FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT NOVEMBER 28TH, 2021 LUKE 21:25-36
Turns out there were signs all over the place and I missed them. Well, I didn’t’ miss them, as such, I just thought my GPS knew better than the signs.
It was central Pennsylvania, and I’d been invited to a prayer breakfast at the Army War College in Carlisle. It was 6:45am, and it was January, and it was dark. But no worries, I set my GPS, polished my shoes, combed my hair, straightened my collar, checked my invitation, 07hundred hours, and confidently drove off like a man going to a prayer breakfast at the Army War College. As I arrived, I followed the instructions of my GPS and turned right and into the college grounds. I was just obeying orders.
Barely had I driven ten yards onto the base than a barrier rose up out of the ground before me, and another out of the pavement behind me. Spotlights were triggered, I was blinded, a siren sounded, and in an instant three soldiers stood surrounding my car, with guns pointed at me. One asked me to slowly put my hands on the wheel and wind down the window. I didn’t think it was the right moment to ask him how I could do both of the things at the same time. I’m here to see the Lieutenant Colonel at the prayer breakfast, I stammered. The soldier wasn’t impressed, but my collar did at least persuade him I might be telling the truth. He gave me a stern lecture, and a fine, and told me to drive to the hut across the street, which I very obediently did.
Yes, there were signs. I do vaguely recall noticing them. They said, ‘All vehicles must turn left’, ‘All visitors report for screening on the left’, ‘Do not turn right’. ‘Under no circumstances must you even think about driving into the War College without first having your car strip-searched over there, on the left, where that hut is with those soldiers standing outside checking cars – and that includes you, Johnston’. That’s what the signs said. But I was on the Lord’s business – I was attending the prayer breakfast. And my GPS told me to turn right. I soon discovered that neither of those defenses carries any weight in the face of Army Code whatever, section I don’t know, paragraph I can’t remember.
It’s Advent. The season of waiting, the season of signs. Turns out there are signs all over the place. And we don’t want to miss these. Actually, we can’t fail to spot them. Especially this Advent. The first words of today’s Gospel lesson say it plainly: ‘Jesus said, “There will be signs,”’ And these signs are even bigger, louder, and scarier than the ones approaching the Army War College. “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.” Yes, there are signs.
As I read this, I found myself playing apocalypse bingo. Signs in the sun, moon and stars – check. Nations confused – check. Roaring of the sea – check. We’re getting really close here. People fainting from terror – check. Apprehension regarding the future of the world – Bingo. It’s Advent 2021, and we have a full house.
Now, if you think this is just too frightening, here comes the surgeon general’s health warning. Keep some historical perspective. Without that we will give way to fear, which is the very thing Jesus is trying to prevent when he is talking about the signs. Christians in every decade since the day Jesus uttered these words have believed that their generation will be the last. In 2021 we have a full house in apocalypse bingo, but they did too in 1921, and 1821, and 1721. Imagine the bingo cards of people in the 14th century, when black death killed half the population of Europe and 20% of the entire world. The signs have been present for 2000 years. I don’t need to reel them off – we know them: the world is broken; the human race is in turmoil. We are powerless over things we can’t even see like viruses, of the biological kind and the computer kind, as well as things we can see like floods, fires and a creation out of control. We do, indeed, faint from terror; we are overcome with anxiety over what the world is coming to. There are signs all over the place.
Jesus says that these desperate experiences are like a tree. When you see it budding you know that summer is near. That is a really startling image, isn’t it? You’d expect him to give a depressing metaphor, like ‘When you see the vultures gathering then you know death is on its way’; or ‘when you see the tress wither and perish, then you know calamity is coming’. But not a bit of it. The picture Jesus paints is a hopeful one. It’s an image of life and growth and fruit. It’s the picture of a fig tree rising with the summer warmth – leaves are budding and before you know it, fruit will grow. Maybe Jesus isn’t playing apocalypse bingo at all. Maybe this hopeful hopscotch. Just when you think it’s all gloom and suffering, the sun warms, the air sweetens, leaves bud, and creation is pregnant with the promise of new life.
Hear the Word of the Lord, Advent 2021. We are suffering. We are in pain. We have experienced all kinds of loss. But our suffering is not a sign that evil and death have won. The signs do not reveal God’s powerlessness or our destruction. They do not show us that God’s plans have been thwarted or that goodness has lost. They do not predict that the madness of our world has triumphed. No. Hear the Word of the Lord – these frightening and cataclysmic events are signs that the Kingdom of God is close at hand.
When globally 5.2 million people die in a pandemic, when drivers turn SUVs into weapons of mass destruction, when lives are cheap that they become less important than my freedom, these are signs – not that evil has won, but that hope is dawning, not of dread but of imminent joy, not of hell but of the coming heaven. With every death, with every earthquake, with every forest fire and tsunami, with every outrage perpetrated by human beings, we are closer to the coming of Christ. When the fig tree sprouts leaves you know that summer is near.”
And so, Jesus tells his followers, “When you see these things taking place, stand up and lift up your heads because your redemption is drawing near.” It’s not the time to lie down or hide. It’s not the time to be overwhelmed by fear, or paralyzed by terror. Stand up, and lift up your heads.
How can we stand up and lift our heads when the ground is shaking? How can we be stable when the plates beneath us are shifting? How is it possible to feel secure when everything we depended on – the solid, reliable things in our world, are wobbling? “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars,” says Jesus. What could be more dependable than the sun, moon and stars? We know to the nearest day when Halley’s comet will reappear in our skies. We know for certain when the next total eclipse of the sun will be visible in North Jersey. The sun is so reliable that you can literally set your watch by it. But, metaphorically speaking, the sun, moon, and stars are shaking. Nothing is predictable, nothing is certain.
Our personal, suns, moons, and stars are also shaking. There are signs in my life – in my body and my mind, in my family, in my friendships, in my ministry, in every area of my world there are signs of frailty, pointers of brokenness. There are signs all over the place – possibly in your life, too. “Will my hard work pay off; will my SATs be good enough to get me into my choice of college, and if so, will I be able to pay for it; will my retirement savings be enough; how will I survive when I’m too frail to live independently; will my tests tell the doctor that I’m getting better; will I have a job this time next year; does she or he still love me, what if I lose touch with my friends?” Yes, there are signs all around us and in us this Advent.
When you’re in the crazy house at the fair and the floor is heaving and tilting and spinning you stand up and lift your head. Because looking down at the moving floor will not help you keep your balance. It’s when we look up, when we take our eyes off the turmoil beneath our feet and fix them on something that is not moving, that we stand more securely. If we declare hope in the midst of turmoil, we will be called naïve, maybe foolish, even deluded. But we have read the signs and we know what they mean.
The signs are not pointing to destruction, but to life. They are not signs of disaster, but signs of hope. The Kingdom of God is coming. Devastation comes just before redemption, just as buds sprout on a fig tree just before the summer arrives. This is the Advent hope. And do we need it. Our world needs it. So, we dare this day to stand up and lift our heads. To fix our eyes on the only thing that will not move – the love of God. To take courage in the hope of our coming King. To take heart in God’s perfect Kingdom. To endure this passing night, because we know that something good is happening that will make all our trials seem insignificant.
He comes to break oppression, to set the captive free; to take away transgression, and rule in equity. He comes with succor speedy to those who suffer wrong; to help the poor and needy, and bid the weak be strong; to give them songs for sighing, their darkness turns to light, whose souls, condemned and dying, are precious in his sight. He shall come down like showers upon the fruitful earth; love, joy, and hope, like flowers, spring in his path to birth. Before him on the mountains, shall peace, the herald, go, and righteousness, in fountains, from hill to valley flow. To him shall prayer unceasing and daily vows ascend; his kingdom still increasing, a kingdom without end. The tide of time shall never his covenant remove; his name shall stand forever; his changeless name of love. Even so, Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.