A sermon preached at St. Francis by the Lake Episcopal Church, Canyon Lake, Texas.
The Lectionary readings for the First Sunday of Advent are here.
If you were here two weeks ago, the gospel reading for today may have sounded familiar. We read Mark’s version of Jesus telling of the destruction of the Temple then and today, we continue Jesus’ sermon from Luke’s point of view. I feel like I could give the exact same sermon. But I won’t. So let me just help you remember where we are in The Story:
Jesus and the disciples have been spending time in the Temple complex in Jerusalem and one of the disciples points out the grandeur of the Temple building. Jesus tells them that the time will come when not one stone will be left on another and he paints a rather terrifying picture of what is to come: famine and war and division but offers the hope that by trusting God we will endure.
Today, we read Luke’s continuation of this teaching: “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.” And just as we hear these warnings as a description of our current situation, so did the disciples. The world was and is a frightening place with wars and natural disasters and division and suffering.
The news tells us to be afraid and to be worried. I saw a meme this past week that reminded us of when the news was the news back in the days of Walter Cronkite. News programs were half an hour long and had just enough time to present the facts of what was going on. Mr. Cronkite didn’t give his opinion, he just reported the events of the day. Now we have entire so called ‘news’ channels that have to fill air time 24/7 so they fill the time with what makes us watch: anxiety inducing broadcasting that isn’t news at all but a way to spread the ‘rumors of wars’ Jesus warns us about. Their goal isn’t to keep us informed and knowledgeable but to get the highest ratings and the most advertising dollars.
Jesus tells us to lift our heads, look up, away from the fear driven distractions so that we can see him, so that we can know the true meaning of power and glory of God’s kingdom.
Jesus gives us the example of a fig tree. For us in the Hill Country of Texas we could substitute a peach tree. When we see the leaves come in the spring, we know that summer is already near. God’s plan for God’s creation includes the continuous rhythm of new life. But new life requires the old to pass away. The tree needs the barrenness of winter to bring about the new fruit. Or perhaps, in place of a peach tree we can think about bluebonnets and wildflowers. For these to blanket our fields, we need lots of rain in the fall and a cold winter, two things we aren’t always grateful for in Texas. But think about how excited we get when we see the first bluebonnet of the season! We tell everyone we see and we take long drives to find them in all of God’s glory. We don’t say “oh, the world is too harsh, I can’t enjoy the beauty.” We go looking for it!
And so, when we see the suffering in this world, we are to say, “the Kingdom of God is near.” Not that the end is near but that God is near, with us, Emmanuel.
Jesus isn’t talking about some Pollyanna version of toxic positivity where we ignore the suffering in this world, but the acknowledgement of God’s glory because we know Whose we are: God’s beloved children and we trust and know that God is with us always, so that when we are troubled by the pain and suffering in this world we are, like Jesus, moved with compassion to ease it, not just for ourselves but for everyone.
And at the same time, we admit that God is God and we are not and so fixing the world isn’t our job nor our purpose. God has promised to restore all things and we have to let him do it his way. Jesus tells us to be on guard, to watch, to take care not to let our hearts be weighed down and dulled with the cares of this life, with the anxieties of day-to-day life. We aren’t to let fear guide us but Hope.
When Jesus tells us to pray for the strength to make it through, he isn’t saying to ask for self-sufficiency but the courage and strength to follow Jesus even when the world says we are fools for doing so and to pray for the endurance to keep our eyes on God and not be distracted by the world saying “be afraid, take what you want, look out for yourself.”
What comes to mind as I read Jesus’ words is what has become known as the Serenity Prayer. Did you know that the original version was written by the American theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was a prominent public voice in the first half of the twentieth century and spoke and wrote of the intersection of religion, politics, and public policy.
He penned the beginnings of his famous prayer in 1932, “Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”
His final version was published in 1951 and reads:
God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Life in God’s Kingdom on earth as in heaven isn’t a competition of self-sufficiency and individual strength but a companionable journey in which together with God’s help we follow Jesus toward that time when we all stand face to face with God.
Our worldview as Jesus’ Followers is a kingdom view. The kingdom to which we belong is not of this world. It is not made of bricks and wood and not an authority that finds power in oppression but in the loving, life-giving, and liberating ways of God. But God’s Kingdom is definitely in this world because we are the embodied Kingdom of God.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent and the first day of the new year in the church calendar. So, happy New Year, how was your Thanksgiving? Wait, what? Where’s Christmas? It’s coming but not yet.
We begin Advent with the tension of the theme of hope and scripture readings about disaster. Advent is the season of expectant waiting, not dreadful waiting but expectant, hope-filled waiting because we trust and believe God’s promises. We are to stand up and raise our faces toward him, without fear. God will set all of creation into proper order as he intended from the beginning before we came along and decided that the one fruit that we could take for ourselves was better than the abundance God had provided for us.
In the very first Advent season, when Mary and Joseph waited on the birth of Jesus, having been entrusted with bearing and raising God’s Son, I’m sure they had moments of fear and dread. And they hoped, believing God’s enduring Word.
We aren’t called to fix this world but to shine the light of God’s love into the darkness so that others can see Jesus coming in great glory, not someday, but now. How we love is how we reveal God’s glory to the world, keeping our eyes on Jesus so that others see him, too.
And we pray, continuously. As an Advent activity, if you haven’t already made an Advent plan for home, I invite you to take the collect for today and read it each day as you light a candle in your Advent wreath.
Let’s practice it together. Turn to the top of page 3 in your bulletin and pray with me:
“Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”
Do it in the morning or before a meal. If you don’t have an Advent wreath at home, just circle up 4 candles with whatever you have. Read this prayer each day, lighting one candle. And then do the same next week with next week’s prayer and two candles and the next with three, and the next with four. Keep your expectation sharp. Hope. Pray. And keep your head up and your eyes on Jesus. Amen.