Sermon: First Sunday of Advent 2015

butterfly_blueNovember 29, 2015

“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly.” That’s how Franklin Delano Roosevelt began his first inaugural address in1933, just as the Great Depression was reaching its depths. Then he added those now-famous words, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

As the church enters the season of Advent in 2015, some of us might feel that what is ruling the world right now is exactly that “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Life may seem very much the way Jesus describes it in Luke’s Gospel, “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.”

Are these earthly devastations we see daily—terrorism (both domestic and international), earthquakes, famines, melting polar ice caps, war—signs that the kingdom is near? And if so, it sounds like there’s a lot more to fear than fear itself. Do we really want to pray the classic Advent prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus”? What if we prayed, “Stay, Lord Jesus” instead?

Maybe some people don’t even need to read the news to feel like horrible things are happening on the earth. Maybe some of you feel like you are in the center of a storm yourself. Maybe your families or your finances or your bodies are falling apart. It touched me to read what Christian author Janice Jean Springer discovered during the days following her diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. She noted that among the most devastating losses she had to face was the erosion of her “self-image as a strong and vibrant woman … I’ve lost the illusion that I am exempt from the losses and limits that besiege other people.” Is that perhaps what we fear most of all? That pain and loss and death are not just for other people, but also for those we love most dearly—and for us, personally?

In the face of all this darkness I want to say with FDR: ”Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Luke’s Gospel may indeed introduce a profound, cosmic experience of loss, accompanied by signs that all is not well. But amid the rising tide of confusion, we are invited to look longingly for a familiar face, one we will recognize: “They will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory’.” Instead of crumbling to the ground, Jesus suggests our eyes will be opened. We will meet not a fearsome stranger “but the one who has already appeared among us as the definitive revelation of God.”

Whether the storms of life are inside or outside of us, Jesus points our eyes up and away from our own concerns and fear. He directs our eyes outward and upward, pointing toward a fig tree where we are to look for hope. “When this tree sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near.”

It’s pretty basic biology, isn’t it? When the trees start budding, we 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 hope that all is not lost resides in the buds on its branches. Look up and out, not down and in. That is a useful remedy for the paralysis of fear. Lift up your heads. All is not lost. 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 us alert and awake, but they do not offer a false hope that everything will be ok tomorrow—or even by Christmas. So, since it is clear we may have to wait awhile for the renewal of all things, how do we wait? How can we be faithful in our present circumstances, where we are confronting global and personal crises?

Our second lesson for today gives us some clues. Paul writes to the people in Thessolonica because he loves them and misses them. He knows that they are anxious and afraid about many things, but he assures them that he will be joining them again soon. 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. Instead of over-spending, over-eating, over-drinking, and over-working ourselves, let’s pause to notice the signs of new life, and the 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 life is hard, and sing with gratitude when it is fun. Most of all, let’s steer clear of operating out of fear, for that only leads into deeper darkness.

Instead, let’s advance with courage, heads up and hearts lifted. I bet 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, we are BEING the kingdom of God! When we gather around this table to give and receive nourishment from Christ and one another, when we nurture and cultivate tenderness and respect for the world that God so loves, when we pray for the spring for ourselves for the world, we are living God’s dream.

We can echo FDR, asserting, “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly.” This is our truth: God is bigger than everything we fear. God is more loving than we can imagine. Because we are God’s own, we can look up and out and see hope and new life winging their way here. Whatever tragedies occur around us or inside us as we enter this Advent season, God is near to us. 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! Stand up and lift up your heads as you pray, Come, Lord Jesus! Amen!

~Pastor Susan Schneider

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