I will repeat Rev. Deb’s greeting to you this morning, Happy New Year. As she explained to you this is the beginning of a new church year. Our church year is not numbered like the secular calendar, but it does relate to that calendar. The church year, as opposed to a linear measure of time, is a circular one. We go through the year beginning at Advent, through the seasons of the church arriving at Advent again to start another year. The purpose of this calendar is to trace the mystery of salvation and the course of salvation history. The church year is the church’s sanctification of time.
Here in this first Sunday of Advent we begin to trace the mystery of our salvation, not with holiday cheer, but with Jesus offering us a looming apocalypse full of frightening images, confusing metaphors, and shocking warnings. We do not encounter the sweet baby Jesus people wait for during Advent this first Sunday, but the stern, adult Jesus, picturing the whole universe being shaken and turned upside down. As difficult as it is to hear, as troubled as the text may make us feel, in it are treasures that help us focus us on the true meaning and purpose of Advent.
In it, Jesus challenges us, as he did his original listeners in the Jerusalem temple, to look up, pay attention, and be ready.
Advent means “coming” or “arrival,” and in Advent we await God coming to earth in the infant Jesus at Christmas, and Christ returning to earth at a time we do not know.
We don’t live with the constant threat of persecution, torture, and death as the community that the evangelist was writing for, but we certainly live in a world of great uncertainty.
Famine, war, and disease still plague our world, and closer to home people struggle with addiction mental illness and misplaced priorities. Christ’s call to his disciples and us to be alert and constantly praying for God’s kingdom to break through into our world is as relevant a call for us this Advent as it ever has been. Our broken and hurting selves and world need Christ to come, and we must take time this Advent to prepare to receive him.
When I was of high school age in Texas, three of my friends, a large Weimaraner and I piled into the cab of my 48 Ford pickup truck to go goose hunting. It was a Friday after school and since football season had ended, we had some free time. We drove to the edge of a newly harvested grain field and a pine wood. It was sunset by the time we got to our destination, so we changed our plans and decided to wait until the morning before doing any hunting. It turned out to be a moonless night and as you can imagine, after the orange glow of sunset faded it became darker and darker.
Now I had been camping many times, and there must’ve been some moonless nights, but I have to say that this was the darkest night I ever experienced. The night was still and almost silent with just a few sounds from animals in the woods and distant sporadic moos from cattle. We could’ve driven home at any time, but we decided to stick with our plans. I think we were all a bit scared that night, but I was particularly frightened. Frightened of some unknown person or thing lurking in the pitch dark. None of us, except for the Weimaraner, slept.
Being that it was mid-winter the night was very long, but finally, the eastern sky started to turn slightly pink. As the sky began to brighten, a feeling of comfort and safety came over me. The dawn had arrived, and the four of us decided to cancel hunting and go home to our warm beds.
Looking back on my experience those many years ago I see that that dawn was a thin place for me. A place where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin. It’s a place where we can sense God more readily.
I was made to see the dawn as a sign that God was keeping us safe even in the depth of night, that God is always with us, we are never alone.
Jesus said, “There will be signs,” and more than ever our world needs to see the signs. The signs that God’s love is always breaking into our world Every Advent story is accompanied by signs. Jesus says if we look, we’ll see the signs everywhere; in the sun, the moon, the stars; in the distress among earth’s nations, in the pictures of refugees, and in the roaring of the sea and its waves.
I have no doubt you’ve seen the signs too, in your life and in the world. They’re everywhere and they are not hard to spot. They are, however, too easily and quickly misunderstood and unfortunately misused. Luke tells us in this mini apocalypse that the world’s a scary place, but not to let our hearts be troubled. Jesus says “I have overcome the world. So, wait in the midst of it all, just before the dawn, for in the midst of the night there are strange and redeeming events taking place.”
The signs that Jesus tells us of are words of hope and reassurance but far too often they are heard as words of warning and threat, like when the signs are used to predict a future of impending doom and loss, or indicators that the world will end. This misunderstanding of the signs can push us further into the darkness and deeper into our fear of being left behind. Our misunderstanding of the signs blinds us to the coming of the Son of Man with power and great glory.
Jesus’ parable of the fig tree sprouting leaves teaches us how to read the signs of Advent. We see the leaves and we know something is happening. Summer is already near. It’s a new season, with new life, new growth, new fruit. That is the promise and good news of the Advent signs. Still that promise, that good news, is fulfilled not apart from but through the reality of our life’s circumstances and our world’s events. The signs are our hope and reassurance that God will never abandon us, that God loves and cares for us, comes to, and participates in our lives.
In the Advent season we place a wreath of four candles and one in its center in our Church’s Chancel. We light one candle each Sunday of Advent to represent Jesus’ light coming into the world. The lighted candles can also be thought of as sprouting fig leaves that tell us that the summer of our salvation is at hand, the kingdom of God has come near to us. We can look on the world with a new sense of compassion and hope. We will be strengthened to do the work God has given us to do.
Like the breaking of the dawn that gave assurance to a frightened boy that God is always near us, our looking up, paying attention, and being ready will make our Advent a proper preparation to celebrate the coming of The Word Made Flesh, Emanuel God with us. Amen.
David L. Bartlett. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Kindle Locations 961-962). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.