“What do you expect?”
Sermon for 1 Advent 2018
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.
One morning here at Redeemer church, our church receptionist called my office from the front desk to say, “Assisseh, there is a woman here who needs some help. Can you come?”
So I put aside my sermon writing for a moment and went out to greet the unexpected visitor. I started to introduce myself, but as soon as the words left my lips, she launched into her own introduction, which was fast and loud and would have filled several pages had it been written down.
She was from Argentina. She was very happy to be in Jerusalem. It was her first time in the Holy Land. She loved Jesus—very much. She wanted to arrange a Catholic Mass at Redeemer Church for her large group of pilgrims.
And, she was quite eager to add, her priest, Fr. Gustavo, is a personal friend of Pope Francis.
And with that, she stopped to take a breath, and looked at me with bright-eyed anticipation. I could tell she expected that last comment would seal the deal.
“That’s great!” I replied. “Of course, you can have a church service here.”
“But...you know this is a Lutheran Church, right?”
As these words sunk in, I watched her face fall and her eyes fill up with tears.
“Lutheran? Oh no!”
“But the priests at the Holy Sepulcher yelled at me and said to get out! No reservation, no Mass. Only the Greeks were nice to me, and they said to come here!”
And then her next words came out with little sobs: “Lutheran! Now what will I do?”
I looked at our receptionist, and then back to the crying woman.
“Come with me,” I said.
I took her arm and accompanied her out of the church, around the corner, and down the Via Dolorosa, until we reached the (not-Lutheran) Ecce Homo Convent.
“Can you help my new friend to schedule a Catholic Mass here?” I asked their front desk receptionist.
Of course, she was more than happy to help, and was immediately busy making arrangements. Our visitor from Argentina was already talking a mile a minute about her group, and about the priests at the Holy Sepulcher, and of course about Fr. Gustavo—who, you may have heard, is a personal friend of Pope Francis.
I stepped outside the Convent, but when I was almost out of earshot, I heard the woman exclaim,
“You know, I asked God to send me an angel, but I didn’t expect a Lutheran one!”
Dear friends, today marks the beginning of Advent, the season of expectation. Each year the church takes this 4-week journey together, waiting in hope for Christmas as well as for the second coming of Christ Jesus, the Living Lord. During these weeks before Christmas we sing songs of expectation, and light candles in expectation, and pray prayers of expectation. We decorate trees and hang lights and prepare food in expectation.
Which all begs the question: What do we expect?
Be alert, says Jesus. Be on guard.
But for what?
What are we expecting? Do we expect anything at all?
Some days, it feels we can’t expect much.
I admit that my expectations of elected leaders are pretty low these days. It feels like a good day, for example, when the president of my home country doesn’t say (or tweet) something overtly racist or sexist or xenophobic.
The same could be said about my expectations for the peace process here in Palestine and Israel. At the St. Andrew’s Day celebration at the Scottish Church Thursday evening, I spoke with a diplomat who painted a picture of impending doom for the two-state solution—which, to be fair, is not really news. In recent months, however, people seem to say the word “Oslo” with a wistfulness as if Norway itself had ceased to exist. The days when a viable Palestinian state was something to be expected in our lifetime now seem like a dream.
On the other hand, what we probably can expect, based on recent weather patterns, is extreme cold or extreme snow or extreme heat (and probably all of the above) during the next year, as our planet continues to show symptoms of the disease of climate change—even as many continue to ignore the signs.
And here we are, beginning the season of expectation.
As we decorate the trees, light the candles, and sing the songs of Advent, are we just going through the motions, or do we truly expect something of ourselves, of the world, of God?
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells the disciples exactly what to expect. First, he says, we can expect some turmoil:
“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. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (Luke 21:25-26)
But then—Jesus says we can expect something else:
“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” (Luke 21:27)
In other words: yes, the world is a mess—and Jesus is coming again soon.
Yes, humans continue to worship empire and seek power over others—and the kingdom of love, peace, and dignity is near.
Yes, creation itself is wounded by human greed and excess—and the redemption of the world, and of all our messes, is on its way.
What can we expect? We can expect that Jesus,
the Son of Man,
Prince of Peace,
Will not leave us abandoned,
Will not let the story end this way.
Jesus is coming soon!
And Love, says Jesus, is what you can expect. AMEN!
I really want to believe this. And most days I do! I mean, I wouldn’t be a pastor of the church if the hope of redemption and love and peace for all people and all of the cosmos didn’t live in my heart.
But it is tough sometimes, isn’t it? It’s much more reasonable to expect that things will remain the same, that people will continue to be terrible, that the wall will continue to stand, that justice will never be born—in Palestine, or anywhere else.
And yet, Jesus says: “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”
Scripture tell us Jesus is coming! The Kingdom is coming! God’s peace and justice, redemption and reconciliation are on the way!
But just how do we believe it, how do we trust it, how do we keep expecting love when the world gives us every reason to expect otherwise?
The short parable Jesus shares in today’s Gospel lesson gives us a hint. Jesus says:
“Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
Of course, the cynic in me wants to say:
You know, sprouting leaves are signs of spring, not summer.
In fact, sometimes sprouts are only signs that there’s another snowstorm, or rainstorm, or a terrible springtime cold on the way. We know from experience that when you see those first leaves growing, it can still be a long, long way to summer!
And still, says Jesus, look for the sprouts. Look for the green things. Look for signs of life. Then draw near to the places and the people who are themselves signs of the coming kingdom of God.
Dear friends, this is what Advent is about. It’s an intentional time of noticing the trees, of paying attention to the sprouts. Even though in our part of the world this church season comes during the rainy season, still the church spends these four weeks drawing near to God and to the seeds of life and love God has planted in our midst.
We do this, because sometimes waiting joyfully and expecting hopefully comes easy.
And often it doesn’t.
The world has a way of clouding our vision, of convincing us that the manger will remain empty, and the stone will remain at the entrance to the tomb, and the long dark night will never end.
And that’s why we need Advent!
We need to gather as a community,
And share food,
And sing hymns,
And hear the words of the prophets,
And light candles against the night.
We need to pray.
And we need to practice—practice seeing the trees.
Practice noticing the sprouts.
We need to practice expectation—so that the rest of the year, in every season, in times of joy and times of sorrow, we will remember that we can joyfully expect Jesus to be born again in our hearts, and can confidently expect the Kingdom of God to be born fully into our broken world.
Let us pray:
In our secret yearnings
we wait for your coming,
and in our grinding despair
we doubt that you will.
And in this privileged place
we are surrounded by witnesses who yearn more than do we
and by those who despair more deeply than do we.
Look upon your church and its pastors
in this season of hope
which runs so quickly to fatigue
and in this season of yearning
which becomes so easily quarrelsome.
Give us the grace and the impatience
to wait for your coming to the bottom of our toes,
to the edges of our fingertips.
We do not want our several worlds to end.
Come in your power
and come in your weakness
in any case
and make all things new.
― Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann