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Sermon - December 3rd, 2006
The Threat and Hope of Advent
Rev. Gwen Drake
Scripture: Luke 21: 25-36
Today, I stand before the text that was read with trembling knees. It is rich with unmanageable images, signs of sun, moon, stars, the distress of nations. It is fearful. It is foreboding....it causes me to tremble.
I can only let it stand and allow its hot searing blast singe my eyebrows. Anything less would be an affront to the text. This is not a text that can be minimized, altered, or omitted. What we are hearing is an apocalyptic text, a special type of biblical literature, Scripture that Jesus sometimes used--but only when he wanted to shake the foundations. When he wanted to tear the hinges off doors and upset a pew or two. It’s cosmic--sun and moon, roaring seas, the heavens shaking, the son of Man riding on a cloud.
This is what apocalyptic literature talks about. It is a poetic way of saying, through the inadequate medium of words: God is coming. That’s what all this means. God is coming. Coming to grab us, to redeem us, to judge us. God is coming. And Jesus says, “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.”
Now, you won’t hear me talking about the apocalypse, the rapture, the second coming much, except sometimes on the First Sunday in Advent. We mainline churches lack the language of shaking heavens, sea, and waves. We don’t use those words.
When I was the pastor at Jason Lee in Salem, a family started to come to church after they had lived in the neighborhood for three years. The story they told me was that their real estate agent had told them to watch out for that church with the purple doors (That’s what Jason Lee is known for in the neighborhood--the church with the purple doors.) because it was one of those “hellfire and brimstone” churches. It worked. For three years that family did not set foot in the church until they met another United Methodist pastor who told them, “No way, I know the pastor at Jason Lee, she’s not a hellfire and brimstone preacher.”
But sometimes I wonder if we mainline churches are too soft, too nice, too, well, therapeutic. Are we beginning to sound like “Dear Abby?” Or “Dr. Phil?” Or even more serious, are we unable to speak to great pain, enormous fear, great chaos, increasing darkness? Perhaps our method today is adjustment and accommodation, therefore we know not what to do with such speech as....
“There will be signs in the sun and the moon and the stars...on the earth distress among nations....confused by the roaring of the seas and the waves People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming...the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see Œthe Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
These are signs of dismantling, big, cosmic moves, chaos that accompanies cosmic change, all interpreted as signs of redemption.
Most of us, at least I am, are uncomfortable with such speech. The retired, the secure, the working, we who have profited from the status quo, we twitch upon hearing apocalyptic speech. However, those on the bottom of society, the small and the poor, those who have little to gain from the preservation of what is, tremble with anticipation upon hearing the Bible talk about what, by God’s grace, might be.
You know, most of the time we reduce Jesus to Mr. Nice Guy. “Jesus was a great teacher, a fine moral example.” “Jesus is a good friend who can help you make it through the week.” OK. Good enough for most of life’s hassles But not good enough for the large, fundamental, humanly unresolvable situations in which we sometimes find ourselves. And what then? Listen carefully, if there are any of you here today who can not be helped by a pill, or a noble, uplifting idea, or a call to greater effort, because today’s text speaks to you. As someone once said, “If it won’t play in a cancer ward or a shoddy nursing home for the elderly, then whatever it is, it is not the gospel.”
This, the roaring waves and rising seas, this is gospel. God is coming! Take heed! Whether that be heard as good news or bad news depends, to a great extent, on our social location, on where we happen to be standing when we hear it. Bad news if we are weighted down in worry and anxiety over what to give and get for Christmas. Bad news if we are living in the threat of God coming. Good news if we are standing on our tiptoes, ready and waiting for nothing less than redemption. Good news if we are living in the hope of God coming.
Where are you standing this Advent? Where is our church standing? Are we merely “weighed down” with the ordinariness of conventional solutions to typical aches and pains or is it still possible for us to stand up and raise our heads, sensing that our redemption may be near? The first Sunday in Advent says, God is coming! Not Christmas carols and holiday cheer. Not presents and families re-uniting. Not Christmas pageants and choirs singing. God is coming! Advent is a larger vision. It is the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. saying, “I have been to the mountaintop, I have seen the promised land...” before he gave his life. It is the vision of the 16th century reformist, Martin Luther who, presiding at his first mass as a priest, trembled and shook violently at the altar, sick at the terrifying thought of handling the bread of life--Christ’s body. Big. Huge. Cosmic. Apocalyptic.
Most of us on most Sundays don’t need that much. But some of us on some Sundays can be comforted with nothing less than redemption.
Will Willamon told a story of a man who lived with his family close to a church. His yard was a disaster. The children seemed poorly cared for. Rumors were that he got drunk on Saturdays and terrified his wife and kids. The church decided to reach out. The pastor visited his home. Some of the youth of the church went by and invited the kids to go with them on a trip to the mountains. The women’s group asked his wife to attend their annual Day of Prayer. The man and his family came for a few Sundays, then quit coming.
That was the last the man was heard of until a few months later when the pastor met him on the street. At first, the pastor didn’t even know the man. He looked different. “Joe, is that you?” the pastor asked.
“Yea, it’s me.” he said with a smile. “At least, it’s mostly me. I’ve changed.”
It was obvious. His whole physical appearance had changed. He looked great. In fact, his whole yard had changed. It looked great. What had happened?
He told the pastor how a few weeks ago, a group had come by to pray with him after they heard he had been on a binge. A church group. But not from the nice, middle-class Methodist Church next door. They were from one of those fundamentalist churches. The one over across the tracks, the pre millennial, fire-baptized, Bible believing, washed-in-the-blood-of-the-lamb Baptist church. They told him if he didnŒt stop drinking and terrifying his family he was going to die and burn forever in hell. They told him that God was coming to get him and that God was angry!
They got his attention. Got him to their church where they prayed for him by name and asked God to let him live just a little longer Œtill they could get him saved. And he got saved, turned upside-down. Redeemed. Baptized and washed in the blood of the lamb.
The pastor of the Methodist Church mumbled something about how he was sorry that his church had been unable to meet his needs. And that he was glad the other church had.
The man blurted out, “Preacher, don’t you feel bad. Your church gave me aspirin. I needed massive chemo-therapy.”
Well, sometimes, even we United Methodists need massive chemotherapy. We need to know that God is coming!
You see, Jesus gathered in an upper room for a meal, a nice meal, just Jesus and his friends. A little food, a little polite conversation. When they were all settled at the table, Jesus said, “That cup, that represents my blood. This bread, this represents my body, my body broken into pieces for you.”
If we are to be redeemed, if God comes to redeem us, redemption will not be cheap! Amen.
Note: Thanks to Will Willamon, Pulpit Helps for story.