Weekly Seeds: Signs

Sunday, November 28, 2021
First Sunday of Advent

Focus Theme:

Focus Prayer:
God our Righteousness, increase and enrich our love for everyone. Strengthen our hearts and enable us to stand. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Luke 21:25–36
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. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven 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 does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 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.”

All readings for this Sunday:
Jeremiah 33:14–16
Psalm 25:1–10
1 Thessalonians 3:9–13
Luke 21:25–36

Focus Questions:

  1. Do you search for signs?
  2. Where do you find signs of God?
    3, Was there ever an instance when God provided a clear sign of God’s promise?
  3. Why is it important to reflect on the promise of God?
  4. How does the incarnation point toward the promise of God?

By Cheryl Lindsay

Some signs are terrifying, and some promises we pray will not be kept. They sound almost like threats rather than the offer of something desirable. This week’s passage begins towards the end of a larger discourse from Jesus foretelling the beginning of the end of life as his hearers know it. Horror movies have literally used these words to craft a vision designed to give us nightmares. It’s an interesting way to begin the season that represents hope, peace, love, and joy.

The signs, Jesus insists, will be everywhere — visible, obvious, and felt. The magnitude of them will be discernible even from light years away as the moon, sun, and stars will display signs the human eye will be able to observe. With the benefit of telescopic lenses and astronomical advancement, we know that the sun is in constant, volatile, and energized motion, but we avoid looking directly at the minimal view we have of it for fear of the damage that will wreck our vision. Jesus, in effect, lets us know that even the awesome power of the sun will be greatly magnified and will be made known.

It seems to me that the sun, as well as the other signs noted here, serve as symbols and signs predicting the greatly magnified and increasingly visible power of the Son of God in the promised second coming. Advent, after all, is a season of both remembering and reaching. We remember the incarnation and the anticipation of the birth of the Messiah. We hear the words of Jeremiah prophesying to the events of this season:

“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 will execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jeremiah 14-15)

That’s a promise the children of the covenant held closely for generations. It supplied hope during captivity and exile, through the poor leadership of human kings and the willful disregard of a people who turned from the God of their ancestors. That promise assured a fickle people that they could rest in a faithful God. The Holy One has promised it and will do it. We remember the anticipation and expectation of generations who waited in hope for those days to arrive. Most of all, we remember that the promise was fulfilled by the birth of a baby to a young mother and her betrothed in the most humble and seemingly unremarkable of circumstances. We remember that despite those conditions, the glory of the moment was heralded by angels and compelled those near and far to come and witness to the arrival of the Sovereign One.

Those are shared memories of a people of faith who have learned the value of marking time through seasons. Advent begins the Christian calendar year as we commemorate, celebrate, and remember these pivotal events in our history and formation as a distinct faith community. But, as the Christian calendar evolved, Advent was situated initially at the end of the Christian calendar. That placement reflected the eschatological perspective of the church which focused more on the reach forward than the look back.

In reaching, Advent signifies a new anticipation for that time when Christ will come again. The early church lived daily with the expectation that this return would be imminent. Perhaps, this is most evident in Paul’s writings. As he prays in his letter to the Thessalonians, “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.” (1 Thessalonians 3:13) Early Christians lived in the wait. Interestingly, that belief did not discourage the burgeoning faith community nor did it stifle its efforts or witness. Rather, their understanding that Jesus was coming back was a source of their hope in the face of trial and persecution, it fortified their strength in the face of challenge and confrontation on the basis of their faith, and it provided them a sense of urgency for spreading the good news in word and in deed.

How differently might we respond to the conditions of our lives if we lived in expectation of the coming of Jesus Christ? What if we affirmed–as a guiding and central premise–that Jesus is more than a precious memory, a model for exemplary living, and a personal get out of hell free card? What if we were utterly convinced that Jesus is a radical force for justice and righteousness in constant, universe-shaking movement toward the restoration and redemption of all creation?

Elizabeth Achtemeier frames the moment Jesus describes this way:

God, who created the world in the beginning, is bringing it to its end. God is working toward a goal. God is on the move, constantly active, constantly pressing forward to the time when his kingdom has come in its fullness and his rule is acknowledged by every living creature. God began the inbreaking of the kingdom in the person of his Son (Luke 11:20; cf. Mark 1:15), and he will bring in the kingdom in its fullness when that Son returns to earth.

Advent is both beginning and end. The duality of the season reminds of the tension of living in the “already” and “not yet.” Christ has come and the power of Jesus’ earthly ministry, passion, and resurrection have initiated a new age of the kindom. We live the resurrected life…already. We receive the power of redemption…already. We experience glimpses of restoration…already. Jesus has already come and done a mighty work in the world and in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, the work is still being completed. The kindom on earth as it is in heaven is not yet realized. The restoration of creation is not yet manifested. The fullness of glory waits in the state of “not yet”:

The kingdom is coming. Of that we can be very sure, for “heaven and earth will pass away,” but Jesus’ words will not pass away (v. 33), because they are identical with the Word of God that does not return to God empty, but accomplishes that which the Lord of heaven and earth purposes, and succeeds in the mission for which it is sent (Isa. 55:11; cf. 40:8). Thus, the church is delivered from that despair which believes that the world will never be any better. But the church is also delivered from that self-righteousness that thinks it has already obtained. The kingdom comes, but it is not yet. We live in the interim time, between the birth at Bethlehem and Christ’s return in all his glory. That is where we are at this Advent season. (Elizabeth Achtemeier)

Much of what Luke captures in Jesus’ description of the end times reflects the pinnacle of the “not yet.” It’s not a jubilant word to kick off the season even most church folks associate purely with Christmas and the sanitized, Sunday school version of the birth narratives. As Leonora Tubbs Tisdale notes,

The disturbance appears to be intended. This text is meant to shake us up. Indeed, it is particularly written for people like us who are going about our business as usual, acting as if no cosmic event is about to occur that will change the whole future of the created order. God is about to break into history. And because of that action, the whole created order will never be the same.

The shaking up reminds us that we’re still in the “not yet.” No matter how comfortable we may have become or how satisfied we might be at where we have arrived, the future still demands attention. Our faith does not only rest on the power of past events. It compels us toward a hope for a future that meets the expectations of the promise despite how hard it may be to get there.

While studying church growth in seminary, I learned that the church has historically grown in the most exponential and sustained way in communities experiencing persecution and/or marginalization. Christianity stagnates in comfort. Nothing in the gospel witness suggests that following Jesus is supposed to be easy or guarantee us an absence of trouble. Followers of The Way knew that their faith would cost them, and they were eager to pay up. The epistle writers and early historical accounts document joy in the midst of struggle and the honor that believers expressed at being participants in the kindom of God. It was their obligation and their privilege.

Much of Christian public witness today displays a different kind of privilege. Intolerance for other faith traditions, insistence of preferential treatment related to Christian holy days, and disdain for those who do not profess any faith in a divine being do not demonstrate the embodied love of Jesus Christ so much as a sense of entitlement championed by the dominant culture and adopted by some quarters of the church. Perhaps, this is as much a part of the warning that Jesus issued earlier in this chapter. Jesus cautioned that there would be those who would come using his name but not espousing his vision nor embodying his message.

Yet, we are not a people without hope. Christ’s “words will not pass away.” And, “your redemption is drawing near.” Surely, there were those who have heard these words and felt a sense of foreboding. Some may feel threatened. But, there is an audience that probably welcomes it. Those who already live in a world of terror wouldn’t mind the Holy One coming to shake things up. When the status quo has its heel on your neck, you don’t mind a disruption that breaks their grip on your world. This is a word of profound hope for the marginalized, whom Luke demonstrates that God has a preference to uplift and redeem.

For many of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, we experience this season as also the beginning of winter. In fact, I reside in an area that is on the edge of a “snow belt.” I have never had to dream of snow for Christmas. When snow falls, my community receives more than its fair share. But, more than half of the world experiences this season in the summertime. Leaves on the trees and foliage on the ground are plentiful and in bloom. Advent isn’t marked by a desolate landscape, but rather in the lushness of new life. And, I wonder if they read the parable that’s tucked into the middle of this frank lesson differently.

At another moment in his ministry, Jesus curses a fig tree because it doesn’t bloom–it fails to fulfill its purposes in the created order. Here, Jesus points to the fig tree as a sign of the gracious promise “that summer is already near.” Renewal and regeneration categorize creation. And the sun shines as long and as bright as it ever does in our direction. These are signs of Advent. These are signs of promise. These are signs of hope.

Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study. For the season of Advent 2021, these passages/pericopes were curated by Rev. Mark Koyama and Harriet Ward:

Faith seems to have no beginning and no ending. It does not spring from sources that are under the control of the individual nor responsible to his life. Faith gathers in its sweep the life of man, as indeed all that lives, and informs it with the overtones of hope and anticipation of the future. It holds within its grasp the past and the future as a single moment in time. It does not seek to secure Itself by the sanction of the mind or by a denial of the necessity of thought. It does not fortify itself with sanctions of proof or rest its case on the generosity of demonstration. Faith envelopes life and charges it with energy that sustains and hopes. It is the breath of God that becomes in all living things the breath of life.

(From Howard Thurman’s from Deep is the Hunger)

For further reflection:
Miracles are signs, and like all signs, they are never about themselves; they’re about whatever they are pointing toward. Miracles point to something beyond themselves. But to what? To God himself. That’s the point of miracles – to point us beyond our world to another world.” ― Eric Metaxas
Life is one big road with lots of signs. So when you riding through the ruts, don’t complicate your mind. Flee from hate, mischief and jealousy. Don’t bury your thoughts, put your vision to reality. Wake Up and Live!” ― Bob Marley
I believe in signs….what we need to learn is always there before us, we just have to look around us with respect & attention to discover where God is leading us and which step we should take. When we are on the right path, we follow the signs, and if we occasionally stumble, the Divine comes to our aid, preventing us from making mistakes.”― Paulo Coelho

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.