Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday of Advent – November 30, 2014
In the Name of our God who is all kindness, Christ who reigns in justice, and the Holy Spirit who recreates our every moment. Amen.
“In those days … the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” These words which Jesus spoke to his disciples are full of Old Testament apocalyptic references. His friends had just been admiring the temple and its large stones. Like so many religious Jews, they were very impressed with this structure. Jesus uses the metaphor of the destruction of the temple to prepare them for his impending death. He wants them to know that change is coming. The temple of their life is coming down.
That certainly does not sound like a message we expect on this first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church’s new year and time of great anticipation for Christmas. Nor do I think it is meant to be. It sounds a bit worrying, even ominous—with good reason.
Perhaps we need to look at Advent this year as more than just a liturgical season and embrace it as a reality of life. Advent really happens in all sorts of ways and at various points in life. Who has not experienced significant change in life, whether anticipated or dreaded? We all know about “those days.” We all know what it is like to enter the darkness of change. All of it, whether welcome or unwanted, includes some kind of loss—often the loss of what is comfortable, familiar, and safe. When we face that kind of life-changing event, the world as we have known it has ended.
Biblical scholars have suggested that this passage was written down thirty years after Jesus had this conversation with his disciples. The headlines were as bad then as they are today. Jerusalem was in ruins. The temple had been destroyed. New Christians were being tortured and killed by the hundreds. Everything was falling apart and the followers of Jesus, now three decades after his resurrection, must have wondered if they had been wrong about Jesus. This was not the way they expected it all to unfold when they bought into this way of life.
The Advents of our lives set before us important questions. How will we find our way forward when the usual lights that illumined our path no longer shine? What do we do when it feels as if our world is falling apart? Where do we go when it seems as if darkness is our only companion and God is no where to be seen?
Two years ago we witnessed that kind of darkness in the horrible shooting of small children and teachers in Newtown. Since then there have been multiple shootings on college campuses, shopping malls, and other public venues. We followed the tragic story of a 17-year-old African American boy from Miami Gardens, Florida who was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer. This year there is immense darkness in Ferguson, Missouri, as a community there is divided in trying to make sense of another fatal shooting.
Our Presiding Bishop recently issued this statement:
The Episcopal Church joins many others in deep lament over the tragic reality that continues to be revealed in Ferguson, Missouri. The racism in this nation is part of our foundation, and is not unique to one city or state or part of the country. All Americans live with the consequences of centuries of slavery, exploitation, and prejudice. That legacy continues to lead individuals to perceive threat from those who are seen as “other.” The color of one’s skin is often the most visible representation of what divides God’s children one from another. Christians understand the sacred vision of the Reign of God as a society of peace with justice for all.
The Episcopal Church will continue to partner and push for racial reconciliation in Missouri and across this land. I ask you to stand with hands extended in love, to look for the image of God in every neighbor, and to offer yourself in vulnerability for the sake of reconciliation across this land. May we become instruments of God’s peace and healing, made evident in communities of justice for all.
I’m sure that many people are asking themselves, “What can we do about all this darkness?” In truth, the dark times of life are threshold moments. Our first inclination is to do something to escape the uncertainly and to get back to what used to be. The God of Advent does not allow that. We can never go back to the way it was before the lights went out because God does not undo our life. God redeems and restores our life and we need to be partners with God in that work of redemption and restoration.
At the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1990’s, my dear friend and mentor, Father Jerald Miner, preached in this pulpit and told the congregation that we cannot be silent. The mantra raised up by activists was “Silence equals death.” In truth, can we be silent when any form of oppression threatens any segment of our society?
The Bishop of Missouri writes: “In the face of so much broken trust, the gospel demands for the ministry of reconciliation will require us to stay in that uncomfortable gap. That means that we can expect to become agents of Christ’s reconciliation. But it also means that, with our haunted pasts of racism and its current reality, we will ourselves need to be reconciled. That may prove the harder part.
The Gospel we hear today is meant get us to pay attention to what is going on in our world now and to recognize how things would be if we were living into the dream of God. It’s a Gospel that says things have got to change if God’s reign is going to bring peace and goodness and compassion into our midst. And we must be a part of that transformation.
Do we think that this terribly broken world we know is what God wants? That God wants a world where there is such profound poverty alongside such aberrant wealth? Does God’s idea of the kingdom include nuclear arms and never ending war? Racism, sexism, and homophobia, genocide, terrorism and violence? A world in which one out of six people lack access to drinkable water?
How many of us feel powerless in the wake of all the discouraging and desperate predicaments that confront us? We are overwhelmed with problems so much larger than our collective resources for finding solutions. We long for some divinely fashioned intervention that will bring change to our world and to our lives.
What the Gospel today holds for us is that Jesus wants us to be aware that something is afoot. The future is God’s who makes a way when we thought there was no way. Tomorrow may not be exclusively in our hands, and knowing that can make a difference in what we make of today.
Advent is about the hope and coming of what will be. The Advent times of life teach us the hard lesson that we can neither predict nor control anything; that we are not in charge and invites us to receive and trust the God who comes to us in the darkness of life.
“Look at the fig tree,” Jesus says, “and read the signs correctly. When its branch becomes tender and it puts forth leaves you know summer is near.” So also when the dimness overtakes your life know that God’s presence, healing, and deliverance, take place in the dark and messy parts of it. We have not and never will be abandoned.
The good news is that God loves to intrude. Sometimes, while we’re working, shopping, texting a friend, something sneaks silently across the canvas of our lives, undetected, unheralded, unexpected. The One whom we await suddenly becomes present. And we, anticipating trumpet blasts and great spectacle, can miss God’s advent before our very eyes.
On Black Friday, protesters at the Galleria Mall near Ferguson chanted, “Stop shopping and join the movement!” The activists of the 1980’s reminded us that silence equals death. Today Jesus says: “Keep awake! Be alert!”
What do we do in the face of this deep darkness in our world? How do we respond when it seems that the fabric of life is falling apart? What seemingly impressive institutions in our time need to be reformed or shattered? What systems have failed us far too often? The fig tree reminds us that there is purpose and goodness in our world still. Something new, something electrifying, something promising is always coming; we are always expecting because God is never failing.
The Gospel as usual leaves us with tough questions: Are we willing to watch and wait, even in our own painful impatience, for what God will do? What are we doing to avoid the upsetting and challenging awareness of what is so very wrong in the world? Are we open to what might be required of us within our hearts and lives to change that? I’ll leave these questions with you in the hope that they will provoke deep, thoughtful, albeit, difficult conversations.