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First Sunday of Advent December 2, 2012

The signs of Christmas are everywhere. They began to show themselves when the Halloween candy was taken off the shelves. They ramped up with the approach to Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. Christmas trees are available in the stores and at nurseries (though how one makes a Christmas tree last the entire season is beyond me); sales circulars are full of must-have deals, the Salvation Army ringers are in full swing, and everywhere you look there are ornaments, wrapping paper and the other bells and whistles that a full-blown American Christmas features. There is nothing wrong with a cultural Christmas – except perhaps the radio station that plays Christmas music non-stop from Thanksgiving until Christmas. Cultural Christmas speaks of giving, of friendly and fun parties, of families getting together – all good things.  

In church we are in the Advent season, which is also preparation for Christmas, but we do it in a very different way. Advent means coming, but it doesn’t mean Santa Claus. Advent means the very best thing – the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to save the world, to liberate it from the chains it has acquired through sin and death. At the beginning of the church year, we look both forward and backward to Jesus’ coming. We look back at the past, when a baby born in Bethlehem was the greatest sign of God’s enormous love for God’s people, and we look forward to the coming of Christ in glory to judge and redeem the world. The in-breaking kingdom of God began in a manger; it will be fully realized when Jesus comes in glory.  

This Sunday, we too have signs of a coming, but they are not what we expect. No babies in mangers, no shepherds or angels or holy families. Instead, we get the end before the beginning. We get the larger-than-life cosmic images of the Second Coming of the Lord.  

In Jeremiah, the Lord will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David – to put an heir of David on the throne to execute justice and righteousness in the land.Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will be secure. Jeremiah speaks of God’s promise to the Jewish people when God will write God’s laws on their hearts and they will all know God (Wesley D. Avram). Paul speaks of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all of his saints. 

But it is in Luke that we get the fullest description of the coming day of the Lord. It is written in apocalyptic language, which means it is about the future, but it is also talking to the people in their present situation. He has already talked about the famines and earthquakes and other scary signs that we encountered in Mark two weeks ago. He continues to talk about what will happen in nature when the day of the Lord approaches. Jesus speaks with large sweeping strokes about the signs that will take place in the sun and the moon and the stars. We remember that first Advent, where the appearance of a star signaled the first coming of Christ, so the heavens have been used to tell the glory of God before, but this chain of events, whatever it will be like, will produce chaos in the heavens and in the sea. People’s tidy worlds will be shaken profoundly by these signs One can imagine perhaps the sun and moon appearing at different times than usual or the stars not being out at night. Clearly people will be terrified by this, and they will faint with fear and foreboding about what is coming upon the world. After this universal chaos, there will be clarity. The Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and great glory. All eyes will turn to him and the judgment and redemption of the world will take place.  

Others may cower, but the faithful are not to do this. They are to stand up and raise their heads because they know the signs mean that Christ is coming and that their redemption, their liberation from a broken world, is drawing near. Christ’s coming will be the time when all that the faithful have endured for the sake of Jesus will be rewarded. It will be a time when God does an entirely new thing.  

Jesus has given them signs of chaos in the heavens and on earth to watch for, but now the images are lightened. He tells them the parable of the fig tree, which has no leaves in winter, but sprouts forth in the spring and leafs out in the summer. It is in that time of the fullness of life, when summer is here, that the Lord will appear. Note that Jesus does not say that summer is here, but summer is near. There will still be time before the End, before the Second Coming. 

Then Jesus predicts the coming of the Lord in “this generation”. He was wrong about that. Elsewhere he says no one knows the time except the Father. We must assume Luke is talking to the current Christian community to give them hope that the kingdom will come soon, because they are undergoing severe persecution after a time of witnessing and are frightened about what being loyal to Jesus over Caesar will bring to their lives (G. Lee Ramsey). But regardless of the timing, Jesus promises he will come. His words are true, he says, and even if heaven and earth pass away his words will not. 

Then Jesus turns to his disciples’ response to the Second Coming. Not only are they not to cower in fear, because they know what the signs mean, they are to be on guard so that their hearts are not weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life. If their hearts are not light, the day will catch them unexpectedly, like a trap, and they will be liable to judgment. Unlike Mark, who says that everyone will be involved in the chaos, Luke has Jesus saying the disciples should pray for the strength to escape all these things that will happen and so stand before the Son of Man.  

The lectionary draws our attention to the Second Coming of the Lord so that we may be ready. The first coming has already been and we celebrate the cosmic importance of that relatively obscure event, but we are living in the in-between times, waiting for the time when the Lord will come again.  

There are four things we must do to be ready to stand before the Son of Man when he comes in glory. First, we must be patient. There are signs all over the world of wars and natural disasters. The world is in chaos and has been since Jesus talked to those early disciples. The conflicts in Israel and the Middle East, Afghanistan and many other places alarm people and have them worried about further conflicts to come. Perhaps one of our modern signs is the global warming that is taking place. It is a shifting of the earth. Natural disasters proliferate. There is no end in sight. So we have to wait, sure of the Second Coming of the Lord in the midst of the chaos.  

Next, we are called to hope. The Lord is coming, he has said so, and that is good news for us. We are to trust that God will keep God’s promises and be confident in our attitude. We must stand up and raise our heads, knowing we are about to be redeemed because God loves us so much. We are to accept that love and let it bring us fulfillment and joy in this life. 

 We are called to prepare. Jeremiah says God will execute justice and righteousness, and we  should prepare by following that example. Anywhere we can, we should work for peace and justice and take care of the less fortunate, who are even more desperate in their hope for the coming of the King than we are. We are to be holy so we may be blameless when our Lord comes.  

Finally, we are to be alert. We are to have our spiritual Starbuck’s or high-powered energy drink or caffeinated soft drink. We don’t want to sleep through this cosmic, wonderful event. We do not want to let the troubles of this life overtake us as we watch for the Lord’s coming. If we are immersed in self, we will find ourselves unable to turn outward to look for the fig tree’s leaves and know that summer is near. 

We need to be expectantly waiting not only for the Christ Child, but for the Lord when he comes in glory. We are to be obedient to his word and trust that his promises are true. We are to reflect on how we can better live in patience and hope while we prepare and stay alert. The Second Coming seems a long way off to us, but we are to stay ready anyway because no one knows when it will come. We need always be watching. 

AMEN

   - Rev. Ann Barker

 

Works Cited
Wesley D. Avram, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, Pastoral Perspective, p. 22
G. Lee Ramsey, New Proclamation, Year C 2013, p. 6