Sermon for Sunday, 29 November 2015
1st Sunday of Advent
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Dear friends, Christmas is on its way! The signs are all around us. Lights and trees are appearing in the Christian quarter. The saxophone-playing Santas are mysteriously appearing again in front of Old City shops. Christmas bazaars are filling our Saturdays while emptying our pockets. Of course, depending on where you call home, the signs of the season here in Jerusalem may feel a bit unfamiliar. Some of us are missing snow and Christmas sweaters. Some of us, from the southern hemisphere, are missing the traditional Christmas summer barbecue! But make no mistake – we have seen the signs. Advent has begun, and Christmas is surely coming soon.
But there are other signs demanding our attention in the world around us. There are disturbances on nearly every continent. There is distress among the nations. Depending on who you listen to, which newspapers you read, or which online news sources you follow, these events are definitive signs pointing to a World War, or to a war with Islam, or to the rise of fascism.
Sources tell us that current events signal the likelihood of a race war in the United States, or the end of the two-state solution for Palestine and Israel, or the formation of one apartheid state.
Even worse, some say all signs point to a President Trump in the White House.
Any one of these things may cause us to tremble, as this morning’s Scripture text says: “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” In other words, when the world is a mess, we humans can be a mess, too.
This doesn’t feel like a very Christmas-y message, and we’re not likely to hear these verses recited at our annual Christmas pageant. And yet, Jesus said these things right here, in the land of Christmas. Preaching in the temple here in Jerusalem, Jesus tried to prepare the people for an event so huge, so dramatic, that it would shake the very foundation of their lives—chiefly the destruction of the temple itself. At the same time, although the disciples didn’t understand it then, he was also preparing them for the destruction of his own body. One way or the other, Jesus is talking about a big change to come, and he tells the people “Be on guard….be alert! For it will come upon all who live on the face of the earth.”
Gathered here in Jerusalem on this first Sunday of Advent 2015, we also see signs that something big is happening. After all, we’ve read the news. We’ve seen how nations and cultures, systems and the status quo have been shaken. Some days it seems even the sun, moon, and stars are stirred up. The world is a mess!
And yet, here we are today, lighting candles and singing of hope.
Here we are, praying for peace.
Here we are, counting down the days to Christmas.
Here we are, teaching our children the story of a baby born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago.
Why? How can this be?
Shouldn’t we be fainting from fear?
Shouldn’t we be building walls and stockpiling weapons?
Shouldn’t we be preaching gloom and doom?
Thanks be to God we have not only seen the news, we have also heard the words of Jesus. Therefore, even when the signs around us point to disaster or to the end of the world as we know it, we know Jesus says to us, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Don’t be caught with your head in the sand or your eyes to the ground. Stand up, look around, and see what God is doing! The God of redemption and new life is always at work in the world.
Continuing his sermon in the temple, Jesus reminds us how when we see trees sprouting new leaves at the end of winter, we naturally think “Oh, wonderful, summer is coming!” We get excited, because we know from experience that new leaves are signs of a new season and of new life. “So also” says Jesus, “when you see these things taking place—even terrible things—you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
Of course, it’s easy to have hope when trees are sprouting and flowers are blooming. It’s much harder to hope when your entire olive grove is uprooted.
It’s easy to trust in God when the weather is pleasant. It’s much more difficult to trust that summer is coming when the world seems controlled by the icy fingers of injustice, terror and death.
Even still, Jesus tells us that as people of faith, hope is our response in every circumstance, because we know that summer is coming. Redemption is drawing near. The kingdom of God is at hand. The baby is about to be born.
Make no mistake: terrible things are happening. There is great sorrow, great struggle, and great worry in the world today.
But no matter what signs and events are happening in the world today—whether they are natural disasters, human disasters, or political disasters –we respond with hope because these events, these signs, these powers and principalities do not write the story of creation. Terrorists are not the authors of life. Brokers of injustice and hate do not have the power to re-write the greatest love story ever told.
|Nativity scene from Beit Gimal Monastery|
Photo by Carrie Smith
We have already heard this great love story, the one we started to tell the children this morning at the beginning of this worship service—
the one about how God was born among us as a baby named Jesus;
And how that same Jesus walked with us and shared our joys and sorrows;
And how this same Jesus emptied himself on the cross, taking on all our sin;
And how even then, God’s love for the world raised Jesus from the tomb on the third day.
No sign, no terror event, no crisis, no wall, no gun, no election, no ideology, nothing in the whole world has the power to change this story. Signs may point to disaster. Breaking news may point to terror. Politicians may point to war. Still, we know that while heaven and earth may pass away, the promises of Jesus will not pass away. Our God remains the God of redemption and new life, who raises even the dead from the grave. This hope sustains us even when the world seems to be falling apart.
I remember an Advent season about twelve years ago when I was certain the world was falling apart around us. It had been a particularly terrible year, beginning with the death of my husband Robert’s father in January, and continuing from there: several failed pregnancies, a cross-country move, a painful divorce in the family, and my beloved grandmother falling ill with pneumonia on Thanksgiving Day. Sitting alone, in a new town in a new state, far from friends and family, I had already decided not to send out Christmas cards that year.
And then, my two year old son got sick. So sick that we were sent to a doctor for a second opinion and a scan on a special machine the hospital had just purchased. This special test would determine if this sickness was a fluke, or if it was that word no one wanted to say out loud: cancer. The test was scheduled for the day after his third birthday, December 9.
If my world wasn’t shaken before, now I was certain the sun and moon and stars would fall out of the sky. All these years later, I can still feel how my stomach hurt and my lungs seemed to stop working properly. How could we get through this? How would we ever celebrate Christmas in the midst of this crisis?
But an amazing thing happened. On the morning of the test, when we arrived at the hospital, a pastor was waiting for us there. This was a pastor we had only just met, because we had just moved to town weeks before. He had been there, sitting in that hospital waiting room before dawn, so that we saw a familiar face when we arrived.
It was a small thing, of course, and he could not change the outcome of the test we were about to undergo (which, by the way, turned out fine). But the presence of that faithful brother in Christ was a reminder that even though the world seemed to be falling apart, God was there. Even though we were entrusting our toddler to medical doctors, God was already there. All around us in the hospital that morning were signs of sickness, signs of sadness, signs of death – but the presence of that pastor sitting in front of us was a powerful sign of hope.
Dear sisters and brothers, the season of Advent comes only once in the church year, but in these four weeks we practice what faithful disciples of Jesus are to be doing all year long. During these four weeks before Christmas, we practice hope.
We light candles in the darkness.
We gather as a community to share meals and to pray.
We prepare our homes to welcome guests and even strangers.
We share food and gifts with family and friends.
We teach our children the story of God’s love for the world.
|The children of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem|
Singing for the 1st Sunday of Advent
"He came down that we might have joy..."
Photo by Carrie Smith
And we sing – we sing songs of hope, trusting in Jesus who said that although some things will pass away, and even some terrible things will happen,
even so, through him our redemption is drawing near.
During these weeks of Advent, we will be alert. We will stand up and raise our heads! We will be on the lookout for signs of new life, even in winter. Even in the darkness. Even in sickness. Even in conflict. Even in this city. Even today.
For the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when peace will be born,
when justice will be born,
when equality will be born
when human kindness will be born
and when Jerusalem—and the whole world—will live secure.
May this hope fill you with peace, love, and joy in this Advent season, and the whole year through. Amen.