.
Choosing hope over despair
This past week, Nate returned from Israel and Palestine. Since we were both traveling and not together, his trip came up a lot in my conversations with people. When I was speaking with a new acquaintance in Puerto Rico, our conversation moved from Christian Peacemaker Teams to terrorism and to the conflict between Israel and Palestine (all light conversation topics). My new acquaintance said to me, “I don’t think that the Israel/Palestine conflict will ever be solved. What each side has done to the other, killing children or parents. It’s not going to happen.” I told him that I understood, but I couldn’t agree.
I’ve studied a fair bit about trauma, conflict, and cycles of violence, so I agree that there are significant hurdles and wounds to overcome. There so many entangled factors: power and land mixed with religious beliefs and ideology, combined with prejudice, violence, geopolitics, and genocide. And yet—as a Christian, I can’t say it won’t ever be solved. I can’t despair.
We proclaim faith in a Messiah who healed the sick, cared for the poor, embraced the outcast, and who was crucified and raised from the dead in that very land. As followers of Jesus, we proclaim a King who is just and righteous and who is our peace, bringing together Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, into one body in the church. So while things look so bleak in Israel and Palestine, while stabbings and barrier walls and shootings and checkpoints and rockets all bring fear and hopelessness, I look to the One who is God with us and trust that in Him, there will be peace. Peace in the Holy Land might only come during that 2nd Advent, but God has called us to reject hopelessness and fear. “Stand up, raise your heads,” Jesus said.
Armed with Hope and Love to Fight Hate and Fear
As all of you know, our city is on higher alert than normal. My recent trips through Union Station have involved the sight of several heavily armed security guards, with big assault weapons ready. On Wednesday, I went for a run on the Mall and saw new guards walking through the Lincoln Memorial and a plain clothes policeman “casually” walking a German Shepherd near the reflecting pool (his earbud gave him away, along with some small official writing on the dog’s harness). Security is heightened and they’re watching for signs.
Thinking back to our gospel passage, it’s a passage where some people get stuck on the signs and their timing. Jesus is talking about signs of the end: what applied to the first century? What applies now? How can we know when the end is? While Jesus talks about signs, his exhortation really emphasizes two things: 1) hope; and 2) readiness to act for the Kingdom of God.
Jesus says, “everyone is going to be terrified! When that happens, stand up, raise your heads… be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (vv. 28, 34-36). Stand up, raise your heads, Jesus says. Don’t be so consumed with yourself. Be alert, be on guard.
What does alertness look like for the church? I see this passage speaking to the climate of fear and discrimination around refugees, people of Arab descent, and Muslims. When we are concerned heavily with our own welfare, our own prosperity and safety, we get blinded from the call of Jesus to care for the stranger, the sick, the widow, the orphan, or even, gasp, our enemies. What does Jesus want us to have strength to escape? We are called to be alert and pray, that we might escape falling into hatred and discrimination and fear and injustice.
Many Christians have been aroused in shock at hateful, discriminatory language used by people in politics. Words of internment in camps, forced registration for people of a certain religion: these, my sisters and brothers, are times of fear and terror. We are called not to be lulled into complacency with our holiday celebrations or by concern for our own well-being, but we’re called to live out Jesus’ call to stand up, raise our heads, and be alert. We are called to look in hope to a world where Christ Jesus will reign—and to demonstrate what hope in our Savior looks like. It looks like sacrificial love and nonviolence. It looks like welcome for refugees, for hospitality to those who look different from us, it looks like loving our enemies and praying for those who would persecute us.
This morning, in addition to our Old Testament and gospel passages, we read words from the book of 1st Thessalonians. It is the apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessaloniki, a city located on the coast of Greece. How poignant that we receive a word from God, connected to the coast where refugees are journeying through on the way to Europe. Paul’s words to the early church in Thessaloniki included a prayer that they would remain firm, that they would “increase and abound in love for one another and for all,” that God would “strengthen [their] hearts in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13). For Paul, being ready for Jesus’ return, for the 2nd Advent, means increasing and abounding in our love for each other and for all. This, friends, is holiness, being set apart from the world, by choosing love over fear.
How can we prepare our hearts for Jesus’ return, this Advent? How can we increase in love for all people? How can we stave off complacency and the overindulgence in food and shopping—in order to proclaim God’s Kingdom is at hand? What, friends, does this have to do with refugees? What does this have to do with choosing hope over fear? How can we, as a congregation of Jesus followers, show love to our neighbors who are Muslim?
I would like to take a few moments for silent prayer, for discernment. How can we as a church stand up and raise our heads, while others around us are overcome by fear?
[time for silent prayer and discernment; time for sharing]
Dear sisters and brothers, Advent is a time for preparation. While gifts and feasting and family are good things—and we know that good things, rightly placed, are from God—how can we also prepare our hearts and our church for the Coming of the Lord? Sisters and brothers, let us stand up and raise our heads, choosing hope over fear, choosing love over terror. We pray this in the name of Christ Jesus, our Lord. AMEN.
And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all… And may he strength 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.