December 2, 2018 – The First Sunday of Advent, Year C
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be found here.
In a community like ours, children are allowed to wander around at the ball park while their older siblings play baseball. Parents keep an eye on their children, of course, but they also know that everyone else—friends, other parents and grandparents, and most anyone at the field—will help them watch out for danger. One of the understood duties that everyone shares is to yell out “Heads up!” whenever a player fouls off a pitch, sending it over the backstop fence. When you think about it, however, “Heads up!” isn’t always the best thing to say. Last spring, I joined a field full of spectators as we watched in horror as a ball sailed back into the stands toward a three-year-old, who had stopped bounding down the sidewalk to innocently and obediently look up at the sky when everyone cried out, “Heads up!” There was nothing any of us could do. No one had time to get to the ball or the child, and we all exhaled with great relief when the ball bounced off the sidewalk a foot from the vulnerable child. Maybe yelling “Duck!” or “Take cover!” would be better.
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,” Jesus said. “There will be 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 heaven will be shaken…[But] when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is coming near.” It really doesn’t make sense. Disaster and destruction, confusion and chaos, are on the way, and Jesus wants us to lift up our heads and stare what is coming in the face? What does he mean? There’s nothing more natural than hunkering down when danger approaches. How is Jesus’ invitation to resist that instinct and hold up our heads an invitation to faithfulness?
Well, for starters, it seems that he’s not really talking to us. We come to church in the daylight. We park our cars on the street and walk right in the front door. We wear crosses around our necks and share religious social media posts because we want people to know that we are Christians. To be a Christian in northwest Arkansas is to belong to a community of power. We are the majority. We have generational influence. We aren’t making a case for ourselves and our religion under threat of persecution like the first Christians had to. They came to church under the cover of darkness because they didn’t want to be killed. They snuck around from house to house, staggering their arrivals the way a group of spies might plan a clandestine rendezvous. They exchanged signs of their faith in secret and used coded messages to communicate with one another. When Jesus told his followers that the powers of the heavens would be shaken, to a group of believers that constantly feared what those powers-that-be might do to them, that was undoubtedly good news.
The central theology of Christianity, like that of its Judaic ancestor, is built on a belief that God will come and rescue those who have no power of their own. When God’s people were enslaved in Egypt, God came to deliver them. When God’s people were scattered in the Babylonian exile, God remembered them and brought them home. When Jesus preached up and down the countryside of first-century Palestine, he offered the familiar message of rescue for the lost and salvation for the oppressed, and he identified it with his own ministry. In him, the reign of God had come near, and that reign meant an end to the tyranny of Rome. But the Empire wasn’t the only object of Jesus’ prophecy of power-reversal. Jesus preached that the reign of God meant riches for the poor and security for the widow and orphan. In Christ, God’s way of justice and righteousness had come to those whom the religious elites had held in the bondage of hypocrisy. Those who had been pushed to the margins of religious society—the tax collectors, the lepers, the prostitutes, and other notorious sinners—were welcomed by the one who came to reveal the great reversal of power that God’s reign represents.
Who in today’s world would hear the news that the nations are in an uproar and the powers of the heavens are being shaken as good news? To whom does that message come as a proclamation of hope? Is it not the victim of abuse who for years had been silenced by men in positions of power over her and her family? Is it not the person among us who suffers from mental illness whose care was long ago abdicated by a society that would rather spend its tax dollars in celebration of its own prosperity than caring for the least among them? Is it not the incarcerated African-American who followed the path from school to prison that was appointed for him by those who refuse to see beyond the labels that our dominant society affixes to young men of color? Is it not the caravan of migrant men and women and children, who fled their homeland because the evil powers of the drug trade threatened their lives and whose hope for resettlement has been met with tear gas at the United States border?
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint with fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken…[And] when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” If you are like me—a well-educated, white, middle-class man with access to all the comforts and protections that our society can provide—the thought of God’s great reversal of power probably makes you want to duck for cover. And it’s easy to think that these words of Jesus aren’t intended for us—that the message of the coming of God’s reign is meant for another people in another place or culture or time. But, of course, these words aren’t just good news for someone else. They’re the good news we need to hear as well.
As Suzanne mentioned when we discussed this gospel lesson in staff meeting this week, the thought of God coming to level everything out is good news both for those whom God will raise up and for those whom God will bring down. Why? Because we are prisoners of our own success. We have built ourselves up in order to insulate ourselves from the nightmares that life can bring. But how long will it last? Can we really create a security for ourselves that will carry us all the way through this world and into the next? The hairline cracks in the veneer of our manufactured perfection eventually catch up with all of us. None of us can enter the reign of God on our own merits, and we need God’s righteousness and justice, which are made manifest in the limitless love God gives the world in Christ Jesus, to set us straight—to help us see that we, like everyone else, have no power to save ourselves, but, in fact, God already has.
“Be on your guard,” Jesus says, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” It is easy, in a life of comfort and plenty, to forget that the coming of God’s reign is something for all of us to anticipate with urgency. Until the powers of this world give way to the power of God, none of us can dwell in God’s reign. But Jesus tells us that that reign is very near: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” Jesus wasn’t wrong. He wasn’t mistaken about God’s timing. We just have to see and interpret the signs that are all around us. Jesus tells us that they are as easy to see as the budding leaves on a fig tree, as familiar to us as another day’s news. The powers of the heavens are being shaken. They are being shaken all around us. “Stand up,” Jesus says, “and raise your heads.” Will we understand the reversals of power that unfold in the world around us as signs of God’s reign—as evidence of our own salvation—or will we keep our heads down and let God’s reign pass us by?