“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. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heaven will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourself 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. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my word will not pass away. 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, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be 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.”
I was in Richmond for most of the week completing the final retreat in my year long leadership program. Every other month a group of clergy retreated from our churches to reflect on how we have led while praying for God to show us the right way to lead.
On Wednesday evening, upon completing the lectures and break out sessions for the day, we gathered to worship in a small chapel on the property of the retreat center. We prayed together, we lifted up our voices together, and we listened together. I could still feel the Spirit’s presence washing over me at the end of the service when one my colleagues asked if any of us wanted to join him for a drive to go look at some Christmas lights.
If you know anything about me, after being cooped up listening to speakers and participating in self-reflection, driving around to look at blinking lights sounded light the best possible way to end the evening. So a group of us scrunched up in one car and we began our journey.
There were plenty of homes in that part of Richmond with the requisite strand of lights hanging from a gutter, or the solitary electric candles standing starkly in every window. But there was one home that glowed in such a way that would make Clark Griswold proud, and it was our final destination.
Across the lawn there was not a foot of space that wasn’t adorned with an inflatable character, a string of lights, or a mechanical animal. You could even tune your radio to a particular station playing Christmas music to which the lights were coordinated. The house had a hotshot driveway so that you could drive onto their property at the expected 2 miles/hour and soak it all in.
I wish I could appropriately convey in words the sheer depth and breadth of what we experienced. And remember: we were a group of trained theologians, properly educated and reserved in our beliefs, and yet all of our faces were pressed tightly against the windows.
There was the giant blinking “LET IT SNOW” on the roof top, there was a projector displaying Santa Claus packing up is sleigh before the midnight departure, and there was a set of inflatable elves playing instruments in rhythm with “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree.”
There were at least 4 full sets of reindeer attached to their own respective sleighs, there was a strange assortment of Santa Clauses in every shape, size, and color, and there was a palm tree decorated as if it were a Christmas tree.
There was a section with holiday adorned characters including Mickey Mouse, Lightning McQueen, a gaggle of Minions, and a small Darth Vader, R2D2, and Yoda.
We did the loop three times.
And it was only during the final pass through, while we were all laughing and giggling with the joyful experience that I realized something strange – there in the midst of all the lights and color, all of the sounds and movement, was only one tiny manger scene tucked away in the corner, as if it was an after-thought.
It looked like they were excited about Christmas, but almost forgot about Christ.
It is strange to gather in this place and at this time with all of the expectations of the world – The Christmas carols started playing on the radio before Thanksgiving, the department stores had up the decorations even before Halloween, and some of us did our holiday shopping months ago.
And now we come to church, to finally catch up with the season we’ve been preparing for and what do we hear about from God’s word? There’s no mention of Santa, we don’t learn about a young virgin named Mary, we don’t even catch a glimpse of a cute baby all wrapped up in swaddling clothes.
No. Today we get the end instead of the beginning.
This is not the sweet Jesus away in the manger. It is the stern adult Jesus picturing the whole of the universe being shaken and turned upside down.
But what about the city sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style? What happened to all the falalalalalalalalas? Where are the chestnuts roasting on an open fire?
Advent, for better or worse (mostly worse) has moved very far from what it once was. Now, we imagine it as this awful time of participating in the virtue of patience up until Christmas morning during which we get to cut loose and open up all the gifts. But thats not really what Advent is all about.
Advent it the recognition that we are people stuck in the middle – We are living in the in between.
We already know what happens on Christmas morning, we are aware of the Messiah child named Jesus and what he will do for the world, and yet we are waiting for his return.
And we do this, as Christians, all in the midst of a horribly unpredictable world. We are certainly a people of patience, but it is a confused patience. We wait for his arrival, we wait for his return, and yet we know where he is.
It’s enough to give you a headache.
But that’s Advent! Head-scratching, incarnating, frustrating, waiting.
The End, whatever that may mean, is so often shrouded in fear and foreboding. The wayward person carrying around the sign “The End Is Near” is not often regarded with joy or gratitude. The End raises the hair on the back of our necks and we feel the beginnings of existential dread.
And Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat it with the disciples – things are going to be bad. The whole of the cosmos will experience the dynamic shifting of things from the sun to the moon to the stars and to the earth itself. There will be distress among the nations and the peoples of the planet who won’t be able to make sense of the senseless changes.
People are going to faint from fear when they begin to experience what it coming upon reality for everything will lose its sure foundation.
And then they will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory.
Jesus speaks to us, his disciples, throughout the gospel texts with a repeating message: “The world will fall apart around you but you need not be afraid – I have overcome the world! Be patient in your waiting, just before the dawn, because in the midst of the darkness there are strange and even redeeming events afoot.”
That’s Advent in a nutshell roasting on an open fire – Look up, pay attention, and be ready. Advent compels us to prepare ourselves for the two arrivals of God coming into our world and Jesus returning to the world at a time we do not know.
This is how we begin the Christian year – not with a moralistic lecture on making good resolutions and sticking to them and not a recap of our failures from the past and the descriptions of the new steps we need to take into the future. Instead, on this first Sunday of the year, we spend our time thinking about the end of the story.
As Christians we are forever beginning at the end.
Jesus names and claims the truth about the end, all things will pass away, but he doesn’t leave the disciples with their tails tucked between their legs: Consider the fig trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourself and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these crazy and frightening things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
This prophetic and apocalyptic vision of the future is all about expectation and anticipation. Though not necessarily the types we are used to.
You and I are living in a time where hope is limited to that which we can often imagine; we go through the motions waiting for something, but without really knowing what that something is. And so we get used to the stores having the decorations up months in advance, and we shrug our shoulders when we see the almost forgotten manger scene tucked away in the corner.
But the kind of real anticipation that Advent contains is the anticipation for the end of time, my time and your time and everything in between, AND the fulfillment of all the God has made and redeemed.
If we imagine the end at all we often do so with such stark and negative terms, but consider this: Jesus draws the disciples’ attention to new life! Look at the fig free, look at the new budding branches, new life is the sign of the end.
How wonderfully strange!
Jesus is describing the anticipated and expected reign of God’s kingdom on earth, and though he speaks of the fabric of life falling apart he also does so with descriptions of summer and new beginnings, not winter and barrenness. For some strange reason we miss that beautiful and hope-filled little detail and instead we focus only on what will be destroyed and decimated.
But friends, there are plenty of things in our world that need to be destroyed. There are many things that have to be abandoned. There are plenty of things that need to be crucified.
The fear of a man who stayed inside of a UMC in North Carolina for 11 months hoping to achieve legal status before being abruptly arrested and deported last week.
The anger of parents who sit in worship on Sunday morning even though they know their church believes their child is incompatible with Christian teaching.
The hopelessness of a child who goes to sleep hungry every night wondering if anything will ever change.
Some things need to be destroyed because the message of the Good News is that we cannot have resurrection without crucifixion, we cannot discover who we are without abandoning our false identities, and we cannot have new life without destruction.
Advent is the season we celebrate new life – Jesus’, our own, and the new reality made possible by our God. We live in a time and among those who wish to see the world fizzle out in a tiny smoldering fire, but the Lord promises to return to us in a glorious way and is already bringing us signs of new life and peace.
And so Jesus beckons us to look for the new sprouts and signs of new life. Because it is in the opening of our eyes that we how the end is in fact our beginning. Amen.