Sermon for December 2nd, 2012

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Luke 21:25-36

25 ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’

29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34 ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’

Prepare the Way: Looking Forward

Every year in the church, we play a little game of "let's pretend." It's called the liturgical calendar, or the church calendar. It's divided into seasons--Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, to name a few of the big ones. Somehow we manage to condense the entire 33 year life and ministry of Jesus down into a one year cycle, reflected in each of these seasons. So, every year during the season of lent we re-enact the events leading up to Christ's betrayal and death on the cross. We solemnly pretend that we don't already know what's coming next, and then we celebrate with joy and surprise Christ's resurrection on Easter Sunday. Just like last year. And the year before. Collectively as a church, we've been doing this for a couple thousand years, actually. I hope you know how the story goes by now.

Please don't misunderstand me. I love the liturgical calendar, and it's a great teaching tool, especially for young children and those who are not as familiar with the story of the gospels. It's even a great reinforcement tool for lifelong Christians, reminding us on a seasonal basis of who we worship, and why. But it's also a bit of a stretch--the idea of compressing one amazing lifetime into just 52 Sundays, over and over again. It's also a stretch to think that we can somehow re-create or identify with the thoughts and feelings of those who actually walked with Jesus on his journey from the manger to the cross and the empty tomb.

Today we begin the season of Advent. This is the first season in our church year, and, as I'm sure you know, it starts before Jesus even comes onto the scene. In Advent, we aren't compressing 33 years of Jesus' life and ministry into one year...we're actually compressing thousands of years of Israel's waiting for the Messiah...into just four weeks. Oh...and in case you were hanging on the edge of your seats wondering, here comes the spolier: Yes, on December 25th, we will (once again) have a baby Messiah in a manger. You can put it on your calendars, set your clocks by it and take it to the bank. Or as the Beach Boys put it in one of their Christmas songs, "Christmas comes this time each year." No surprise. No guessing. No wonder. And I think that's what bothers me a little about the liturgical calendar.

If you're a football fan, imagine for a minute if at the beginning of every football season, the NFL commissioner came out onto the field at the first game, and announced definitively the final score of every game that would be played that season, all the major plays and stats, along with who would make the playoffs, and who would eventually win the Superbowl. Or (if football isn't your thing) imagine if, on the very first show of the season for American Idol, the judges announced who the finalists would be, and who would come out as the winner. I would turn off the TV then and there. Part of why we watch is the anticipation, the uncertainty of what we want to happen but aren't sure actually will happen.

For those of us who have lived through many Advents and Christmases, I think it's nearly impossible for us to really put ourselves in the shoes (or sandals, rather) of the Ancient Israelites who were promised that a Savior would be born to them, and who waited year after year for this to happen. And that's why today's scripture text from the 21st chapter of Luke is so fascinating to me. It holds out a beautiful solution to this problem.

Before we turn to the scripture text, though, I have to acknowledge that I can't really take credit for choosing it. There is something many protestant pastors use called the Revised Common Lectionary--basically its just a three-year calendar with a different scripture passage attached to each Sunday. The idea behind it is that if a pastor preaches from the lectionary each week, over the course of three years, the congregation will have heard sermons from a wide and representative variety of books of the Bible. This is a good thing for you, because if it were up to me, you'd just hear sermons from the book of Job all year round! Thank the lectionary! Sometimes I will depart from the lectionary for a little while, or for a sermon series, but I will always come back to it in the end.

For the next five weeks--the entire season of Advent and a little beyond--the lectionary passages are from the Gospel of Luke. Typically, lectionary passages in Advent do exactly what you'd guess: They tell the story of Joseph and Mary and all the events leading up to the birth of Christ. But this year...the lectionary passages assigned to Advent are a little bit strange. Today's reading begins not at the beginning of Luke, but in the 21st chapter, not with baby Jesus, but rather with full grown Jesus approaching the end of his ministry. This seems like a passage better suited to Lent than Advent. For the second and third weeks in Advent, we will go back toward the beginning of Luke, but still no baby Jesus. Instead we get a dirty, grungy wild-man yelling at people in the desert (John the Baptist), which would have taken place about 30 years after that first Christmas, as Jesus was about to begin his adulthood and his ministry. In fact, it isn't until the very last Sunday in Advent that we finally get to the baby Jesus, in Mary's womb as she goes to meet her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant (with John the Baptist).

So if you want to hear the story of the first Christmas, you'll have to come to our Christmas Festival on the evening of December 16th. I have decided to follow the lectionary this Advent season, and the story it tells is a quite different one altogether. But...there is a connection, and a theme to all the passages I'll preach about this advent, including today's. That theme is "Preparing the Way." Advent isn't about just passively waiting for something to happen. We already know what's going to happen and when it's going to happen. But while we're waiting, there are things that we, as followers of Christ, can do to prepare ourselves. Not just to prepare ourselves for December 25th, but to prepare ourselves continually to be the church God wants us to become, and to be the people God wants us to become. In Advent we prepare the way for Christ to come into our homes and our hearts, but also we prepare the way for others to come into our homes, our church, and our lives. We welcome them just as Jesus welcomed us. Prepare the Way.

Back to today's scripture passage in Luke 21. This is toward the end of Jesus' ministry, and he has already taught them pretty much everything he's going to teach them. The very next chapter begins with the events leading up to his betrayal and crucifixion. But before that, here in chapter 21, Jesus has just one more thing he needs to teach his disciples. I can summarize it in two words: Look forward! Or perhaps, consider the future. Be aware of it, watch for it, anticipate it. Listen to the strong future tense in the passage: "There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars . . . People will faint from . . . what is coming . . . the powers of the heavens will be shaken . . . your redemption is drawing near. This is the same Jesus who in Matthew says "Don't worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will bring worries of its own." Some people interpret that verse to mean "the future isn't important, focus on today." But here Jesus is clearly saying the future is important. The distinction is that we aren't supposed to "worry" about it...we're supposed to prepare for it. We're supposed to prepare ourselves for it so we don't have to worry.

So what exactly is it we're preparing for? What does the future hold? Can we even predict it with any sort of accuracy? Well, hopefully the media and the ancient Mayans can't, or else we've got about one month left before the world comes to an end. Harold Camping got it wrong last year. Hal Lindsey got it wrong a few decades ago in his book the "Late Great Planet Earth," and personally, I think Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins get it wrong in all the books and movies of the "Left Behind" series. But while I disagree with their predictions, what I love about all of these people I've just named, what amazes me, is that they spend tremendous amounts of time reading the scriptures, poring over the details just TRYING to anticipate the second coming of Christ. The coming of the Messiah matters to them. They care about the future, they are a future oriented people in a way that might actually be similar to the Ancient Israelites awaiting the promised Messiah.

I'm not asking you to buy into the next prediction you hear about the end of the world. But as we prepare the way this Advent season, I am asking you to look forward to the future--your future as individuals, our future as a church, as a community, and the future of our world. Tomorrow matters. Let's resolve to be forward thinking people, people who do not fear the future, but place our hope in the future, because the future is where (as verse 38 puts it) we will finally stand before the Son of Man. 1st Corinthians 13 tells us that Faith, Hope, and Love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love. We'll get to the Faith and the Love part in the weeks to come, but of these three great virtues, Hope is the one that is future oriented. Hope is the opposite of Worry. If we place our hope in Jesus Christ--yes, the one who comes each year on December 25th, but also the one who is "coming in a cloud with power and great glory"--if we place our hope in Jesus Christ, then the future is not just a recurring date on a calendar that happens every year--if we place our hope in Jesus Christ, then the future is a great place to be, an exciting place full of surprises that we can't entirely predict, that we can only anticipate, and a place for which it is well worth our time and our efforts to prepare the way.