A Sermon preached on November 29th (Advent I) at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenJeremiah 33:14-16, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36
The End of the world is nigh!
It certainly sounds as if it is in today’s Gospel. As we heard Jesus say, 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." (Luke 21:25-27)
You can almost imagine Jesus walking around with a couple of sandwich boards with this message on it. Though of course today sandwich boards are out, and we read it all on Facebook or Twitter instead. There are certainly many prophets of doom around and much of what is happening around us – the terrorist killings and threats, the huge number of people seeking protection, the war in Syria which is escalating as we watch – is a cause for fear and concern.
It is also the case that this passage from Luke has been read as a prophecy, as a direct prediction of events yet to come and in each generation a new group of people have become convinced that they belong to the “generation that will not pass away until all things have taken place.” (21:32) Actually the passage is a prophecy and has already come true – not about the end of the whole world, but about the end of the world that Jesus’ contemporaries knew. In 70 AD, just 30 years or so after Jesus’s death and triumphant resurrection and what I would see as a return with power and great glory, Jerusalem would be taken and destroyed by the Romans, and Herod’s 2nd Temple, just finished, completely demolished.
It was the same situation for Jeremiah – at the time of writing the words we heard in the Old Testament reading, all about the promise that a branch, a descendant of David will usher in a reign of justice and righteousness, and that Jerusalem will live in safety, at this very time in 587 BC Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonians and the city will fall the following year. The city will be wrecked, the 1st Temple destroyed, and the elite of the nation exiled: so the end of Jeremiah’s world was nigh.
Both passages were written just before, or in Luke’s case possibly just after, a huge and tragic disaster, after the foundations of the known world were shaken. So how can Jeremiah be so confident of God’s promise of restoration? And how and why can Jesus tell his disciples to stand up and raise your heads at the very moment most of us would be keeping them down and us out of sight? For one thing because Jeremiah’s faith in God came from his personal experience, trust, and knowledge of God, and it was not dependent on things going well all the time. On the contrary, Jeremiah felt God’s presence most often when things were not going well, which in those last days of the Kingdom of Judah was quite often.
As for Jesus, one thing he constantly told the disciples was that it was not going to be easy for them. In the words of the 70’s pop song “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden.” No – disbelief, rejection, imprisonment, and persecution were not a rose garden. And yet he still has a message of confidence and hope. Whatever happens to your lives and to the things you have known and trusted I will be with you and my word – the good news of God’s love and forgiveness and new life – will stand true. It may well seem as if heaven and earth are passing away, he says, “but my words will not pass away,” (21:33) the Good News is in the world and cannot be driven out.
It is so sad that a message of hope and love meets such resistance in the world, but it does. Power and control are so much more attractive than the sharing and sacrifice that come with love. But it is at this moment, when resistance is strongest, in times of great conflict and turbulence, that we must stand up, not hide and not close our borders and our hearts. When “these things” take place we must overcome our “fear and foreboding” and open our hearts to others, just as God has disclosed and demonstrated his love for us in Christ.
But Jesus has another warning for his followers. We can lose sight of God and of what God wants for us not only when tragedy strikes, which is often when many people who do not normally look to religion for comfort, try and find it there. The cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was packed after the attacks. No it’s the long haul that can be even more distracting and depressing, the seemingly endless wait for things to get better. "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” (21:34) Dissipation and drunkenness are not references to you drinking too much Glühwein at the Sternschuppenmarkt, by the way! This is a warning that the world can wear us down, if we let it. Genuine followers of Christ must remain vigilant and on guard for the coming of God’s kingdom even in a world such as ours. There is a reason why patience is one of the fruits of the Spirit along with love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, and faithfulness! (Galatians 5:22)
This is also where Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians and his prayer for them comes in handy. They knew they were in for the long haul, their initial expectations of Jesus’ immediate return had not been fulfilled while the horror of the fall of Jerusalem was still 20 years in their future. Their main concern, and Paul’s concern for them, was how to live as Christians, remember still a very small group of people in a small number of geographically dispersed cities. How can we grow in faith, how can we grow in hope, how can we remain focused on God? These were their questions and these are also the themes of his letter and especially of the prayer that made up the second part of the reading this morning. Paul’s advice, in the language of a prayer is threefold:
Always let yourselves be guided and directed by God, as I do: “Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. (1 Thess. 3:11) Secondly, keep those heads up, keep those hears open, live for others, pray for love not just in abundance, but in superabundance: “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.” (3:12) Finally pray for your continual transformation to become those people that God wants you to be, when God’s Son returns: “And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” (3:13)
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. In Advent we look forward to the celebration of Christ’s birth and to the redemption he brought. We also look forward to God’s future and to the fulfillment of the promise of a kingdom of justice and righteousness, love and perfection. So despite all that is going around us, Advent is a season of hope. It is a time that reminds us that the world will not continue to get darker and colder forever. In the northern hemisphere we are in the winter season, but our spiritual winter will come to an end, and the fig tree and all the trees will again blossom and bloom. “Summer is near,” our Lord reassures us – even at the beginning of Advent. It is also not only symbolic that we celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation just after the winter solstice, after the longest night, and so by December 25th the nights are becoming shorter just as we rejoice in the birth of the Light of the World. No my brothers and sisters, the end of the world is not nigh. On the contrary, thanks to that light that is Christ Jesus, the night of the world is ending.