Sermon Given at St. James, Greeneville
First Sunday in Advent 2018 | December 2, 2018
From the beginning, we have fretted over the end.
This morning, in St. Luke’s Gospel, we have a reflection from Jesus about the end. And his words might cause us to fret.
For some of us, the end should always be written out in bold and big letters – THE END. But whenever I consider the second coming of Jesus along with the first, I think it is wiser to write out the words with fragile and small letters, most appropriately to be whispered when spoken – the end.
Remember, Jesus tells us to stay awake in anticipation of his return. Now why would we be implored to stay awake if the end is sure to come with bold and big letters? If the end is to be an over-the-top production, then wakefulness is a given. No one will sleep if we consider the end to be a noisy and raucous encounter.
The season of Advent, however, gives us a clue in interpreting Jesus’ words from St. Luke’s account. In Advent, we remember that we are waiting, with anticipation, for the coming of the Christ child. Not only do we remember the first coming, but we enter into it. Somehow, the only Mary known to us now is great with child.
Everything about that first night, that first waiting, was surprising and remarkably quiet for a history-changing affair. The child came into the world by way of off-the-beaten path. Every Christmas pageant you have ever witnessed, no matter how simple, probably had a bigger budget than the first night in Bethlehem.
And unlike other Gospel stories, where the writer goes to great lengths to let us know that women and children were not counted, in Advent, it is the woman and the child who count. It is the woman named Mary and the child she bore that number us now amongst the counted.
But that is not all that we wait for during Advent. The Church, in its wisdom, asks us to wait again, in remembrance, for the first coming of Jesus, and also to wait for the Christ’s return, the end. The end, where the practice of staying awake is in order.
If the Church, from at least the time of the sixth century, has asked us to observe both advents of Jesus at once, then maybe it is important to let the first coming inform how it is we wait for the second.
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Do those words cause concern or comfort in your hearts?
For much of my life, such words about the end have placed fear into my heart and soul and body. As a child, I was sure Jesus was coming back soon, to earth, with one thing on his mind – to clobber me. So any ideas about the end always involved fear and pain and great disappointment expressed to me from the Almighty Himself. Jesus was coming soon and it was going to hurt.
Somewhere along the way, we have perverted and twisted the words of Jesus and the whole body of apocalyptic writings. Somewhere, when we divorced the first coming of Jesus from the second, we turned talk of the end into some sort of religious horror show, with Jesus as the number one boogie man.
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Those words are intended to comfort, not frighten. They are words of instruction to teach us what it is that will endure and what it is that will fade.
A few summers ago, I returned home to southeast Missouri to visit my mother while she recovered from a bad fall. I went with the intention of staying for several days, to be the dutiful son, to sit with her while she mended and regained her strength and mobility.
But like any trip that you plan too well, the plan changed at some point. My initial vision of sitting by mother’s bedside from early morning to late night quickly faded, as she anticipated the daily bingo game at the care facility and went to sleep earlier than I had remembered. So, I had plenty of time to fill on my own back home.
So I took a drive and decided to check out some of the old iconic sites of boyhood. The town square continues to shrink, the cotton gin is still shut down, and the summer heat even worse than I had remembered.
In the early evening, I drove across the railroad tracks with the purpose of visiting Hayti Junior High School. I turned right at the old store, now gone, and then right again. And there it was, or actually there it was not.
My junior high school, all the buildings and even the large fence that encircled all the buildings, was gone. It was as if it had been catapulted into the sky. All that was left was white stone slabs that left an impression of where the buildings had been. My junior high heaven and earth had passed away.
And friends, I was free. Can you imagine the place where you were most awkward, most ill at ease, and most uncertain about self, simply being sent away? You are invited to remain, but the buildings have to go.
The locker, where so many days I wanted to crawl into and hide, is no more. The basketball gym, where I many times confirmed the fact that no free throw is ever actually free and that lay-ups can be missed, lies in rubble somewhere else. There remains no physical evidence of any junior high tragedies or doubts.
And most importantly, the God who wanted to clobber me was no longer there, either. Such a god does not endure and is not eternal, let alone holy.
Jesus commands us, in every age, to pay attention—to stay awake—and discern what it is that is lasting and what will fade. When we gather around those about to be baptized, we remind each other about the promises made at our baptisms. Baptisms endure. Buildings, even big solid brick ones intended to educate junior high children, can pass away.
Thomas Merton was once asked by a drugstore clerk about his preference for toothpaste. “I don’t care,” Merton said. Merton added, “The drugstore clerk almost dropped dead. I was supposed to feel strongly about Colgate or Pepsodent or Crest … and they all have a secret ingredient. The worst thing you can do now is not care about these things.”
That is the key for entering into the season of Advent. Jesus wants us to pay attention, to stay awake, to learn what are the things we care about and what are the test-marketed temptations placed in our way to distract us in this and every season.
Jesus asks us to care about his words, his loving and lasting words. Jesus asks us to care about his people. Jesus asks us to care about the circles of prayer and service that we create. We are not called to care about the brand of toothpaste.
And the return of the Christ is not a moment out there, with fear and a sacred clobbering awaiting us all. Such images like those found in the Left Behind books depict an image of God who gives up on humanity. God never gives up on humanity. And God does not abandon us. God leaves no one behind. In the Incarnation, we witness God dwelling among us, getting involved with us. As it was in Bethlehem, so it shall be with the return of the Christ.
And you know what is really odd? Christ has already returned. His Spirit has endured. When we gather around this altar, bread and wine remind us that the Christ still feeds, still calls, still gathers us.
For we have all experienced apocalyptic moments, when heaven and earth passed away, but the Christ remained, able to fill the space left empty. Such returns of Jesus give us a foretaste of the end. Those moments remind us that all our ends, all our last moments, are held in the bosom of the Savior, Jesus the Christ.
And it is not enough for us to sit inside the church, a building that is brick and sturdy and sure to last forever, content in our knowledge that we do not serve a clobbering God. There is a world out there, a beautiful world, a broken world, filled with people who are afraid, who are frightened not only of their own shadows but of the very shadow of God. And they need to know. Someone needs to tell them.
The Christ, who came into the world to reconcile us all to God, is coming again, to be with us as things pass away. Let us begin again to tell the reconciling story of Christ Jesus.