Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Sermon for First Sunday of Advent, "The Time is Near"

Sermon 11/29/09, Luke 21:25-36

The Time is Near

Lucky Charms used to be my very favorite cereal. All those yummy marshmallows! Tragically, I can’t eat Lucky Charms anymore, because marshmallows are made with gelatin, which I don’t eat. I’m still hopeful that eventually they’ll change their recipe. But until then, I can just reminisce. When I was little, I used to pick out and eat all the marshmallows first, and be left with all the regular old cereal. I just couldn’t help myself. But as I got older and matured as a cereal connoisseur, I reversed my order. I’d eat all the plain cereal first, and leave all the marshmallows for last, finishing with the very best part. And in fact, I even came to really enjoy all that plain cereal in its own right.

Sometimes, when I think about the season of Advent, the season of preparing and waiting for Christmas, I feel a bit the same way I used to feel about Lucky Charms. There have been times, especially when I was younger, where I just couldn’t make Christmas come quickly enough. The weeks of Advent seemed like an eternity. My childhood pastor stubbornly had us singing Advent hymns and I wanted to be singing Christmas Carols. The days until Christmas Vacation from school seemed endless. I wanted to hurry to the good part. Advent, all the waiting, was certainly not the good part. But as I’ve gotten older, as happens to most of us, I have a sense of time already going faster and faster on us, not going too slowly. Already, Christmas is just 26 days away, and Advent has only just begun! It goes too quickly, not too slowly. I want to savor this time. I want to enjoy the waiting and longing for Christmas. But I don’t want it to be Christmas until it is Christmas.

Are you in a hurry for Christmas to come? Or are you trying to slow things down, and savor the time? Hurrying, waiting. Rushing, slowing down. Anticipating, longing. This season, our theme for Advent is, “It’s About Time.” We’ll be thinking about exactly these issues – thinking about time and what this time of Advent means for us as people of faith for the next four weeks. And today, in particular, we’re thinking about the nearness of the appointed time. The time is near.

Today is the first Sunday of a new liturgical year in the church calendar. Our Christian year begins with Advent, and so we turn from the gospel of Mark to Luke’s gospel with our lesson today, a text that should catch our attention for sure. We find Jesus in the middle of a conversation about “the signs of the times” – he’s talking about signs in the sun, moon, and stars – distress on the earth, roaring seas, waves, shaken heavens, and then, the Son of Man coming with power and glory. When these things happen, Jesus says, “raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” He talks about knowing that summer is about to arrive when the fig trees sprout leaves. So to, he says, you will know that “the kingdom of God is near.” Finally, Jesus concludes, we should be on guard, so we’re not taken by surprise, not caught unexpectedly. “Be alert,” he says, “praying that you may have the strength to escape all these thing that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Why are we in such a hurry for Christmas to come? Or perhaps, the real question we have to ask ourselves is: Do we actually want this long-expected Jesus to come or not? Jesus talks about these signs happening to let us know that the kingdom of God is near. But it sounds a bit terrifying, doesn’t it? Maybe we want baby Jesus to come again – to hurry to the birth of the precious Christ Child. The cute baby in the nativity. Jesus who can’t exactly talk and preach to us yet. But are we really in a hurry for this coming of Christ that Luke describes? We like to think about the baby Jesus coming, meek and mild. That’s the Jesus we’re ready to hurry here. But what about this Jesus of Luke, who can’t seem to arrive without turning the world upside-down and creating chaos? Do we want and long for this Jesus to arrive? Is this the Christmas that is drawing near? And if so, why are we in such a hurry for Christmas to come?

To answer that question, we have to consider what exactly we believe is drawing near. And I think it comes down to a decision between judgment, and redemption. Do you believe that what is drawing near is judgment, or redemption? American culture today certainly has a clear answer. We believe – and also fear very much – that judgment is coming. Just look at yet another apocalyptic movie phenomenon right now – people have become obsessed with this idea that the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world in 2012 – the title of the latest end-of-world flick. Thinking about the end of the world fills us with dread and fear – think of the atmosphere in 1999 when we stood on the verge of the year 2000, and many were stockpiling provisions for an anticipated apocalypse. We can’t read about these signs that Jesus is talking about without being filled with dread, fear, and anxiety. And so though Jesus spoke these words more than 2000 years ago, people have looked around them for all this time at the crazy things happening in the world and have said: surely these are the signs of the times. And they’ve been afraid. And the fear comes certainly in part from an end of what we know, but also of the link we place between the end of the things we know and the beginning of judgment for the things we’ve messed up so badly.

As people of faith, though, I wonder what has happened to us to think of Jesus’ drawing near to us as an occasion for fear and panic. The idea of the kingdom of God drawing close fills us with terror. But Jesus doesn’t speak about judgment in today’s passage. In fact, he even says that he wants us to be on guard so that we’re not weighed down with the worries of this life. Instead, he talks about redemption. To be redeemed is to be rescued, delivered, saved and set free. Jesus says, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” The coming of the kingdom of God doesn’t mean punishment and judgment that is meant to harm us. God drawing close to us is to save us, to rescue us, to redeem us from the mess we’ve made. What is near is our salvation, not our condemnation.

This season, the Christmas carols you’ll hear mostly focus on the tiny baby Jesus, asleep in the manger bed. But our Advent hymns – they embrace this Jesus who comes preaching redemption – our redemption, the redemption of all the earth. “Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.” The time is near – not for our end, not for destruction, not for judgment. The time is near because God is near to us – always. The time is near because the kingdom of God is in our midst – always. A Savior comes to us – a baby, yes, new life. But also the Prince of Peace. A precious child, and a strong champion of the down-trodden and oppressed. A helpless newborn, and God-with-us. The time is near. Amen.

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