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Sermon for 1 Advent 2021 (Year C) (The Rev. Steve Sturgeon)

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Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14) AMEN


Today’s gospel passage is a bit of a downer and head–scratcher. With the start of

Advent we begin to focus our attention on the coming celebration of the birth of Christ,

which is now less than a month away. Yet this season starts with a gospel reading full of

woe. Sort of like someone walking around at the office Christmas party proclaiming,

“You know we’re all going to get laid off next week.” As I read through this passage,

which mentions drunkenness and dissipation (meaning nausea), and speaks about

distress, confusion, roaring, fainting, fear, foreboding, and prayers for strength, it dawned

on me that perhaps Jesus is not warning about the end times, but rather the aftermath of

Thanksgiving and the onset of Black Friday.


As always, it is helpful to start off looking at the context for this passage. It is similar

to the ‘end times’ passage we heard in the Gospel of Mark a couple of Sundays ago. Both

that passage and this one take place in the last few days of Jesus’ life. Just prior to this

passage Jesus has been speaking to the disciples about the coming challenges and

calamities that his followers, the city of Jerusalem, and the world will be facing. When

Jesus tells his disciples in today’s reading that they should pray to have the strength to

escape and withstand “all these things,” the list of things includes the coming of false

prophets, the persecution and trials of the disciples, the destruction of Jerusalem, and

cataclysmic global events. (R. Alan Culpepper, “Commentary and Reflections on the Gospel of Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 410.)


In reflecting on this passage two questions come to mind: why do we include this

type of passage in the lectionary, and why do we read it at the start of Advent? With

regards to the first question, it is true that the Episcopal Church, and other mainline

denominations, tend not to be very “apocalyptic” in our outlook. Other churches have

historically focused much more on the end of times and Day of Judgment. For some

reason talking about the Second Coming is an uncomfortable topic for Episcopalians;

something deemed in poor taste and equated with ‘snake handling’. Could this perhaps be

a reflection that for most Episcopalians in the United States the current world is a pretty

comfortable place? For us there might not seem, at first glance, to be much of an upside

to focusing on predictions that the world will one day be remade, and the current order

will pass away.


This topic, however, is not an optional part of our theology. In fact the Second

Coming is prominently discussed in the Outline of Faith located at the end of the Book of

Common Prayer, under the subheading ‘The Christian Hope’ (p. 861–862). It is

mentioned extensively in the New Testament in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and

Luke, as well as in the Epistles (most notably in the letters to the Thessalonians), and of

course, most famously, in the book of Revelation. It is an idea that the early leaders of the

church viewed as a core belief, which is why it is included in the Nicene Creed that we

say each Sunday. This belief is grounded in the understanding that Christ’s birth, death,

resurrection and ascension is only the first part of his mission to redeem of the world, a

mission that will come to fruition when he returns and all creation is renewed. (Ibid.)

There is not enough time this morning to launch into a discussion of all the

eschatological explanations and theories about the Second Coming, and the seemingly

arcane debates over when in the sequence of events Christ will return or whether the

Second Coming is an ongoing or fixed time event. What is worth noting, however, is that

the description of chaos in today’s gospel reading, which may seem abstract to most of

us, is a lived reality for many people throughout the world. For citizens of the failed-

nation states in the Middle East and Africa, such as Syria and Libya, for the victims of

natural disasters, for the survivors and the loved ones of victims of the pandemic, for all

of them chaos and despair are the norms, whether temporarily or permanently. What

Jesus’ discussion of the Second Coming offers them is hope in the assurance that “God’s

Word will never pass away,” and that their suffering is neither forgotten nor in vain.

(Culpepper, p. 411.)


What, though, is the reason we read and reflect on these types of passages during

Advent? Much of it has to do with the fact that the season of Advent marks the start of

the new church year, a time of looking backwards and forwards, not just to one advent or

arrival but to two: the first advent in the coming of Christ as a child in Bethlehem, and

the second advent in his return at the end of time, both of which we remembered in our

opening prayer this morning. Advent is an occasion when we look back to the ancient

scriptures in order to understand where we are now and what we should expect in the

future. It is a season in which we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” to the one “who

came and is coming and is among us right now.” (Gary W. Charles, “Homiletical Perspective on Jeremiah 3:14–16,” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, p. 3.)


We see this blending of time not only in the Gospel reading, but also in our Old

Testament reading from the book of Jeremiah. This passage perhaps might seem more

appropriate, or at least palatable, for Advent, with its emphasis on prosperous and

peaceful days to come, as well as its prediction, centuries before the birth of Christ, that

God would “cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice


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and righteousness in the land.” Just as Jesus spoke during a time when the threat of

destruction for Jerusalem was growing, so too Jeremiah spoke during a similar period of

foreboding. In Jesus’ day the threat was from the Romans, for Jeremiah it was the

Babylonians. While both Jesus and Jeremiah warned of suffering to come, they both

offered assurance that this suffering would end. (Wesley D. Avram, “Pastoral Perspective on

Luke 21:25–36,” p. 20; Angela Bauer-Levesque, “Exegetical Perspective on Jeremiah 3:14–16,” p. 3, 5;

both in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1.)

Songs of triumph, however, remain four weeks away for us; Advent, instead, is a

season in minor keys. The light of the first Advent candle on the wreath this morning

offers us hope and comfort, but also an echo of the fires that destroyed Jerusalem in the

6 th century B.C. and the 1 st century A.D., and of those times when hope seemed far away.

The readings for the season of Advent emphasize “the importance of waiting,

anticipating, and trusting in a promised future that seems very removed from our current

circumstance.” “Trusting in God’s provision for us in the past, we imagine what shape

God’s fulfillment of promises will take in the future.” “The church is called to hear the

prophets in this season, not for ‘once upon a time’ background music, but for an overture

playing in real time, sounding themes to be developed going forward.” (Charles, p. 5;

Jennifer Ryan Ayres, “Theological Perspective on Jeremiah 3:14–16,” p. 4, 6; Deborah A. Block, “Pastoral Perspective on Jeremiah 3:14–16,” p. 2; both in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1.)


As one commentator writes about the season of Advent:

The congregation that observes Advent will mark time differently

from those people who live December as a countdown to Christmas

and the end of the year. The Sundays of Advent count forward…. The

First Sunday of Advent is…the first Sunday of the [church] year, a

new year in sacred time, opening to the mystery and certainty of God’s

presence. Worship that celebrates an alternative New Year’s Day

affirms time as God’s home and workplace, not as a calendar of

accumulating years, but as a movement towards fulfillment….


With the start of a new church year we are “asked to begin afresh, not just on a calendar,

but in individual hearts, in relationships, in congregations, and in our yearnings for” the

promise offered us in Christ, and with Christ, and through Christ. (Block, p. 4; Avram, p 22.)

Amen.

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