Sermon for Advent 1C
Two weeks ago, we heard in our reading from the Gospel of Mark about Jesus’ prediction of the downfall of the temple of Jerusalem, and how wars and rumors of wars are the beginning of the birth pangs, or, in other words, labor contractions, as the new life that God is bringing into the world will put an end to all pain and suffering. Today, we get the rest of Jesus’ talk about the end times, but this time, it is according to the Gospel of Luke. And I want to start today’s sermon by repeating one thing that I said two weeks ago. And that is this: the point of apocalyptic writing is not to predict the exact date of the end of things, nor is it to literally put the fear of God in to us. Instead, it is to give us hope. One of those reasons for hope that I mentioned two weeks ago when I talked about Mark’s version of Jesus’ speech is this: that the evil things we see happening around us will not have the last word, but instead, God will have the last word. That is still true in Luke’s version, but today’s sermon is going to have a slightly different focus, as Luke is somewhat different from Mark, and as our focus in Advent is also different from our focus in the Season After Pentecost. And here is today’s focus: that when we see these things happening around us, we need not be afraid, but we can be confident, because we know that our salvation is coming near, and coming soon.
So, let’s start today first by imagining the congregation to whom Luke was writing. For some reason, the Gospel of Luke has gotten a reputation as the Gospel that is written for the Gentiles, that is, those Christians who came from a non-Jewish background. But, when we look more closely at this Gospel, we’ll find that there is a problem with this assumption. And the problem is this: when we read Luke very closely, we will notice that Luke seems to be at pains to point out the Jewishness of Jesus: Luke is the only one who tells us that Jesus was circumcised at 8 days old, for example. More pertinent to today’s section of the Gospel: Jerusalem, and more specifically, the Temple, play a very central role in Luke. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is found very often either in Jerusalem or traveling to Jerusalem. So we can safely guess that the congregation that Luke was writing for was made up largely of Christians who came from a Jewish background, with perhaps some Gentiles in the group as well.
For Jewish people in the first century, including Jewish Christians, it is hard to over-stress the importance of the Temple. The Temple was the center of the universe; it was THE place where God came to earth to meet with humanity. The Jewish people in the first century had heard stories of how the Babylonians had come in and destroyed the Temple in 586 BC, and in fact, when Jesus talked about the end times, the Temple was still in the process of being reconstructed. I don’t think it’s possible for us to imagine what it would be like to see the Temple being destroyed. The events of September 11, 2001, might come close, but the difference is that we did recover and we continue to exist as a country. In contrast, when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, not only was the most sacred place on earth destroyed, all of the hopes that the Jewish people might have had to exist as God’s people, free from Roman domination, were destroyed as well. We just can’t imagine what that’s like when we live in a country that hasn’t been conquered by a foreign enemy.
Luke wrote his gospel after the fall of the Temple. The Jewish Christians in his congregation would have been struggling to understand how God could have allowed the Temple to be destroyed again, and so they would have heard Jesus’ words first, as a prophecy come true, and second, as words of comfort: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” In other words, the destruction of the Temple and strange signs in the heavens are nothing to be afraid of. Instead, they are signs that Jesus is returning, and that those who trust in Jesus have received salvation already. Those who trust in Jesus know, as the prophet Jeremiah tells us today, that “The Lord is our righteousness.”
There is still a lot of evil in the world today that makes us afraid. We, like those Christians in Luke’s congregation in the first century, are still living in the in-between times as we await Jesus’ return. We are confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves as the earth gets warmer and sea levels rise, forcing people in low-lying areas to migrate and to seek higher ground. We, too, are fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world: refugees from the civil war in Syria flooding many countries, ISIS finding ways into Western countries and creating terror by killing civilians, protesters in Chicago and Minneapolis as the United States realizes that we haven’t learned the lessons of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and many, many more things that are evidence of the evil let loose in the world. We are afraid, and it is a natural response of human beings to be afraid.
The point of this Gospel passage is, though, to remind us that we do not need to be afraid. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, and indeed, throughout the rest of the Bible, we hear that command, “Do not be afraid.” Today we hear, “Do not be afraid, because you trust in Jesus, and what Jesus has done for you on the cross has redeemed you. You have no reason to be afraid.” Well, that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? How are we supposed to not be afraid when all of these fearful things are taking place around us?
The answer to that question comes in the last portion of today’s Gospel passage: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” “Be 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.” In other words, we are to continue living faithfully, being alert and being ready for the Lord to return at any time, and to not be afraid. So, what does this look like as we see the evil things happening around us?
When we are confused by the “roaring of the sea and the waves,” and when we hear of countries that are poorer than we are being affected by climate change, we need to not be afraid of facing up to what we have done to contribute to this, confess our sin, and act. Faithful living in this situation will include reducing our own consumption, giving to organizations that work to alleviate the effects of climate change, and advocating for change in the system that produced and continues to produce climate change. Speaking of not being afraid, Paris is still playing host to the United Nations climate summit that will be taking place in the coming weeks, despite the fact that they are still reeling from terrorist attacks. These are ways that we can live in hope in the face of one thing that brings “fear and foreboding” of what is coming upon the world.
Another issue that brings fear upon us in these days is that of the Syrian refugee crisis. In fact, we have seen governors of many states in this country reacting in fear and saying, “not in my back yard,” thinking that every Syrian refugee is a potential terrorist. Now I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a vetting process. But, folks, trying to become a refugee and being resettled in the United States is already one of the most difficult things you can try to do, no matter which country you’re coming from. When I researched what it takes to gain refugee status in this country, I was amazed that anyone even attempts it. First, you have to be referred by the UN High Commission for Refugees or by the U.S. embassy in your country of origin. And even that doesn’t guarantee that you will get in to the process. If you pass that step, you go through a lengthy application process, including interviews, approval, getting in with an organization that will resettle you, a medical check, and a security clearance from the FBI and the State Department. The process can take years. Somehow I think there is a better chance of being shot by a disturbed white male in a mass shooting than there is of being the victim of an ISIS terrorist. In fact, most of the refugees from Syria are trying to get away from ISIS themselves. Therefore, faithful living in this case would be to learn more about the refugee process, including finding out more about what Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service does to help newcomers to our country. Living in hope means welcoming the foreigner and treating him or her well, as many passages in the Bible command us.
Finally, besides climate change and ISIS, there is still the problem of racism. Even when we think we are nice people and that we are not racists, we need to continually examine ourselves and see if that is true. For if it were true, then we shouldn’t have protests across the country over how black men are treated in the criminal justice system. If it were true that we weren’t racists, then the Washington football team would rename itself to something not offensive to Native American ears. Being not afraid and living faithfully in the face of racism is to continually examine ourselves, to listen to the experiences of minorities in this country, to repent, and to find ways to change the system in which we live. The presiding bishop of the ELCA will be hosting a second webcast on racism on Thursday, January 14, at 7 p.m., and I am planning on setting it up here in the sanctuary, so that we as a congregation can watch it and discuss it together. Even though we don’t have a large minority population here in Powell, racism still exists, and it’s something that we need to start talking about as we seek to minister in our community.
Climate change, ISIS, and racism are just three of many things that cause fear and foreboding upon the earth. Living faithfully means to live in hope, not in fear, and to be able to stand and lift up our heads when Jesus does return. To be clear, though, we are not the ones bringing in the kingdom. Our efforts are small, and they will fail more often than they succeed. But, we trust that our efforts are not what will save us. Rather, it is what Jesus has already done for us on the cross that saves us, and it is in Jesus that we trust for our redemption. What faithful living, that is, living in hope, in the face of the evil in the world, does for us is to help us to be prepared for when Jesus does return. When we live faithfully, the day of Jesus’ return will not catch us unexpectedly, like a trap. And so, we can say the word “Maranatha!” with generations of Christians that have come before us, and without fear: “The Lord has come!” “Come, O Lord!” Amen.