Sermon: Sunday, November 29, 2009: First Sunday of Advent

Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16  •  Psalm 25:1-10  •  1 Thessalonians 3:9-13  •  Luke 21:25-36


“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:1-7)

Wait – that’s not the text for this morning, is it? I just get so confused around this time of year. One minute you’re baking your turkey and making your stuffing, and the next you’re watching Santa Claus bring up the rear end of the Thanksgiving Day parade. It’s like we move seamlessly from one holiday to the next, with nothing in between, no season of Advent left at all.

That isn’t the text for this morning, it’s the one we’ll hear on Christmas Eve. Between now and then we have an entire season in the church’s life, the season called Advent. “Advent” being the Latin word for “coming,” this is a season of anticipation. But “advent” is also the direct translation of the Greek word “paraousia,” which is the word the early church used to refer to the second coming of Christ, and as we hear the texts for this morning and for the entire season, we will realize that it’s this second coming they are referring to. Here’s the first reading for this morning again,

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” (Jeremiah 33:14-16)

Not Christmas Eve at all, though both passages of scripture make use of the phrase, “in those days.” On Christmas Eve we hear that “in those days a decree went out…” and it signals to us that the life of Jesus began at a particular moment in history. That God was made incarnate in the concrete details of human existence as we experience it. In that passage, “in those days” is looking backward, remembering a story.

But this morning, the very first passage of the very first Sunday of a new year in the life of the church uses the phrase “in those days” differently. Today we hear those words as looking forward, into the future. “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up.” Not “I am causing” or “I have caused,” but “in those days… I will cause.” Looking forward. Waiting. Advent.

So we live with at least two calendars, and some of us with more than that, perhaps. For the most part we live our lives inside the Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII in the late 16th century. It’s based on the Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar, that goes back to about fifty years before the birth of Christ, which breaks the year down into 365 days divided into 12 months with names that sound like Greco-Roman gods. January, coming from the name of the god, Janus, god of doorways who leads us into a new year. February, from the god Februus, the god of purifications because of the early spring rains that fall in February (if you live in Rome, we have to wait a few more months in Chicago). You get the point.

Depending on what kind of work you do, you might also be living with a fiscal calendar, that may or may not begin with the first of January. But in the church we live with a calendar that’s off. It begins four Sundays before December 25th, which means that “New Year’s Day” in the church falls on a different day each year. This year it falls on November 29th, last year it fell on November 30th, and next year it falls on November 28th. All just about the earliest dates possible. In 2012 Advent doesn’t begin until December 3rd. What’s important about all this though, is that in the church we mark time by the incarnation of God in the world in the birth of Christ.

That is the beginning of time, and how we organize our calendar, which – to some degree – puts us at odds with the culture around us. In a season when many people feel like we’re winding down, beginning the long season of holidays that culminates in that week that stretches from Christmas to New Year’s, a season of endings and closure, Christian worship says we’re already at the beginning of a new year.

We are out of step with the world around us, which over the centuries has only gotten more ironic. As the Julian calendar became the Gregorian calendar, as the world’s way of keeping time began to circulate around how the church kept time, it was easy to lose sight of those differences. But now we live in a time when the church’s waiting and the world’s waiting don’t quite line up, do they? You feel it too, don’t you?

The Santa Claus of the Thanksgiving Day parade has very little to do with the coming of Christ, or with Christ’s return, though there is a connection buried deeply somewhere in that custom. But as the television and newspaper reports begin to come in with estimates about how effective “Black Friday” was at moving companies out of the red and into the black near the end of a fiscal year, we are being lured into thinking that the secular meaning of Christmas as a season of gift-giving and the church’s understanding of Christmas as the sign God’s self-giving are one and the same.

AClogodesignStamp2 This means we’re out of sync with the culture – and I’d like to encourage us to get even more out of sync with the culture. Some of you may have noticed the link in the last eNewsletter to the “Advent Conspiracy” website. Advent Conspiracy is a project that developed out of the frustration a group of pastors felt about the commercialism that defines the weeks before Christmas – that cycle of spending and excess that drives families further into debt and deeper into depression… all in the name of celebrating God’s incarnation in the world.

Advent Conspiracy is a movement that invites us all to do four things during this season of waiting: worship fully, spend less, give more and love all. And, because the Advent Conspiracy has four invitations, and Advent has four Sundays, we’ve got a chance to really explore each of those invitations more fully. Today we can consider what it means to “worship fully.”

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heaven
s will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:25-28)

There’s a bit of background I want to give, just in terms of how the ancients understood the relationship between what happened on earth and what was happening in the heavens, but before I do that I just want to put the larger question on the table: how does our worship equip you to “stand up and raise your head?”

Taken alone, these words about signs in the sun, moon and stars; the sea and the waves; all sound pretty apocalyptic. When we read them in isolation they sound like the kind of cryptic prophesies that make their way into movies about the end of the world. We’ve already heard that sermon earlier in the month though, so I won’t wander down that road too far. What’s more important is to remind ourselves that these verses have a context. In the paragraph preceding this portion of the gospel of Luke, Jesus has just said,

“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written… For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Luke 21:20-22,23b-24)

Now, as we’ve discussed a couple of times over the course of the last month, this is precisely what was happening in Jerusalem in the year 70AD. And the gospel of Luke, which was most likely written somewhere between five and twenty-five years after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, remembers this event with all the horrific details of a person with post-traumatic stress disorder.

This is where it’s helpful as well to remember that our ideas about heaven and earth (whatever those may or may not be) are not the same as the ideas that were operating in the imaginations of the ancient world. For the ancients, the events of earth were a reflection of the events taking place in heaven. The destruction of the Jerusalem temple, believed by many to be the dwelling place of God, might have been understood as evidence of a war in the heavens. So we read that “there will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars…” as a continuation of the previous chapter about Jerusalem being surrounded by armies.

To a people living with the trauma of the destruction of all they’d known, and questions about God’s sovereignty and power, Jesus is actually issuing a word of comfort. To people who were filled with fear and foreboding, Jesus says, “when the world is at its worst, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.”

Is that the kind of message you’re hearing as you work your way through the mall, looking for presents?

The advent of the marketplace is the coming of a holiday of spending and consumption. Something is coming alright, but it’s not Christmas – not with a capital “C.” No, it’s christmas, a lower-case festival of domestic cheer. A family reunion with opportunities for photographs and a second round of turkeys and hams. But the Advent of the church is about a different kind of coming altogether. It is ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ which is so cosmic and bizarre that it’s hard to even begin to speak about what it means, except to note that it’s God’s response to a world devastated by war and all the side effects of human violence: hunger, disease, dislocation and poverty.

And the question posed by the Advent Conspiracy, our question, is “how does our worship equip us to notice, to name, and to join in God’s response to a suffering world?”

I hope it’s your experience that our worship does do this. I hope that when we say those words of confession at the start of each service, or when we remember our baptism, you experience our worship as a profound sort of truth-telling. We confess that the world as it is isn’t the world as it should be – that we ourselves are not the people we should be – and we make this confession at the beginning of our worship so that we can receive the gift that God is offering to us and to the world, a gift more precious than anything in Santa’s bag. The gift of forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation, the abatement of guilt and the power to be part of setting things right.

I hope it’s your experience that our encounter with the living Word of God – not words on a page, but the living Word of God, that comes to us in scripture and song and preaching and passing the peace – confirms in you a sense of confidence that God is not absent from the world, but that God is already born, already incarnate, already risen from the grave, and already alive in you and around you, speaking freedom and passing the peace – in our sanctuary and in the streets.

And it is certainly my hope that when you come to the communion rail you hear those words that are spoken each time we share the bread and pass the cup, “the body of Christ given for you. The blood of Christ shed for you.” But also that you see that you are not alone at the rail. These are the means of grace for you, and for all. This is the table of plenty that stands as God’s contradiction to a world gripped with greed that sends people home empty-handed, uninsured and hungry.

I hope that our worship allows you to worship fully, and during this season of Advent I hope that you will take every opportunity to worship here at St. Luke’s. The prophet Jeremiah was writing to a people who had been removed from their land and taken into the Babylonian exile, and he said, “in those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” The community gathered around the gospel of Luke, living in the terrorizing years after the end of the world as they knew it remembered Jesus as having said, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.” Advent begins with words of reassurance that God does not leave the world in its suffering, but promises consolation to all of creation.

During this season when the culture seems to call for obligatory cheerfulness, sappy sentimentality and an extra helping of nostalgia it can be hard to tell the truth about the suffering in the world, or even in our own lives. And yet we are living in a time of desolation. The New York Times this morning reports that one in eight Americans, one in four children, are now receiving food stamps – the greatest proportion of citizens receiving food assistance since the Great Depression. That is not just an abstract number, it is lived out right here in our sanctuary, among you who are worshipping this morning.

And the common desolations of this holiday season can be invisible to each other, but no less real. We are people grieving the deaths of loved ones, estranged from family or friends. We are a community comprised of people who do not know what the future will look like.

It is unlikely we will find the redemption that is drawing near in a check-out line anytime soon – though God does work in miraculous ways. But perhaps in the quiet of a mid-week Advent service on a Wednesday night, or in the truth-telling of our Sunday worship, we will find the strength we need to stand up and raise our heads, to look for the coming of the Lord.

“In those days…” – in these days, I invite you to remember that it is a new year. That we are living with a calendar that marks God’s time, and points to God’s creation
and new creation in Christ Jesus. That God’s promise is to come for us, wherever we are in exile, wherever we are lost, and to restore us to one another and to God’s own self. These are gifts that require us to worship fully so that we can more fully receive the healing they offer. Come enter into the season of holy watching and waiting that is Advent.


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