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Signs

This is the sermon I preached on Dec. 2, the First Sunday of Advent, at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The text was Luke 21:25-36

Waiting is hard. Children on road trips cry out, “Are we there yet?” A friend of ours in PA. tells of when her son, Luke, was younger. When he knew a package was coming, each day he would sit out on the front steps of the house waiting for its arrival. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, itself a time of waiting for the coming of something far more precious than a package. We await two comings of Christ: his first as one of us on earth and his second when he returns in glory. Today we focus on the second one.

In today’s gospel text, Jesus moves his listeners from the realm of cosmic signs, to the realm of the listeners’ experienced world of nature and finally to their personal realm.

Jesus first talks about the realm of cosmic signs (vv. 25-28).
Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?" (Lee Emerson)

This is what goes through my head when I hear the word “sign.” However, the kind of signs Jesus was talking about is that of cosmic signs--in the sun, moon, stars--on earth, dismay among the nations over the surging seas--planets shaken--fainting and foreboding. These are signs so big that no one could mistake them.

And in all of this we see human suffering, sometimes so horrendous, we want to turn away from it. But Jesus tells us to not turn away and hide but to embrace reality. When we acknowledge and welcome the “here” of human suffering, we experience the nearness of God, particularly as we reach out to help the suffering. 

Who is this “Son of Man,” Luke writes about? Luke is not emphasizing Jesus’ human nature as Mary’s son. Rather he is referencing the Jewish apocalyptic figure called the Son of Man who was a mysterious human-like judge who as part of the cosmic upheaval at the end of time would appear in the sky to represent God to the people and the people to God. 

There are two kinds of reactions to these words of Jesus, that of “the people” and that of “you.” “The people faint (or die) from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” However, you are to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (v. 28). The difference depends on whether or not we are believers. The day of judgment for the world is also a release from judgment for believers.

Everyone will experience judgment, either now or later. We can face it now by confessing our sins to God, repenting of those sins and having those sins wiped away by divine forgiveness. With all our wrongs removed by daily repentance and forgiveness, there will be nothing left to be judged on Judgment Day. We will be declared “pure and blameless” (Phil. 1:10). Or…we can avoid daily judgment, meaning we will have to face up to our sins and sinfulness and take our chances on facing God later—when all are judged. This will not be as pleasant a judgment, as that in which God will declare us, “Not guilty” because of what Christ has done for us.
            
Jesus says, “Don't faint from fear. Instead, stand up. Raise your heads. Your salvation is drawing near.” These are words of comfort to a Jewish people devastated by a failed revolt. These are words of comfort to people in the midst of devastation - these things shall pass.

The signs of disaster are easy to see. Can we see the signs of hope? When there are death and destruction, can we “Stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near?”

Jesus now moves his listeners to the realm of their experienced world of nature (vv. 29-33). He uses the analogy of the fig tree, which was and is abundant in the Holy Land. This is a positive image for God’s arrival. The tree buds in the spring and you know there will be fruit. In the Old Testament, the fig tree was often used as a metaphor for the peace and prosperity of Israel. In this parable, the fig tree and all the trees should be understood in reference to Israel and all the nations. 

A common theme in the parable is “see and know.” You see leaves sprouting, so you know summer is near. When you see these signs, you know the kingdom of God is near. Here the “kingdom of God” can be defined as the time and place when God rules the universe as king. The kingdom is present in the words and works of Jesus but has not yet realized itself fully. No other powers will compete with God. So the coming of this kingdom means release for us from all those other competing forces.

What about “this generation” who will not pass away before the coming of the Son of Man? “This generation” as part of the world will pass away, but “this generation” as part of the Word, will not pass away. As people of this earth, we will face fear, judgment and death. As people of the Word, we also have the promise of joy, salvation and eternal life. 

Buildings, heaven and earth, all are temporary. Families betray each other. Others may hate us. The things of this world are all secondary to the Word of God. Only God’s Word, the Lord Jesus, is worth trusting through the hardest times in our life. 

Jesus finally moves his listeners to the personal realm. Watching and waiting are hard, especially with the things of life that interfere. Even if we don’t struggle with dissipation and drunkenness, we cannot easily avoid the worries of this life.

We had a wonderful time with my daughter Sarah and her family over our Thanksgiving vacation, but I struggle with not worrying about the numerous health issues she’s struggling with, that she tries to downplay. We are very grateful for the care and love of her nurse-husband, who stays on top of things. But I’m her mother and I struggle with worry. 

Not everyone is as fortunate as my Sarah. Did you hear the latest statistics concerning the average lifespan of Americans? According to the CDC, it has shortened, mainly due to two factors, death from opioid overdoses and suicide. At our Addiction Response Ministry board meeting Friday night, we were discussing these issues and what we can do. As an organization, we decided we need to more aggressively get the word out to churches about this epidemic that is happening right here and right now. 

Once we as a church have this information, what can we do? We can support organizations working with those suffering from substance abuse and suicide prevention. We can be on the lookout for those we know who are affected by these twin plagues. If we think someone we know may be suicidal, ask them if they have ever thought about harming themselves. Contrary to popular opinion, asking someone if they are suicidal will not give them the idea to commit suicide. People are dying! Let’s reach out with the love and hope of Jesus. Isn’t that what Advent is about? We have hope and light in the midst of the darkness that we are to share with the world.

There is always more going on than meets the eye. This is why we must “watch” (v. 34) and “stay awake at all times” (v. 36). Jesus calls us to be prepared and aware, but this doesn’t mean we plan out every detail ahead of time, as though we could control reality that way. Jesus is our source of strength. 

Does the blessing of Christ, our bread, our life and our hope, propel us into the world to clothe and feed and be in solidarity with others? What does it mean for Jesus to have come to us, for God to have put on human clothes and what does it mean that we wait for Jesus to return? How are we called now to be co-workers in the kingdom of God? One of many ways is through the 5 Loaves and 2 Fish Ministry that feeds hungry children. On the 11th, we will be packing food for students’ backpacks. Join us. We remain awake, watching for signs of God’s kingdom come (Miriam Samuelson-Roberts). 

God’s eternal word calls us to join the Christians of the late first century wishing for the end of all the evil and sorrow, longing for the coming of the joyous reign of Christ. We believe Christ has already come to us, is coming to nourish us in word and sacrament and will come at the end of all things. 

In Advent we find an antidote to an illusion that cuts to the chase, insists on the truth, laying us bare. Advent invites us to dwell richly in the here because here is where God dwells when the oceans heave, the ground shakes and our hearts are gripped by fear. “When you see these things,” Jesus says, hope fiercely and live truthfully. Deep in the gathering dark, something tender continues to grow. Yearn for it. Wait for it. Notice it. Imagine it. Something beautiful for the world’s saving waits to be born in us and in our world. In the birth of a helpless baby, all the powers of the universe find that the days of their own power are numbered. Nothing will ever be the same.

Amen.

Resources

Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation: Luke

Mary Beth Dinkler, workingpreacher.org

Eric Fistler and Robb McCoy, pulpitfiction.com

Miriam Samuelson-Roberts, Currents in Theology and Mission 45:4 (October 2018)

Brian Stoffregen, crossmarks.com

Sundaysandseasons.com

Debie Thomas, journeywithjesus.net




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