Sermon Seeds: Choosing Hope
First Sunday of Advent Year C
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Sermon Seeds Year C from The Pilgrim Press – Order now
Reflection on Luke 21:25-36 with thoughts on climate change and El Niño
Additional reflection on Luke 21:25-36
New: Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors by the Rev. Susan Blain
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
Whether we saw them with our own eyes or only on our television screens, those images are hard to forget: the smoking rubble of the World Trade Center, a jagged scar on the earth in Eastern Pennsylvania, a gaping hole in the side of a burning Pentagon. Few of us had ever seen a great city in ruin, set afire by those who wanted to obliterate it. Other nations and their children have long known bombings and rubble, but this was the first time we in the United States saw our major cities under attack, with staggering destruction and loss of life; we have all felt less safe since September 11, 2001. Our nation sustained a spiritual wound just as much as a physical one on that day, and now, we watch in sorrow as both Beirut and Paris endure the horror and aftermath of similiar injuries to their cities and their spirits.
Perhaps we can just begin to imagine, then, how the people of Israel felt so long ago, when their city, their nation, was destroyed, and their rulers and religious leaders carried off to a distant land. Our lectionary reading for this first Sunday of a new church year, this First Sunday of Advent Year C, is from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Six hundred years before Jesus was born, the people of Israel were carried off to exile in Babylon, after many warnings by the prophets, including Jeremiah, that their failure to live faithfully, to live in justice and righteousness, would bring their downfall. They must have felt that they had been cut down, like a tree felled by the ax of a brutal and heartless oppressor. Once, under the great King David, Israel had been a formidable political and military power, and its people still remembered those glory days and longed for their return. Now, their king was no more, that glory was only a dim memory, and their hopes were dashed upon the rocks of the brutal history of empire.
And then, the prophet arises
It’s at that moment, right there in the midst of despair, that the prophet arises, the prophet who is also a poet with an imagination and a deep sense of call to proclaim, even in desolation, destruction and loss, the promise of God’s future taking shape beneath and behind it all. What is happening underneath, what we cannot see, is nevertheless real. Now, in the midst of the terrible suffering of the people, with Jerusalem destroyed and the temple in ruins, Jeremiah doesn’t heap more misery on the people; instead, he offers them something to grasp, a hope to which they can cling. In fact, the prophet’s voice takes such a dramatic turn that these chapters of Jeremiah are called the Book of Consolation, or the Book of Comfort.
The people need this consolation: if they had had mental health professionals in those days, they would have been inundated by people suffering from depression and perhaps even post-traumatic stress disorder. In any age and any situation of great suffering, depression is a hazard for those whose pain and loss are so great that they cannot imagine a future. Why look to the future, they might ask, if life holds the potential for so much pain? And yet, in the midst of communal depression, the prophet speaks a word of hope, a promise of what is yet to be. Jeremiah doesn’t say that things might get better, or could be better, or that we should be optimistic about future possibilities. The prophet says that the days are surely coming – and you can count on it because God is the one making this promise.
On that great day
What will this day look like? It will not be a day of revenge so those who are suffering can turn around and do damage to their own victims. There is a powerful video clip on a Sojourners blog by Jannette Jauregui of Robert F. Kennedy speaking to a crowd in Indianapolis the night that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot. He had to share this terrible news with the stunned and anguished crowd, and it is believed that his words helped to keep a level of calm in that city while others went up in flames. He spoke against the division, the hatred, the violence and lawlessness that had the power to tear our nation apart in those turbulent times, recalling that he had lost a member of his own family to such violence and hatred. And then he lifted up instead “love and wisdom and compassion toward one another. A feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country.” (He also recited the poem by Aeschylus, provided at the end of this reflection.)
In recent days, we’ve witnessed those affected by the terrorist attacks in Paris struggle to respond, often with surprising grace so soon after their devastating losses. (See these responses from a man who lost his wife in the attack and from a father responding to his son’s fears.) How do we experience loss and tragedy, especially communally, and not seek revenge? How do we respond with “a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer” (or may suffer in the future) and not inflict harm ourselves on innocent people? Most of all, how do we live in hope, not fear?
Cities restored and the land unscarred
This day promised by God will, however, be a day of justice, when the cities – the cities of ancient Israel and of modern Israel as well, the cities of our own nation, not just New York City and Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, but Cleveland and Detroit and St. Louis, too – will not be ruined, and “the land” will not be scarred by poverty and violence and greed. It won’t mean glittery nightlife and new sports venues but neighborhoods, restored and healed and safe for people to live in, and homes for people to inhabit and call their own. A day is surely coming, the prophet says, when all of God’s children will live in peace. Everyone will have enough to eat, shelter and safety, the goods of life provided so generously by a loving God. The one who is yet to come, the one we await, will bring this justice and righteousness, and we order our lives differently today as we wait and hope.
Forty years after the Civil War ended, African Americans were still being mistreated and marginalized, and the musical Ragtime tells some of that story. At one point in the play, after a terrible tragedy has occurred, in the midst of injustice and outrage, the entire cast sings a hauntingly beautiful song, “Till We Reach that Day.” Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics sound like the words of an Old Testament prophet, magnificent and yet utterly simple and clear as they express the soul-deep longing of those who have suffered too much, for far too long.
I think there is that kind of longing in the people of Israel long ago, a people, as Leonard Beechy puts it, “run over by ancient history” (“Living by the Word” in The Christian Century November 17, 2009). We sense that same longing today, in people who feel pushed down and pushed out and even crushed beneath the heel of modern “empires” of greed, materialism, militarism, and nationalism. G. Lee Ramsey, Jr., suggests that the Arab Spring of 2011 and movements such as the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations might be seen as examples of people “publicly yearning, calling out for Jeremiah’s prophesied justice and righteousness” (“First Sunday in Advent: Jeremiah 33:14-16” in New Proclamation Year C 2013).
This world counts, too
So we begin the season of Advent with this reading from a time long ago, when a king in the line of the great King David was the hope of the people of Israel. It seems that the promises God is going to fulfill are as this-worldly as next-worldly, and the promise of a “Branch” that will “spring up for David” indicates that leadership is very important if human beings are going to participate in this great day. Gene M. Tucker notes that this promised one, like God, will focus on the justice of our “governmental, political concerns, both domestic and foreign,” and he calls this “not just an ancient Israelite hope, but the Christian expectation at Advent as well” (Preaching through the Christian Year C).
Ironically, their rulers had mostly let the people down in the past (even David wasn’t perfect, no matter how much he was seen as the ideal king): William R. Herzog II observes that they’ll still be included in this great “promised transformation” even though it was their fault that Judah had been carried off to exile (“First Sunday in Advent: Jeremiah 33:14-16” in New Proclamation Year C 2006-2007). Walter Brueggemann reminds us that rulers should “do what kings are supposed to do, namely, practice justice and righteousness” (Exile and Homecoming: A Commentary on Jeremiah). Do what is right this time, kings: that’s your job.
Jerusalem as a joy
Just as David symbolizes the good king, so Jerusalem holds so much power in our imaginations as the City of God: in verse nine of this same chapter of Jeremiah, God promises that “this city shall be to me a name of joy….” How will Jerusalem bring God joy? According to Dianne Bergant, we hear in our text this week that Jerusalem, “the city whose name means ‘foundation of peace,’ is here given a new name, ‘the Lord our justice'” (Preaching the New Lectionary Year C). Justice and joy are inextricably linked. We’re not just talking about bricks and mortar here: Richard Ascough reminds us that “God does not dwell in buildings but is with God’s people.” And this is true in every age and every condition: suffering can be a learning experience, instructive for the people of God, even when it feels like God is absent. With the exile, Ascough writes, “A new understanding of covenant with God was forged from the experience and a new relationship developed. For Christians, this has happened once again through the person and work of Jesus” (First Sunday in Advent, New Proclamation Year C 2000-2001).
Christians read of these promises as people longing for the return of Jesus, our righteous Branch, the one who preached justice and embodied righteousness. One of the liturgical touches of great beauty during this season is the lighting of candles, usually associated with a different theme each week. These themes may put us even more deeply in the “mood” of Christmas, that is, if we miss the thread of judgment that runs through these prophetic readings as well. As Deborah A. Block observes, “The church may light its Advent candles for preparation, hope, joy and love, but the prophets sound justice and righteousness” (Pastoral Perspective, Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1).
We do prefer to hear of grace and peace rather than judgment, of course, but if there is never judgment, why would anything we do, matter? The rightness and wrongness, the good and the evil content of our choices give them moral weight, and cause our lives to matter even more. And our accumulated choices, the little ones as well as the big ones, shape our communities into centers of greed and self-interest, or into radiant centers of hope and love and peace.
Hope in the smallest and brightest places
Today, even the smallest of churches gives us glimpses of that hope. A church doesn’t have to be a great big impressive mega-church to be a place of hope, of new life even in the face of what looks like death. There are some experts, of course, who have announced the “death” of mainline Protestantism, but there are others, like Diana Butler Bass, who are quietly taking a second look. It often takes experts a while to catch up with what’s happening, to read the signs of the time, as we hear in today’s reading from Luke, and what they’re noticing is that here and there, little branches are springing up from what looked like a dead stump, little communities of faith rooted in justice and striving for righteousness, listening always for a word from the Stillspeaking God, little churches growing into great churches, vibrant and full of heart.
There’s a wonderful scene in the story of The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, when a boy named Dickon and his friend Mary explore a most wonderful hidden garden. It appears that many branches of the trees and the rose bushes are dead – the word “gray” is repeated again and again. But Dickon takes out a knife and cuts into a branch, where he finds “a shoot which looked brownish green instead of hard, dry gray,” and he assures Mary that, deep inside, the tree is as “wick,” as full of life and promise and hope as these two young people themselves.
A church that “does what it’s supposed to do,” like a good king, a church that lives and breathes God’s justice and God’s righteousness – not self-righteousness, but God’s righteousness – is a “wick” shoot, green and new on the inside, holding life, hope and promise no matter what things may look like on the outside. In the midst of loneliness and despair, poverty and war, in the face of communal depression and personal heartache, these churches throw open their doors and their hearts to all of God’s precious children and offer them a place, a community, where the quiet little flames of hope can be fanned into the fires of justice and peace, into the warmth of spiritual homes for those who had lost hope that they would ever find a place of such beauty and kindness, such tenderness and fierce hope, a welcome home in which to grow their faith by participating in the dream of God. These are churches that love worship and learning, churches that are open and generous, full of feeling, beautiful and just, churches that long for, and draw their strength from, the dream of God.
Can things ever be made right?
In so many ways, the world around us may appear, well, broken, with terrorist threats, environmental damage, bitter partisanship in our public life: relationships within families and communities, political parties and governmental processes, nations and economies and social systems have been damaged almost beyond repair. Even the earth itself protests with weather systems that bring destruction more sudden than the mightiest conquering army, from hurricanes to tornadoes, from droughts to tsunamis. We wonder, too, if we’ll ever be able to clean up the mess we’ve made in our rivers and oceans, the air and the ground itself (see the reflection below, by Brooks Berndt, with a focus on the environment).
If we look around us, justice and righteousness do not appear to be the order of the day. Too many people, especially children, do not awaken each day in safety and security but in fear for their lives. Too many awaken to another day of hunger and anxiety, of suffering and pain, perhaps having had to leave home to escape violence and yet longing to return even while they live as strangers in a strange land, dependent on the kindness of those who may actually fear them. While we may be annoyed at having to take our shoes off to get through airport security, low-wage workers struggle just to provide shelter for their children, and mothers in Africa watch their children starve while our leaders discuss whether or not to allow more people to find refuge on our shores.
Stories of struggle and fear
When we read these words from the prophet, and listen to the story of the suffering of the people he addresses, we look up and around us then to see the suffering of the world in this Advent season. Gary W. Charles writes evocatively that “[t]he stories of Advent are dug from the harsh soil of human struggle and the littered landscape of dashed dreams. They are told from the vista where sin still reigns supreme and hope has gone on vacation” (Homiletical Perspective, Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1). And Joanna M. Adams, writing in 2006, sounds as if she is talking about the world in this December almost a decade later: “This Advent I feel an urgent need for the light that comes from God, and I do not think I am the only one….The clouds of anxiety about the future are hovering so low and close that you can barely see your hand in front of your face.” She finds herself, like all of us in this Advent season, “holding on for dear life to the reassurance that God intends to make the world right again” (“Living by the Word” in The Christian Century November 28, 2006).
“This Advent…this Advent…”: what is the urgent need for light that you are experiencing during this Advent season? Or better, how is your congregation responding to God’s call to be light in a discouraged world desperately in need of hope, of compassion, of justice, of peace? Have you ever considered “courage” as the best antidote to “dis-couragement”?
Living between the times
Advent. Perhaps the most beautiful of all the church seasons (perhaps I say that because it’s my favorite), Advent certainly brings out the poet in prophets and scholars alike. Leonard Beechy calls Advent “Twilight time,” drawing on the beautiful Celtic tradition with its sense of “the time between the times,” like the thin places where we feel even for a moment the presence of the holy. I was taught that we live our lives in the “already-but-not-yet” of God’s reign, and Beechy connects that beautifully to this season: “The church exists to remind us that we live in the time between the times, between what is dying and what is being born, between the ‘already’ of Christ’s reign and the ‘not yet’ of Advent.”
At the beginning of another church year, Beechy reminds us of the power of the story we hear again and again to draw us “more deeply” into our own lives. And then he expresses even more succinctly the promise of this short text: “After a long and terrible night, said Jeremiah, a brilliant morning would dawn and a generation of God’s people would wake up in safety in a place renamed ‘justice.'” (“Living by the Word” in The Christian Century November 17, 2009). What would it be like to live in a place called “Justice”?
The need for Christian imagination
What are those things we need to do, then, as we wait? We begin by exercising what Jennifer Ryan Ayres calls “the strenuous and crucial Christian task of imagination,” and then we position ourselves to “become partners with God in the advent of a new reality” (Theological Perspective, Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1). As God’s partners in this great work, we will seek to repair this lovely but hurting world that God loves. Perhaps we will feel overwhelmed at times; it wouldn’t be unreasonable, in the face of so much brokenness and despair, for us to lose heart. And yet, just when the people give up, God sends a prophet, or even a church full of them, to speak a word of hope.
Is it too much to dream that God is calling us today to speak a word of hope to the people? No, indeed, for we hear a call in this text to align the deepest longings of our hearts with the great and beautiful dream of the heart of God. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., must have felt overwhelmed many times in his struggle for justice. But he kept on keeping on, drawing strength from his sure conviction that “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” Joanna Adams reminds us of the Greek word for what we are about: “prolepsis, which means acting as if what [we] expect to happen has already happened” (“Living by the Word” in The Christian Century November 28, 2006).
A different kind of time
Advent is a time of waiting, filled with hope, for the One who is to come. When we live in love and act in hope, when we gather again and again at the table to remember what Jesus did and to know that Jesus is with us once again, we are people of Advent hope. We tend to think of the month of December as the Christmas season, and the secular world ironically reinforces that premature celebration, if only to entice us to early and excessive spending. But Advent is a different kind of time, just as we in the church are on a different calendar from the rest of the world.
Deborah Block claims that this “alternative New Year’s Day affirms time as God’s home and workplace, not as a calendar of accumulating years but as a movement toward fulfillment, not a day for self-improvement resolutions but for community reaffirmation of trust in God’s promises, past, present, and future” (Pastoral Perspective, Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1). The task of the preacher here, on the near edge of Advent, is to inspire the congregation to give our lives each day to God’s own dream of compassion and peace, and to persist in living our lives in hope.
Where do we see justice?
If we would stop during this Advent, not Christmas, season, and look around at our communities, where would we see justice and righteousness? This year, thanks to social media and 24/7 news coverage and a deep and abiding fear flowing out of recent events, it is hard to avoid thinking about our sisters and brothers who awaken each day in fear of their lives. We may even feel that we ourselves or our loved ones are living with a measure of fear for our lives in the face of ominous threats.
While we fear violence ourselves from terrorists, are we missing the “slow-motion violence” of economic injustice that visits injury, pain, loneliness and hunger upon those who suffer the effects of greed and negligence, day in and day out? What is the deepest longing of our hearts, and are those longings in line with the longings of the heart of God?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
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A Bible study version of this reflection is at http://www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds.
For further reflection:
Edward Hays, A Pilgrim’s Almanac, 20th century
“Advent is a winter training camp for those who desire peace.”
Jürgen Moltmann, 20th century
“I tried to present the Christian hope no longer as such an ‘opium of the beyond’ but rather as the divine power that makes us alive in this world.”
Augustine, 5th century
“God without us will not; we without God cannot.”
Martin Buber, 20th century
“Everyone must come out of his Exile in his own way.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
“Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”
Aeschylus, 5th century B.C.E.
“He who learns must suffer;
and even in our sleep
pain that cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
and in our own despair,
against our will,
by the awful grace of God.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, 20th century
“For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
Frederick Buechner, 20th century
“Go where your best prayers take you.”
David J. M. Coleman, 20th century
“Christian community is a ‘thin place’. Time and space matter less than the solidarity of God with us, and between those who share God’s calling.”
Reflection on Luke 21:25-36 with thoughts on climate change and El Niño: When “The End” Is Really the Beginning
by the Rev. Brooks Berndt
Not long ago, I raked leaves for the first time with my four-year old daughter. Earlier in the fall, I had bumbled my way through an explanation to her of why leaves turn colors and fall to the ground. When it comes to the life skill of explaining everyday science to children, I confess to some difficulty, especially when a curious, inquisitive question catches me off guard in the midst of a car ride. In the matter of raking leaves, however, science-made-simple was no longer the pressing issue. The conundrum I faced was how to get the job of raking leaves done before dark while keeping my sometimes restless and squirrely daughter engaged and occupied. As it turned out, my daughter was more than capable of solving the dilemma by herself. Where I saw potential trouble, she saw opportunity: as everyone should know, great fun is to be had by diving into large piles of leaves.
An uplifting mound of good news
For preachers, one of our greatest challenges is to turn the mess of a falling and dying world into an overflowing and uplifting mound of good news. More so than almost all other pressing issues of the day, preachers encounter this challenge when addressing the science-related matter of climate change. One can almost hear the collective double groan of preachers upon reading the first three verses of this week’s Gospel reading from Luke. One groan for its perplexing and depressing apocalyptic imagery, and another groan because it is so hard not to connect that imagery to current events related to climate change and El Niño.
The scripture, for instance, speaks of the distress caused on earth from “the roaring of the sea and the waves.” With reminders like this, it is hard not to think of how the world recently experienced the strongest hurricane on record — Hurricane Patricia — as the likely result of El Niño’s warming effect being layered upon the warm-water trends of climate change. Thankfully, there are those who can aptly explain the science of such phenomena through metaphor. As one commentator noted, “Warm water is like gasoline for a hurricane’s engine.” In addition to events like hurricanes, El Niño is also causing profound distress among the nations of the world because it is disrupting agricultural systems and threatening a humanitarian crisis on a mass scale. UNICEF estimates that 11 million children in eastern and southern Africa are at risk of hunger, disease, and water deprivation due to the strengthening of El Niño.
Flipping the script
For preachers, it might at first seem like mocking irony that, when spelled with capital letters, El Niño not only refers to a monster weather event, it also refers to the Christ Child. Yet, the fourth verse of the lectionary reading from Luke flips the script. Jesus says all of this apocalyptic news isn’t bad news. It’s good news. “Your redemption is drawing near.” He goes on to explain that just as the sprouting leaves of a fig tree tell us that summer is near, what we see today tells us “the kingdom of God is near.” In other words, what looks like a mound of mess is actually a gigantic pile of good news.
The task for preachers is to point to the places where these extravagant heaps of goodness can be found. Can the coming of the kingdom be seen in the recent extraordinary successes of an environmental movement that defeated Keystone XL in one effort and reduced US carbon emissions to 1995 levels in another? Can the coming of the kingdom be seen in the environmental activities of your own church community?
Preventing what seems inevitable
The apocalyptic language of the passage may still give some preachers trouble, but, in one of the best essays ever written on apocalypticism, Walter Wink argued for moving beyond the superficial view that such scripture must necessarily provoke a sense of powerlessness because of the impending sense that the end is upon us. Wink instead contended that rather than counseling passivity, apocalyptic warnings call upon every ounce of resolve to prevent what might otherwise seem inevitable. Often biblical prophets labeled “apocalyptic” are in truth anti-apocalyptic. Wink declared, “They said what they said in order that it not become true.” Into this category of prophetic utterances, Wink placed our scripture from Luke which in the final verse instructs, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place.”
As much as ever, during this Advent, the world needs preachers who can turn a mound of mess into a gigantic pile of good news. The Reverend Canon Sally Bingham, who founded Interfaith Power and Light, once evoked this kind of preaching when she wrote, “Crisis can bring opportunities, and currently we have an opportunity like none other in history. It is a chance to awaken spiritually, to redefine what it means to be human, and to bring light into our souls.” In preaching on the apocalyptic words of Luke, what seems like “the end” can really be a beginning. To assist preachers in connecting the Christ Child with daunting topics like giant weather events, global hunger, and climate change, the UCC is providing commentaries and resources on these very topics. Ultimately, may this Advent truly be an El Niño advent.
The Rev. Brooks Berndt serves as Minister for Environmental Justice
with Justice and Witness Ministries at the national offices
of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
Signs of Things to Come
After Thanksgiving is over, the world around us seems to get even more serious about preparing for Christmas. Perhaps the word “serious” isn’t the best one to use, since the preparations that occupy our time and thoughts (and consume our money, and perhaps put stress on our relationships and health) can’t compare to the preparations that Jesus advises us to make, in our reading from the Gospel of Luke on this First Sunday in Advent. While we set up Nativity scenes with a sweet baby Jesus lying in a manger, we hear from the grown-up, just-about-to-die Jesus, standing in the Temple, teaching about the coming catastrophe – the destruction of that Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. – which Luke of course must have known about when he wrote his Gospel fifteen years or so later. But Jesus seems to be talking about even more than that: the end of all things, the End of Time itself. It certainly puts those Christmas preparations in a different perspective.
Here, at the beginning of the beautiful season of Advent, the intent of the church is not to spoil things with talk of the end of the world while the culture around us is set for weeks of parties, gift-giving, family reunions and, for many who stay away the rest of the year, attendance at church. Actually, these are (or can be) all good things; however, there’s more going on here than just celebrating a festive season at the end of one year before we begin a new one. The season of Advent itself actually begins a new church year, even though it comes before the end of the secular calendar year. It’s no wonder folks get a little confused among these beginnings and endings, when a new year opens with a reading that appears to be about the end of everything. But it’s important, at every beginning, to take the long view, to have the end in mind, even here, at the start of one more new church year.
New beginnings mean change
We can’t enjoy beginnings and endings if we don’t like change. And Jesus is describing the biggest change of all, the transformation of all things, when “the Son of Man” (in the Common English Bible, “the Human One”) rides in “on a cloud with power and great glory” (v. 27). People will be filled with fear, even more fear than when the Romans completely devastated Jerusalem and the Temple. We know that the violent, mighty power of Rome was impressive to behold, but on that great day, the heavens themselves will collapse, and the stars and the moon will fall out of their places in the sky, nothing will work as it should, and things will no longer go on as they have in the past. This time, even the Gentiles are going to be on the receiving end of the suffering and the judgment. There’s going to be some kind of day of reckoning for everyone, just you wait and see.
Now, this is apocalyptic talk. When things are especially threatening for a group of people who feel persecuted and small in a big bad world, they express their hope for deliverance and their trust in the God who is really in charge of everything by speaking in large, dramatic terms about a day of justice when all things will be made right. Back in the book of Daniel, the same kind of language expressed the people’s hope for rescue from the evil tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes, almost two hundred years before Jesus. How else would God up-root the power of something as mighty as the Empire of Rome, if not by doing big things in big ways, even bringing down the heavenly bodies from their courses?
Bringing down the powers that be
Dianne Bergant reminds us of the chaos that reigned before God brought order, back in the beginning of things, at creation itself. All those frightening metaphors and apocalyptic images like the moon and stars falling out of the sky draw our attention to God’s return and the beginning of a whole new age (Preaching the New Lectionary Year C). William Herzog observes that the sun was the symbol of Rome itself, with the moon and the stars representing the Empire’s “client kings” clustered around it, so we can better understand that, when Luke is talking about the “powers of the heavens” being shaken, it’s a kind of code about events that are quite down to earth, even, we might say, political, because the powers-that-be, right here, are about to be brought down (New Proclamation Year C 2006-2007).
I wonder if young (and not-so-young) adults might relate this to the destruction of the Death Star in their own epic, the (original) Star Wars trilogy. The language of empire was also used in that series to describe the terrible might of the evil power that oppressed planets and galaxies. Empires come and empires go, but they rarely come or go gently, or quietly.
Not surprisingly, there’s a tension in the commentaries on this text. Some scholars emphasize the cosmic over the personal dimensions of the upheaval Jesus foretells: Paul Scott Wilson claims that Luke isn’t talking about our own individual deaths but about the end of all things, including time itself. Even for those of us who have grown up with the threat of nuclear holocaust over our lives, the end of time is the ultimately frightening thought. Or perhaps not: rather than the destructive “tantrum” of a “spoiled child,” Wilson continues, this is about God bringing an end to sin and injustice, which ultimately ought to be seen as a good thing, rather than a frightening one (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). If we trust the One who makes promises to us, we can indeed stand up then and raise our heads in anticipation of the redemption at hand (v. 28).
Living “in the meantime”
Other voices seem to take a somewhat different approach to the text, focusing on things more here and now, as close at hand as the fig tree Jesus wants us to observe. Dianne Bergant reminds us of the distress and upset of all upheaval, large and small, personal and communal. We know that even good change brings a kind of stress and instability, and we humans prefer things to be calm, predictable, and comfortable.
Years ago, I read a book by William Bridges, Transitions, that described the in-between time we experience in any major change in our lives. There is a point, or a period of time, that we spend in between one time or place, and another time and place. In that in-between time, we have to live with things being not so clear or comfortable, not familiar and reassuring, and yet not being what they will be one day.
That seems to be what Advent living is about, Bergant writes: the way we live in the meantime, which, surprisingly and simply, “calls us to live the usual unusually well.” Lately, it seems that we’re developing a heightened awareness of the importance of the everyday; no, not just its importance, but its holiness. I think that’s what Bergant is encouraging us to see, that Advent, a time of heightened awareness, is “as ordinary as the birth of a child; it is as extraordinary as the revelation of God” (Preaching the New Lectionary Year C).
Finding the holy every day
As an illustration of “living the usual unusually well” and keeping alert at the same time, Richard Ascough suggests a short story written by Leo Tolstoy, “Where Love Is, God Is,” about a cobbler named Martin whose hope for a dramatic revelation of God is answered by the everyday sightings of God as love in action, in charity, justice, and compassion toward the people he meets each day (New Proclamation Year C 2000-2001). Could we write the story of our own lives, in our own, ordinary occupations, experiences, hopes and dreams, as a series of sightings of God in the everyday living of our lives?
Barbara Brown Taylor draws our attention to that fig tree, suggesting that the people might have been focusing on the wrong things, “abstract things, like judgment or salvation, or on dramatic things, like earthquakes and plagues.” Instead, Jesus turns their attention to “the most ordinary events of their lives,” and the most ordinary things, like the sprouting of a fig tree. In this way, he reminded them “that they did not have to work so hard.” Taylor wonders about the way we use the time we have (it’s really all we have, she says) while we’re waiting for Jesus to return. Be alert, yes, she writes, but not because we’re afraid of a coming disaster but so that we ready for the return of God (“Apocalyptic Figs” in Bread of Angels).
And while we wait, we should pray. John J. Pilch observes that we seem to depend on human technology like satellites and telescopes to warn of impending disaster (not to mention weather radar, earthquake detectors, and other marvels of science), but it seems to me that more folks listen to dire predictions from fundamentalist preachers, the Left Behind series, and purported ancient Mayan prophecies about the end of the world (not that our scientists could predict that, of course). In any case, Luke urges us instead to pray to be delivered from the coming catastrophe (The Cultural World of Jesus Year C). Catastrophe or not, a prayerful life is always a good thing.
Fear and hope
Fear and hope: I sometimes wonder if our culture feeds our ambivalence on this end-times question, with television and movies joining preachers and proselytizers to scare us to death, or at least to ramp up our anxiety to almost-unbearable levels with depictions and predictions of end-of-the-world cataclysms. But does all of this talk of impending doom lead to real change in the way we live now, or do we walk away from such “entertainment” having drained our spirits and our minds of some of that anxiety, safely, so that we can return to life as usual?
Years ago, when I was at home during the day, raising children, visitors to my front door came preaching to me about the end of the world, which I had already spent most of my childhood dreading. I suggested (sincerely) that they might consider preaching the gospel – the good news – of how much God loves us and forgives us and offers us a new life of grace; I assured them that they would find doors up and down the street opening much more often, because I knew how hungry my neighbors were (as I was) for such a message. They said no, they basically had their story and were sticking with it. The dramatic end of the world was that part of the biblical message that mattered most to them, but it didn’t seem to be preached in the context of anything but getting people to see things their way, even if they had to strike fear in people’s hearts to make their point.
Are these “the last days”?
These contemporary preachers are not alone, of course. Many people throughout history have seen themselves as living in “the last days.” Jesus and Paul and many if not most early Christians spoke of the end coming in their own lifetime or at least in their own generation. But so did our ancestors later on, including Martin Luther and colonial Christians like Cotton Mather in North America (see, for example, Garry Wills, Head and Heart: A History of Christianity in America).
Many years ago, I read that there was an upsurge in building and planning in Christian Europe after the year 1000 turned safely, without the expected end of the world at the close of one millennium. However, Richard Ascough’s observation that our anxiety levels seemed lower in 2000 than they were in 1999, on the eve of another new millennium, is poignant, for he couldn’t have foreseen the terrible events of 2001 and the fear of terrorism that descended upon us that year (New Proclamation Year C 2000-2001).
Yearning toward peace
During Advent, we’re looking forward, just as our Jewish ancestors in faith looked forward, to the fulfillment of God’s promises of peace. Christians see in Jesus the gift of peace, and we sing carols about that peace, and yet we look around and see that the world is not at peace. Justice does not reign, and the earth groans in pain, and nations continue to settle their disputes by killing each other’s young, along with any civilians who get in the way.
Richard Swanson reminds preachers that there are children in our congregations (or, alas, not there) who know well what it feels like for “the sun and the stars” to fall from the sky because of parental abuse and neglect; in their small worlds, their parents are the sun and the moon and the stars (Provoking the Gospel of Luke). Luke wrote his Gospel in a world where the population was overwhelmingly poor peasants who had to live in the moment because of the precariousness of their lives, while those at the top concentrated on maintaining their own position, power, and wealth. If, as John Pilch says, Jesus’ warning was in fact to the rich (we can always substitute the word “greedy” for “rich” in Luke’s Gospel, he says), then obviously the promises were for the poor (The Cultural World of Jesus Year C: Sunday by Sunday, Year C).
Advent and repentance
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, in their excellent book, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Birth, help us to approach Advent as the season of repentance and preparation, but with a deeper understanding of what those words mean. Rather than seeing repentance as contrition, sorrow for our sins, confession, and doing penance, Borg and Crossan describe it as a turning toward God, but in a way that stretches us, for “to repent” really means “‘to go beyond the mind that you have'” so that we might see our lives, and the whole world, in a new way.
While this reading may tempt us toward anxiety about a sudden change brought on by God in a dramatic chain of destructive events, Borg and Crossan challenge us to hear the political message in this passage, a necessary dimension of repentance that has been “eclipsed” by our more comforting and comfortable reading of the gospel. Whether one celebrates or criticizes the American Empire, they claim that it is a reality, because ’empire is about the use of superior power – military, political, and economic – to shape the world as the empire sees fit. In this sense, we are the new Rome.” A sobering thought, and not at all comforting.
Christmas past, present and future
This December, while we watch one more version (movie, animated television show or play) of the personal examination of conscience by Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ story, “A Christmas Carol,” we might also consider what Borg and Crossan call the “three tenses” of Christmas for the world: past, present, and future. Like Paul Scott Wilson, Borg and Crossan hear Jesus speaking about an end to injustice and suffering, about “the earth’s transformation, not about its devastation.” Jesus is promising that justice, peace and healing for which we all long.
Borg and Crossan helpfully articulate the different ways we understand such an eschatology and our role in it: is God going to act alone to transform the earth (and all we can do is wait and pray), or do we collaborate with God to bring this new earth to reality, “the world promised by Christmas”? Or do we ignore the whole question of transformation of the earth and just concentrate on our own personal, private salvation? “The Christmas stories,” Borg and Crossan write, “are not about a spectacular series of miraculous events that happened in the past that we are to believe in for the sake of going to heaven. Rather, they are about God’s passion, God’s dream, for a transformed earth.” (The First Christmas is invaluable for the preacher in this season).
“Help is on the way!”
Perhaps the most artistic commentary on this text is provided by Kathy Beach-Verhey. In my office at the UCC Church House in Cleveland, I look up from my computer screen at Vincent van Gogh’s magnificent painting, The Starry Night. It’s always been one of my favorites, although I never connected it to this reading about end-times. But Beach-Verhey suggests that the “apocalyptic sky” in van Gogh’s painting, with its strange and dramatic beauty, is a good image for this text, offering us “[f]rightening, bold, and beautiful glimpses of God” for our reflections here, at the beginning of Advent (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1). It is an offer we should keep in our minds and hearts as we kneel before a gentle baby this Christmas, listening for the Stillspeaking God to call us into the birth of a new and transformed and beautiful world. Or, even better, as Eugene Peterson translates our Gospel text, we should be on our feet rather than our knees: “Stand tall with your heads held high. Help is on the way!” (The Message).
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 20th century
“For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Wisdom of W.E.B. DuBois, 20th century
“Eastward and westward storms are breaking – great, ugly whirlwinds of hatred and blood and cruelty. I will not believe them inevitable.”
Arundhati Roy, 20th century
“Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
Dorothy Sölle, 20th century
“God dreams for us today. Today, at this moment, God has an image and hope for what we are becoming. We should not let God dream alone.”
Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction, 21st century
“Turn around and believe that the good news that we are loved is better than we ever dared hope, and that to believe in that good news, to live out of it and toward it, to be in love with that good news, is of all glad things in this world the gladdest thing of all. Amen, and come Lord Jesus.”
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
To you, O God,
I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you
be put to shame;
let them be ashamed
who are wantonly treacherous.
Make me to know your ways, O God;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth,
and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
Be mindful of your mercy, O God,
and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth
or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love
for your goodness’ sake, O God!
Good and upright is God;
therefore God instructs sinners
in the way.
God leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble God’s way.
All the paths of God
are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep God’s covenant
and God’s decrees.
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
[Jesus said:] “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 heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in 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 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. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words 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.”
Liturgical notes on the readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first and second readings are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (email@example.com)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”
So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!
Advent and Christmas
There are different approaches to the colors associated with Advent; both have historical precedent.
Violet — once a very expensive color to produce (remember Lydia in Acts?) — was associated with royalty, and so with some traditions of Christ the King. It was also adopted in many churches for use in Lent, and so acquired penitential associations. The Rose color used on Advent 3 — Gaudete (Joy) Sunday, when readings traditionally employed imagery of rejoicing, offered a break from the penitential themes by pointing to the joy, or the dawn, drawing close at Christmas. Some advent wreaths include three Purple and one Rose candle. (Remember that “Gaudete” comes into English as “Gaudy,” and choose a deep, rather than a pale, shade of Rose or Pink!)
Another Advent tradition employs deep Blue, suggesting the long nights in the Northern Hemisphere at this time of year. We wait in expectation and hope in these long nights, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ’s return at the end of history. Candle lighting rituals may take on a particular poignancy in such a context. In this setting, using the Rose candle on the third Sunday of Advent – Gaudete (Joy) — points to the dawn that is coming.
White, or its variant, Gold, first appears on Christmas Eve and may be continued through the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sunday after Epiphany (celebrated by many as the Baptism of Christ) to show that all of these events are festivals related to the incarnation of Jesus Christ.