Happy New Year! “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, the stars, and on the earth distress among 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.”
Happy new year? What? This is not exactly the text that I would have expected to start off this new church year and to start off our Advent journey. We don’t get a nice narrative about the events leading up to Jesus’ birth - Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist, Mary’s visit with her cousin, Mary’s song of praise as she awaits the birth of Jesus. Nope. None of that. On this Sunday, we get a text from quite late in Jesus’ ministry, marked by confusion and fear of people and the nations, as a text that comes as he moves ever closer to the cross. We get this text that turns our focus, not to the first coming of Christ, the baby born in a manger, but to Christ’s second coming. ‘Come on Jesus. Get on the same page. We want to hear the nice stories that make us feel good; I know I do. I’ve had my Christmas decorations up for a couple weeks; I’ve been playing Christmas music in my car since the day after Thanksgiving. I’m ready for the good news of God becoming incarnate in a baby. But instead, we get an apocalyptic tale of fear, anxiety and confusion. #thanksJesus
I struggled with this sermon. Not just because of the tone of the text (which in and of itself is difficult) but because of the difficulty of translating a Greek text into English. I typically don’t like directly talking about Greek texts in my sermons; it is sometimes a way for pastors to “show off” their knowledge (which irritates me to no end). I don’t want to do that. But for today, it is important, so I hope you’ll bear with me. First of all, Translations are always interpretations. Always. But even more, there are words that just don’t have a one-to-one translation into English, and translators do the best they can to capture the word in our own tongue. We use for worship the New Revised Standard Version translation, which is an excellent translation. I don’t have too many problems with it. But there are some Greek words that are just so difficult to translate into English, that we find ourselves is a tricky spot. I debated replacing a line with my own translation, mulling over the various options with Shirley before she printed the bulletin. But I too was struggling to come up with “better” or “clearer” language.
And the thing is, depending on our own position and our own point of view, this text can capture either fear or beauty. On one hand, it has the potential to incite fear and anxiety among the nations and the people of the earth. Change and disruption of the norm can be scary. It certainly has the potential to scare me. The powers that be, if I’m brutally honest with myself and you all, work out just fine for me (at least for the most part). I’m someone with a relative amount of power and privilege. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t had struggles; I certainly have. Yet I’m relatively comfortable. I have a roof over my head, food on my plate - three times per day. That alone puts me in the top 25% of the world’s population. Yet on this First Sunday of Advent, I’m faced with the recognition that, although the powers that be are working out just fine for me, this world still falls short of what God intended it to be. I’m faced with the recognition that, although the powers that be are working out just fine for me, those powers that be certainly don’t work just fine for everyone, and those powers are still working to keep the stranger as my stranger and the oppressed under the bonds of their oppression. On this first Sunday of Advent, I’m faced with the recognition that I fall short of God’s intent for me and for my relationships with others, and how my actions and my sin can keep both myself and others from living abundant life. And on this first Sunday of Advent, I am faced with the recognition that my convenience and my actions bring harm to the environment and to God’s beloved creation. And Jesus telling me that the powers that be aren’t the powers of God have the potential to shake me from my relatively comfortable life. As one commentator put it, we wants Jesus to come, just not too quickly.
But for the people for whom the powers that be are inherently harmful and are death-dealing, this gospel lesson brings with it a sigh of relief and a hope for the future. It has the potential to be a beautiful text. It has the potential to bring relief to those who find themselves under the power of racism, of violence, of homophobia and transphobia, of xenophobia, of misogyny and sexism, of poverty and homelessness, of illness and death, etc. It is a Gospel reading that says that this is not God’s vision for this world or for God’s beloved people, and God’s kingdom will destroy all of the isms and phobias that harm God’s people and keep them from living fully in community and with God. It is a Gospel reading that powerfully states that the Kingdom of God is not the Kingdom of this world. It is a Gospel reading that clearly proclaims that indeed Christ and Christ’s kingdom are drawing near. It is a Gospel that boldly proclaims that the powers of this world will fall to the powers of Christ, and that our redemption, liberation, and wholeness are coming along with it. It is a promise that God’s light will break through the darkness of our lives, our communities, and our world.
And perhaps for most of us, this gospel reading can bring a bit of both - both fear and comfort. Fear of stepping outside of our comfort zone to see what God might be calling us to do or where God might be calling us to go to do God’s work with our hands, our hearts, and our voices in order to bring about restoration and healing in our homes, in our communities, and in the world. We are challenged to envision the world as God has envisioned it, and with Christ’s help, we are empowered to join in Christ’s effort to bring it about. It is risky and difficult business to reach out to the neighbor and the stranger, in order to break the oppressions that bind them. Yet it also brings comfort in knowing that in Christ, our redemption is drawing near too. The power of sin and death no longer have a hold on us. We are redeemed and we are loved by God, as we are. It brings comfort knowing that the signs of that redemption are already among us, and that the Kingdom of God is already near, and that Kingdom is continually breaking into this world. It brings comfort as we trust that Christ’s promises are for me, as well as for all people everywhere.
Advent is, at its heart, is not just about awaiting the baby in the manger, but it is also just as much about waiting for Christ to fully bring about God’s kingdom in this world. I have a hunch that this is why this particular passage was chosen for the Revised Common Lectionary for this particular Sunday. We like to focus on the baby in the manger. It is harder and less pleasant to focus on the things that Christ is working to disrupt and/ or destroy in order to bring about Christ’s reign in this world. We wait for the second coming of Christ and the complete restoration of the world as the Kingdom of God draws ever nearer. And this text sets Advent in that waiting for the second coming of Christ. And so, this Advent, we wait in hope, as we trust that God remains true to God’s promises. We pray for peace, and we pray that God, in Christ, will make us into peacekeepers. We share the love of God found in Christ, that love that redeems us all. And we proclaim the joy of the new life found in Christ.