Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among the 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.”
Pretty scary stuff—probably “TMI,” too much information on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. But, in fact, what we hear on the news cast or read online or in the newspaper is no less frightening. We have lived through some horrifying events over the past ten years: awful acts of terrorism, nations continue to be in conflict and distress, there is no end of wars in sight, and a lot of people have received the kind of bad news in the past year that probably left them half dizzy. Major and minor interruptions are a part of life.
Now we know that Jesus has this knack of saying thing to startle his audience—to make them sit up and pay attention. So when his companions marvel at the beauty and majesty of this fortress of a Temple, he bursts their bubble: “There will not be one stone left here on another—not one that will not be thrown down.”
In his novel, Eternal Love, author Ian McElwain tells about an Oxford professor, a very rational and modern sort of man, who liked his world in order. One summer day, he looked up into the sky and saw a hot air balloon racing out of control. There was a little boy in the balloon, screaming his lungs out. Onlookers gathered and attempted to pull the balloon down but with no success. Then the man holding on to the chord of the balloon died but the little boy eventually landed safely. All of this proves to be very disrupting in the life of this staid Oxford professor. He knows that he will never be the same after that day.
Ian McElwain’s work is fictional as novels tend to be, but the story could be very real and like any good story it is about the normal course of one’s life moving along as usual until something intrudes and things are disrupted and become topsy-turvy. It’s that sense of disruption that makes for the stuff of a good story. Stories that have little or no surprises are boring and unrealistic. If you ever watched the afternoon soaps on TV, as my grandmother did faithfully, or the parodies rendered on the Carol Burnette show, you may remember a scenario when a door bell rings, the music gets intense and foreboding, and you know that someone on the other side of the door is about to turn things upside down. There is about to be a huge disturbance in some character’s orderly life.
As much as we like to think of our lives as in order—a progression of this followed by that—isn’t that a delusion? Aren’t interruptions the true order of our lives? Isn’t change the one constant? We may think of God as the origin of order and stability but then we get these texts in scripture on the first Sunday in Advent—texts that speak of a God who steps into the world and interrupts the flow of history. Today’s Gospel is not a Gospel of fear but rather a Gospel of assurance that our God loves us enough to intrude on our world, to interrupt us. In a place we don’t expect, in a way we don’t expect, God comes and is born among us in a strange and wonderful way.
Jesus—Emmanuel—God-with-us—is God’s magnificent, benevolent interruption who came to usher in a new creation and bring good news of redemption. And in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that when we are consumed by the desperate situations of the world—the colossal disasters and the common place travesties—to look at the fig tree. The fig tree is the last to bloom in Palestine. It’s blooming serves to remind us that the end is near, that there is an abiding hope for the future in which God brings all things into harmony with one another and with the creator.
Although it may sound like scary stuff, this passage does not point to destruction but to life—a new order under the reign of God which will not be a cataclysm of terrible doom but the liberation of the world from evil and the restoration of the entire cosmos to unity and wholeness.
Until that great day of Christ’s coming again—which is the focus of this Advent season along with our anticipation of our celebration of the coming of a Savior Christ at Christmas — we will continue to be faced with interruptions in our lives — many that we neither want or which are easy to face. So we come to church in order to find some stability, some sense of continuity, some tranquility. We are comforted by an “order of service” that we pretty much can expect to be the same each week. We can expect to hear hymns we love and the encouraging texts of Advent anthems. It is reassuring to be among people we have come to know and with whom we have, in some cases, developed deep and meaningful relationships. All seems in order here. All seems secure. No worries.
The holy irony in this, however, is that our God loves to intrude and, even though we may not be aware of it, many of us long for some divinely fashioned disruption that will bring change to our world and to our lives. How many of us feel powerless about the predicament of our nation’s economy and all that it implies: loss of jobs, income, health benefits, social services, increased homelessness, hunger, and poverty? We are overwhelmed with problems of our world so much larger than our collective resources for finding solutions. Some of you may be caught in situations in which you can’t imagine any way out. You may be facing some dilemma for which you just can’t see an answer.
I think there are two lessons that we can walk away with from today’s scripture — lessons can be our traveling companions as we navigate this frenzied time before Christmas. The first is suggested by the hope at the end of Luke’s Gospel that we not be weighed down by the worries of this life.
For me, it suggests the need for an “arsenal” – not the kind of arsenal that government build up to exert power and force—a storing of weapons that kill and destroy—but a different kind of arsenal: giving not spending, holy listening, quiet meditation, good books, spontaneous prayer, gentle conversation, an afternoon walk, coming to church more frequently, unplanned naps, visits to the healing station, tea and homemade cookies, December sunsets …things that will quiet our soul, refresh our body, and bring serenity to our troubled minds. In his work, Craddock Stories, author Fred Craddock writes about a friend, who in time of major unwanted interruption, had no such arsenal on which to draw. The surgery she was facing was unexpected and major and her first such experience. When he visited her in the hospital, he found that she was a nervous wreck. By her bed was a stack of books and magazines: True Love, Mirror, Hollywood Today.
It occurred to him that there wasn’t a calorie in the whole stack to help her get through her experience. She had no place to dip down into a reservoir and come up with something—a word, a phrase, a thought, an idea, a memory, a person. Just empty. Craddock writes of this encounter, “How marvelous is the life of the person, who like a wise homemaker, when the berries and fruits and vegetables are ripe, puts them away in jars and cans in the cellar. Then when the ground is cold, icy, and barren and nothing seems alive, she goes down into the cellar, comes up, and it’s May and June at the dining room table. How blessed is that person.”
Advent urges us to check out our stash of “canned goods”—things that calm us, teach us, strengthen us, delight us, things we store up in the good times to help us through the difficult ones.
The second lesson we learn on this first day of Advent is best described by the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor. It is about the apocalyptic nature of today’s Gospel of which she writes, “Apocalypse” means “revelation,” as in that moment when you are looking at something you have looked at half your life and suddenly you see it for the first time, whether it is the sun coming up through the trees like an iridescent peach or the sorrow in your neighbor’s eyes or your own face looking back at you in the mirror. Revelation is the moment when you can see through, see into, see beyond what is going on to what is really going on — not because you are some kid of genius but because God decided to let you, and you happened to be paying attention at the time.”
Advent beckons us to have our own personal revelation—perhaps when we least expect it — that God not only cares about us but cares for us and comes to us — sometimes in unexpected interruptions. Someone once said that the difference between a living, true God and a dead, false god is that a dead, false god will never surprise you.
If the scary stuff is too much to bear, put down that newspaper, turn off the TV, shut down the computer. There is good news in the Gospel: God entered—and continues to enter the world in unpredicted and wonderful ways in order to bring about a new creation.
Yesterday I took a good look at my yard and realized that the trees were now bare, the leaves all carted away, already the appearance of cold on the ground. It’s a symbol of an ending, an interruption in life I don’t personally much like, but I know that it will be followed by a glorious renaissance of living things in the spring—signs of new creation. Make good use of this darker, barren time of year. Look for the fig trees in your life this Advent and discover where and how God is reaching in, interrupting, and surprising you — those moments when you can see through, see into, see beyond what is going on to what is really going on — not because you are some kid of genius but because God decided to let you, and you happened to be paying attention at the time.