Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Signs” Luke 21:25-36
The gap between church and society is at no time more noticeable than it is on this first Sunday of Advent.
Out there, enormous, electric snowflakes hang from village lampposts as a sign of the season. In here, the Advent wreath has returned to its seasonal home, above the baptismal font.
Out there, we have weathered the buying frenzy of Black Friday and small business Saturday, and we are anticipating the online deals to be found on Cyber Monday. In here, we are thinking about using our resources to help neighbors in need throughout the coming weeks. We are bringing in canned corn for Christmas Food Boxes or undertaking a Reverse Advent Calendar or planning the gift of clean water with shallow wells for Africa.
Out there, strings of Christmas lights are decking the eaves. Snowy yards are about to sprout inflatable snowmen and Grinches. In here, we have donned the penitential color of purple and hung Advent greens that speak of eternal life amid winter’s death.
Out there, the feasting and merriment have begun. The grocery stores are filled with holiday treats, we can place our order for Buche de Noel at the Left Bank Café, and we are revving up for holiday gatherings with family and friends after twenty long months of social distance. In here, Advent has traditionally called us to fasting, study, reflection, and repentance. We probably won’t fast, but we’ll take home Advent devotionals for reading and prayer, or we’ll Zoom together to learn from C.S. Lewis.
Out there, we’ve been hearing Christmas carols ever since Halloween. In here, we listen to the somber sounds of “Wachet Auf,” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.”
Out there, we are more than a month away from champagne toasts, the ball dropping in Times Square, and the joyful greeting of “Happy New Year!” In here, we keep God’s time with a holy calendar that today marks the start of a new year.
In these weeks of Advent, there is a palpable gap between our church life and the spin that our culture has put on preparing for Christmas. Can you see it? Can you feel it?
That gap between the sacred and the secular seems even more pronounced when we ponder today’s reading from Luke’s gospel. Sounding a lot like the Old Testament Prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Joel, Jesus got downright apocalyptic, warning his listeners of a coming Day of Judgment. There would be signs in the heavens, chaos among the nations, and tumult upon the waters. Amid the discord and disruption, Jesus called his followers to vigilance, saying: look, be on guard, stay alert, pray. All that eerie, end times prognostication sounds ominous and hard to swallow along with our holiday eggnog.
It helps to remember that when Jesus stood in the Temple court and got all prophetic, he was in the midst of a different holiday season, and he was surrounded by people who were sadly and fearfully aware of the gap between God’s Kingdom and the world that they lived in. It was Passover week. From around Israel and across the Roman Empire, the Jewish people had come to Jerusalem to remember that God had once delivered them from the cruel bondage of Egypt. With plagues of frogs and gnats, darkness, disease, and death, God had shown Pharaoh who was boss, and then Moses had led the people forth to freedom. That Passover week, Jesus and his friends would remember God’s deliverance with the sacrifice of a lamb, the signing of psalms, and the sharing of a final Passover seder.
There was a tense, politically-charged gap between those Passover memories and the everyday reality of Jesus’s listeners. Israel was again in bondage, a vassal state of the Roman Empire. A legion of Roman soldiers had ridden out of Caesarea and up to Jerusalem amid the Passover pilgrims. Any dreams of Jewish freedom would be promptly and brutally quashed. The local political and religious powers served the emperor’s purpose, not God’s purpose. As that week continued, this would become increasingly clear as the Temple authorities conspired with Judas to arrest and condemn the Lord.
Given the context in which Jesus’s prophetic words were originally spoken, they take on a hopeful tone. As Jesus spoke in the Temple court, he reminded his listeners that it was God, not Rome, who had ultimate authority. God, who had launched creation with a Big Bang, hurled a billion stars across the heavens, and delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, God was still at work and would one day bring all things to completion. Indeed, before the week was out, God’s epic plan for the world’s redemption would embark on a new chapter as Jesus took on the sins of the world on the cross and launched a revolution of self-giving love that continues to ripple through the corridors of time. God’s Kingdom was coming. They could count on it. There was hope to be had amid the world’s darkness.
In the UK, the train conductor encourages travelers to “mind the gap” as they step off the platform and onto the train, to notice and attend to the divide between the two. In this Advent season, Jesus’s apocalyptic words are a little like that conductor’s call. We are to be mindful of the gap between God’s Kingdom and life as we know it. It’s terribly tempting to board the Christmas juggernaut, to be swept along in these coming weeks by the non-stop shopping, eating, decorating, celebrating, and partying whirlwind. That train is leaving the station and it’s standing room only, but Advent invites us to a different kind of journey. I’m not telling you to give up your seat on the Polar Express, but Jesus and I are asking you this morning to simply mind the gap. Remember the true reason for the season. Notice the people and places where redemption is needed, God feels distant, and the love of Christ would sure make a difference.
This Advent, we could resolve to live as signs of that coming Kingdom where justice is served, the wounded find wholeness, and love prevails. This Advent we could dare to bridge the gap between “in here” and “out there.” Would you like to know how?
Be hope for those bowed down with sorrow or grief. Send them a caring note. Include them in your holiday plans. Invite a hurting friend to join you for our Longest Night service on December 8th, when in shared worship, prayer, and music we will be reassured of God’s steadfast love.
Be care and compassion for a neighbor who feels lost and alone. Take them an Advent devotional. Share with them a link to our online worship. Bring them along to a Sunday service or for story-telling and music in our Blest Be the Tie Christmas Evening on Dec. 15.
Be generous with and for those who know poverty and privation in this world of terrible abundance. Ring the bell for the Salvation Army. Make a donation for a Christmas Food Box. Volunteer with the Holiday Helpers. Help us meet our goal of giving shallow wells to six African villages.
Be love for those people who are hard-to-love. You know them: the prickly and the grumpy, the mean and the miserly, the bigot and the bleeding heart. Try a random act of kindness. Turn the other cheek. Listen deeply, pray fervently, and don’t give up. Be your best Bob Cratchitt to the Ebenezer Scrooges of this world.
Mind the gap, my friends. Be signs of Christ, who bridge the gulf between “in here” and “out there.” As we stand, like Jesus did, in that uncomfortable gap between life as it was meant to be and life as we know it, we just may catch sight of that other Kingdom, the heavenly one that Jesus anticipated all those years ago. May it be so. Amen.
Kathy Beach-Verhey. “Homiletical Perspective on Luke 21:25-36” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Mariam J. Kamell. “Exegetical Perspective on Luke 21:25-36” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
25“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”