Maybe you’re just as confused as I am by this reading and why we are getting it now. It is, after all, the first Sunday in Advent. We want the story of the cute baby Jesus and the details leading up to his birth, right? We want to picture cute, tubby angelic cherubims singing and dancing for joy at the arrival of the Christ child. We want to put up the tree, sing carols, drink eggnog (or not), wrap presents and just get caught up in all that this season has to offer. We want to shop, bake, eat, travel, wonder, anticipate, and bask in the joy of holly and jolly. What we get instead is a reading about the end times. It is anything but joyful, holly, or jolly. But so it is with our reading from Luke. And so it is that we have the difficult task of talking about this scripture today in a time when we’d rather hear about baby Jesus. And maybe what we so desperately need to hear is stories of comfort in these times that already feel like the end times.
The last few weeks I’ve talked about fear and that it has become part of the reality of which we live. There are people, maybe even some of you included, that feel like we are already living in the end times, or at least coming close to it. I don’t want to try and negate those feelings. I understand. We are living in very uncertain times. We don’t know from day to day if we will be safe, secure, or protected. It seems that the enemy is moving closer every day. We no longer know what the enemy looks like. It can be someone who looks like you and me. That is enough to be scary. The rhetoric surrounding our security can also be scary. We need more guns. Or less. We need more nuclear weapons. Or less. We need more security. Or just different security. And what it comes down to is that fear is a very real and very palpable feeling in our society.
So perhaps you come to church for refuge. You come hoping to feel good. You come hoping to see familiar faces, talk about the “old times”, and laugh (because laughter has become a commodity). And this time of year, it’s especially nice to come to church as it’s all decorated and warm and we anticipate the birth of the Christ child. And so it is, perhaps, that while we often turn to the Bible (and books like Revelation) to point to the future, it is more than just a little unsettling to hear readings like the one we have today and realize that signs Jesus talks about could be the here and now. And maybe it’s not specifically our time and place that Jesus speaks of. But, Jesus could just be pointing to the way that the powers of this world can take hold and it is easy, almost too easy, for God’s message of love and redemption to be lost and go unheard over the sounds of shouting, protesting, bombing, crying, and ultimately, death at the hands of greed.
This reading comes on the heels of a story we heard a few weeks ago. It was a different Gospel, but the same story. The story was of a widow who put every last penny she owned into the treasury. She was practically shamed into it by a system of oppression. And Jesus warned the disciples about the end times; how no stone would remain unturned and there would be many false prophets. The disciples, much like many of us, want to know exactly when this time will come. Jesus tells the disciples that when the fig tree starts to sprout leaves that summer is near. Much like that, when there are signs in the sun, moon, and stars and distress among the nations that redemption is drawing near. Distress among the nations? Good thing we don’t have any of that.
I guess the frustrating part about this reading today is that Jesus could have been speaking of any time in history thus far. It could have been any war, any natural disaster, any national catastrophe, any single headline written on the pages of history. Did Jesus know that we would always struggle with worshipping power, privilege and greed instead of him? Did Jesus know that we would always struggle with identity, eager to group people into quick and easy categories of “us and them” instead of our universal identities as children of God? Did Jesus know how mightily we would struggle with loving ourselves (and find loving the “other” almost impossible)? So it seems, then, that the more things change the more things stay the same. And that is frustrating to me.
Our realities are all too grim. Too many of us will enter this holiday season with empty chairs at our tables. We may have less money in our bank accounts. We may have health issues that remain unresolved. We may fight demons to scary to even name out loud. Perhaps the idea of a revelation, of God’s inbreaking and coming into this world is almost a comfort. The idea of the reality that God has prepared for us is intoxicating. Yet we live in a very pregnant place. And I used that word on purpose. In this time of Advent, we live in the already but not yet. We journey, step by pregnant step with a young girl as she makes her way into the unknown. We know what is coming, but we have no idea how to prepare or what to expect. This is not the way many of us like to live. We’re planning people, you and I. And so to live in the “already but not yet” seems jarring. We live in our current reality and yet are very well aware of God’s vision for our future. Advent is the time of longing and yearning and waiting. We are confident in what is coming, and yet we have to wait anyway.
Maybe what comforts us in this time of pregnant waiting is knowing that God, unlike the world around us, does not change. God, unlike the world around us, is just, merciful, kind, and full of love and compassion. God, unlike the world around us, is unshakable. God, unlike the world around us, will not crumble. God, the ultimate power, comes to us in the most unlikely of places: a dirty barn, surrounded by smelly animals, to an unwed pregnant teenager. This baby will be born into a world set out to persecute and kill him. And they will be successful, for three days at least. God, who hung on a cross, who was buried behind a stone that was later rolled away, who appeared in the garden that early Easter morning, could not be restrained by death. The powers of this world, the powers that seem to be against us, are no match for our God. “Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord, be strong take heart.”