Preaching Notes for the First Sunday of Advent (November 30, 2014)
How do we hold on to hope when everything around us seems to be falling apart? How do we hope in God when we can’t see any visible signs that God is present? How do we hum along to the endless soundtrack of happy Christmas songs playing over the loudspeakers of every place we go when inside our hearts are broken and bleeding, we can’t see anything positive in the world around us, and we have lost any confidence we once had that things are going to get better?
I know it seems like a big downer to ask these questions as we begin our preparation for Christmas in the church, but the text from Isaiah reminds us that no matter what is going on with us personally, there are plenty of people out there, in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our pews, and in this world, who are not currently in an emotional place of hope, peace, and good will for all.
Isaiah was writing during a time of difficulty. The Israelites, newly returned to the Promised Land after more than a generation of captivity in Babylon, were facing an unknown future. The nations they had created before the exile now lay in ruins. Everything had to be rebuilt, repaired, replanted, and restored. While they were no doubt glad to be home, the life they remembered no longer existed. They needed some sort of sign that God was still with them and still the same. But instead of the heavens tearing open and God appearing, instead of mountains quaking in God’s presence, God seemed to have disappeared. No one had come along to call on God’s name. God had hidden God’s face from them and left them alone to contemplate their sin and regret.
How many people sitting in your pews are feeling just like the Israelites after exile—lost, confused, uncertain, depressed, alone and afraid—and wondering why God never seems to show up for them, speak to them, or deliver them from their suffering and pain? How many people are facing the holidays alone? How many are dealing with the holiday cheer for the first time without their loved ones beside them—those whom they have lost to death, dementia, depression, dependency, or divorce? How many people are fighting just to get through each day, one day at a time? How overwhelming must the holiday cheer feel to those who are in the midst of trials and tribulations.
As we move into this season stuffed with holiday planning and busyness and parties and cheer, don’t forget about those for whom this time of year may be excruciatingly difficult. Let them know that God is not punishing them, God has not forgotten about them, and God will not ever let them go.
- Acknowledging that the holidays are not a great time for everyone is an important ministry. How can your congregation intentionally reach out to those who may be struggling?
- Are there opportunities for folks to offer themselves in service to those in need in ways that bring them into direct contact with the poor and struggling in your community? If the only ways to offer support are by purchasing things from a distance, such as through mitten trees, food baskets, coat drives, and the like, the impact of reaching out to the least and the lost may be diminished. Sometimes the best thing a person who is hurting can do is reach out in service to someone in need. Be sure to provide plenty of options and opportunities for serving others throughout the holiday season.
As part of his opening greeting, Paul takes the opportunity to give thanks for all of the gifts in evidence in the church in Corinth and to bless them as a congregation. Even though the bulk of his letter deals with the problems in the church, it is important to notice that he also affirms their many positive points.
Likewise, even though many of you serve in challenging parishes, it is important that you take opportunities from the pulpit to praise the work your members are doing, to give thanks for all of the gifts in evidence in your congregation, and to bless their work. What better opportunity to engage in such a practice than this First Sunday in Advent, which also happens to fall on the heels of Thanksgiving?
One way to do this might be to fashion a letter after the form provided in this text, which is part of the letter’s greeting. Could you follow Paul’s example and actually write a letter to your own congregation? Or could you write a litany or a special prayer of thanksgiving and blessing to be offered to your own community?
Perhaps instead of using this Scripture as the focus of a sermon, you might use it as a supporting lesson in order to help give shape to some other aspects of your worship service, especially given that the other texts for this day are somewhat challenging in content.
Talk about tribulation! Try this on for size: you will "hear of wars and rumors of wars. . . Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. . . There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. . .But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be, then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and ever will be" (Mark 13: 7-8, 14-19).
These are the words of Jesus, spoken to James and John and Peter and Andrew on the Mount of Olives as they sat there looking at the Temple, of which Jesus had said shortly before, there shall be left not one stone upon a stone. Jesus said these words as a promise and a warning, just when the disciples were pumped up and feeling good about how things seemed to be going. All the disciples had done was point out for Jesus the beauty of the Temple. All they had done was to comment on what a spectacular building it was. All they had done was to be glad about how glorious was the house of the Lord. And Jesus suddenly went off on them with all of this talk of how the Temple was going to be torn down so that not one stone would be left standing. When they pressed him to explain, he cut them down with all these terrible stories about wars and famines, and the desolating sacrilege and people needing to get out of the city so fast that they would have to leave all their possessions behind.
We live in a time in history in which many people, in the United States and around the globe, are worried. They’re worried about the future—their own and, especially, that of their children. They are worried about the growing conflict in the Ukraine and contemplating the possibility of the countries involved pulling in the United States and Russia into another cold war. They are worried about a disease spreading out of control, and the possibility of another terrorist attack. They have seen the consequences of devastating earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes. They have witnessed raging fires burning out of control, floodwaters washing away entire towns, and molten lava creeping toward a village in Hawaii. They are worried about the economy, and the environment, and the unemployment rate, and the elections, and the growing popularity of those who unapologetically claim atheism as their primary religious belief, and an overall fear that immorality is on the rise. The whole world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket! They begin to wonder, “Does all of this add up to tribulation?”
But before we comment on that, let us not forget to add on to the above list the personal tribulations that so many of our parishioners have already endured or are enduring now. In the midst of what is happening in the larger world, many among you have long been bearing personal burdens. They have suffered the debilitation of family members and friends—aging parents, young and middle-aged friends struck by devastating illnesses, co-workers and colleagues facing impossible situations. People in every church across this nation have become sick or died, and those left behind have been struck to the heart by grief or personal crisis and long and lingering illnesses that have tried their souls to the very core. Some have become nearly destitute, have been afflicted and ill treated, and have suffered days, months, and years of anxiety and depression and violence. Surely by now you have shared one another’s sorrows and borne one another’s pains to some degree. It is not too much to say that the congregation YOU serve has been so beset by troubles that inside yourselves you cry out, "How long, O Lord!"
What can you even say to your church after so much tribulation? Are the end times truly drawing near?
Let us listen carefully to what Jesus has to say, because when he was speaking to James and John and Peter and Andrew, he was speaking to us:
But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Perhaps we are accustomed to hearing these words of Jesus preached as a prophesy meant for the distant future, a time when recorded history will cease and the world will come to an end with the judgment of God. We may forget that Jesus did not speak these words to a crowd; that is, to the general population. Jesus spoke them specifically to James and John and Peter and Andrew, and he told them that all of these signs of terrible tribulation would happen before the end of this generation.
Peter, who usually remembered what Jesus did more than he remembered what Jesus said, was so struck by this word picture that later he was able to recall it vividly and tell the story to Mark, who later wrote it down for us in his Gospel.
Surly Peter must sometimes have wondered during his lifetime if and when he would see the sun grow dark and the moon stop giving its light and the stars come tumbling down out of heaven. What must he have thought, as he lay dying? Was he still looking to the clouds to catch a glimpse of Jesus coming to get him? That is, did Peter take Jesus' words literally as a promise that the world would come to an end before he, Peter, had died? Surely he did not take them, as we so often do, as a prophesy about the distant future, or else he would have not have included that sentence about all these things coming to pass before the end of his and James's and John's and Andrew's generation.
Did Jesus come on the clouds in glory to Peter before Peter died? He must have! He must have already come when Peter was telling the story to the gospel writer Mark, or else he would have left that part of the story out.
I imagine that it must have happened something like this: Peter must have mulled Jesus' words over in his mind a thousand times, weighing every syllable, thinking about what Jesus meant, and wondering if perhaps his teacher might have been mistaken. Finally, it must have occurred to him that Jesus was not mistaken. It was he, Peter, who was mistaken. He had been looking at the clouds in the sky when he should have been looking at the clouds inside himself.
It finally must have struck Peter that heaven was not "out there" somewhere, but inside of him, in the places of the heart. Where does a person's soul live, after all? Nobody can point to the exact spot. We say we know something in our hearts, but, of course, we don't mean that literally. Our souls are not really in our hearts anymore than they are really in our heads. Because our souls are in a place that we can really never point to.
Likewise, neither is heaven really a place to which we can point. The Son of Man doesn't come stepping off of a literal cloud in the sky. When he comes and sends out his angels to gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven, where will he find them? Our souls do not blow literally in the winds, the earth has no literal end, and neither does heaven. The souls of men and women are not to be seen with the naked eye, anymore than is heaven.
No. All these things are matters of the spirit, where the present and the past and the future are merged, so that Jesus speaks to us now in exactly the same way he did to James and John and Peter and Andrew long ago on the Mount of Olives.
When does the Son of Man come on the clouds with great power and glory? He comes to us at the same time he came to Peter. He comes after we have suffered great tribulation.
If you don't believe it, just look around you at your own church. There are times when folks may think they just cannot go on without some of those members, or some of those clergy, who were once there, who were the backbone of the church for years and years so that every time anyone walked into this building they could still feel the loss of those saints acutely. But they passed on, and the church survived. It did go on, in spite of the devastating losses.
But more importantly, in the midst of all of that distress, fear, and loss, ONE person has NEVER departed and never will. Christ is still there. He has never left. And, in fact, Christ Jesus has come on strong among those who are still numbered among you.
Many saints of the past have been taken and will continue to be taken from this earth. But the members of your church must remain and become saints in their place. And they are. They may not feel like saints some of the time. They may only feel like those who have only suffered great tribulation. But, then, that's the way the genuine saints have always felt.
There is a great Wesleyan hymn that really sums it all up. If you can find a suitable version for your congregation to sing, this would be a great Sunday to close your service with “And Are We Yet Alive?”