Monday, November 30, 2015

Advent 1, Year C

This sermon was preached to the people of 
Word of Hope Lutheran Church on
November 29, 2015.

It’s quite an odd feeling to go from decorating my Christmas tree with my family to hearing these texts this morning.  All of them promising hope in the aftermath of tragedy.  And here we are, sitting kind of comfortably in a world that, for the most part, is unshaken by the kinds of tragedies that are being spoken about right now.  Jeremiah’s tragedy is about the complete destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem, of all the wealthy and affluent being taken into exile, and watching as those who are left behind begin to succumb to despair.  And in Luke, the tragedy is yet again the destruction of Jerusalem, many many years later.  Both of these tragedies feel like the stars and the moon are being thrown out of joint, both of them feel like the end of the world, and both of them are foretold to not be the end.
I don’t know if most of us get that in America right now.  The closest thing we’ve come to the destruction of a city was the horrific tragedy that happened on September 11, 2001.  Or maybe December 7, 1941.  These two were tragedies to be sure, but I don’t know if I can put them on the level of destruction of an entire city in an attempt to wipe out a way of life.  Those kinds of tragedies that happened during the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, or what’s happening in the Middle East right now, in Syria and Turkey.  
I imagine that survivors and refugees from those tragedies would hear something entirely different when they hear the scripture readings that are being proclaimed to us today.  I mean, let’s take a second and imagine what life is like for those fleeing from Syria right now.  You hear rumors that someone is going to come in the middle of the night to take your children away, they’ll conscript the boys into military service, brainwashing them to turn them into mindless drones who will fight to protect the extremist right.  So, you run.  You take your spouse, your children, all the cash you can carry, and maybe one or two material possessions.  
You spend most of your cash bribing ship captains and smugglers to take you aboard.  You get separated from half of your family, because there is only so much room on the ship.  You sit next to people you don’t know, although you think you see a few more from your village, smell the stink of vomit as people get seasick, trying to tell yourself that it’s going to be ok.  That you will see your family again.
Finally, you land.  Only to find out that you’ve been refused entry into a new country because there’s no room.  They’re afraid of you.  They put you with thousands of others into a new camp.  Now you allow yourself to truly begin to feel terrified that you might not see your family again.  You cling to the one picture you managed to keep safe during the trip.  You’re almost out of money, you’re hungry, you’re cold.  Europe isn’t nearly as warm as your home.  You were unprepared.  And on your way to spend the last of your money on some soup you hear someone reading this:
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.’”
And at first you scoff at the ridiculous claim that this passage is making. But you can’t shake it.  You hear it again and again in your mind, even though you only heard it in passing, it sticks with you.  And you find that you allow yourself to hope again.  To believe that this isn’t the end again.  Even as you keep getting rejected from country to country, even as you still long to hear news of your family, you keep hearing, “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to you.”
Later you hear someone read something different, but it sticks with you just the same.  
"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."
And again this resonates with you.  Your stars are different from these you see above you now.  The earth is unfamiliar, you feel that the very foundation of your world is in distress.  And so you hold these two passages together.  Knowing that something new is going to happen.  Something scary.  Something that will surely make all this suffering and strife worthwhile.  And so you keep repeating them to yourself.  Keeping your head up.  Hoping for a redemption that will come with you.  Praying even when there are no words.  Repeating them even when you don’t believe them, because they are all that remains to you now.  Wondering if they will ever come true.  Putting your hope in them, even when all seems lost.  
That’s what I keep coming back to when I read these texts, but then watch as the rest of the world gets ready for Christmas.  This bizarre tension where the Church longs from Christ to return, hopes with all we’ve got for an end to violence and tragedy even as we drive around town, seeing pretty lights and picking out Christmas presents for others.  And that’s what I feel as I read these odd texts for the first Sunday in Advent.  These texts that don’t really have a whole lot to do with the birth of Christ, and more with the significance of Christ’s birth on a cosmic scale.  This tension of waiting to hear the beautiful narrative of the Nativity, perhaps while watching a Charlie Brown Christmas and waiting for the day when there is no more war.  
And I don’t know if the full impact of what the birth of Christ really means can hit me in quite the same way that it would for a refugee fleeing war, for someone who is living through domestic violence, for a child that is being abused, for someone who cannot escape poverty, for someone addicted to heroin.  I can hope for an end to violence, but sometimes i wonder if that’s just because seeing them unsettles me.  I don’t hope for an end to violence because I’m trapped in a cycle that won’t end.  And in fact, seeing the stars and moon fall out of place is scary for me, because it means everything is about to change, but for someone whose stars and moon being in place means living in a culture of fear, watching them change is a message of hope, it’s a sign that all things are about to change, all things are about to be redeemed, and the world is getting better.
So I challenge you to think about that this Advent.  To think about how these passages are inspiring for us, a nice little reminder that God’s in control, but for how some people, these passages are a lifeline.  These passages are the only hope that burns in their world of darkness.  These passages are ones that mean the difference between life and death.  They matter deeply and concretely to these people trapped in a system of violence, even as we listen to them and then watch our minds start to drift to our lists of things to do before December 24.  And so, let’s take this Advent to think about these people who are trapped, to pray for them and with them, to walk with them as the stars and moon are moved around, as the earth beneath us is shaking, and to join them as they cry, Come Lord Jesus.  Amen.