I preached this sermon tonight, the first Sunday of Advent. Enjoy.
Title: Immanuel: God with us?
Date: Dec. 3, 2006
Place: Chapel Hill Mennonite
Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16; I Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36.
When it comes to Christmas, I’m quite the sentimentalist. I love the music—even though it’s cheesy most of the time. I like the Christmas decorations—the lights, wreaths; and I even like the Christmas movies—A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, National Lampoons Christmas Vacation. I know the season is commercialized; I know the Christmas season marks the time when we become rampant consumers. But I just can’t help myself—I like Christmas, complete with all the warm fuzzies.
But the warm fuzzies don’t last very long once we hit the first Sunday of Advent. This Sunday works against any straight-forward celebration of Jesus’ arrival 2000 years ago, the first Advent. This Sunday will haunt all our attempts at celebration.
Something strange happens today, something a bit disorienting, even troubling. Every year, on the first Sunday of Advent, we read bits from those terrifying passages in the Gospels where Jesus talks about the end of the world.
There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
As I read about the roaring and tossing sea, I can’t help but think about the Tsunami nearly two years ago that killed thousands in Southeast Asia; or the devastating floods in New Orleans. And Jesus mentions another word, another sign of the end, that can’t help but jump off the page and into our world—especially if you’ve been in an airport the past few days and hear that voice coming down from the speakers announcing that the Homeland Security Advisory System has increased our threat level to Orange. Jesus says in verse 26, “People will faint from terror.”
When I was a kid, I remember hearing this story, these apocalyptic prophesies of Jesus. And the images made their way into my dreams, or I should say nightmares. I had a reoccurring nightmare about how I’m surrounded by this earth, this world, that is collapsing. It doesn’t help any that I was reading those crazy Frank Peretti children’s books. (I don’t know why my parents thought those books were a good idea).
For me, this passage from Luke, these terrifying images Jesus gives us, are the stuff that makes for nightmares. But they’re only bad dreams for us who get to sleep in comfortable, peaceful places—people like me and probably most of you. But that darkness and destruction, that world of chaos and death, is a reality, a living nightmare, for many.
So, this first Sunday of Advent forces us into a tension—an uncomfortable stance of celebration, on the one hand, for something that happened long ago, and then, on the other, a desperate anticipation that recognizes the suffering on earth. Advent is the joyous time when we celebrate the arrival, the coming, the advent, of Jesus, the savior of the world, the redeemer, the long-awaited Messiah…and yet our ability, our power, to destroy God’s good gifts has only increased over the last 2000 years.
So far, for these past few months, for some reason the lot has fallen on me to preach all the depressing passages in the lectionary. I can remember my sermon on the beheading of John the Baptist—that’s a terrible story. And then there were those sermons on Job’s miserable experience. And now I get Jesus talking about how the world will be plagued by terror and typhoons and tsunamis—and this has to happen at the beginning of Advent, a time for hope, when I’m getting all geared up for the holiday cheer. Maybe the lectionary gods have decided that I am destined to be a doomsday preacher.
Even if that’s the case, I want to fight to find at least some hope in these passages.
So, here’s Jeremiah 33:14-16:
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah.” “In those days and at that time I will make a righteous branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”
Here we find the hope of Israel, the hope for the One who will redeem Israel. This is the stuff that makes for Advent hymns—like “O come, O come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile.” Jeremiah is a prophet of exile. He is speaking a word of hope to the people of Israel who have been exiled from their land, and live under foreign dominion. And the hope is for a time when David’s royal line will begin again, and Israel and Judah will be restored, and God’s people will return to Jerusalem in peace and safety. That’s hope.
But it’s also a hope that Jesus fulfills and disappoints at the same time. In this speech about the end of the world, Jesus also tells the people of the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem. Earlier in Luke 21 the disciples marvel at the majesty of the temple in Jerusalem. And Jesus replies, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down” (v6). Then he goes on to say, “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city” (vv20-21).
With these sorts of declarations, we have to wonder about the extent Jesus satisfies the hope declared in Jeremiah (the hope for Judah to be saved from exile and the safety of Jerusalem). The Advent of Jesus, the Messiah, fulfills hope, but also breaks it and reshapes it. Jesus fulfills hope and postpones it at the same time.
Why is this important? Well, I think Christianity can teeter on the edge of fantasy sometimes, and this is made strikingly clear during Christmas. The tendency is to claim that our hope is already fulfilled, that we have received the promised gift of God in its fullness, and so now we can begin to rest, to find peace and safety, in that familiar Christmas story. Christ has arrived, and so there is nothing left for us to long for, nothing else to mourn, nothing else to desire, nothing left to anticipate. But the first Sunday of Advent won’t let us do that, it won’t let us live as delusional Christians—it shadows our celebration with the stark reality of the world.
It’s easy to let this season of Advent become a time for our minds to take our bodies into the fantasies of safety, a time where we sit and smell chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But here’s Jesus’ warning from Luke 21:34-35:
Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap. For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the earth.
This is not a time for fantasy, for delusions about how the world is all better now that Jesus came 2000 years ago. Instead, Jesus calls us to watchfulness, to poised attentiveness, to be ready for action. It’s a time to resist those powers of success, pride, prestige, over-consumption—what Jesus names as dissipation, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life. It’s time of heightened sensitivity to what’s going on around us.
“Look at the fig tree,” Jesus says in verse 29, “When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourself and know that summer is near. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (vv29-31). Pay attention. Lift up your heads. “Be always on the watch.” Look at the world around you. Read the signs of the times. Prepare for the second Advent, the return of the Son of Man.
But is that all we are supposed to do? Just sit back and wait for Christ to return? What does it mean to anticipate, to expect, our Savior’s return? I think that’s the question our Scriptures today force us to ask as we begin our season of Advent. What does it mean to wait and watch and hope for the second Advent?
I think it means at least two things. And the first must always haunt the second.
The first thing. As we wait for Christ to come again, we have to wonder if he still may be among us, somewhere out there, awaiting our discovery. If we remember the end of the Gospel stories, we hear about how the resurrected Jesus appears to his followers. He comes to his disciples gathered in a room, and he appears, strangely, with wounds. The story should be familiar—it’s the story of doubting Thomas. Thomas doesn’t believe, so Jesus shows him that his body still bears the wounds of his death—open wounds. Jesus says, Put your finger here, in the nail marks of in my hands. Reach out your hand, put it into my side (John 20:24-27).
Jesus appears with wounds. Immanuel, God with us, may still be among us. But if he is, he may not look like what we expect. When we think of a resurrected Jesus, the last thing we would consider is that somehow his body still bears the marks of death, the marks of suffering. But that’s how the gospel story goes; that’s how he appears; that’s how he comes to us, with the wounds of suffering.
In a sermon last year to the most powerful people in the United States, including the president, Bono, the lead singer of U2, said this:
God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.
God is with us if we are with them. We go to those suffering people, because those people look like Jesus did and does, wounded people. And we go to them, and wait and watch and pray—like Jesus told us to—because maybe, just maybe, we might find our wounded savior.
That’s the first thing. Waiting and watching and hoping for the second Advent also means a second thing. It has to do with an apocalyptic hope, a hope that recognizes that the end has already begun and that something new, something promising, something wonderful, is already in the works.
We hear about this hope in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian church. 1st Thessalonians 3:9: “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?” Paul links God’s presence to those who are united in Christ—the presence of God because of you. God is present because we are present, available, to one another. We make God present for each other. This is part of what it means to say that we are all priests, the priesthood of all believers.
And the best way I can say this is to quote that quirky old monk like I did last week, Sebastian Moore: he says, “Christ is present to us insofar as we are present to one another.” It’s a call to receive God’s love from one another, and to be present, to make Christ’s love available—to wait, and watch, and hope that Christ will come in and through us.
In a few minutes we will welcome 5 new members to our congregation: Jen, Kim , Katie, Joe and Matt. If anything, this is a sign of hope, a promise that Christ is present here in our midst. They have arrived in our midst, and they bear witness with their lives that there is something of Christ here in this church that makes them think that it’s important to join in this experiment of hope.
And in a few moments, after they sign up as members, we will be given a chance to touch Immanuel, to feel that God is with us, that Christ has not left us, nor has he abandoned us. It’s called passing the peace of Christ, where we will celebrate these new members of the church, and welcome all who have gathered to worship with us. And when you pass the peace, you receive one another as a mark of God’s love.
As we await the coming of God with us, Jesus, let me give you one more quote from that strange monk, Sebastian Moore: he says we must “look forward to the point when the whole mystery of God will be known in the clasp of your brother [or sister’s] hand.” But when we feel those hands, as we pass the peace, we must also remember that the One we worship has holes in his hands. Yes, Christ has come to us, but he is also standing with holes in his hands, awaiting our discovery.