Today we’re entering Advent, the season in which we wait in joyful hope for the coming of Jesus into this world. We remember a time when this has already happened, 2,000 years ago in a back stable in Palestine, and we look toward the future, yearning for the time when Christ will come again. Each week, we light the Advent Candles and proclaim our Christian virtues of hope, peace, joy, and love.
But how do we hold on to hope when everything around us is falling apart? How can we believe that God is present as thousands are dying from Ebola? As molten lava slowly creeps towards towns in Hawaii and other islands face eternal flood? How can we believe in peace as we watch the city of Ferguson riot in response to last Monday’s grand jury decision? As militias in Ukraine continue to roam the streets? How do we hum along to the joyful soundtrack of Christmas songs as workers strike to push for a living wage and fair working conditions? As we fear new terrorist organizations like ISIS? How do we believe in love as the leaders of this nation tear each other apart and demonize each other?
There are too many people who have too many reasons to lack hope, peace, joy, and love.
There are too many places where “goodwill toward all” is a laughable dream.
But we are not alone.
We are not the first to fear the future, to worry and wonder where God could possibly be amidst the struggle and strife. Isaiah’s writing reminds us of another time of difficulty.
The Israelites, newly returned to the Promised Land after more than a generation in captivity in Babylon, were facing an unknown future. The home they had known before the exile was now in ruins. Everything had to be rebuilt. Homes had to be repaired. Gardens had to be replanted. The life they had known, the life they had yearned for, the memories and stories of which had carried them on the long journey home, no longer existed. And instead of the heavens tearing apart and God appearing, instead of the mountains quaking in God’s presence, God was gone. God seemed to have disappeared. No one was speaking of God or calling on God’s name. God seemed to be hiding – far from where they needed God to be.
How often do we feel like the Israelites – lost, confused, uncertain, depressed, alone and afraid – and wonder why God never seems to show up when we think we need him most?
Intellectually, we know that God is with us. Emotionally, we’ve all experienced those times where we cant find God. Nerves set in. Worry and anxiety seep into our souls. And we remember the promise that Jesus tells us in Matthew: “I am with you, till the end of the age.”
Is that it? The end of the world?
I used to skim over the apocalyptic passages in the Bible because I saw them as “too intense.” I thought it wasn’t fair to hear Jesus talk about the world being in shambles and things in chaos – wasn’t Jesus nicer than that? But the thing is, Jesus – the gospel as a whole – isn’t about being nice – it’s about speaking truth. It’s about calling out injustice and making us aware. It’s about pulling God into the chaos. And when the world is falling apart, when fires are blazing and hatred is brewing and everything we ever thought and loved no longer seems to exist, it’s just about all we can do to call on God to return to this world.
Not all apocalypses – that’s right, plural – need to be like “Left Behind.” In fact, rarely are they escapist – the destruction of the world so that believers can escape to heaven. In Revelation we are told that when Christ returns, it will be good news! He will wipe every tear from their eyes, there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things have passed away. Everything wrong in the world will be made right.
That doesn’t come without struggle, changing the systems that are hurting us all. I think that’s why God constantly relates struggles, future change, with being in labor: it’s hard, it’s painful, and it can be nearly deadly. But once – perhaps if – you survive, is not the world a better place with that new life, your beautiful child, a part of it? Changing systems are hard. Calling out destructive powers can be painful, and sometimes even dangerous. But it’s not done for the sake of destruction, but for the sake of good.
I couldn’t help but think about Advent’s emphasis on Christ’s return as I watched the news this past week. It seems the only thing some of our news programs wanted to talk about was what was going on in Ferguson. After Officer Wilson was not indicted, the city of Ferguson once again was the place of riots. Night after night, buildings and businesses – but praise God not people – were harmed, while others tried to police the streets and keep the peace among themselves. It was a shame to see the violence escalate in a place that has seen too much violence in the past year, but I was reminded of a statement that Martin Luther King said with regard to race riots over 50 years ago:
“Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. ... And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of ... society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
While our nation has changed greatly in the past 50 years, it has been made very clear that many of our brothers and sisters do not feel as if this nation is equally theirs. And it is not our place to determine the validity of other’s feelings, but to hear their cry and consider our actions in response.
Now, no good can come from violence. But violence is the language of those who have no hope, who have no belief that good can come in the end. As we enter this season of Advent, this time of proclaiming hope, peace, joy, and love, when we assure the world that Christ has come and that Christ will come again, that the sin in this world will not last into eternity, we need to remember the story. That the world was changed forever by a little baby – the most vulnerable of all people. It’s not always about proving our strength, but having the strength to be vulnerable. That’s what’s really going to change the world.
The band REM had a song that I’m referencing in the title of this sermon: “It’s the End of the World as we know it, and I feel fine.” And while they might not appreciate my appropriating this song, I’m going to anyway. Because that’s our Advent message. The end of the world, the return of Jesus, does not need to be a terrifying thing. The destruction of systems in which people feel trapped, in which people feel ignored, that’s a good thing. Law and ethics are not the same. Peace, when it means maintaining injustice, is not our goal.
And frankly, our world can end over and over again – it’s not just once. Remember what Jesus said at the end of his apocalyptic passage?
This generation will not pass away until this has taken place.
We’re used to hearing this passage preached as a prophecy for the distant future, when recorded history will end and the world will come to an end. But surely Mark, who wrote his gospel nearly 40 years after Jesus died, would not have included this passage if he knew it was wrong.
It must have struck Mark that heaven was not “out there” somewhere, but inside him – inside the places of his heart. Likewise, the Son of Man doesn’t come stepping off a literal cloud in the sky, but rather dwells within those who believe and who work toward his end in this world.
This world renewed, this world re-molded, is our home for eternity, that for which we hope. We have the opportunity to reflect that future in our present
So, this Advent let us remember the baby we long for.
And, mourn the baby who will be crucified.
Let us lament what has been destroyed
And to hope for what has been promised.
Let us act.
Let us pray.
Let us learn.
Let us be the people that see the baby’s promise.
The original intention of this four-week Advent Series, “Sounds of the Season” was to speak a bit about an Advent hymn each week that we rarely get to sing but that teaches us more about the season before Christmas. Given current events, that didn’t really get to happen this week, although there still is a pertinent theme between the events in our world this week and the next hymn. “Lift up Your Heads, Ye Mighty gates” was written in the 17th century, during the 30 Years’ War: a time when European nations were all fighting against each other, Protestant vs. Catholic, which led to huge destruction of land and hunger for so many civilians.
And yet, we have a hymn of hope: one that still, in the midst of destruction, expects the Savior of the world to come. Even in the midst of destruction, in the midst of pain, God can open our hearts, can change our ways, and can guide us so that the earth will shake, the old ways will be over, and God’s love will come and reign among us. Let’s sing.
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