The First Sunday of Advent – December 2, 2012
Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Preacher: The Rev. Susan E. Hill
Good morning! I had a strange experience watching the news this week – maybe you had it too. There was a heart-warming story about a young NYPD officer who saw a man sitting on the street who had no shoes. Apparently he’d seen him before, but this time it was getting quite cold out. So the officer went to a nearby shoe store and with his own money, bought the man some boots. Unbeknownst to the officer, a tourist snapped a picture of his generosity. She posted the photo online and it soon went viral. As a result of the internet and the news outlets that picked up the story, countless millions of people were inspired by this young man’s response from his heart to another in need.
So – so far so good. But if that story was heartening, I’m sorry to say that the very next story on the news that day was just as dis-heartening. Lindsay Lohan. Arrested. Again. For behaving badly. Again. Now I don’t want to demonize Ms. Lohan – she is clearly in need of a lot of help. But the decision of the news program’s producers that her story should not only be told, but told right after the story of the police officer’s act of kindness, did have the strong (if surreal) effect of setting up a contrast in choices we all make about how we live.
Do we stand up tall, and open our minds and our hearts, even in very challenging times, and look to see how we might do some good in the broken world around us? Or do we close ourselves off and either hide or escape through unhealthy behavior and addictions, so we don’t have to see or experience, at least for a while, the tragedies and turmoil of life?
Jesus himself recognized well and took seriously the travails that come along with being human in this world. He lived on this earth too and suffered as a result of its brokenness. He knows what it is like for us. And so what does he tell his followers, what does he tell us, to do? To be aware and open our hearts? Or to run and hide or escape? I think you know the answer, but let’s turn to our gospel passage and see if it can help.
Now as you heard this passage from Luke this morning, you might have been a little confused. Isn’t today the first Sunday of Advent? If you know anything about Advent, you know that it is not the religious season of pre-Christmas sales and the ritual trampling of shoppers at Wall-Mart, but rather a time of preparing to celebrate the Incarnation. Preparing for the birth of Jesus, who is called Emmanuel – God is With Us. Living in expectation of the light of this miracle of life coming into a dark world.
So why, on the first Sunday of this time of preparation, of Advent, do we hear Jesus talking in apocalyptic terms about what sounds like the end times? At a time when we are getting ready for the birth of Jesus as a baby, here we are getting a glimpse of Jesus towards the end of his ministry, when he is getting close to the events of his death. Perhaps the suffering he will soon endure has put him in a philosophical and prophetic frame of mind, as he preaches to his followers.
He says that there will be signs when the end is near – just as when a fig tree puts out new leaves as the summer is approaching. Some of the signs he speaks of have extra resonance for us right now – especially when he mentions “distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves!” Because the news reports don’t just tell us about good Samaritan police officers and sad celebrity downward spirals, they also are full of the continued devastation of Hurricane Sandy, and of violence and strife in Palestine and Gaza and Israel, and Egypt and Syria, and Afghanistan, and the Congo – to just name a few. Are these the signs that Jesus spoke of?
Well, I think it’s useful to keep in mind that Jesus, as a teacher in first-century Palestine, was rooted firmly in a centuries-old prophetic tradition. He was well versed in the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, who constantly were exhorting the nation of Israel to be faithful to God, even in the midst of challenging times that included disasters such as famines as well as occupation and deportation by conquering empires. The language that Jesus the Prophet uses in our passage from Luke today is full of images used by earlier prophets like Isaiah, and Joel, and Zephaniah.
I think that, as is often the case, Jesus has multiple meanings with his own prophecy. He certainly recognizes that the nation of Israel lived in, and the people of his time lived in, and indeed, all of humanity continues to live in, the midst of turmoil and brokenness. And he says that at some point, these tragedies will become so acute that the end really will be near. And so when we see signs like conflict between nations and great environmental disasters, we are to pay attention. And since we always seem to be in the midst of some disaster or other (many, if not most, of which we bring upon ourselves, it should be noted), I think that Jesus is cleverly exhorting us to always live our lives AS IF the end were near.
And perhaps this is why we hear this passage about endings at the beginning of Advent, at the beginning of our church year, at this time of anticipation of the celebration of the coming of Jesus into the world. It is this prophetic and apocalyptic language of signs and portents that reminds us of WHY God came into our world through Jesus. That a world mired in cycles of tragedy and distress needs to be reminded of the faithfulness and love of our creator – who cares for us so deeply as to come to us, as one of us, to teach us how to love more fully. To teach us to use our whole minds and bodies, and hearts, to love all of creation and each other and our creator and help others do the same. And to live this way, being loving and fully present, in every moment.
As Jesus says in our passage, when you see the signs, stand up and raise your heads. Be alert at all times and live as if the end were near. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life.
This advice is so vivid and acutely physical, it seems to me. I think of when I’ve done yoga and the instructor tells us to stand up straight, and to open our hearts. I think of when we start the prayer before communion, as we will soon, and we stand up, and we hear – Lift up your hearts, and then we all respond – do you remember? – we lift them to the Lord. Is it just me, or do we all stand up a little straighter, and open up our hearts – both physically and metaphorically – a little more?
At this time of year especially it is easy to let our hearts be weighed down by dissipation and worries – by getting caught up in the consumerism of the season, or in despair at family strife or being alone, or annoyance at the intrusion of awful world events into our hoped-for perfect celebration. As we remember World AIDS Day, and contemplate the amazing panels from the quilt that hang in the back of our sanctuary, we might be angry and sad about the lives lost to ignorance and apathy about a virus that still strikes down so many. We might be filled with anxiety about what life will be like in a world beset by war and climate change and financial woes in New Year and beyond. In response to these worries, we might turn to dissipation or drunkenness or other addictions to help us escape or hide from all the challenges in our lives.
But when you feel these temptations to close yourself off, to get caught up in things that are of no ultimate importance, perhaps this year, especially in this season of preparation, you might stop and remember this passage. In fact, let’s do something to remember it physically right now. Let’s stand up if you are able, or if not, just sit up a little straighter. Let’s let our collarbones roll up, our shoulder blades relaxing down our backs, and feel our hearts opening. Take a deep breath – in, and out – and notice how you feel.
Feel how it is hard in this posture for your hearts to be quite as weighed down by the worries of this life. How in this posture, you are more likely to notice a fellow human being who needs help, rather than get in a fight at a club and get arrested. Notice that when you stand up and lift your head and your heart, you are more present to your body – and realize that you might feel better and strengthened by taking a walk around the block rather than having that seventh cookie or having tea with a friend rather than hunching over your computer to find one more online deal. Feel how opening your heart to the present moment and not worrying just yet about what will come next year can actually help you enjoy this moment just a bit more.
This is the preparation we are called to at Advent. To be alert, to keep our hearts open. To be inspired by the anticipation of the Light of all Lights coming into the world. To bring a little bit of our own light, the light from our own hearts, into the world too.
My beloveds, during this Advent season especially, but also I hope every day – Stand up tall. Lift up your Hearts. Let us lift them to the Lord!