Sermon: Apocalyptic Advent

When I first started preaching I always thought it was so odd for the common lectionary to begin Advent – every year – with Jesus prophesying the Apocalypse. “What kind of a way is this to begin our journey to the manger?” I’d ask myself. It’s definitely not something you’d see on a Hallmark card.

`. . . there will be distress and confusion among nations . . . people fainting from fear and foreboding . . . the oceans will roar and the heavens will be shaken . . .  so be on guard that the day of reckoning doesn’t catch you by surprise, like a trap  . . . and just pray that you may have the strength to escape all of these terrible things that are going to happen . . .”

`Merry Christmas . . . Love Luke.’

            The fact is, for years I avoiding preaching on this passage like the proverbial plague.

            “My people don’t want to hear this,” I’d tell myself. “They don’t even want to sing those dour Advent hymns. They just want sing Christmas carols.

            “Tis’ the season to be jolly!”

            What’s the point of reading this ominous scripture text at this time of the year? Why do we need to hear this as a prologue to the nativity story?

            Maybe it’s because sometimes we tend to forget the true meaning of this holy season. In the midst of all the shopping and decorating and parties and concerts the central theme and the harsh realities of the Christmas story – the story about the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ – so often gets lost in the holiday shuffle.

            We tend to forget that Jesus was born at a dark and foreboding time for the people of God; born into an impoverished, enslaved existence under the oppressive thumb of Roman occupation of their homeland; born in spite of Herod’s insane attempt to prevent it by mass infanticide of male children in and around Bethlehem.

            Maybe we need to hear these severe lines of scripture at the beginning of Advent each year to remind us of why Jesus’ birth was necessary in the first place; to remind us both of the reality of the fallen world he was born into and of horrendous suffering he would endure in order to redeem it. And us.

            “There will be signs” of the coming of that redemption Jesus reminds us. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees;” he said, “as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” [Lk 21:29-31]

            On his blog site, Episcopal priest Michael K. Marsh remembers the Advents of his youth. One of the things he always looked forward to was the Advent calendar he and his sister would get in Sunday school. It typically had a beautiful picture of the nativity scene or something at the top and then colorful little doors for each day of Advent. Each day they would open one of the little doors on the calendar to reveal a Bible verse with part of the Christmas story—or some other `churchy picture’.

            One year there were even chocolates, Michael remembers. And each door was a sign that Christmas was getting closer. “We were counting the days,” he said. “That’s what Advent was all about.”

            “I liked Advent. I like the way the house looked, the music my parents played, the bowls of snacks set out for guests. Advent was a time of expectation, anticipation, and excitement. Yes, it meant Jesus would be born in Bethlehem but it also mean grandparents, presents, and Santa Claus. I looked forward to the future one day at a time.”

            “Then something happened,” says Michael. Somewhere along the way life got really real and Advent changed. Advent was no longer just the season before Christmas, a countdown. Instead it began to describe the reality of my life and the world.

            “The gospel texts about the destruction of the temple, war, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and betrayals (Luke 21:1 – 19) took on new and often very personal meanings. Advent became a season of change, letting go, and looking to a future that was not yet clear or known. I’m not exactly sure when it began or how it happened,” Michael reflects, “but I know it did. All the signs were there.”

            “It might have been that night I sat alone in my office, with the lights off, looking out on the bay, tears running down my face, wondering how my life got to that point. I had everything I wanted and wanted nothing I had. I had done all the right things and yet everything went wrong. `There will be signs,’ Jesus said.

            “It might have been the pain and brokenness in my first marriage, the guilt and regrets, the dreams that were replaced by a list of could’ve, would’ve, and should’ve. `There will be signs,’ Jesus said.

            “It might have been the day our son died, a world ended, and lives were lost, his, Cyndy’s, and mine. `There will be signs,’ Jesus said.

            “It might have been reading the headlines and feeling like my prayers are unable to keep up with the pain and the needs of the world. `There will be signs,’ Jesus said.

            “It might have been one too many pictures of another drowned Syrian refugee. `There will be signs,’ Jesus said.

            “It might have been listening to the news of the shooting at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood and knowing there will be yet another vigil and moment of silence brought about by violence. `There will be signs,’ Jesus said.

            “It might have been waking up with the world each morning of the past week and wondering, What’s next? Where will it happen? When will it take place? `There will be signs,’ Jesus said.

            “It might have been any one of these, all of them, or a thousand other things just like them. These are just a few of my Advent stories, stories about how my life has been changed and the world as I had known it ended.”

            “What are your Advent stories?” asks Michael Marsh.

            “I sometimes wish Advent was as simple and easy as opening a little door on the calendar, eating a piece of chocolate, and knowing that Christmas was one day closer. But it’s not. You and I both know the world is not that simple and life is not that easy.

            “Maybe that’s why every year on this day, the First Sunday of Advent, we always hear a gospel text that seems to describe the end of the world and the signs that will accompany that ending.

            “This is not just a story about Jesus and his disciples. This is your story and my story. We experience it in our lives. We see it in our world. And today, the Church declares it to be the good news of Christ.”[i]

            To truly understand this scriptural prologue to Advent – to hear it with the ears of faith – is to recognize it not as ominous words of future foreboding, but as words of hope for today. In our Bible study on the book of Revelation, we learned that the word `apocalypse’ does not mean `the end of time;’ but rather means that something is `to be revealed’, or `disclosed’.

            The great theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote that Christian eschatology (the study of end times) is not about `the end’ at all. “On the contrary,” he says, “what it is about is the new creation of all things.” Moltmann then goes on to note, “What it is I do not know, but I have confidence that the new beginning will find me and raise me up.”[ii]

            Jesus was telling his disciples – is telling us today – about a time when God will finally have God’s way with the world. And when that occurs, we shall all be raised up.

            This is the divine revelation which began with the Advent of Jesus Christ; and was then confirm with his resurrection.

            “Lo, I am with you always,” said the resurrected Christ to his disciples, “even to the end of the age.”

            In one of her books, Kathleen Norris wrote an essay on eschatology in which she talks about the reality of the end of things. In that same essay, she also describes her experience that what we Christians believe about the end causes us to live lives of abiding hope now. She tells the story of a dear friend, a brilliant scholar, who was stricken with cancer and who nearly dies three separate times over the course of several years of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

            Then – as suddenly as it appeared – the cancer went into remission. Her future was still uncertain, to say the least, but she returned to teaching and writing and bears an amazing witness to Kathleen by saying, “I’d never want to go back because I know what each morning means and I’m so grateful just to be alive. We’ve been through so much together. And hasn’t that been a blessing!”

            Kathleen Norris concludes, “That’s eschatology.”[iii]

            The central message of the Gospel – indeed the entire Bible – and what Jesus was born to bear witness to, is that no matter what happens, no matter how bad things get, surrounded by your enemies, overwhelmed by grief, overcome by suffering, or standing in the presence of death itself, God is still God, the One in Whom there is no shadow or change, the One who is always on the side of justice and goodness, and because we believe in that God, we know that, whatever the circumstances today, a better day is coming.

            The essential message of the Bible is not that God is bent on destroying the world in one final fiery holocaust; but that God loves the world and has a purpose for the world, and for each of us, and is even now working in history, and in our personal lives, to bring about the realm of peace and justice and kindness and compassion each and every day. (John Buchanan)

(Grateful acknowledgement to Fr. Michael K. Marsh for his courageous witness and willingness to share)

[i] Marsh, Michael K. “There Will Be Signs”, Interrupting the Silence: An Episcopal Priest’s Sermons, Prayers, and Reflections on Life, Becoming Human, and Discovering our Divinity, November 30, 2015, https://interuptingthesilence.

[ii] Moltmann, Jurgen, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, SCM Press, 1996.

[iii] Norris, Kathleen, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Riverhead Books, 1999.