Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16 Psalm 25:1-10 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 Luke 21:25-36
Signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations. Confusion caused by the roaring of the sea and waves. People who faint from fear and foreboding. The powers of the heavens shaken. Welcome to the season of Advent!
Many of us are still working on Thanksgiving feast leftovers. E-mail inboxes are still being flooded with Black Friday offers. Cyber Monday is tomorrow. The malls are packed and bustling. Salvation Army ringers are out in full force, and radio stations assault our senses with an endless cycle of Christmas carols.Advent? What happened to Advent?
While the secular world is merrily jingle-belling itself to the odd juxtaposition of Santa Claus and the baby Jesus in the manger, we Christians hear, instead, odd scriptures which herald our new liturgical Church year. The prophet Jeremiah writes, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel. . .” In his first letter to the Thessalonian Christians, the apostle Paul encourages them to “increase and abound in love for one another. . .” so that they may be “blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” Luke continues the theme of “what is yet to come” with an apocalyptic vision of signs of the end times.
Signs in nature. Distress among nations. Confusion and fear and foreboding about what is to come. As with all things scriptural, we need a bit of context to make any sense of this morning’s gospel.
In the Gospel two weeks ago, Jesus and his disciples are wandering around on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The disciples comment on the grandeur of the Temple, its stones, its generous offerings. Jesus’ reply to these observations is this: “The days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” Jesus then predicts that nations will rise against nation. There will be famines, earthquakes and pestilence. The disciples will suffer persecution, rejection and death at Roman hands—all because they profess the name of Jesus.
We must remember that by the year 40 CE, Jesus had been crucified. Mark’s gospel was not written down until twenty years after that. The gospel of Luke was written in the mid-eighties of the first century of the Common Era. In the year 70 CE, the Jewish Zealot sect decided to rebel against Rome. Titus and his Roman troops allowed Jewish people to enter Jerusalem for Passover, then barred the gates. Within six months, Rome had set the Temple on fire and completely destroyed the city of Jerusalem. Death and destruction lay in the rubble of those stones, once so magnificent. The Jewish people had lost forever the greatest symbol of their faith—the Temple—and it has never been re-built to this day.
In the wake of such destruction, poverty, disease and despair were the key words of the day. Yet Luke wants to encourage his people. He reminds the early Christians that no matter how bad things get, “your redemption is drawing near.” What does Luke mean by that phrase? The first generation of Christians really did believe that the Lord would return in their lifetimes. The apostle Paul had been the first to reassure the Christians that the Lord would return, so they must continue to hope, to love each other and live in holy ways—so that they would be ready. We must keep in mind that Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is the earliest book in the New Testament, written sometime in the 50s—some thirty years before Luke’s gospel was penned. Both Paul and Luke wanted their Christian communities to continue to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, no matter what the secular world situation looked like. Yes, there were wars and rumors of wars. That has always been the case, no matter the era. Yes, there was disease and disasters. Always. Yes, there was, and would always be, poverty and refugees who flee from persecution and corrupt governments. In fact, Jesus’ parents had done that themselves, fleeing Judea from King Herod when Jesus was a toddler.
So regardless of when humans have lived, there have always been reasons to despair and wring hands and wonder whether the End Times are upon us. So how does God come to the human race in such crazy times? How is God ever able to break into human time and transform hearts and lives? In Luke’s community, the memories that were still fresh were of God in the very person of Jesus. Jesus had, literally, walked among some of those who wrote down the sayings and stories of Jesus of Nazareth. While Very few of eye witnesses remained by the mid-eighties, they had already passed down precious information. They knew, first-hand, of the life-changing and transforming power that Jesus had had on them. They knew that contrary to the world’s beliefs, life could come out of death. Resurrection of any thing and all things was possible. Joy in the midst of grief was possible. Hope in the midst of rubble was possible. People whose lives had been dramatically changed by Jesus now told others. No matter what was going on in the world, they proclaimed God’s love, God’s hope, God’s new life that had been born out of the depths of death and persecution.
The fact that you and I continue to gather every week as faithful Christians is, in itself, a continuing and living witness to this Truth. Every week, we come to a holy Table. We remember what Christ has said and done. In that holy remembrance, it is as if he is still, literally, among us.Because he is—in the blessed bread and wine. We take the bread and wine—Christ himself—into us. Thus, we are changed, transformed, into his body in the world in which we live.
Our own world today does not look any calmer than that of the first century. In the Thursday Washington Post, I read an article entitled “The Great Thaw.” Mt. Grinnell, in Montana’s northern Rockies, features a beautiful—and accessible—glacier. However, this glacier is rapidly melting—losing one-tenth of its mass in one year. If you want to see it, you’d better get there in the next couple of years, because scientists predict it will have totally disappeared in fifteen years.
On another front, Parisians of all ages have been shaken up by the recent terrorist attacks. Some continue their daily routines. Others cannot bear to do that yet. In this country, racism is, sadly, still very much alive and well. Every day seems to bring forth a new tragedy, another senseless reminder of our country’s divisions. Tensions in the Mideast continue. A reminder of this came this week as I followed the Facebook posts of a young clergy colleague who’s been visiting the Holy Land with a group from the Diocese of Massachusetts. He posted yesterday that the group had visited St. George’s Monastery in Jericho, then traveled to the Dead Sea, but had been asked “not to take photos at either destination.” When you are in Israel and cautioned this way, it is for political reasons and your safety. Not a happy reminder.
So where is God in all this tumult, fear, death, destruction? God is here. Alive, well, full of hope. How do we know this? Throughout the centuries, God’s people have thrived and proclaimed the good news of God. Life in the midst of death. Every time we celebrate someone’s life in a memorial service—as we did here yesterday—we proclaim the ultimate truth that life triumphs over death. Just because we don’t see that at times does not make it untrue. It is true. Furthermore, there are many signs of God’s life, love, hope and joy that break into our world in so many ways.
In the past two weeks, this preacher has seen and heard many signs of God’s grace, hope and life. Saturday before last, I saw real signs of God’s love, God’s hospitality and God’s radical welcome as women and men of St. Philip’s welcomed both friends and strangers at the Holly Days Bazaar. Everywhere I turned, there was life, color, and happy sounds of God’s people. Little ones were welcomed as were big ones.
This past Thursday, God’s life and love blossomed in amazing ways, once again, at the St. Philip’s Community Thanksgiving Dinner. For weeks, a devoted team of God’s people, led by Deb Fitzer and Debbie Dusterwald, had prepared for that dinner. In the office, Danielle designed an efficient spread-sheet for volunteers and people who wanted meals delivered. Every time someone called, I heard welcome in her voice as she talked to total strangers. Children designed and colored beautiful placemats to brighten up the tables and to welcome our guests. On Thursday, Scott Aker and his kitchen crew worked together like a well-oiled machine, serving about one meal every thirty seconds for three hours. In the dining room, I watched Joe and William Westlake roll forks, knives and spoons into napkins, to get ready for our guests. Krisa and Lucas Arzayus showed up, as did others, to be official greeters of our guests.
So many folks involved in the seating, the serving, the cleaning up, preparing for the next group, driving meals to shut-ins. On and on. Too many lights of Christ to mention by name. But they were here. You were here. The risen Christ was here. You ask how God breaks into our lives. This is how God breaks into our lives. As the saint Teresa of Avila put it, Christ has no body but ours. Christ has no hands but ours. Christ has no feet but ours.
We must live and move and have our very beings in our daily lives in such clear ways that people will know the love of Christ. When we practice this love, we bring God into the world—not in some future time, but in real time and real ways, today. You and I bring Christ to life. In that Truth lives hope, healing, and love. Out of that Truth, may God’s Holy Name be praised—now and at the end of time. Amen.
© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
 Luke 21:6.