Sermon – November 29, 2015 – First Sunday of Advent

Advent 1 Year C
Luke 21:25-36

Grace and peace to you on this first Sunday of Advent. Christians around the world who follow the church calendar have made the transition from ordinary time to the special, set apart season of Advent. Advent happens to be my favorite season.  While I love the festive and celebratory spirit of Christmas and Easter, Advent always seems to greet me like an old friend. Advent is honest. Advent doesn’t require celebration and it’s not a fan of sugar-coating. Advent allows us to sit in the darkness of shorter days and simply be still. The season calls us to pay witness to the brokenness of our world and ponder a hope that brings healing. Advent takes seriously our shortcomings yet equips us to prepare a different way—a world where justice and peace reign for all people—a way made possible through the love of God in Christ Jesus.   I find it interesting that our reading for this first day of Advent comes right before the end of Jesus’ life in the Gospel of Luke. It seems strange to begin thinking about the coming of the Christ child while reading what were perhaps some of his final teachings.  But if we put these teachings in the context of their original audience, 1st century Christians, their connection to Advent makes a little more sense.

The first hearers of this text could have quite literally believed that the world was coming to an end. In recent memory was the violent destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire—the center of life for many of these early followers was destroyed by a group dedicated to gaining power by spreading terror and fear. In a world filled with hatred and fear, these first followers of Christ sat in a perpetual advent, searching for the hope of Christ amidst the darkness.

We can probably relate. Every generation, before and after Christ, has gone through these periods of worry and fear—fear that the world might just be coming to an end. Throughout these generations, some have looked at these apocalyptic passages as proof of the world’s demise and used them to predict the end—none of which, I’ll point out, have come true. The gospel reading for today was never meant to be used to predict destruction and it was never meant to increase fear; Quite the opposite, this teaching was written to give hope for a people so easily succumbed by fear. These words of Christ were meant to speak light and life to a people who were preparing for the worst. Today, they encourage us to prepare a way for hope, in spite of the world’s darkness.

After all, the season of Advent teaches us to look for hope in the most unexpected of places—it calls us to be divine watchers for good. This call becomes difficult, however, when we are hard wired for fear. To illustrate this, think back a few moments ago to when we read the gospel reading for today—think back to your gut reaction when you heard the text. Did the reading make you a little nervous?

Did you remember hearing the story of the fig tree? Did you notice that nestled in- between these two passages that speak towards fear and distress, there are five beautiful lines about new life? I remember when I first read this passage that I was so worried about the first and final portions that I nearly missed five whole lines of hope.

As Jesus addresses his disciples and the author of Luke addresses followers whose lives were steeped in fear, we are given a parable about new life. “Look at the fig tree and all of the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.” The image of the fig tree would have been one that spoke to these first hearers. The fig tree was an image of safety and security.  It was used both for sustenance and shelter from storms. Hearing of it’s blossoming in the summer is an assurance that new life is possible, even in the midst life’s trickiest, fear inducing storms. Hope exists even in the darkest of times. One truth of being fragile human beings living in this world is that both beauty and terror can exist simultaneously.

Before I was born, my family welcomed my sister, Abby, who was born with serious heart defects. Because of these defects, she died just a few weeks after my parents welcomed her into the world. As I grew older and learned more about the sister I never got to meet, I began to question my Mom about how she coped with losing a child—something I couldn’t even begin to imagine. She spoke about the extreme pain of losing her child but she also spoke of the hope and new life she was given through the countless people who reached out to my family: parents who had also lost children came out of the woodwork to join my parents in their tears, church members and friends showed up night after night with cooked meals for my family, people took time to care for my siblings while my family wrestled with what to do next. “Of course, I know that Abby’s death was not an act of God,” I remember my Mom remarking, “but I know that all of the outpouring of love and care we experienced after was, indeed, the work of God.”

In this fragile life, terror and beauty can exist simultaneously. Our job, as people of faith, is to look for the beauty, to search for hope. When we see only the terror it becomes pretty difficult to follow our calls as hope seekers. When we live only in fear, we allow one emotion to dictate our own actions. Fear takes away our power to do good in the world. When we are dominated by fear, we are told that we no choice but to be reactionary. But this assumption is false. We do have a choice. Every day we are given a choice in how we may respond to the brokenness of our lives and of our world. We can choose to live solely in fear, or we can choose to seek out hope in the midst of our fears. Perhaps, then, the escape that our gospel reading speaks of is not an escape from hurt, death, or destruction, but an escape from the power that these things can have over us. For as followers of Jesus, we proclaim that God’s love for the world through Christ is bigger than death, and stronger than fear.

We may be hearing a lot of fear in our world today; fear tends to speak the loudest. But we cannot let these loud voices of overshadow what we know to be true: that hope is found in the most unexpected of places, that beauty exists amidst brokenness, and that light shines in the darkness. There are signs of hope all around us if we prepare ourselves to find them. Despite the troubles of our world, two separate groups of teenagers met at the church last weekend and prayed for hope and healing. After praying, one teenager posted on our St. Matthew youth Instagram account saying, “Sometimes the world is a screwed up place, but we have to remember that the number of hugs per gunshot victim is very high.” There is no fear in that statement. Only hope.

Now is the time for hope. Hear these words from the Talmud of our Jewish brothers and sisters: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.” This is our calling.

In this season of Advent may we allow ourselves the time to search for the good. May we name hope when we see it. May we silence our own fears with the goodness of God whom we know will not let death and destruction have the final word in our lives or in our world. And not only this, may we stand up and raise our heads, willing to be the people of hope, the actual agents of change that our world needs.