A Song of Bethlehem:
An Advent Series
Luke 21: 25-36
First Sunday of Advent
29th December 2015
Every year, without fail, the church gets stuck between two holidays: Thanksgiving and Christmas. One a national, secular, quasi-religious holiday centered on gratitude; the other an explicitly religious, specifically Christian holiday that has been confused and distorted by secular society. At the close of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, right after the arrival of Santa Claus down Broadway, the hosts inevitably say something like “The holiday season is now upon us. It’s Christmastime!” There are parts of the country where people put up their Christmas trees for Thanksgiving.
I love the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. I watch it every year. I watched it on Thursday morning. One year I was in New York and got to view it in person. While I know it’s almost impossible to resist the force of culture, of resisting the thought that we’ve entered the Christmas holiday season now that Thanksgiving is behind us, there’s still a voice in me that says, “No. No. Not yet No, it’s not Christmastime! It’s Advent!” When I say this or find myself thinking this I sound like Scrooge. Christmas begins on the 25th December and lasts for twelve days to Epiphany. We first have to live through Advent. Advent is a season of its own. I had second cousins who didn’t decorate their house until Christmas Eve; they went shopping for a live tree on Christmas Eve and brought it home to decorate it. As a child, I thought that was a little odd. I kind of like that idea today, but I would never be able to pull that off.
We all know that Advent and Christmas are two separate seasons in the church—and most of us completely ignore this fact. We take a blended approach to the season, a little of both at the same time. I was in North Carolina yesterday morning helping to pick out a Christmas tree. Guilty! Boy Scout Troop 306 is selling Christmas trees—on our property! There are considerable forces at work both in society and in the church that fight against Advent, which resists the notion of Advent-waiting. As one the who picks the hymns, I can get away with the first two Sundays in Advent without picking explicitly Christmas hymns or carols, but that’s about it. After that I start hearing whispers and mumbling and comments and even outright complaints about the hymns or carols.
And the lectionary doesn’t help matters. Just consider today’s texts from Jeremiah and Luke. No shepherds or heavenly choirs here. There’s seemingly little “Joy to the World” in this text, no “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” This is a dark text, very dark.
Advent is a dark time. It’s intentionally placed during the darkest time of the year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere). And, I suspect, it’s precisely because it’s so dark that we either want to ignore it or rush through it or get out of it, because at some level we’re all still afraid of the dark—and afraid of the darkness within us and within the world.
And it’s a season of intentional waiting, when we're asked to slow down, to feel the weight of the darkness, and to be silent. In the silent waiting we’re invited to anticipate what is about to be born, wait for God to appear, watch for the time when Christ will reappear. But who, honestly, wants to wait—for anything? Do you love to wait in line at the grocery store? Who really wants to wait? We want our computers and smart phones and Internet connections to be faster and ever faster.
Advent is an odd time, an in-between time. The Church is situated in an increasingly non-religious culture between Thanksgiving and Christmas with an altogether different season. And, I think, it’s especially important for the Church, for you and me, for us to be counter-cultural here, to be different, to stand apart—for just a while—to stay here, in the dark, waiting. There are no shepherds or heavenly choirs—yet. We know they’re coming; we know the story. But we have to make sure that we don’t get there too soon. It’s takes a while to travel to Bethlehem. And the journey is just as important as getting there, maybe more so, because along the way we discover things that we would otherwise miss if we rushed ahead to the manger. In fact, maybe the world needs us, you and me, the Church, to not be afraid of the dark, to wait—not doing nothing, of course, but actively waiting and searching, expecting and anticipating that God is about to do something new. Because there are people who are waiting: waiting for a word of hope and healing, waiting for forgiveness and reconciliation, waiting for suffering to end, waiting for joy to return. And we can wait, even in the dark, with confidence for God to do something now because we know the way God acted in the past.
You see, Advent intentionally messes with our sense of time. Yes, we know that Jesus was born long ago. Yes, we live facing forward to the time when Jesus will return and come again. Past and Future. Advent is also about seeing the ongoing birth of God’s presence where we are today, in the present—now! There are people who need to know—now—something of God’s grace and justice, people who need to know—now—that their lives matter in the eyes of God and their neighbors, who need to know—now—even if it’s only a glimpse of God’s joy.
Past, present, future-time are reflected in Charles Wesley’s (1707-1788) hymn “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” from 1744, which beautifully captures the spirit of Advent. Charles Wesley is known as the “bard of Methodism,” having written 9000 sacred poems and hymns. His older brother was John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of Methodism within the Anglican Church.
Look at the words of the second stanza:
Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a king,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thy own eternal Spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit
raise us to thy glorious throne.
Did you notice that Wesley did not write, “Jesus was born”? There’s no passive tense here. “Nor is the story confined to the pages of Scripture. The God of Advent present comes to us daily, meeting us in our challenges, weeping with us in our sorrows, prodding us to advance God’s kingdom, and rejoicing with us in hope.” It speaks of our longing for God to be born again within us. Therefore, it has a future leaning orientation.
Advent is a time of waiting and watching. But, for what are we waiting and watching? “From our fears and sins release us,” Wesley wrote, “let us find our rest in thee.”
In our day there’s much that causes us to fear, much that weighs on us, much that unsettles our souls. “Be on your guard,” Jesus said, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap” (Luke 21:34-35a). “Be alert,” Jesus urges us. “That day,” is coming. God is about to birth something new.
It’s relatively easy for us to imagine the first advent of God in the birth of Jesus. It’s relatively easy for us to imagine what the second advent of God, what the return of Jesus might look like in the future. We don’t know when, but it’s in the future. It’s far more challenging to see the Advent of God in the meantime, in the present time, here and now, in our hearts, when the world is dark.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus urged his disciples to remain vigilant, alert, and awake. Watch! It’s why we have to be diligent and alert, we have to wake up. Wake up! Otherwise we will be overcome with the weight and worry of the world. Jesus says, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring seas and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:25-26).
We must not take this text literally—don’t be looking for the sun to turn purple or the moon to leave its orbit. This is apocalyptic imagery, apocalyptic language.
Apocalyptic is a particular genre of religious writing common before, during, and after Jesus’ time. It’s not meant to be taken literally or heard as a foretelling of what will actually happen. And most important of all, the word apocalyptic is not a synonym for the destruction of the world. It’s doesn’t mean the end of the world, although that is how we often hear it used in popular culture and, sadly, even in the Church—and that is just plain wrong. Luke 21 is an apocalyptic text and by apocalyptic I do not mean “end or annihilation of the world.” In fact, the etymology of the word in Greek— apokálypsis—does not mean the destruction of the world. An apocalypse means, literally, a revelation or opening or disclosure. It’s an unveiling. Think of a curtain that is pulled away to reveal, unveil what’s on the other side of it. That pulling away is an apocalypse. Now, the act of revealing or unveiling what’s on the other side of the curtain, as it were, could in fact mean the end or completion of one world or era in order to make room for the disclosure, the emergence of a new world, a new order, or, as the apostle Paul liked to say, a “New Creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Or, in the words of the rock band R.E.M, “It’s the end of the world as we know (and I feel fine).” This is not an explicitly Christian song, of course, but it works: “It’s the end of the world as we know (and I feel fine).” Why? Because as Christians we know a new world is being born all around us all the time, if we but open our eyes! Apocalyptic language with its vivid, provocative imagery is designed to get our attention. It’s designed to get us to wake up to be ready to receive, to see the revelation of God that is about to be unveiled. Be alert.
Be alert! Why? Because there are so many distractions all around us that divert our attention from what is true, which hinder us from recognizing God’s presence in the world, which obscure the coming of God.
While we should not take this text literally, the images that we have here are eerily similar to what we are experiencing today. The text says that fear and dread will be so great that people expire and faint, overwhelmed by the confusion and panic unleashed in the world, among the nations (Luke 21:24-25). This is a pretty good description of terror. While we here in Baltimore have not been directly impacted by the recent events in Europe and Africa and the Middle East, we know about them, our imaginations have been activated as we wonder what it’s like to be in Paris or Brussels. When in the West, in the last fifty years, has an entire city shut down its subway for several days, closed schools because of an imminent terror warning? The State Department issued a worldwide terror alert last Monday. But what are we really supposed to do about this? Isis has threatened to strike in Washington, DC, and New York City. There are no explicit threats, just a general warning. We’re told to be vigilant. “If you see something, say something.” Yet, we’re told not to be ruled by fear and to go about our lives as normal. How does one do this? That’s not easy.
All of this can so easily become a distraction. These distractions hinder us from trusting in the presence of God to be our strength; these distractions hinder us from hoping in the One who is and is coming. Luke tells us, “Then they will see ‘the 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” (Luke 21:26-27).
Instead of being weighed down with fear and worry, even when you see all that’s going on in the world, the panic, the fear, the dread, the terror—don’t allow these to get the best of you. “Stand up,” Jesus says! Stand up! Lift up your heads and stand up straight. Why? “Because your redemption is drawing near.”
The use of the word redemption here is significant to note. Apolytrosis, in Greek, doesn’t mean the redemption of your soul in the afterlife. It means redemption from slavery. Slavery. It refers to redemption, release from the people and circumstances and forces to which you are presently enslaved. We find this theme of redemption throughout Luke’s gospel. We hear it in Zechariah’s prophecy in Luke 1, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them” (1:68). After Jesus was presented in the temple, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, a widow, who worshipped there night and day, we're told, “At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38).
Redemption from slavery. That’s a provocative image, isn’t it? Is that how you view the birth of Jesus? The coming Jesus, the reason for God’s presence in our lives is to redeem and save us from the people and circumstances and forces that enslave us? And, yet, this is precisely why Jesus was born: to witness to the world that God is the God who releases us from all that enslaves us.
Now, perhaps you think you’re already free. Perhaps you think you’re not enslaved to anything or anyone. Perhaps. I would wager that you are, that we are enslaved to something, enslaved to whatever has control over your life, which holds you back, bogs you down. If we’re courageous and honest, we know they are there. But, instead, we love our distractions because we don’t want to acknowledge their presence. We might hide them well, but we know they’re there. Maybe it’s fear that enslaves you. Maybe it’s the incapacity to trust or forgive or love. Maybe it’s the desire to be safe that enslaves you, that prevents you from taking healthy risks. Maybe it’s addiction. Maybe it has to do with money, having enough, worrying about how it’s spent, how much is shared. Maybe it’s the past that you’re enslaved to. You get the idea. They’re there. And the birth of Jesus—and his life and death and resurrection—I believe with all my heart, have something to do with being delivered in the present from those things that prevent us from loving and hoping and dreaming.
Yes, they’re there. You know what they are. If you don’t…just sit in the silence, go into the darkness, and watch.
Go ahead…that’s what Advent is for.
 Mary Louise Bringle and Beverly Howard, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel: Reflections on Four Seasonal Hymns, Resource for Advent I. (The Presbyterian Publishing Corporation: The Thoughtful Christian, 2015). This Advent sermon series is designed to complement this resource.