St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent (November 29, 2015)

Liturgical Color: Blue

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


What's the World Coming To?

Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Don't you get tired of hearing the same old things, and of repeating them! "What's the world coming to?" people moan. "It's just not like it used to be" they cry. "Things just keep getting worse." we say to one another in one way or another. People are everywhere bemoaning the decay of the family or the spread of terrorism or the rampant use of drugs. There seems to be no end (and there probably isn't) to the list of things we might complain about. So many of us seem to fear what is coming rather than look forward to it.

And so it was in the time of Jesus—and probably worse. In this morning's reading, Jesus seems to tire of all the negativity and pessimism. "You think you've seen the worst," Jesus seems to say, "Well, you ain't seen nothin' yet."

"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 with fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

And then, after he lays it all out, what does he call us to? Despair? Resentment? Depression?

No! It is then, he says, that our hope begins:

"Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

I marvel at Jesus' ability constantly to turn what seems a bad situation upside down. "If you are focusing your vision on the bad stuff," Jesus says, "If you're living in isolation or mistrust or despair, or even just given a bit much to gossip, then it is as though you have no eyes or ears with which to perceive the world. The sense organs that are guided by faith see redemption drawing near even in clouds of storm and thunder."

The experience of faith as we look to the future coming of Christ does not involve fear. We already know Christ.

Two near-legendary stories reveal the attitudes of St. Francis and Martin Luther concerning the "end times." While cultivating a row of vegetables in the monastery garden, St. Francis was asked what he would think if he knew that Christ would return any minute. St. Francis replied, "I would think that I would like to finish weeding this row." When Luther was asked what he would do if he knew that Christ would return that day, Luther is said to have remarked, "I would plant this little tree."

The point of these stories simply stated is that we are to remain faithful in our vocation as baptized children of God, unmoved by the fear that others seem to see all about them. Whether the signs described in today's gospel refer to a specific date in the next few weeks or to an unknown time in the distant future, the Christian knows that redemption in Christ has already been accomplished on the cross. There is nothing to fear. No millennialist warnings need have any power over us. No terrorist threat need make us fearful. We live in peaceful and certain expectation that, indeed, the steadfast love of the Lord will never pass away.

Our natural instinct is to feel abandoned, hopeless, and fearful when we face calamities such as Jesus describes in the gospel. But it is in just such circumstances that the Lord says, "Lift up your heads!" The same crises, calamities, hours of desolation and heartbreak, that to many people constitute a denial of God—these very things are, to the Christian, a new and tremendous revelation of God.

This ability to look up, to "lift up our heads," to add on to life a new dimension, is precisely what differentiates human beings from all the rest of creation. Wasn't it in Israel's darkest hours that the Old Testament prophets spoke of hope? The church has been at its best when it has cried to God from the depths in a St. Francis, a Martin Luther.

And this is all because in those darkest hours, we abandon arrogant self-trust and we turn to God. We trust our intellects, our patriotism, our philanthropy, our religion, our mortality, and when these fail us, we turn to God. This is the time to "lift up our heads" for we are about to be redeemed, saved from these partial and inadequate trusts, these lesser gods.

The core of the matter that Jesus is communicating to the disciples is not the wars and rumors of wars or what was going to happen when time had run out. It is something on the other side of the words, tough to put your finger on. The crisis isn't in this contaminated world or even at the end of it. Jesus was almost cavalier about all manner of trouble. Not that he was lacking in compassion. He was crucified for having too much. Simply getting through was what mattered to him, not getting out. By his grace, we are able to transcend our circumstances. We can "lift up our heads" and find the hope brought to us through Christ.

And hope entails waiting. We wait for the fulfillment of a kingdom which is both already and not yet. To expect the Messiah is not merely to wait for something to happen. Nor is it a frantic effort to make something happen. Rather, to wait for the coming of Christ rests upon the confidence that something has already happened. It is the church's task and the individual believer's calling to recognize and serve Christ and his kingdom that is present in history.

It is folly to try to make something happen as if we were the only workers in the kingdom. Nikos Kazantzakis tells a story of having come upon a number of cocoons from which moths were emerging. He picked up one of the cocoons and saw through the membrane that a living moth moved within. Noticing that his warm breath upon the cocoon accelerated the emergence of the moth, he continued to blow gently upon it. The membrane quickly split open, the struggling moth came out, but not in the way that he had expected. The creature's wings only partially unfolded while it struggled helplessly.

The experience remained with the author as a vivid reminder of the folly of taking personally and strongly in hand matters that require subtle and hidden powers that are beyond the power of one's own will.

The point? The point is to be prepared for the vindication of the kingdom of God, for its actual appearance in the here and now. Not in some sort of apocalyptic or millennial sense, but simply the outbreak of kingdom foretastes, sacramental moments, grace moments, when things are for at least a little while like things ought to be all the time, right here in the middle of today.

The Berlin wall coming down, the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Anwar Sadat's trip to Jerusalem, the ending of apartheid in South Africa, the stand of students against the Chinese Government in Tiananmen Square, the current raging against racism, and our hopes for the Paris Climate Conference are all powerful images of the breakthrough of the kingdom into history. Even my experience of Thanksgiving with family, including a new granddaughter, seated again around a table sharing a meal together is a profound sacramental moment, a grace moment.

Just as surely is it a grace moment when we celebrate Christ's presence with us in Holy Communion. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Christ's presence is the continuing and nurturing presence of God with us, forgiving, healing, renewing, sustaining. Signs of the kingdom at hand.

What if, instead of looking at the world through "Kingdom colored" glasses, we become jaded and cynical and presume things will continue forever to be as they've always been? What if we even more pessimistically ask the questions with which I began my remarks this morning? "What's the world coming to?" "It's just not like it used to be." "Things just keep getting worse."

What if we really haven't kept any oil in our lamps for the sudden and unexpected outbreaks of peace, reconciliation, goodness, Christ-likeness, whether in persons, the family, or the nation and world? All of a sudden the bridegroom comes! And we stand with our lamps empty, our lights out, and all our bets on the wrong horse. In our worldly wisdom we failed to count on the kingdom.

It's coming, this celebration. And it's more than most would seem to want to make of it. It is considerably more profound and more satisfying. In, with, and under the joys of our secular Christmas, the warmth, the music and generosity, Christmas is ultimately about an act of God by which we are redeemed. It is about the God who comes in mercy, comes to chasten and to comfort, to renew what has decayed, the God who comes in mercy to judge and to heal.

Advent is not just a time for observing the signs in the sun and moon and stars, the distress of nations, and grown people fainting. As the text for today says, in the face of what we think is a judgment on us, we are asked to "stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." Amen.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.

 

 

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