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“Redemption Drawing Near”
Sermon on Luke 21:25-36
1st Sunday of Advent, Year C
A music director I used to work with liked to describe the seasons of the church year as a waltz: “dark-light-light, dark-light-light.” Advent is the first “dark” season, followed by two “light” ones, Christmas and Epiphany. Advent, which begins in a time of literal darkness, as the days gets shorter and shorter, is about waiting for light to break in on a confused, troubled world. We have three more Sundays between now and Christmas, and Advent is here to remind us that there is no shortcut to joy, peace, or fulfillment.
For this first Sunday of Advent Luke has served up a potent brew of apocalyptic prophecy, signs and portents of dreadful things to come. Luke has summoned these words of Jesus to speak to a confused and frightened first-century church that has endured a military invasion, the destruction of Jerusalem, and persecution under the emperor Nero. They are afraid to even think about what might be coming next. To their fear and confusion Jesus offers a catalogue of disasters and then tells them that they are to stand up and lift their heads because their “redemption is drawing near.”
Jesus is telling them that when the foundations of the world are shaking, the great temptation will be to duck and cover, or pretend that it isn’t happening – but that is precisely what they should not do. If they try to run away from the trouble that is coming, he says, they are likely to miss seeing him.
The New Testament describes the coming of Christ in words and images that seem chosen for their shock value. They are meant to jolt us into awareness. They are about wars and rumors of wars, blood in the streets, panic in the land, people running for cover. On this first Sunday of Advent, many of us are already focusing on the Christmas baby – but it seems we can’t think about that baby without hearing the wail of emergency sirens, an ambulance careening through the streets at three a.m. This note of alarm is the Bible’s way of telling us that the baby that’s about to be born is not going to come easily or painlessly. There’s still labor and delivery to go through before you can hold him in your arms.
This is a message the Bible delivers to us every year on the first Sunday of Advent, and every year the words seem to point to the calamities of our own time. This year we have witnessed the fury of California wildfires and Gulf Coast hurricanes. We’ve seen mass shootings, including one at a synagogue, and ugly expressions of race-based hatred. There are soldiers on our southern border. There are massive layoffs in the auto industry. The foundations of our common life seem to be shaking, as people lose confidence in our civic structures and governmental institutions. It is a time of upheaval.
Still, we North American Christians don’t usually see these kinds of things as signs that God is getting ready to invade the world and establish the kingdom. We tend to think of God’s kingdom in more spiritual terms, as more about God saving individuals one by one than about a complete upheaval of the world as it is. We don’t think of redemption as anything especially concrete or observable. If we do force our imaginations to the far horizon of history, to think about the promised redemption of the whole created world, it defies imagination, and forces us into mere speculation. But there is a currency to the hyper-reality of apocalyptic language: the bloody moons and roaring waves reveal the emotional truth of the here and now, where individuals and society and the whole creation are groaning and crying out for redemption.
For most people in the world, and for most of human history, “redemption” has meant something very concrete: deliverance from the present situation. Think of the Israelites groaning in slavery under Pharaoh; the exiles longing to return home from captivity in Babylon; Palestinian Jews in the time of Jesus dreaming of the end of the Roman occupation. Those longing for redemption today might include the people of Yemen and Syria suffering under war and brutal dictatorships; Central American parents and children seeking asylum in the U.S. from the violence in their countries; Palestinians in the occupied territories; women under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. For these and others, redemption would mean the end of war, the end of famine, the end of fear; the arrival of peace and safety, food and clean water, freedom to move and speak.
Whether we receive the news that the old order is passing away as good news or bad probably depends on where we are situated in the world. Liberation theologians say that God is more likely to be active among people at the margins of society – the poor and the homeless, the disabled, the outsiders, the people whose voices are most often ignored or not heard at all. Why should that be? Maybe because they are the ones who are more alert. When you are not at the centers of power and influence or cushioned by privilege and good health, you have to be alert and watchful. When nothing is ever a struggle, it’s easy to become numb, desensitized, almost anesthetized to the urgent claims of God and God’s kingdom. Whether we hear it as good news or bad, the apocalyptic language of Luke 21 is meant to shock us out of numbness.
I don’t really like to think about this, but we may be the kind of people Jesus is thinking about when he says not to get weighed down in worries and self-indulgence. Jesus gives the example of drunkenness, but there are lots of other kinds of self-indulgence besides drunkenness: excessive attention to food, shopping, entertainment, even such seemingly good things as fitness or other forms of self- improvement. Jesus knows what happens to people when life gets narrowed down to a focus on the day-to-day: going to work, paying the bills, observing our routines – all these things can lead to spiritual numbness, a kind of sleepwalking through life.
Jesus tells his disciples to be watchful for the time of redemption. The work of Advent is to pay attention to what is going on in the world, and where God might be in it. We are to lift our heads, not bury them in the sand, in hopefulness. Hoping for the return of Christ is about hoping that love and justice really will come to earth. It’s about hoping
- That the peace of Jerusalem really could happen – real peace, not just a temporary cessation of hostilities;
- That girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan could enjoy the same rights to education, free speech, and self-determination as their brothers;
- That African-American parents would not have to have “the talk” with their children;
- That poverty, especially childhood poverty, would be a thing of the past;
- That the nations of the world really would beat their swords into plowshares to feed a hungry world.
Jennifer Henry, a social justice advocate for an association of Canadian churches, has described her peacemaking work with women from around the world, especially countries where women have historically had low status and few rights. She notes that there is a certain phrase that is used when they can see that a woman is gaining confidence, “the confidence that leads her from victim to survivor to human rights defender,” someone who’s going to help transform her community. That phrase, which seems to occur across cultures and experiences, is that “she lifts her head.” “She lifts her head in power, in hope, and in persistence.”[i] She lifts her head because she sees her redemption drawing near.
Advent draws us into solidarity with the people who are most longing for redemption of this world. Whether the day of the Lord comes tomorrow or several millennia from now, we will have lived more meaningfully, more in the presence of God, if we have engaged with the suffering of the world, if we haven’t run away from trouble and risk when they come our way, if we have met hate with love. The times are hard, they are full of trouble, but God redeems the time with the light of Christ, which breaks into our world when we least expect it. So stand up with attention: lift your heads in hope, for redemption is drawing near.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
December 2, 2018
[i] Jennifer Henry, “Advent One – A Thin Veil of Peace” at https://clbsj.org/news/2018/11/25/advent-one-a-thin-veil-of-peace/.