Sunday, November 29, 2015

"What's the World Coming To?" A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyteria Church on the First Sunday of Advent

"What's the World Coming To?"
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36

“The days are surely coming,” proclaims Jeremiah.  The days of promise and fulfillment are surely coming.  The days of justice and righteousness are surely coming.  The days of salvation and safety are surely coming.  
         But when? 
         The first Sunday of Advent each year features apocalyptic imagery and a sense of foreboding.  The gospel writers and the lectionary committee won’t let us get away with sentimentalizing these weeks of Advent and skipping ahead to the baby Jesus in the manger.  Earlier in this chapter of Luke, Jesus had told this disciples that the days will come when the Temple would be destroyed, and they asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will the sign be that this is about to take place?”[1]
         The earliest Christians thought the Second Coming would be immediate...  and they lived accordingly.  For many centuries, Advent was observed as a season of waiting.  The faithful waited for the feast of the Nativity, a time to celebrate the mystery of the incarnation.  They waited for the Second Coming of the Christ. 
         But over 2,000 years have passed since God came to dwell among us in Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus hasn't come back.  And so we wait.
         Centuries before the birth of Jesus, the Old Testament prophets were preaching about waiting for one who would be like a light for the darkness.   Those who heard the prophets were weary with impatience.          “The days are surely coming,” Jeremiah had said. But when?
         We look around, and we wonder, “What’s the world coming to?”  I think this apocalyptic passage in Luke seems very relevant when we don’t expect it to predict our future—but rather to see how it states the truth of our life now. 
         It seems that every week there are terrible things in the news.  This week it was the release of the video of the squad car video of the shooting a year ago of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in Chicago by a police officer—16 times and the resulting community unrest.  It was the shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs that killed Officer Garrett Swasey, campus police officer, father of 2 young children, and a church elder… and 3 civilians… and wounded 5 police officers and 4 civilians.  Paris is continuing to mourn the mostly young people who were killed in the terrorist attack.  The conflict between the state of Israel and Palestinians continues to escalate.  Around the world, people live in fear of more terrorist attacks. 
         What’s the world coming to?
         People are “fainting from fear” and foreboding of what’s happening in the world… and what might happen.  The powers of the heavens are shaking.   As Karoline Lewis writes, the gospel lesson is profoundly relevant, because in and through it we hear the truth of our human brokenness.  Jesus speaks the truth “about our condition, about the world’s condition, that never really changes.”[2]

         The way Luke tells it, Jesus is deliberately vague about when Jesus will return.  He refuses to give his disciples any hint of a timetable.  Instead, he says, “When all these fearful things are happening, stand up…raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
         The Greek word translated here as “drawing near” is the word used in various places to talk about how the kingdom of God is near in a sense of immanence.  The kingdom is not far off.  It is right here in the Son of Man, and in his proclamation.  The kingdom of heaven has come near.
         Then Jesus tells them a parable of a fig tree.  As soon as the fig trees sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.”
         What is the world coming to?  I believe there are a lot of people here and out there who are genuinely worried about the direction in which our society and our world seem to be moving, and worried about what sort of future their children and grandchildren may inherit.
         Now, concerns about the state of the world aren’t new.   We’re not the first Christians to look at the world around us and see cause for alarm.  Like us, those early Christians would have been tempted to wonder where God was in the midst of a world where things seemed to be going from bad to worse.
         Luke probably had those early Christians in mind when he recorded the words Jesus spoke in today’s gospel lesson.  They’re confident words, words that offer reassurance and hope:  “Your redemption has come near.”
         It’s hard to wait and pray and hope and stay alert.  We have prayed for peace, and still we wait.  We have prayed for healing in the quiet corridors of the hospital.  We have prayed for the healing of the creation   and the healing of the wounds of racism.  We pray, and we wait.
         The church has always struggled with its pain over a future that fails to come.  “Come, Lord Jesus,”  the early Christians prayed...but it was Roman soldiers who came.  “This world is passing away,” they sang...but the world remained.
         If there is no God-shaped future at hand...if nothing is about to happen--  then there’s just a series of days.  All that’s left for the church  is to be another well-meaning institution.  All that’s left for the church to do is to get together for routine Sunday services, and keep the doors open and the roof repaired,  and have pot-luck suppers.  If nothing is about to happen.
         But if the church is standing at the threshold of God’s kingdom of justice and peace, then the church can dare to touch the wounds of lepers   and pour out its resources freely for the poor.  If the new age of healing and mercy is just around the corner, then the church can cheerfully bear suffering and persecution...and faithfully sing its alleluias.

         Today’s gospel lesson was written to encourage the early Christians during hard times and to call their attention to the signs of the forthcoming kingdom.  Although the promise of the second advent of Christ hadn’t yet been completely fulfilled-- it was forthcoming.  The harvest in a planted field is a forthcoming event.  What is forthcoming stands at the horizon of the present.  The signs are there-- if we look up and take heed of them.
         The signs of evil are still rampant in the world around us.  If we don’t look up-- they’re the only signs we’ll see.   That’s why we need to remember to look look closer, through the eyes of faith, for the signs of God’s kingdom, like the tiny buds of a fig tree.
         As Christians, we’re called into a life of hope and trust.  Each day brings an opportunity for us to experience the miracle of the dying and rising of Christ...and a new opportunity to live out Christ’s love in our lives.
         Jesus’ words invite us to have hope and confidence.  They assure us that-- despite the direction in which the world seems to be moving-- the situation is under God’s control.  Like a coach whose team is down at halftime, Jesus offers us a pep-talk.  “Stand up,” he says.  “Raise your heads.”   Don’t give in to the temptation of pessimism and despair.  The Lord will prevail, and for that reason, we can keep our heads held high.
         Each day we need to be on the lookout for signs of the kingdom of God.  “The days are surely coming”--     but we won’t notice their approach unless we’re looking for them...anticipating them...knowing that they are coming.

         I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time with the short days and the long, dark nights this time of the year.  That’s one of the reasons I enjoy the Christmas lights.  Later in December,  I’ll be on the lookout for the winter solstice and how the days gradually start getting a little longer.
          Then, near the end of winter, I start watching the sunny places on the south side of peoples’ houses with great anticipation for the first snowdrops and crocuses to pop up and start blooming.  I’m on the lookout for signs that spring is coming. 
         I’m also constantly on the lookout for signs that people are growing, being transformed, becoming more Christ-like in our Littlefield community and elsewhere.   When someone tells me they’re becoming a better person because they’re a part of our Christian community-- it gives me as much hope and joy as seeing the first bulbs in the spring!
         If we look up, through eyes of faith, we see the signs.  We see groups of Christians, Muslims, and Jews building bridges through social media and personal relationships, forming friendships, finding ways to work together to work for a more peaceful world.  If we look up, we see people of goodwill working and praying together for racial justice and reconciliation.  We see people working tirelessly to bring peace to Israel and Palestine.
         If we look up, we see people from Littlefield and all over our presbytery working together to serve a delicious Thanksgiving dinner for over 1,700 people in need… and serving the people who come to Fort Street Open Door for various kinds of help.  We see our mission partners changing peoples’ lives by embodying God’s love.
         Look up, and see through eyes of faith.

         The season of Advent challenges us to know that Christmas is so much more than family gatherings and gift-giving.  Advent calls us to watch and pray-- to open ourselves to the presence of Christ in our lives now...and to allow our lives to be shaped by the anticipation of Christ’s coming kingdom.
         Be alert.  Pray at all times.  Pray “Thy Kingdom come-- because that is the shape of the future.  All the signs point to it. 
         I believe today’s gospel lesson has a word for how we are to wait in the meantime, between the past and future advents;  between God’s coming to us in the past and God’s coming in the future, as it unfolds.  Waiting and watching is the posture of God’s faithful people.  But how are we to wait? 
         I believe that we are called, not to a passive kind of waiting, but a vigilant waiting and watching. 
          “When these things begin to take place, stand up...”  I think this is the kind of waiting and watching Luke has in mind.  Our waiting and watching prepares us to join in at those points where God’s future is struggling toward fulfillment now.  The call to watch is a call to discern the ways in which we may be faithful to the way God has set before us.  It’s a call to be actively about the Christian life, to live into God’s future as it continues to come into our present lives. 
         Even when we see tragedy, cruelty, evil, and abuse all around us, and we wonder, “What’s the world coming to?”--  the Good News of Advent is that God isn’t finished with us yet.  God isn’t finished with the world yet.
         So, be alert.  Pray at all times.
         Pray that the Lord make us increase and abound in love for one another and for all...and strengthen our hearts in holiness, that we may be blameless before our God at the coming of our Lord Jesus. 
         Every word we say...every thing we do...every prayer we pray is important, because we’re called to live our lives in hope and anticipation, as we watch and wait for Christ to come again.
         So pray.  Pray for the coming of the Christ.  Pray for his rule in our lives...and in the world.  Pray “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done”--  because that is the one prayer that we know will ultimately be answered.
         Come, Lord Jesus!

 Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
November 29, 2015

[1] Luke 21:5-8

[2] Karoline Lewis, “Why Advent?” at

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