December 2, 2012
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Be alert! Pray that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place! This may not be what you were expecting to hear as the Church entered the season of Advent. Isn’t this supposed to be the time of year when we hear gentle reassurances that God is coming to be with us in the form of a little child? Shouldn’t there be more comfort and joy and less fear and foreboding?
Well, yes and no. Advent is indeed a time when we focus on preparing for Christ to come to us as a baby at Christmastime, but it is also time for us to prepare for when Christ comes again, in power and great glory. While most of the world is aflutter with plans for parties and presents, we might lose sight of this second kind of Advent waiting. But it’s still there. Not only that, but we pray all the time for God’s kingdom to come–every week in fact!–but do we really want Jesus to come back right now? Are we longing for the kingdom to come if it means coming the way the prophet says he will come—to “execute justice and righteousness in the land”? Is this coming of Christ good news or bad news for us?
Jesus says there will be signs by which we will know that the kingdom of God is near. “There will be distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea 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.” As I read this, I can’t help but think of our sisters and brothers who are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy last month, not to mention storms and earthquakes and famines all over the world. Are these earthly devastations signs that the kingdom is near? And if so, do we really want to pray for it to keep on coming? What if we prayed, “Stay, Lord Jesus” instead?
I think it’s interesting to note that Jesus says these kinds of catastrophes are signs that the kingdom is near, but he never says that they are sent by God. Is it really God who causes what insurance companies and others refer to as “Acts of God” or is it us? Is it our use and abuse of God’s creation that causes atmospheric and oceanic changes? I don’t think we can pin acid rain on God–at least, not nearly as quickly as we can pin it on corporate flouting of EPA standards. I cannot imagine that global warming was God’s idea–it is much more likely the consequences of our own pollution depleting the ozone layer–a layer of protection that was created by God for our own well-being. Jesus says there will be signs that the kingdom is near, but let’s not be too hasty in assigning cosmic significance to our own devastation of the environment.
Maybe some of you don’t need to read the news to feel like horrible things are happening on the earth. Maybe some of you are feeling like you are in the center of a storm yourself. Maybe when you are praying for God’s kingdom to come, you mean to you, personally. God, all I want for Christmas this year is a sense that this tsunami of my grief, this avalanche of shame and guilt, this tornado of pain and anger, this whole catastrophe of my excruciatingly difficult life is not the final word. Maybe you are not hopeful and happy about Christmas coming. It might be that this Christmas will not be a merry one for you.
Whether the storms of life are inside or outside of us, Jesus has another parable to share, another sign that the kingdom is near. He points to a fig tree and says, “When this tree sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near.” It’s pretty basic agriculture, isn’t it? When the trees start budding, you know that winter is past. It doesn’t happen instantly. A tree doesn’t go from a dried up stick in winter to a full-blown blooming tree in summer. But little indications lead the way.
This isn’t just true of fig trees. A lot of things in nature go through a stage when they appear to be dead. Caterpillars go into cocoons, which look like mud. I remember walking through an ice-covered cornfield in Iowa one winter. It was mostly bare frozen ground, except for some gray stalks and husks here and there. It brought to mind the story of Ezekiel and the angel when they surveyed a battlefield full of bones. The angel asked Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” and Ezekiel gave the only possible answer: “Oh Lord, you know!” Because it looked like nothing had ever been alive there or would ever be alive in that place again. And maybe some of you could describe your interior landscape in this way too.
But even as he cautions us that there will be difficult times for us to face, Jesus does reassure us that we have reason to hope. Yes, these dead bones can live. Yes, the dried up trees WILL sprout leaves. The cocoon WILL open, and a butterfly will emerge. The corn WILL grow. And you will find new life. The kingdom of God is near.
It’s not here yet, you understand. Advent means coming, not HERE. The signs of the kingdom are meant to keep you alert and awake, but not to a false hope that everything will be ok tomorrow. Resurrection movements can be very subtle, but they always arch toward new life. Think of the journey from seed beneath the earth to flower in full bloom, and lift up your heads. The kingdom is near. Your field will not be fallow forever. Eventually, the fig tree sprouts leaves. God’s kingdom comes!
So, since it is clear we may have to wait awhile, how do we wait? Our second lesson gives us some clues. Paul writes to the people in Thessolonica because he loves them and misses them. He assures them that he will be joining them again soon. But meanwhile, he prays that they will abound in love for one another and for all. He tells them not to be “weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” To that we might add, let’s not get sucked into the crazed commercialism and over-doing that surrounds Christmas in our country. Let’s say that instead of over-spending, over-eating, over-drinking, and over-working ourselves, we will take on an hour a day to pray for the community of Trinity Lutheran Church. Let’s pause to notice the signs—signs of new life, and signs of death—that surround us. Let’s pray for peaceful passing for those people and issues that need to die, and vibrant new life for those people and ideas that are being born. Let’s pray for healing when it is hard, and sing with gratitude when it is fun.
Because I think we’ll find that when we are deeply engaged in loving one another, in lifting up one another’s hopes and hurts to God, we will find that we are no longer simply WAITING for the kingdom of God to come, like we might wait for a bus or a train, or the phone to ring or a letter to come. Instead, I believe we will discover that we are BEING the kingdom of God! When we gather around this table to give and receive nourishment from Christ and from one another, when we nurture and surround the world that God so loves with tenderness and respect, when we pray for the spring for ourselves for the world, we are living God’s dream. We ARE the kingdom of God!
Whatever tsunamis and typhoons and turbulence occur around us or inside us as we enter this Advent season, God is near. And the days are surely coming when all of God’s promises will be fulfilled, and there will be justice and righteousness and new life for all! We are all part of the world that God so loves. So let’s stand up and lift up our heads. Let us pray with confidence and joy, Come, Lord Jesus!
~Pastor Susan Schneider