The time leading up to Christmas is one of great expectation, marked by rituals of all kinds. The scriptures for the season are like gifts we open each week, peering inside to see what message of invitation or promise God has for us. Angels — literally “messengers” — appear frequently at this time of year in our stories and from them or others, we receive gifts of nearness, forgiveness, renewal, and blessing. In these holy days, we prepare to receive again “Good tidings of great joy for all people!” The good news is none other than new life, new hope, new peace — the very love of God in flesh. Join us through this season as we unwrap each precious gift we receive from God.
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC November 28, 2021, Advent 1.
Text: Luke 21:25-36
“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.” // Perhaps it seems strange to begin an Advent series on “Good Tidings” with these apocalyptic words. Where is the good news here?
We will get to that. But first, I want to remind all of us that our text today is part of a longer passage in Luke 21 of apocalyptic writing. Apocalyptic is a specific genre within the Bible. The word “apocalypse” is derived from a Greek word meaning to “uncover, disclose, or reveal” something—an unveiling. Apocalyptic writing tends to focus on “end of the age” or “end times” and is often thought of as “doom and gloom”—understandable, I guess, based on what we receive in our text today… “distress…fear, and forboding.” At its most basic, however, apocalyptic is meant to wake us up, to remind us that things will change, that something is going to happen, that something—or someone—is drawing near.
And so it makes some sense that we’d be given a text like today’s at the beginning of the season of Advent, the annual time of preparation for the coming of Christ. The word “Advent” derives from the Latin adventus, which means “coming,” “arrival,” “approach,” or “appearance.” The emphasis at this time of year is often on what has already occurred, the coming of Christ in baby Jesus who grew up and showed us what God’s love and justice look like in human flesh. But on the first Sunday of Advent, we’re reminded that there is another promise yet to be fully realized: the coming of Christ into the world in a new way that embraces all peoples and all of creation, the fulfillment of our prayer that the Kin-dom appear in all the earth as in heaven.
In the years following Jesus’s death, some early Christian communities, living under tremendous persecution and the despair caused by events like the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, expected the world as they knew it to end at any moment, they expected Christ to come again with cataclysmic flashes of lightning and all the rest. Yet, as time passed and the injustice and oppression of the world continued, that expectation began to fade. Christians had to learn how to wait, how to not give up on the whole thing, how to remain a people of hopeful expectation in the tension between the historical events of Jesus’ life and the desire that God’s realm be fulfilled on earth.
This is the tension we find in our text today from Luke. We, like the earliest Christian communities live in the in-between time, wondering “How much longer, for crying out loud?!” But really the emphasis in our scripture is less about providing a timetable of events and more about what to do, how to be, every day. We are encouraged to practice an active waiting, to remain awake and alert to what is happening around us, to pay attention to what is happening in the created order, to pay attention to the fear and distress among the nations, and, as we do so, not to allow ourselves to get dragged down into the worries of this life (Lk 34) but to remember that in moments of turmoil, danger, and upheaval, God draws especially near. The implication of the text in its context is that we are to keep the faith in the midst of fear and exhaustion and worry and grief—and that means not just thinking faithy things, but concretely responding to what’s going on in and around us in ways that align with the Kin-dom of God, that embody the words of Jesus. You know, loving God and neighbor through doing justice, practicing hesed (lovingkindness or unearned love), and walking humbly with God…
The call of Jesus is for us to be a people of active faith and hopeful expectation in the time in between the reality of a difficult now and the hopeful vision of the promised Kin-dom come.
But sometimes life eats away at our ability to remain a people of hopeful expectation. Our Gospel today doesn’t pretend that human hearts are untouched by the worries of this life; and yet it still calls us to hope. And so, though we find ourselves often expecting the worst, we gather as a people, at the beginning of every new Christian year, to expect the best, to experience again the ancient tale of One who came into the world to save it, the one who came to show us that our hope is not in vain. Thousands of years have passed and still we cry out, “Come, thou long-expected Jesus.” We gather this week and the next three weeks to find the courage to hope. We walk into, literally, the darkest days of the earth’s cycle, trying to have our eyes and hearts open to the light we believe is coming—not just looking back at what God has already done in Jesus, but looking at what God is doing and will yet do.
It’s curious to me that so much of our collective energy in response to apocalyptic revelation of what God will yet do has tended to be fearful. It makes sense that if we know we’ve fallen off the wagon of trying to love God and neighbor, the words we hear today can unsettle and nudge us to make some changes. I imagine that a lot of the fear is the result of bad theology that characterizes God as a smiter rather than a savior. If you think that the character of God is that of a bully or someone who delights in punishing you for any failure then standing before that God in the future is fearful indeed.
But think for just a moment about being in an airport to pick up a loved one…you check the arrival monitor, you figure out what baggage carousel is the place to wait, and then you watch, aware of all the other persons streaming by, but anxiously anticipating the familiar gait, the familiar face of your beloved. What we’re told today is that the one who is coming into the world then, now, and in the future is a familiar face, the face of the One who loves you most of all, the face of the One who is always working for your good and for good in the whole world.
Here is the good news today: “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.” The one who is coming is not some avenging stranger, it is Jesus, the Christ who’s been with you all along, who knows you and loves you and wants nothing more than your highest good. We need not fear or hide our faces in shame or insecurity, but rather we are told to raise our heads because God’s redeeming love and presence is drawing near. The loving, redemptive presence of Christ gives us grace to persevere in hope, to remain aware, to keep from falling into despair in the face of our own struggles and failures or in the wake of COVID mutation after mutation and midst fears and injustices of every kind. Our text brings us good tidings that our redeeming God is near.
The story we tell isn’t that Jesus came once upon a time, gave us a great annual holiday, dropped some wisdom, left the building, and abandoned us until some future pyrotechnic event. Christ is adventus, *NOW ARRIVING*, every day.
And that means that while we have to wait for the fullness of God’s Kin-dom to come on earth as in heaven, it is already among us because Christ is among us. Perhaps when Jesus says “when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near” it means that in every moment of distress in our lives, a way is opened for us to embody the way of Jesus such that the Kin-dom is manifest… Imagine a portal—like those you may have seen in the movies or TV— that is always there, but hidden, and all it takes for the portal to be unveiled is for us to stay awake and alert to Christ’s presence and receive the grace we’re given to respond with love, care, and justice. The portal is always there, but won’t show itself if we choose to snooze and miss it or respond to situations as impatient, distracted, selfish, fearful jerks. You know the Kin-dom is near when you’re given an opportunity to reach out to hurting ones, to be a companion with those who are nurturing new life or grieving in the face of death, to celebrate with siblings when justice has been done and to mourn at the pain of justice denied. You know the Kin-dom is near when the oceans roar and signs in the earth show distress, and you can do something to participate in God’s work of mending the earth. And let me be clear, it’s not just in the big events of the world that the Kin-dom “portal”—the Kin-dom opportunity—is near. It is there at the kitchen table, as you tuck the kids in to bed, on your daily commute, all along the path of your daily rounds. In this in-between time, today and every day, Christ is arriving through the presence of Holy Spirit to inspire, agitate, and encourage us, and to help us live and love and choose and give as citizens of the Kin-dom of God.
So be alert. Pay attention. Raise your head. Look for the familiar, loving face of Jesus Christ. Look for the ways that God is at work—even in small ways—providing what you need to keep faith, hope, and love, to do what is needed, what is just, what is truly yours to do for the Kin-dom. Bask in the light that has already come and cling to the hope that someday—probably when you’re busy making other plans—the unfinished, unfilled promises and possibilities of your life, your relationships, your church, our world, will be fulfilled and redeemed…fully. And…finally! And those are some good tidings for sure.