December 2, 2012 –– The First Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14–16 / 1 Thessalonians 3:12–4:2 / Luke 21:25–28, 34–36
GOD’S LIGHT IN A DARK WORLD
Advent begins with a frank, honest assessment of history's perils, of the present moment's terrors, and of the future's all-but-certain calamities. Today’s readings have a common context of having faith in the midst of threatening circumstances: Jerusalem under siege, Thessalonica under persecution, and natural terrors at the coming of the Son of Man. Advent begins with passages that remind us of hard things because we live in a world that does terrible things―like crucifying the Son of God. Ours is a world of upheaval, of genocide, of pride, selfishness, greed, and violent acts perpetrated on the innocent and the unsuspecting. It has been that way since sin entered the world. We would not even need Advent if the things Jesus tells us in Luke 21 are not reality.
Our Old Testament text occurs while Jeremiah was under arrest in the court of the guard of King Zedekiah, during the siege of Jerusalem, because he kept saying there was no use resisting the army of Nebuchadnezzar. King Zedekiah tried desperately to build morale during the siege by forbidding discouraging words. Looking honestly at the situation, Jeremiah declared that God would give the city and the land to the Babylonians. Yet this was not the last word. The promise specifies that a righteous Branch will execute justice and righteousness in the land, and because of this Judah will be eventually saved and ultimately Jerusalem will live in safety.
But as Jeremiah was giving the word of the Lord, there was no army strong enough to protect Israel when its life was riddled with injustice, just as today there is no security system that can protect us when justice is not being done around us. In the meantime, Jeremiah promised further defeat: “I will strike them down,” said the Lord. “The enemy will come, and more will die.” Jeremiah just could not say "Don't worry, be happy." If we are not careful, that is exactly what the culture around us wants to hear. When Christians thoughtlessly buy into the “celebrations” of materialism and partying and cheerful decorations, we can be embracing the very message that God would not allow Jeremiah to give.
Christians are called to be distinctive―to be different for Jesus’ sake. We are supposed to understand the difference between false optimism and real hope. The world says, “Avoid reality... have a party... go buy something that will make you feel good... make everything bright and pretty and life will be that way...” Sometimes this is called “ignoring the elephant in the room.” It is amazing what families will deny in the effort to avoid dealing with hard things. It is also amazing what whole societies will deny to keep from facing the truth that this world is horribly broken and nothing in human power can fix it.
The ability to call a thing what it actually is is necessary for real hope. False optimism is perpetuated when we insist on calling evil good and good evil. Our tendency as fallen beings, as those whose bondage to sin is real, is to insist that real hope comes by refusing to look at evil and call it what it is. This is not so. The whole message and model of Jesus invites us to call a thing what it is and then believe that God is at work even there, in the darkest, most difficult times. Christians can offer a hopeful alternative by being willing to live a life that believes that God is at work, yet without denying that pain and grief, hardship and turmoil, tragedy and death are part of life.
That is what the reading from Thessalonians tell us. First Thessalonians 1-3 reveals that opposition, persecution, and attacks by Satan were all very real experiences of those early believers and their teacher, Paul. Paul longed to come and see his beloved children in the faith but was prevented, and so he sent Timothy to find out if they survived. Timothy returned with the miraculous report that the Thessalonians held fast to the faith. Because their faith made them different in their response to the world’s pain and evil, Paul writes and affirms their Christian witness: May the Lord make your love increase and overflow.... Then he gives the reason such a thing can be ― May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.
In Advent we are meant to recall and experience this "waiting for God." We believe that Jesus came to fulfill Jeremiah's promise of the righteous branch. He fed the hungry, healed the sick and gave himself a ransom for sin. But in one of his last discourses to his disciples, Jesus promises that there are events still coming that will be more distressing than those of Jeremiah's time. When the circumstances appear darkest, the promise shines brightest. When people are faint from fear they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
Jesus is doing more than telling us that history will be rough. He is also trying to reassure us. Jesus wants us to know that despite wars, earthquakes, and disasters of all kinds, this world still belongs to God. None of those dreadful happenings needs to make us think that the gospel is false or that Jesus is not Lord after all. God still holds history in his hands, even though it is broken. And, all appearances to the contrary, the whole thing is heading in the right direction. Even when Jesus describes terrifying cosmic events involving the moon and the stars (Lu 21:27–28), even then he tells the disciples that believers can hold their heads up high and rejoice. Nothing must shake our faith-given resolve that God is in charge and that Jesus is coming again.
This passage nowhere promises that we will completely escape the terror. The injustice that has worked its way into our varied histories will work itself out in awful ways, and even those who follow the Prince of Peace will share in this pain. There is another warning: We must not become so weighed down by our many amusements or the worries of this life that we lose sight of the larger drama. We are to be on guard, to be people of prayer who are alert to the larger significance of these things. We must be sure where our faith is. Pretty decorations and Christmas songs do not, by themselves, make a society Christian. Appearances can be deceiving.
A story is told about a national magazine that assigned a photographer to take pictures of a forest fire. They told him a small plane would be waiting at the airport to fly him over the fire. So the photographer arrived at the airstrip just an hour before sundown, and sure enough, a small Cessna airplane stood waiting. He jumped in with his equipment and shouted, "Let's go!" The pilot, a tense-looking man, turned the plane into the wind, and soon they were in the air, though flying erratically. "Fly over the north side of the fire," said the photographer, "and make several low-level passes." "Why?" asked the nervous pilot. "Because I’m going to take pictures!" yelled the photographer. "I'm a photographer, and photographers take pictures." The pilot replied, "You mean you’re not the flight instructor?"
Advent is a time to make sure we are on the right “plane,” so to speak. Cultural celebrations of Christmas do not always lead to Christ. It is human nature to want to hear “don’t worry, be happy.” It is not enough merely to join the cultural festivities. Our neighborhoods can look so pretty as they get decked out with lots of Christmas lights. People want to believe if the world looked just that pretty and serene most of the time, then this world would need no Savior. It is especially important to know that we cannot allow “the holidays” to smother the reality of living in a broken world. It is only then that we can keep the faith―maintain the distinctiveness―of living for the end.
Not long before his death, Henri Nouwen wrote a book called Sabbatical Journeys. He tells about some friends of his who were trapeze artists, called the Flying Roudellas. They told Nouwen that there's a special relationship between flyer and catcher on the trapeze. The flyer is the one that lets go, and the catcher is the one that catches. As the flyer swings high above the crowd on the trapeze, the moment comes when he must let go. He arcs out into the air. His job is to remain as still as possible and wait for the strong hands of the catcher to pluck him from the air. One of the Flying Roudellas told Nouwen, "The flyer must never try to catch the catcher." The flyer must wait in absolute trust. The catcher will catch him, but he must wait.
As our hearts desire the promise of Christmas, we need to learn to wait. Advent is a time to think about reality―the hard, painful and threatening realities―and to have faith that what our Lord tells us about the end of all things is good news because he is with us.
Let me suggest a little exercise for the next four weeks. It’s not that we should avoid Christmas trees or skip other common cultural expressions. Instead, when you sit in the soft glow of your Christmas tree some evening or when you enjoy the delicious food at a holiday party, at some point remind yourself that this is not just a distraction –– holiday ambiance is not a chance merely to forget the world's troubles for a little while. Rather, it is a reminder that even as the darkness still swirls all around, we live in the awareness that a Light shines in the darkness. It is a Light no darkness, no apocalypse, no warfare, no falling of meteors, and no holocaust can prevent from shining. Let the holiday lights shine, but never forget the Light we have been given, and why our world so badly needs to see it.