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Sermon for December 9, 2012, Advent 2

Hope for Things to Come
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“There will be strange signs in the sun, moon, and stars. And here on earth the nations will be in turmoil, perplexed by the roaring seas and strange tides. People will be terrified at what they see coming upon the earth, for the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory. So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near!” Then he gave them this illustration: “Notice the fig tree, or any other tree. When the leaves come out, you know without being told that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all these things taking place, you can know that the Kingdom of God is near.  I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never disappear. Watch out! Don’t let your hearts be dulled by carousing and drunkenness, and by the worries of this life. Don’t let that day catch you unaware, like a trap. For that day will come upon everyone living on the earth.  Keep alert at all times. And pray that you might be strong enough to escape these coming horrors and stand before the Son of Man.” Luke 21:25-36

When I was growing up in the 1970's and 80's, I was sure we were all going to die a slow death from the fallout of a nuclear war. There were two superpowers: the Soviet Union and the United States. Both had nuclear weapons. Each nation held back from launching a nuclear holocaust because of the certain knowledge that the other superpower would launch its warheads . . . but we feared that such restraint could not last forever. By mistake or intention, a foreign government would launch its weapons, we launch ours, and the world would end -- fire, followed by ice, with famine and unspeakable global destruction. As children, my friends and I asked ourselves whether it would be better to try to survive a nuclear blast, or just be at ground zero during the attack. We decided it would be better to be near the blast, so we wouldn’t live to see the aftermath. Maybe I worried too much, but that anxiety provided the backdrop to much of my childhood and adolescence.

I have put aside the fear of nuclear war, for the moment, but I am no less am concerned for the future of humanity and the world in which we live. Now my fears center on global warming and the growing possibility that we are making our planet uninhabitable. The World Bank just took the unprecedented step of making a comment about climate change. The World Bank said that unless serious action is taken, warming of 4 degrees Celsius or more is unavoidable and the consequences will be dire. We are facing a crisis as human beings, a crisis borne of the over-population of our planet and human beings’ insatiable desire for more.

Worries do not have to be on a global scale, though. The toughest distractions are the personal ones. For instance, sometimes I become so focused on my work, I tend to lose sight of my place in the big picture. I can spend hours before the computer, and then rush to get ready for meetings and then rush to them, that I forget what it is that I am proclaiming. I can miss my family’s joys, and my moments of personal happiness and what it is that God is actually doing all around me.

The world is filled with problems. There will always be something that challenges our faith. Jesus warns us that things like warfare, floods, famine and our crumbling creation are always a prospect. And he reminds us that personal worries can be more distracting than global threats. Personal problems are perilous because they are subtle and sneaky. We can feel trapped, feeling sorry for ourselves, tempted to work harder to fix it, focusing on one part of life so much that we miss the bigger picture.

What about you? Do you ever feel lost in today -- lost in the concerns that this moment brings? Has your life been taken over by one worry or another so that you can’t appreciate the wonderful things happening around you?

In today’s reading, we get a sense of how Jesus calls his faith community to respond to calamity. I hear three responses: Stand, Watch, and Pray.

First, Stand. In the face of catastrophe, Jesus says, “Stand and look up, for your salvation is near.” The Greek implies that in the face of hard times, the disciple should lift and straighten one’s self up. Don’t shrink back in fear. Jesus is so stoically matter-of-fact in today’s text one has to wonder if he’s being driven by faith or fatalism. Some commentators wonder the same thing. They tell us that when the end of days comes, when we stand up and lift up our arms, Jesus will grab us and pull us right up and out of that mess. But wait . . . that’s not what Jesus really said, is it? Swoop in and take you out of it.” Jesus actually says, “Stand up and lift up your heads because your redemption is drawing near!” It’s not about fatalism. It’s not about Jesus plucking us out of danger. It’s about us having hope, strength and perseverance in the face of the worst that life has to offer. Straighten up. Lift yourself. Make a level path and go to the intersection where life’s pain and God’s mercy meet. We can live our lives puzzled by anxiety and weighed down by a crushing load of pain. But that is not the life that God wants for you. It is not purpose for which Jesus came and is coming again. That is not redemption.

The promise of Christ is that the future is not going to be like the present. On that day, evil will perish and that a new heaven and a new earth will come upon us – a heaven and earth of everlasting peace and justice, joy and love. So stand up and prepare to accept the dawning of a new and wonderful reality.

Jesus also tells his followers to Watch. The Greek means to be alert, even to the point of sleeplessness. Think of the prayer vigil we had here last month for Question 6 where we stayed awake, and prayed, and watched for the presence of the Spirit. Jesus tells us about the signs of his coming so that we might watch for it. We are great at noticing what we want and ignoring what we don't. There are things happening right now that we aren't noticing but will someday demand our total attention and immediate response.  Our children or grandchildren are growing up while we are preoccupied with adult responsibilities and anxieties. Soon they will stand nearly grown before us, and we'll wonder where the time went. We might ignore physical symptoms in our bodies that will one day, will demand our attention.  A relationship may be fading due to lack of attention. One day we may face its loss with surprise, because we didn't see it coming. Climate change, economic crises, the rise of religious intolerance — things are happening, and it shouldn't just be the professional futurists who are taking note. There will come a time, if there hasn't already, when these developments demand our immediate and full attention. On the positive side, there are relationships that beckon us and opportunities that are open to us that we may not be noticing.

Third, Pray. Prayer is the act of seeing reality from God’s point of view. Prayer is about joining God’s aims for the world when tragedy destroys our cities and our families are scattered or destroyed. Prayer is about keeping alert for signs of God’s loving presence when we get bad news and don’t know how we will go on. We pray even when we don’t always see God’s face or feel God’s presence. Jesus encourages followers to be at prayer so that we can live productive lives.  He says that prayer produces in us something like sprouting leaves and branches laden with figs, as good fig trees should do at the end of summer. A withered life, a prayer-less life, can be filled with destructive vices. A prayer-less life can shrink away in fear and get caught up in paralyzing anxiety. Life is short. Seasons are short. So do things that make a difference. Stand. Watch. Pray and see that happens when shriveled hopes bloom.

There is an old Advent hymn entitled, “Wake Awake.” It was written by Philip Nicoli in the year 1598. Nicoli was a Lutheran pastor in Germany. In six months, 1300 of his church members died. 1300 members! It was the time of the Bubonic Plague across Germany. Can you imagine if CCC had 170 funerals this month? Or thirty funerals this afternoon? To help himself live with the tragedy around him, Pastor Nicoli wrote meditations. Refelcting on this time in his life, he wrote, “There seemed to me nothing more sweet, delightful and agreeable than the contemplation of the noble, sublime doctrine of eternal life, obtained through Jesus Christ. In my heart, I dwelled on this day and night and searched the Scriptures as to what eternal life meant. Then, day by day, I wrote out my meditations. I found myself wonderfully well comforted in heart, joyful in spirit, and truly content.” 1300 funerals. 1300 deaths. 1300 moments of mourning. In the epicenter of suffering, at one of the worst moments in history, Pastor Nicoli composed a hymn based on his thoughts about everlasting life. He wrote, “Wake, awake, for night is flying, the watchmen on the heights are crying, Awake Jerusalem at last.” 

Welcome to Advent 2012. In the face of the worst life has to offer, “Wake, Awake!” We put our hope in God’s Reign of love and compassion. When life has us feeling trapped and unaware, we remember that Christ comes to make all things new;
barriers can be broken,
communities can be formed,
opposites can be reconciled,
unity can be established,
disease can be cured,
addiction can be broken,
towns can be renewed,
cultures can be reconciled,
hope can be established,
and people can be blessed.

Stand. Watch. Pray. God is up to something.
discouraged folks, cheer up,
dishonest folks, ‘fess up,
sour folks, sweeten up,
closed folks, open up,
conflicted folks, make up,
sleeping folks, wake up,
lukewarm folks, fire up,
dry bones, shake up,
and pew potatoes stand up!

Life is short. Time is short. So Wake up! Be alert! Don’t you fall asleep on me! There are so many awful events surrounding us. And so many miracles all around us! Stand up! Wake up! Eyes. Ears. Minds. Hearts. Watch! See the world around you! Pray! Know the blessings of God surrounding your life!

Sources:
http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=2298&C=2258
http://revplockhart.blogspot.com/2012/11/advent-and-eschatology.html
http://greeknewtestament.com/B42C021.htm#V25
http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_b_wake_up.htm

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