First Sunday of Advent (Year C) – December 2, 2018
Audio is here.
“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 heavens 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.”
Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
The popular song jazz standard “Love is Here to Stay” has been performed by the greats: Kenny Baker, Gene Kelly, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, “Nat King Cole” and Frank Sinatra, so name a few. It has been used on the stage and on the screen, big and small. It was the last musical composition that George Gershwin completed before his death at age 38 in the summer of 1937. Ira Gershwin composed the lyrics after George’s death as a loving tribute to his late brother.
It is a beautiful song, one whose longevity is fitting, since it is a song about permanence, specifically the permanence of love:
It’s very clear / Our love is here to stay
Not for a year, but ever and a day
The radio / And the telephone
And the movies that we know / May just be passing fancies
And in time may go / But oh my dear / Our love is here to stay
Together we’re going a long long way / In time the Rockies may crumble
Gibraltar may tumble / They’re only made of clay
But our love is here to stay
With Europe on the brink of war and an impending feeling that everything could be falling apart, George and Ira Gershwin give us this lovely piece of American art about that which has the power, in the words of Saint Paul, to bear, believe, hope, and endure all things.
In this morning’s text, Jesus seems to be depicting a world soon to fall apart. We come to church at the outset of Advent with visions of sugarplums and heavenly peace, hoping for a word about the coming of the Christ child, and we instead are reminded in a most unsubtle way that this liturgical season is also about the second coming of Christ in the fullness of time, which is to be a time of hope in the midst of calamity, a time of permanence in the midst of destruction, a reason for courage in the midst of a most fearful scene.
Jesus says “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 heavens will be shaken.”
No wonder each generation believes they are living in these days. No wonder it is so easy to believe sometimes that we are the ones alive at the end of time.
In today’s reading from Saint Luke’s gospel, Jesus thankfully gives us something to do during these fearful days. He instructs us to avoid three things, and those three things are drunkenness, dissipation, and the worries of this life. I spent the better part of the last week trying to find the connection between these three things. We all know what drunkenness is. Dissipation is simply drunkenness plus all of the misbehavior that can come along with it. So far, so good. “Don’t get drunk and do things you ought not do,” Jesus seems to say.
Pretty typical stuff for the church to frown upon, right?
And yet, Jesus adds to his list of “don’ts” worry, and it is this that, for me at least, reframes the other two. Jesus prohibition against worry makes me wonder if what he is really warning us about is numbing or distracting ourselves against the worries of this life, rather than looking for signs of the divine within them. I believe he does this because he knows the fearfulness that comes with times of calamity, when our “Rockies crumble and our Gibraltar tumbles.”
The Gospel of Luke is one of the younger of the four gospels, certainly written after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70. In today’s text, Jesus is looking ahead to the advent of the unthinkable; the Temple’s destruction would have been akin to the end of the world for the Jewish people, and here Jesus looks ahead to it, in many ways, to the day after the worst thing in the world has happened. Luke’s audience would have actually lived through these events, and would certainly found themselves asking what we ask when everything is falling apart: where on earth is God in all of this?
It may be that Jesus is the most difficult to deal with when he is the most opaque. Tell me to love my neighbors, Jesus. Even I can find some wiggle-room in that commandment (what is love? Who is my neighbor?). Command me to forgive my transgressors and leave it to me to interpret what forgiveness means and how it relates to forgetting.
But tell me that when things are difficult, and that things are absolutely definitely going to get difficult, and tell me that is the time to avoid numbing myself against these difficult days, lest I miss the grace of the Divine in them, and it is a struggle for me, and it is a struggle for you, too.
To paraphrase Thomas Paine, when the times that try our souls come about, it is those times in which we often discover the depth of our faith, the depth to not only believe the divine hand is somehow present in the maelstrom, but to actually sense how it is working for good, when everything around us crumbles and the temptation is to lose oneself in a bottle of port or your escape of choice, and in these days, God gives us Christ’s great alternative: “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
On Wednesday morning, Kelley and I met with a wonderful man in his seventies named Bob. Bob worships at another United Methodist church in Richmond, and he is simply one of the most persistent human beings I have ever known, a persistence rooted in a deep and abiding love in a Christ who he understands as one who calls his disciples to change things, to make the reign of God known in this world, in this life. Bob believes that it is his calling to do all the good he can in the time he has left before God calls him home.
After forty-five minutes with Bob, my head was spinning, as he excitedly talked about partnership after partnership that he has forged in Richmond, ministry after ministry that he has created. How Saturday after Saturday is spent transporting busload after busload of under-privileged children to wholesome, effective educational opportunities that he has helped to create, and how he sees each of these ministries, each of these partnerships as inroads, as opportunities to earn the right to be heard when he speaks to others of his deep and abiding love for Christ who he earnestly believes has an even deeper and more abiding love for us.
As we drove through housing projects, he told us of these numerous, tiny victories he had experienced, and how each pointed him to a future with hope. He then pulled by the side of the road and told us about a girl he mentors, a girl born in prison, whose mother died when she was nine months old and who has been raised by a single father ever since.
He told us how she became a straight-A student, how she was accepted at the Maggie Walker Governor’s school and how she plans to attend the Air Force Academy after graduation.
It is amazing story of faith, the power of persistence, of not giving up even against incredible odds. It is an amazing story of living through the end of the world and somehow witnessing the next day. It is proof of what the Holy Spirit does as it weaves together our disparate lives into a tapestry of grace. Through “distress, fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” though “the powers of the heavens will be shaken,” the “Rockies crumble, Gibraltar tumbles.”
Kelley and I got in my car to return to Reveille and I said to her how amazing what some people live through, and how they still manage to believe. I talked about some of the petty, facile reasons that we sometimes give for turning against God. That is when Kelley told me something about Bob I never knew: in his life, he has lived through the loss of two adult children to cancer, losing both of his sons.
“Now when these things begin to take place,” Jesus says, “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
There can be no doubt that times of calamity in our lives can be times that makes us feel separated from God, or that God is somehow testing us to learn how bona fide our faith really is. C.S. Lewis addresses this in the journal he kept after the death of his wife to cancer, which he published as a book titled A Grief Observed. In it, he writes, “God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”
And perhaps there lies the truth for us on this First Sunday of Advent, or at least what we can pray for. In this morning’s text, Jesus does not proscribe a way for us to avoid the sufferings of this life. Instead he entreats us to “Be alert at all times, praying that [we] may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” In these words, Jesus does not describe standing before him as judgement, but the hope to hold onto, the future to look towards, the goal to strive for, even when everything is falling apart.
I have had days, and I imagine you have has well, when all I have had to give to God is one more day, sometimes even, one more step, without quitting on God. “All I can promise you today, Lord, is that I won’t quit on you. That is it.”
And yet, the source of our greatest hope is what we are journeying towards this Advent: The arrival of the Christ child in Bethlehem, our God made flesh and dwelling among us. In The Screwtape Letters, the devil calls the mystery of the incarnation Christ’s “abominable advantage,” for Christ understands our human struggles, has wrestled with our human doubts, feels our human pain, because it is Christ and not the devil, who has lived the unique experience of being human.
This means that even when “Stand[ing] up and [raising] [our] heads,” is the most difficult thing to do, hold fast to hope without wavering, for the God of life holds you back.
“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 heavens will be shaken.” Hold on. God is still at work in this world. God is still at work in you and your life and my life and our life together at Reveille. Hold on, for “Heaven and earth will pass away, but [Christ’s] words will not pass away.” Hold on, though the mountains crumble to the sea, for “in time the Rockies may crumble Gibraltar may tumble, they’re only made of clay,” but God’s love “is here to stay.”
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.