The first Sunday of Advent is always a little awkward. We’ve made the turn from Thanksgiving, and had a week of preparations since unpacking from traveling or cleaning up the house from all the people we love who visited – but we’re also kind of relieved they have gone to their own homes. We had your wonderful staff and spouses over to our house Friday evening, which meant we had a deadline to get decorated for the season – which made for a busy week but now we’re done. The chill in the air showed up on Wednesday, Christmas music is in full swing in every store you go into or on the radio. Parties and parades and all the requisite cheesy holiday movies everywhere you turn. It’s beginning to feel just a little bit like Christmas might actually be coming.
Yet, every year, the Lectionary throws us a curve ball. Each year we preachers know it’s coming, but it still strikes as a surprise. We’ll soon turn to Matthew’s genealogy, to Luke, meeting Elizabeth and Zechariah and John the Baptist, a miraculous baby born to point the way to another miraculous baby born. We’ll read of the angel visiting Mary, of her saying “yes,” and singing her Magnificat. Mary and Joseph will travel towards Bethlehem for the census and have trouble finding a place to stay. Soon the stories that are familiar will settle in, yearning for the moment when we’ll sing Silent Night with candles held high, the glow on each other’s faces.
But it is a different set of yearnings that inform today’s text. All of the Advent 1 texts are like this – they are much later in the gospels, often in the heart of Holy Week, filled with apocalyptic angst and destruction. Here in Luke we’re halfway between the parade of Palm Sunday and Jesus’ arrest, and Jesus has an edge he doesn’t have elsewhere, feeling the weight and urgency of the moment. He has just watched a poor widow drop two small coins in the treasury, after all of the fancy rich people put on a big display of their generosity. Jesus steps back, looks at the Temple, and calls out, “This is all coming down. This will all be destroyed.” Wars and rumors of wars, nation against nation. Cruelty and violence and desperation. I find it really interesting that Jesus’ disciples don’t respond with, “No, you’ve got to be kidding me, that sounds ridiculous.” Maybe they had a keener sense of the moment than we do. Maybe they saw the look in his eye that said he was dead serious. “How will we know, Jesus?” they ask.
There will be signs “in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations…people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Then a quote from Daniel, the Son of Man flying in a cloud. When these things happen, Jesus says, “Stand up and raise your head, because your redemption is drawing near.” This is the moment I was us to pay attention to today.
Jesus describes this scene…nations in distress, roaring waves, fear, foreboding – language vivid enough to be scary, but general enough to invite us in. Find me a time in our history where you couldn’t find distress among nations to point to (Israel, Palestine, North Korea), to natural calamities (floods and fires). People faint from fear of the loss of their jobs and wondering where the next meal might come from. Foreboding, uncertainty about the future, with geopolitical struggles or volatility in our climate or so much change about how we make a living and healthcare and housing. Durham’s becoming pretty hip and has a lot of fun things to do for people with the money to do it, but as things become more expensive we need to figure out who all this prosperity is for. It feels like much is at stake as we wait.
I don’t know about you, but the longer I have to wait for something the worse it gets. Not just because I am not patient, I suspect not many of us are patient people. But the longer I have to wait the more worried I get. If I’m pretty sure I know where someone in my family is and I call them and I don’t get an answer, I don’t generally think, “I’m glad they are having fun wherever they are and not paying attention to their phone.” I get annoyed they aren’t paying attention to their phone because I have a very important question. Then I worry, as the minutes go by. Are they okay? Did something happen? I send a note to a colleague or one of you and don’t get a prompt response. Did I phrase things poorly? Who did I upset?
It gets worse, the waiting, because then come the questions. With the waiting comes the places our imagination goes when we’re awake at 3:00am, and our imaginations in those moments rarely go to the best-case scenario. What if he gets into the school his heart is set on it but we can’t find a way to afford it? What if this job that isn’t ideal but is paying the bills goes away? What if the relationship really is over? What if mom can’t stay at home anymore but can’t imagine leaving – what will we do? What if the treatment doesn’t work? What if I have failed? What if I am not enough? What if I messed all this up? What if things don’t ever get better? What if none of this is worth it?
Yet Jesus’ instructions for Advent are to wait with hope. “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Don’t put your head down. Look to the sky, reach for the God who is already reaching for you. It doesn’t make sense in one way – why would you stand up and show yourself in the turmoil and hurt? It only makes sense if you know that the One who is breaking in is also the One who is the savior of the world, and that One comes living and proclaiming that all of this death and destruction is not all there is, and that there is a deep hope, profound courage, found in Jesus Christ, God’s love made flesh. Don’t wait in uncertainty. Don’t wait looking for problems. Don’t wait complaining about what others have or haven’t done. I stink at that one, too. Raise up your head. Look up. Walk right into the joy of what God has placed before you. Embrace the call to serve, as you did with stockings last week, a shelter meal Tuesday, piles of gifts to be spread throughout this community coming into the office in waves this week, as I’m sure you will with the Christmas Eve Offering for these great organizations. Step into the HOPE that says that in this season of Advent we refuse to wait with worry, but WILL wait on tiptoes, straining, with hopeful anticipation, to serve with joy, to love every single one of our neighbors, to be a people who as individuals and as a church step across boundaries of race and class and orientation and identity and even religious preference – our confirmation class visited with our Muslim neighbors at the Divan Center on Wednesday, because we have to reach towards each other. We’ll raise up our heads in praise at the Lovefeast tonight, a gift.
“The days are surely coming,” Jeremiah writes to a people in exile, “says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made…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…” God doesn’t say, the days might be coming, when I could, if I want to, fulfill my promises. We are not called to wait with confusion and worry. We are called to wait this Advent with HOPE. The days are surely coming, says the Lord. Believe. Trust. Christ is coming. Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption IS drawing near. All praise be to God. Amen.