Monday, November 26, 2018

Pointing Out The Obvious

Welcome to Advent. Welcome to the heavens shaking and people fainting in fear at what is coming. Welcome to distress among nations and signs in the sun, moon, and stars. Welcome to a season of keeping semi-paranoid watch for the coming of the Son of Man and praying for strength to escape the things that will take place. I'm a stickler for not celebrating Christmas until it's Christmas time, but I don't blame anyone for wishing this Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 21:25-26) had less to do with the second coming than the first.

In each of the three years of our lectionary, the Sundays of Advent follow a pretty standard pattern. First, we hear Jesus warn about the end of the world. Then, we hear John the Baptist calling us to repent. Finally, in the fourth week, we get what we've been waiting for--a gospel lesson that anticipates Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. Yes, Advent is a time to get ready for Christmas, but that's only a quarter of it. Our readings suggest we should spend 75% of our time and energy getting ready for the day of judgment.

I suppose that would make Jesus happy. Jesus never said to his disciples, "Keep watch! The anniversary of my birth may not sneak up on you like a thief in the night, but, if you haven't done your shopping by the middle of December, you'll never catch up." Instead, the first three Sundays of Advent feel like a distraction, a liturgical necessity that fails to mesh with our holiday-focused expectations. Some argue that the church would do well to jump fully into the pre-Christmas fiasco. I think there's value in not fighting the Advent-for-Advent's-sake battle, but I also think there's an important reason that, in the middle of the let's-get-ready-for-Christmas push, we focus on a counter-cultural message by inviting people to get ready for the coming of the Son of Man.

In Sunday's gospel lesson, Jesus shows us how near this really is: "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." Jesus tells us that this isn't complicated. One doesn't need a PhD in cosmology or a ThD in systematic theology to understand that the disruptions we are experiencing are signs that God's reign is near. It's a simple as the leaves of the fig tree, or, to use an analogy to which we might pay more close attention, it's as plain as the daffodils. As soon as you see the daffodils in bloom, you know that spring is close. You don't need a degree in botany or climatology to understand the signs that spring is coming. That's Jesus' approach to interpreting the signs of distress. We are asked to see them for what they are--plain signs that God's reign is on the way. And, if Jesus wants us to see how simple that is, we need to pay attention.

If there's any message that the church in twenty-first-century America needs to hear, it's the message of the nearness of God's reign. Two thousand years after Jesus' strange prediction, it's easy for us to write off his declaration as inaccurate or mistimed. We aren't desperate for our redemption, so we neglect to interpret the signs of conflict for what they are. We've convinced ourselves that we don't need a savior, thank you very much. We've got this under control. But what about the poor among us? What about the refugees at the border who are being sprayed with tear gas? What about those whose access to health care is a political discussion rather than a moral consequence? What about those who suffer at the hands of domestic abusers? What about those whose homes have been destroyed or whose loved ones are still missing in the Camp wildfire? Do you think they want a sign that the world won't always be this way--that God's justice and redemption are near?

What will God bring you this Christmas? If your wish list doesn't include peace, justice, equality, redemption, healing, reconciliation, and empowerment, you might have missed the point of Advent. Yes, there's the Incarnation to celebrate, and there's plenty of good reason to rejoice at the first coming of God's Son. The Incarnation is desperately needed salvation. But the work of renewing the world through the coming reign of God isn't complete, and we must keep our focus on what is still to come.

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