A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on November 29, 2015 (Advent I, Year B)
Have you ever tried to roust a teenager on a school morning? Oh, I have. Early and often. It generally starts with a soothing voice and a gentle nudge. A verbal reminder that it’s time to wake up and start the day; a forgiving prompt that while you’ve slept through your alarm clock, again, it’s time. You don’t want to be late for school, after all. And you need those 11 essential vitamins and minerals that are part of a complete breakfast! Well, this goes on and on until it eventually devolves into threats of phones being confiscated and a grounding that will last until either their sophomore year of college or the apocalypse — whichever comes first. This is followed by yelling and blankets getting ripped off the bed. All in all, not the most relaxing way to rise and shine and rejoice in the day that the Lord hath made.
This morning, on this first Sunday of Advent, Jesus issues us all a wake up call. And we’re well beyond the soothing voice stage. Because while gentle suggestions are easily ignored, it’s much more difficult to sleep through a bucket of ice water being dumped on your head. Which is basically what Jesus is doing here. And, frankly, as you would expect, it’s pretty jarring.
“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.” But did we mention that Santa will be at the mall later today?
So what do we do with this passage and why are we hearing it as we begin this season of hope and expectation? Well, the first thing we need to do is remind ourselves that Advent is by its very nature counter cultural. It may coincide with a time of shopping and decorating and holiday parties — all fine things when kept in proper perspective — but as Christians this is primarily a time of spiritual waiting rather than consumer anticipation.
The second thing we need to do is to put these challenging words from Jesus into some context. What we have here, folks, is an example of apocalyptic language. Yes, we tend to cede the entire genre to late night Christian radio hosts and Bible-thumping fundamentalists, but we do so at our own peril because it leads to the rampant misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Scripture.
Since we tend to ignore or at least marginalize such readings, you should know that the word apocalypse doesn’t mean “the end of the world;” it simply means “revelation.” In modern parlance it’s become associated with a dramatic final destruction of the world, but that’s a later interpretation. Jewish apocalyptic literature had been around for centuries before Jesus, and one of the major themes was that as bleak as things appeared in the present, the future held great promise. The “revelation” was a vision of what God would do for his people in the future. So, embedded within apocalyptic literature was a comforting message of hope; something especially important to the people of Israel during the long years of the Babylonian exile, when they were separated from their homeland and everything that was familiar.
And if you think about the communities in question who were hearing these messages — both the ancient Israelites and the early Christians — you can see how they would have been drawn to such visions. Visions which painted a vivid picture of a time when the present age of suffering would end and good would ultimately triumph over evil.
And while many of the prophetic visions of apocalyptic literature are as poetic as they are bizarre to our ears, Jesus’ original hearers were familiar with the genre and would have immediately recognized the themes Jesus speaks of here — the language of impending wars and natural disasters; of fear and foreboding. And also the note of hope.
But here’s the thing: Jesus’ words, and apocalyptic writing in general, weren’t meant to be taken literally — which is precisely the mistake made by Biblical literalists and street preachers. They love this stuff — the Book of Revelation, portions of Daniel and Ezekiel, the verses we just heard from Jeremiah, and passages like this one from Luke’s gospel. They’re all about the interpretation of these so-called signs in order to pinpoint the precise date of the Second Coming of Christ. Which, of course, is futile. Jesus himself says, “about that day or hour no one knows.”
And here’s where it all ties into the season of Advent: In Advent we anticipate not just Jesus coming to a manger in Bethlehem but also that time in the future when Jesus will return to redeem the world.
So in Advent we enter something of a time warp. We are asked to wait for something tangible, the birth of our Lord, even as we are asked to wait for something intangible, the return of our Lord. None of which follows a logical, linear sequence. Welcome to God’s time; a way of being that transcends all human constructs.
And adding to the confusion, Jesus, oddly enough, wakes us up and bids us to wait. Which seems absurd on the surface of things. We’d never wake our kids up five hours before school just so they could sit and wait for the bus for hours on end. But Jesus rudely rousts us from our reverie with this apocalyptic language and then invites us to enter into a time of two-pronged waiting.
In Mark’s gospel, the passage we heard a couple of weeks ago, the one upon which today’s reading from Luke is most likely based, he writes that these signs of which Jesus speaks are just the “beginning of the birth pangs.” And that’s certainly an appropriate theme for Advent as we await the birth of our Savior. As anyone who has experienced pregnancy or has lived in a home with a pregnant woman knows, everything is about to change. During this period of waiting, you live in a time of anticipation but with a tinge of the fear of the unknown. Expectant parents know that change is coming but they just can’t fully comprehend exactly how this watershed change will play out. And the same could be said of our waiting time during Advent. Everything changes when the Savior arrives; we’re just not certain how that change will be enacted in our own lives.
So this time warp Jesus beckons us into of having arrived yet still to come, leads to yet more confusion. And what do we do? Jesus seems to encourage us to look for the familiar. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” So even as things feel out of sorts and uncertainty rules, in our lives and in our world, God is everlasting, unchanging, and eternal.
And perhaps that’s the good news for this day. We have a rock to hold onto amid any storms that may come our way, globally or personally. And as difficult and as confusing as waiting may be for us, perhaps there’s some comfort as well in times when everything feels like it’s collapsing around us. We could all use a comforting message of hope.
As we move deeper into this season, we will be encouraged to “keep awake” and “be alert.” We enter a time of watchfulness as we prepare to receive Jesus into our hearts anew. But it begins with a wakeup call. A call not to rise and shine, but a call to rise and wait.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015