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First Sunday of Advent, November 29 , 2015

Many of us like to frighten ourselves. We like to watch movies and read books that have really scary parts. The bloody figure of Carrie at the prom. The dinosaurs devouring people in “Jurassic Park. The huge tidal wave destroying most of the earth in “Armageddon”. The shower scene in “Psycho”.  Jack Nicholson in “The Shining”. Not to mention the many Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Streets and other teenage horror films. As the suspense mounts, we sit on the edge of our seats. We may hide our eyes or turn our heads away once the time comes, but we are ready for the next scene almost immediately. We know it’s just a movie – not something that would happen to us.

But in Advent, we are promised that something truly scary is going to happen for real. There will be signs in the heavens and on the earth that are unusual and frightening. They will be out of our control, and people will be fainting because they don’t know what to do. And that is the point. This is not a movie; it is not a book. It is something that God is doing to announce the second coming of Jesus. The one who’s first coming was barely noticed will be noticed by everyone, whether they want it or not. And they will not be able to leave the movie theaters or close the book because it is too much for them. They will have to witness the Son of Man coming on clouds to judge the world. The turmoil will be awful to say the least.

Naturally people want to know when this is going to happen. They want to know so somehow they feel they might have some control, might flee the inevitable. But Jesus has said that no one know except the Father. The generation that he says will not pass away has been suggested by scholars to be the generation of those who oppose Jesus or the generation of those who first see the signs (Mariam J. Kamell), but no one knows for sure.

But Christians know something. These are not terrifying signs, but good signs. They are to stand up and raise their heads because their redemption is near. Christians know by these signs that God is keeping God’s promise made many times to come again in glory in the person of Jesus. Jesus reminds the people that even though heaven and earth will pass away, his words will not pass away, so the promises God has made and the promises he reinforces are sure to come true. Christians are not to crane their necks and look into the heavens or take part in any activity that attempts to predict the end of the world (though many have done so). Christians are to be hopeful and not hiding, to stand up and raise their heads because their redemption is near.

Jesus tells them a really gentle parable about the fig tree and all the trees moving through the seasons. The signs of his coming will be there, just like the signs of the changing seasons and as obvious.  But this gentle language is there for a reason. After all the talk about earth-shattering events, he wants to calm their fears, because he wants to direct them elsewhere. Their job is to be hopeful about the future no matter what they are going through now and to behave in a manner that they can stand and face Jesus’ coming with the certainty that they will have a place in eternal joy.

Between the two comings of Jesus, Christians are to be righteous. They are to tend to their relationships with their neighbors. They are not to get wrapped up in self-centered fear. They are not to numb themselves with dissipation – fornication, addictions, compulsions. These and many other behaviors keep us focused inward and not outward. We cannot care for our neighbor when we are navel-gazing. We also cannot care for our neighbor when we are weighed down with anxieties and cares. Once again we are caught up in ourselves and our own concerns and are unable to get out from under them. We cannot stand up and raise our heads to meet our redemption if we have separated ourselves from our neighbors and have not taken good care of our bodies, minds and spirits.

Christians are to be alert. For Jesus, to be alert means having an active and healthy relationship with God. We are to spend time in prayer. Luke’s Jesus often punctuates his activities with times of prayer to refresh himself and hear God’s will for his next move. One of the things Christians are to pray for is strength to escape the things that are taking place. Jesus wants his followers to escape the fear and foreboding that others will feel, to escape the guilt of having betrayed Jesus, to escape the negative judgment for those who cannot raise their heads. He also wants them to stay in touch in other ways, one of which is studying his words so they can remind themselves of the promise and be comforted.

Jesus is telling his followers that knowing when the second coming is going to happen is not nearly as important as knowing how to behave before it happens so they can face it with a cheerful heart, having been hopeful, faithful, righteous and alert.

It has been two thousand years since Jesus said that this generation was not passing away until he came but many generations have come and gone. Enough time has elapsed that I don’t think we spend much time hoping for Jesus to come again. I expect some of us are not sure if he will come again, or if he does how that will affect us. I think I can be sure that this experience is not something we ponder each day as we go about our lives.

And that is why we have Advent. Because it is important for us to think about these things, to be hopeful that the promise of God’s coming again is real, whether it happens in our lifetimes or not. Jesus has promised us eternal life with God through God’s salvific grace. Jesus has promised that if we follow his words, we can stand up and raise our heads because our redemption is near. It has been such a long time since Jesus promised these things and we expect it will be a long time before anything happens – if anything happens and the world does not destroy itself first. Signs of a shaky world are all around us and have been for hundreds of years – wars, terrorists, natural diasters, and our exploitation of the earth are just a few examples of signs and portents. Fig trees and all trees have been moving through the seasons regularly. What can we do to be ready, to stay alert without obsessing about when the second coming will happen, however it comes?

Advent is a reminder for us to practice. We can practice waiting as we carry out our daily lives. We can practice being hopeful followers of Jesus in our thoughts and actions. First we can look for the little redemptions that occur every day. Our hearts are lightened by birdsong or a child’s laugh. Our wounds are healed by the listening ear of a friend or a walk in the woods to look at the trees and remember the promise. We love our neighbors near and far by doing a favor for a friend or perhaps aiding the plight of the world’s refugees whose numbers are higher now than ever before. We can stay connected to God through prayer, meditation, Bible reading and worship. All of these things are comings of Jesus into our hearts – second comings brought to us by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus may not come on a cloud and the apocalyptic language may be just symbolic, but it doesn’t matter. Jesus will return because God has promised. And we are to be ready so we do not cower with fear but stand up and raise our heads because our redemption is near.

AMEN.

     - Rev. Ann Barker

 

Works cited:
Mariam J. Kamell, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 25