Message—The Episcopal Church of the Cross
Sunday, December 2, 2018
The First Sunday in Advent
Text: Luke 21:25-36
Jesus said, ‘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. 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.’
Then he told them a parable: ‘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. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 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.’
Good morning, friends. Peace be with you. I bid you a blessed beginning to Advent.
A long time ago, I spent a summer working for the American Dance Festival. At that time, the American Dance Festival was the largest festival in the United States dedicated solely to modern dance.
One of my jobs was house manager for all the performances. The auditorium sat almost 1200 people, and for the most popular dance companies the auditorium was full. My job was to make sure they all got in; got their programs; the ushers got them to their seats; I’d then give a thumbs up to the producer; the show would start; and then, we’d do the whole thing again at intermission.
I learned a great business lesson in this job. The second night, when I was with the ushers preparing the programs, there were inserts with advertisements in them. I told the ushers that we didn’t need to worry about stuffing those. After all, we’d handed them out the night before…
So the Assistant Director of the Festival ran into the prep room. What she didn’t do was fire me. But what she did do was explain…vigorously, yet without rancor…that these “ads” were called sponsorship; and these companies helped support the Festival; and even though they’d gone out the night before, they needed to go out that night, too; and every night from now on. “Yes, Ma’am,” said the twenty-one year-old.
Here’s the other thing I saw…in things like that, there’s a whole lot going on behind the scenes compared to what we see on the stage. The ushers; the people who do the lighting; the people who set up the stage; the people hidden away in places you can’t see who are operating this thing or that thing; the people who transport all the stage materials; the house manager; to say nothing of the hours of preparation the performers have put in…all of which is hidden and invisible to the audience…whether it’s the Dance Festival, or the ballet, or the symphony, or Paul McCartney at Austin City Limits.
What we see at a performance is only a fraction of what is. Much more is happening behind the scenes, hidden from view. And every time we show up, we’re just trusting that it’s all happening the way it should.
Now there are all sorts of things we know to be at work though they are hidden to us.
We all know from our high school physics that light, itself, is invisible. We only see what it reflects off of.
All of us with a phone this morning could send a text or google “is light invisible?” because of the invisible cell waves making their way through this room right now.
When I’m flying, I still regularly want to nudge the person sitting next to me and say “Can you believe this thing is still in the air?” I don’t. That would be bad form. But I’m still amazed at how the way the air flowing over the wings keeps those things flying.
And I can’t see love; and I can’t see hate; and I can’t see any other emotion. We only ever see what those things do to people.
We could make a much longer list of things we can’t see, but are at work behind the scenes. We all know there are forces at work beyond our perception; and there is always more to what is than what meets the eye.
John Burnett who spoke at the ECC a couple months ago made the comment that the stuff we can see with our eyes, and touch and feel…that’s all rather boring and predictable. “Want some excitement?” he asked. “Ponder the things you can’t see.”
So Advent begins today. Advent is a time before Christmas of preparation, and hope, and joy, and grace, and peace; a time of emptying and cleaning out so that there’s some internal spiritual space where Jesus can make a home in us.
And on the first Sunday of Advent, we always hear a word from Jesus from something called “The Little Apocalypse.” The word “Apocalypse” means “revealing.” It’s the “Little Revealing,” called “Little” because it’s short. You’ll find it in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
And let’s just get it out there…there isn’t a single “fa-la-la” in these words. You’ll be hard pressed to find these particular words on a Christmas card at the Target. They don’t fit what’s going on at the mall. But every year, on this Sunday, we hear them read in worship.
Here’s what’s happening when Jesus says these words: He’s at the Temple in Jerusalem before his crucifixion, and his disciples are standing in awe of the Temple; struck at how beautiful are its stones, and the gifts there dedicated to God. In other words, how beautiful are the human things about the Temple; the things they can see that impress them…the stones that are big, and the gifts that are noteworthy.
To which, Jesus replies, “These stones will come down. And there will be wars, and insurrections, and violence. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be illness and natural disaster. Things will happen, and it will not be pretty; and mostly, people will get very, very afraid. Fear will be the hallmark of that moment.
“But when these things happen, know there is more going on in the universe than you can see; and behind the scenes, God is working out his purposes, and creating something brand new; and you can’t see it yet, but someday you will; and when that happens, lift up your heads, for you will know the Kingdom of God is on its way.
“Until then, stay awake; be alert; stand fast. Persevere.”
We’ll get more Christmassy as Advent goes along. We’ll even do our Christmas Pageant in a couple weeks. But we start here because it’s Jesus reminding us of how big God is; and how big Christmas is; and that the Lord is painting on a canvass vaster than the Universe; and that as beautiful as our own human traditions are at this time of year…and they are beautiful…I do love decorating our tree while “White Christmas” is on…more is going on; and what we prepare for is nothing less than the fulfilling of God’s plan of the salvation for all the world.
We Christians do not believe that we make our way to God. We get confused about that sometimes; and deep in our heart, we’re all a little bit Pelagian from time-to-time, thinking that if we’re just good enough, or devout enough, or something enough we’ll finally be enough for God. Walk that road myself, from time to time.
My experience is that in the end, that’s a joyless, lifeless, and exhausting way of faith.
More deeply and truly, what we do believe, and what we do declare, is that God came to us…in Christmas; and that the cosmic and existential separation between us and our Source is bridged not through some kind of human effort, but by the God who becomes human…not because of what we’ve done, but because of the Lord’s great love for us, and all people, and all the world.
We believe some incredible things. We believe that the Infinite God deigned to become finitely human; that God came into this world as naked and small and dependent and defenseless as all of us did; in a place as remote as Bethlehem; and not to the equivalent of Kate and William or Harry and Meghan, but to a peasant woman and her betrothed.
And that it wasn’t an accident. It’s wasn’t by chance. It’s the way God is working out his purposes.
Which we can’t always see. Which aren’t always obvious. Looks are deceiving. More is going on than we can comprehend. All of it sometimes seems to move too slowly. But by faith we trust, and wait; and imagine.
So welcome to Advent. At the back of the space is a handout filled with ideas about how to keep this peculiar season in the Church’s life. It’s filled with spiritual practices for this time, and spiritual practices are those things we do to get in God’s Way; things that help us come alongside what God is already doing.
And maybe you’ll find it helpful. Maybe not. Take what works, and dump the rest. Whatever we do to observe Advent, it should create less spiritual clutter in our lives.
Regardless, know this: God is at work. God is at work in you. God is at work in your life. God is at work in your home, and in your work, and in your school, and when you show up to the gym. God is at work in this congregation. God is at work in your neighborhood. Behind the scenes, the Lord is busy bringing reconciliation and restoration and healing to the world. All will be well.
And if you have a day when you can’t quite believe it, or you can’t quite see it, do not fret; do not be afraid. It still is. Its truth does not depend on you. The angels will sing, and the shepherds will be amazed; and again, Jesus is born and arrives…in us, in our neighborhoods, in the world…and again, as it always is, our redemption draweth nigh, and the Kingdom of God is near.