Be on Guard! Be alert! A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, Year C

December 2, 2012

I’m tired of the end of the world. I’m tired of having to think about what might be the fate of our planet and human existence in the decades to come. I’m tired of worrying about Global Warming, and about politicians and our whole society’s unwillingness to face and deal with the reality of climate change. And it’s real.

I’m also tired of apocalyptic—of the worldview that sees the world coming to a cataclysmic end in a fire of God’s judgment and the return of Jesus Christ. I’m tired of Mayan calendars, Harold Campings, Left Behind. I’m tired of Hollywood movies premised on the end of the world.

I’m tired also after more than a decade of Advent sermons, of preaching apocalyptic, judgment and the Second Coming during what for everyone outside Christian Churches (and for many within) is the Christmas or Holiday season, a season that begins with Thanksgiving, and ends on December 26, when we take down all the decorations and beginning planning for the next holiday.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. Advent is no longer a penitential season. It’s not a time when we prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas by fasting and repentance. The idea that somehow in this month when we are preparing for festivities, going to parties, some of them lame and boring, some of them lots of fun, a season when we are buying gifts for friends and loved ones and splurging with special foods and drink we don’t enjoy the rest of the year, the idea that in the midst of all that we fast, is absurd.

I’m not even sure hearing the gospels being read this season—today’s being about the second coming, the gospels for the next two weeks focusing on John the Baptist, I’m not sure that there’s any point of connection, any way to draw meaning from those gospels for what’s going on in our world or in our personal lives. I’m not sure there’s any connection at all. And I’m not going to try. I’m not going to chide you for preparing for Christmas in the season of Advent, for saying Merry Christmas to me, although Christmas is still 22 days away. I’m not going to chide you for ignoring the church’s calendar as we all look forward, plan, prepare, and enjoy what the season of Christmas has become in 21st-century America. Do it! Have fun! Deck the Halls! Have a holly, jolly Christmas!

But what’s it all for? Why do we do it? There are lots of reasons. We enjoy it; our culture embraces it; we don’t want to get a reputation for being Scrooge. And somewhere in all of it, in all of the preparation, the parties, the buzz, the songs and the decorations, somewhere in it is our deep yearning for meaning and connection, our desire for relationship, and for God. And if there’s any meaning at all in Jesus’ instructions to be on guard, to be alert, that meaning comes from the promise that God’s reign is drawing near; the promise that God is near.

This morning’s gospel comes from Luke’s version of Jesus’ apocalyptic warnings to his followers. Present in all three synoptic gospels, though with significant differences among them, this speech is located in the last week of Jesus’ life, when he is preaching and teaching in the temple, and confronted by his opponents. In fact, it comes from Luke’s version of the story we heard from Mark just two weeks ago. To set the context a little more clearly, the chapter began with Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple, followed by the disciples asking him when all this would take place. Then Jesus gives lists of things to look for, warnings of what will happen to those who are his followers—arrest and persecution.

Now, here, Jesus gives his followers advice. Be on guard! Be alert! Stand up and raise your heads! But there’s another piece of advice that seems to contradict what else he says. Jesus refers to the fig tree. He points out something every gardener knows, that when a plant begins to show signs of growth in the spring, the summer is on its way. On one level, that’s obvious and might be interpreted as another sign of what is to come. But as every gardener knows, a tree that leafs out and blossoms in the spring, may not bear fruit until the late summer or fall. In other words, the new growth may be a sign of things to come. But there is also a lot of time to pass and probably some hard work to do.

The Reign of God is near. There’s a sense in which all that we do in this season of Advent, all that we do in the run-up to Christmas, is about the nearness of God’s reign. The promise we hear in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, that God will keep God’s promise and restore justice and righteousness,–that promise beckons still. We hear its fulfillment in the words Mary sings, words we will sing on the 4th Sunday of Advent:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

But the reality is rather different. God’s reign draws near but the world knows it not. God’s reign draws near but the shoots of new life are only that, faint signs in the midst of a turbulent and difficult world. God’s reign draws near but it is easy to miss those signs and to fall into despair and disappointment.

We shouldn’t interpret Jesus’ instructions to be alert, stay awake, as warnings. We shouldn’t lapse into fear and foreboding. Instead, we should look for the signs that God’s reign draws near, signs of promise and hope, signs of new life in the midst of our troubled world. Advent is a time when we should look for such signs, cultivate and nurture the signs we discover, and be signs of the coming of God’s reign to the world around us.

Where might we see such signs? In the joy and pleasure of friends and family gathered together? In the joy and pleasure of a delightful meal prepared and served to homeless people, with fun music, and the small tokens of warm socks shared with them? In Advent candles lit by families, symbolizing the hope and love of the season?

Where might we see such signs of the nearness of God’s reign? How might we be such signs for others? What might we do? How might we be in such a way that the light of the season shines forth from us and is a beacon of God’s reign to others?

And how might we nurture the signs of the nearness of God’s reign in ourselves? Be on guard! Be alert! In all of our preparations, our shopping, cooking, decorating, the hustle and bustle of the season, how are we paying attention to the nearness of God’s reign in ourselves, in our souls? It’s easy to allow the season and our day-to-day responsibilities of work and family to fill up our lives so the deep yearnings of our hearts, the desires of our souls to welcome Christ’s coming are left unmet, unnoticed. Be alert, stay awake! Nurture those shoots, that new growth so that God’s reign may blossom forth in your hearts and this season of Advent might be a season of transformation for you and for all of us.

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