1st Sunday of Advent - Signs, Signs, Everywhere Are Signs
The countdown begins.
Macy's parade is over, most or all of the Thanksgiving leftovers have been eaten. Can I get a witness on some Turkey sandwiches, church?
Black Friday is all done (thanks be to God). Although, Cyber Monday is about to happen, and then there will undoubtedly be a host of other special days for shopping, but still...
So the question that so many of us have right now is simply, "Why don't we just get on with it? Let's go already! The Christmas decorations have been up in the stores for a month already, it stands to reason that we should just move right along and get right to the heart of the silly season.
More than a few of us are probably wishing that the whole thing was already over. Perhaps it's too much--all of the shopping, busy-ness, traffic on the streets, commercials, emails advertising, expenses and the like...
I get all of this. Heck, I even feel the same way to be honest.
And for those of us who do the church-y kind of thing we're also asking, "What's with all of this Advent? What is Advent? Why do we celebrate Advent? I don't even know what Advent means!"
I know I didn't grow up celebrating the season of Advent. It wasn't part of our church experience. So it stands to reason that there's a bunch of us here today asking those questions, feeling the same pinch to move right along, and all of the rest of it.
Over the next few weeks I am going to be preaching from what is known as the Lectionary. The Lectionary is pre-determined set of scriptures from the Bible that are meant to be read, preached and taught on specific days. All over the world, millions of Christians will be reading, hearing and learning from the same texts that you and I will be reading, hearing and learning from as well.
The reason why I chose to follow the Lectionary... the reason why our church celebrates Advent... is simply to help us remember our story well. These readings, these celebrations help us to remember all that God has done, is doing and will do to redeem all of Creation.
And we are doing this because we value well, what we remember well.
Advent is a word that essentially means "expectation." This is a season of anticipating, expecting, and also remembering.
I'd like to share with you a few things that help me remember during this time of year--signs and symbols, if you will, of the things I value well. Ghosts of Christmases past, I suppose, but good ghosts that return each year to help me connect with what is most important in my life.
This is the first ornament my wife and I bought for our first Christmas. Every single time that we hang this on our Christmas tree, my wife and I look at one another and smile a little smile. It reminds us of how far we've come, and the love that has sustained has.
These are all ornaments from the earliest Christmases of my three boys. We added them to our tree about the same time that they were added to our family. Whenever we hang these, we remember those times and we all feel a bit warmer inside knowing that we're not alone--we're in this together.
These are my Denver Broncos ornaments. They remind me and my boys that through thick and thin we love our team--we're not fair weather fans. 8 Super Bowl appearances, and 3 Super Bowl wins aren't too shabby. We love our Broncos!
So why do we feel good about putting out decorations, especially ones that have such incredible meaning for us?
Well, there's actually a physiological reason for this, believe it or not. God made us to value well what we remember well.
When something happens in our life, a momentous occasion, a huge life event, even tragedy, hardship, etc. We remember those moments vividly. It's why you can remember exactly where you were when 9/11 happened, but you can't remember where you put your car keys this morning. It's why you can tell in detail the story of your child's birth, but you can't remember what you had for lunch yesterday.
When we experience something momentous, our body releases dopamine, norepinephrine and other assorted stress hormones into our brains. This enables us to carve deep memory paths, so to speak, that aren't easily erased. So when we see an object like a Christmas ornament, for example, that reminds us of that event--we not only remember it well, we value it well because the memory of that feeling returns.
Sometimes people will call this "nostalgia." But I think it's so much deeper than mere nostalgia. Nostalgia can actually be completely unproductive and not at all helpful. We can become so enamored with the past that we become dissatisfied with the present and less than hopeful about the future.
No this isn't nostalgia--it's something deeper.
We value well what we remember well.
This is why during the season of Advent, we read these Lectionary texts--scriptures that help us to reconnect with the Greatest Story Ever Told: the story of how God saved the world.
In Luke 21:25-36 we have these strange, incredible words from Jesus himself:
25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
32 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
Okay, this seems like a messed up passage of Scripture to read before Christmas, I'll admit. But let's dig a bit deeper to find out how these words of Jesus help us to remember the Christmas story well.
First of all when Jesus refers to himself as the "Son of Man" this is a huge sign and symbol that what we are dealing with here is not just another hero. This is the hero. The Messiah, the Cosmic Savior, the One who will set all things to right.
Things are going to get crazy, Jesus tells his followers. There will be all kinds of anxiety, fear, violence, and the like. He further says that along with all of those things there will also be signs all around them that redemption is coming--cosmic, epic, big signs that they can't miss.
And Jesus further makes his point that "heaven and earth will pass away but his words are going to last forever. In other words, "You can take this to the bank."
Why is Jesus laying all of this heavy stuff on his followers? Because he knows that the world is going to be full of strife, things aren't always going to be certain, and that they will be tempted to succumb to fear and anxiety. But he tells them to be watchful, alert, prayerful and humble. He wants them to trust that He is going to redeem the broken systems of this world and set it all to right.
The One we meet at the end of history, Jesus proclaims, is not a vengeful, angry God, but the very One who loved us and gave himself for us. We do not meet a stranger at the end of all things, we meet a Savior.
Jesus also throws this into the mix as well when he references the fig tree. He basically says, "You don't need some guy predicting all of this. You don't need someone who claims they have the interpretation of the prophecy. You don't need any of these guys who have the end times signs all figured out. Because they don't. All you need is common sense, and belief in the One who loves you beyond all love."
Jesus reminds his followers in this passage that anything can happen at any moment. We know this deep inside--we don't need prophecy to figure it out. We have to live every single moment like the world could come to a screeching halt in the next. But we don't live in fear, we don't live in anxiety---we live in confidence, peace, joy and hope. Because, as Jesus reminded his followers elsewhere, "I have overcome the world."
Like I said, this isn't nostalgia. This isn't a tidy little Nativity scene on our mantle. This is real redemption--real hope---real love from a real Savior.
We would do well to remember this and hold it tightly to our hearts.
Because we value well what we remember well. And brothers and sisters, right about now we need to value this story because it's this story that's going to change the world.
Christian discipleship is a kind of living in between times. We live between the arrival of Jesus in the form of a tiny baby, and the time that we expect Jesus to return in glory to redeem all of Creation.
We are aware of Jesus, we wait for Jesus and we come to know Jesus in these in between times. And because of the state of our world, it's so easy sometimes to want to rush to the next thing--to want Jesus to show up now and make everything right immediately. This is why so many Christians spend so much energy trying to figure out when Jesus will return and what that might look like.
I don't blame them at all. It's so easy to want to rush to the next thing. Just like we often want to rush through Advent and get to Christmas.
But what do we lose when we do that?
One of my favorite works of art is Van Gogh's "Starry Night"
The colors, images in this painting reflect a cosmic event--redemption, perhaps. There are amazing things going on all around this little village. The signs and the symbols are everywhere. There is light, life and transformation everywhere except for one place. Can you see it? The only place where there is no light, no life, no acknowledgement of everything that is happening...
That's right. The Church.
Van Gogh's critique of the Church is far from subtle here. He had his own reasons for seeing the Church as a place of darkness. But the truth of the matter is, far to many people today see it that way, too.
When Christians---when we--forget our own story.... When we rush through to the next thing... When we succumb to anxiety, to fear... When we allow ourselves to be consumed by materialism, busy-ness, and the secularization of not just Christmas, but our entire lives...
We are the ones who are guilty of taking Christ out of Christmas.
So let us remember our story. Let us reconnect with the real love, real redemption and real Savior who has overcome the world for our sake and the sake of all Creation. Let us remember all of this well, and lift it up as valuable and vital to our very existence---because it is.
Because we value well, what we remember well.