Be Alert, Advent 1(C) – 2015

[RCL] Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

“Be on your guard,” our Lord advises us in no uncertain terms in today’s reading from near the end of the Gospel of Luke. Odd advice, we might be tempted to think, at the beginning of yet another Advent season – a time when we are more inclined to anticipate the joy of the coming Christmas season than to be on guard against unspecified perils. Still, mindfulness is indeed Jesus’ admonishment to us this day. Pay attention to the details – to the signs about you. “Be alert.”

And, it is perhaps good advice after all.

The world is still full of surprises and not all of them are pleasant. Just catch the latest news on the internet or television if you have any doubts on that score. The “distress among the nations” of which our Lord also speaks in our Gospel account is with us still, though the names and boundaries of the nations in question may have changed a bit over the years. Conflicts and wars remain with us today as in centuries past. The “fear and foreboding” of which Jesus warns are as real and deep as ever.

Indeed, they are palpable even in the midst of our sacred Advent season, as airliners are threatened by terrorist bombs in lands faraway and gunmen massacre innocents on the streets of Paris and on campuses and street corners in our own cities.  The machinery of evil may have changed over the centuries but the technology of the human heart remains the same as it ever was.   And, in times such as these, it is easy to become — if you will excuse the infelicitous expression — gun-shy; to hunker down and love only those we already love; and trust only what we know for sure — even when it is manifestly not so.

Yet it is just at times such as these that God so often insists upon challenging our deepest anxieties and prejudices and surprising us yet again with divine mercy and redemption. That is also the message of today’s Gospel narrative. Even in the midst of the world’s confusion and chaos, Jesus reassures us, “The kingdom of God is near,” as difficult as it may sometimes be to discern its presence. Rather than hunker down, “Stand up,” commands our Lord, “and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Our Lord too lived in turbulent times not so different from our own – born of destitute and near-homeless parents forced to seek shelter for the night in a backyard village lean-to of all places – not exactly the palace of a prince or king. Yet, the surprise of Christ’s incarnation forces us to look again in our own age at the “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars;” and to consider anew the signs of God’s intimate involvement in the world about us.

Advent is the season when we learn to overcome our “fear and foreboding” and once more open our hearts to others just as God has disclosed and demonstrated his love for us in Christ. Advent requires a certain element of mindfulness – of keeping awake and alert to the universe around us – and to the cosmos within us. It requires as well, a certain sense of recognition and acceptance of others with all their spiritual baggage and insecurities – no small order in an age of polarization and mistrust.

Of course, being on the spiritual welcoming committee has never been an easy task. Who or what are we waiting for, we might well ask. Who or what are we welcoming? Refugees perhaps, from lands far different than our own? Homeless beggars at freeway on-ramps? Christ after all came in a manner completely new and unexpected. Would we have recognized him at rest in that feed-trough outside Bethlehem so long ago? Would we have known to welcome him? His coming is still hotly debated and even denied, his very existence a sign of contradiction for many.

He brought joy, but we still know sadness. He brought life, but we still know death. So, putting out the welcome mat and hanging the “Open for Business” sign in the window of our hearts can seem a scary proposition this Advent season or anytime. As we secure our airports, screen our visitors, and look over our shoulder it can become all too easy to forget about welcome and human commerce altogether.

The near-apocalyptic scene painted in our Gospel account of confusion and distress has become an unfortunate reality in too many parts of our world today. Sometimes even our neighbor can seem the enemy. Come to think of it, perhaps we need to install a metal detector here at the entrance to our church building. One cannot be too careful these days.

Good thing God did not – and does not — see things that way. Good thing God thought we and our world were worth yet another chance. Otherwise, we ourselves might still be left out in the cold and dark; left alone with our “fear and foreboding”; left alone perhaps in a smelly old barn bereft of angels, shepherds, and virgin mother.

So Advent is also a season of hope. It is a time that reminds us, in God’s scheme of things, the laws of entropy do not necessarily apply and the universe will not continue to get darker and colder forever. Our spiritual winter will come to an end. The fig tree – and dogwood as well – will again blossom and bloom. “Summer is near,” our Lord reassures us – even at the beginning of Advent. “Our redemption is drawing near.”

Perhaps only a genuine follower of Christ can remain vigilant and on guard for the coming of God’s kingdom in a world such as ours. Perhaps only a genuine follower of Christ, mindful of the incarnation, can hear of a spiritual summer of redemption and understand that – no matter the human or earthly season – Christ’s word and promise to his people “will not pass away.”

 

Download the sermon for Advent 1C.

Written by Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain and area dean at Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, a ministry of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” Saint Margaret’s Facebook website page at www.anglicanbudapest.com

 

1 Advent (C) – 2012

The Kingdom of God is as near as a prayer

December 2, 2012

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

“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 waves.”

Jesus foretold of horrors so great that people would faint with fear at the end of the world. Over the 2,000 years since Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, the surest way to prove oneself a false prophet has been to name a date for the return of our Lord. According to prediction after prediction, we should not be here at all.

Jesus says, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

The world should have ended 1,000 years ago when the first millennial scare hit. Or maybe one of the many other times a warning went out that the end is near. Time and again, people have wrongly predicted the end of the world. We only have to look back and snicker at how the Y2K threat fizzled out with hardly a whimper to see how big scares can turn into nothing.

Jesus says, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”

The disciples thought Jesus would come back soon, maybe, probably, even in their lifetime. They lived their lives thinking that at any moment Jesus would return. It’s like holding off just a few more moments by saying, “Wait for it. Wait for it. Now!” But they had the “Wait for it. Wait for it.” And “now” never came. In fact, it has yet to come. The Christian church around the world has been collectively holding its breath for nearly twenty centuries – always waiting, always watching. And still the time has not come for Jesus’ return. Not yet.

Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Advent: the word means “coming.” This is the first day of the new church year, and like every church year, we start by remembering when Jesus first came into the world and remembering that he will come again. Yet we can’t walk around all the time with our heads raised to the sky in anticipation, can we? We would look silly and nothing would be accomplished. What are we supposed to do if we think the world is falling down around us? The great reformer Martin Luther was asked this very sort of question. Someone challenged, “What would you do if you heard that Jesus would return tomorrow?” Martin Luther said that he would plant a tree. For in all likelihood, the rumor would be untrue. After all, Jesus said elsewhere that no one knows the hour or day when he would return. No one but the Father. So why not plant a tree and plan for the future? Then if Luther was wrong and his Lord did return, he would find Luther taking care of the earth.

Jesus told this 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.”

The signs will be there for anyone to see. We need only look around us to see that the world is coming to an end. But there have been so many signs. Thirty years after Jesus’ death, the Romans crushed the Jews in a horrible war that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. Many Christians at that time still worshipped at the Temple. How could that not be the beginning of the end? Or what about the fall of the Roman Empire, or the rise and fall of the Nazi Empire, or Stalin’s reign of terror in Russia, Pol Pot in Cambodia or the many other conquests for power that have ended in the deaths of tens of thousands? Were these not the signs of the end?  How could we possibly know what truly signals the end of times?

So if we humans have proven stunningly bad at reading the signs of the times, what good are passages like this? Why bother with the Apocalypse anyway? We may get an Apocalypse – an end of the world sometime. But the Apocalypse is always immanent. Soon and very soon. When will the Apocalypse be now?

Today is the end of the world, right now. This is the day for somebody. Thousands of somebodies – maybe a million or more. All over the world, today is the day of judgment. Many, many people will die today. Many others will reach an important point of decision. For all those people, the end is very near.

Passages like this remind us that we don’t have forever to decide what we think about this Jesus of Nazareth. There is a time to decide, and that time is always now. We always have now. Jesus reminds us that we don’t always have later. Jesus either was who he said he was, the Son of God, or not. And if he was who he said he was, we can have a relationship with him right now. Then the end of the world is more or less irrelevant, as we have already begun eternal life. But if he wasn’t who he said he was, then he was just plain crazy and we should drop the whole thing. It’s that straightforward.

Passages like the gospel reading for this morning remind us that we are in a radical option situation right now. We can accept or we can reject. Either way, the Kingdom of God is near. If we accept God, we enter into that kingdom here and now. If we reject God, then we are still standing by waiting and watching.

Chicken Little runs around in the fable yelling, scaring everyone with the news that the sky is falling. All that happened was an acorn fell on her head, but she just repeated, “The sky is falling. The sky is falling. The sky is falling,” until everyone but the fox was scared, too. Today, some folks have said the end is near so often that they can sound about like Chicken Little to us. But try this Christian version: Instead of “The sky is falling,” think “The Kingdom of God is near. The Kingdom of God is near. The Kingdom of God is near.” Because whether Jesus returns in glory before this service is completed or he waits another millennium, the Kingdom of God is near.

The Kingdom of God is as near as a prayer. The Kingdom of God is as near as the bread and wine in this communion service. God is here among us, and the Kingdom of God is very near indeed.

Jesus says that we are to be on our guard that our hearts are not weighted down. He told us to be alert at all times, praying. But we need not fear the end of the world. If there is distress among the nations or even if the sky is truly falling, we need not be afraid. That Christ is coming is Good News. And as the Body of Christ gathered on this day, we rejoice that Jesus is not waiting to come into the world at the end of time alone.

Yes, we affirm a belief in Jesus’ return in glory at the end of the age, but more importantly, we affirm that Jesus is here in our midst right now as more than two or three are gathered.

And in our hearts as we worship, the Kingdom of God is near. Thanks be to God! We need not fear the signs of the times, we only need to trust in our Lord.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs on congregational development at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

1 Advent (C) – 2009

Choose: God or idol

November 29, 2009

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

Choose: God or idol? Given our druthers, what do we ultimately choose: God the Creator or those earthly things that command our attention, our concern, and too often, our devoted fascination? What is the real choice here? Can we exercise a balance of the temporal with the divine? In other words, can we have both?

At core, Christians believe that God is loving and merciful. In the scripture appointed for this first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the Church’s liturgical calendar, we again hear of the loving and merciful Creator described as a God of hope and expectation; a God of promise and fulfillment. These dual themes of hope and promise are fulfilled, historically and prophetically, in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

Advent is the season of preparation not just for the retelling of the story of the nativity of the Lord under the humblest of circumstances, but perhaps, more importantly, for the return of the Messiah in glory. There is an understanding amongst disciples of Jesus from the first century through to the present day that the Messiah’s first appearance “on this fragile earth, our island home” was to reopen the way to the Creator, to allow us to reconnect to the God of all creation. And those who have the audacity to humbly proclaim discipleship also wait – with a sometimes wavering or tentative expectation – for the second appearance of Jesus, when “the Son of Man” returns to complete the work of creation.
Wait. Why a wavering and tentative expectation?

Today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews and the gospel reading both describe a God of accountability. In short, God’s merciful love, hopeful expectation, and fulfilled promise are an offer to those who are ready to receive these gifts. To be accountable to God’s call, we must not give such centrality to what scripture calls idols or idolatrous living. Jeremiah’s and Jesus’ words in Luke are not some historical musings meant for our forbearers. These are powerful words that point to a choice in the here and now. Which god is worshipped? In whom or in what do we really believe, and in whom or in what do we really place trust? More than two and a half millennia after the time of Jeremiah, what do his words as a prophet say to us today? Almost two millennia after Jesus spoke, what do his words mean today?

Jeremiah’s prophetic work begins during a time in history when the King, Josiah, was attempting to reform the religious practices of the people of Judah. Indeed, the first part of Jeremiah’s work focuses on what will befall Israel because of their religious practices, which were displeasing to the God of accountability. Early in the book of Jeremiah the prophet proclaims:

“Thus says the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’ Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.”

These people lost the way of their God, choosing little “g” gods over the Creator. After the return from the Babylonian exile, that is, after suffering the consequences of their idolatrous ways, the loving and merciful God reappears. Jeremiah proclaims that “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 the Gospel of Luke we hear Jesus say, “They will see the ‘Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” More importantly, “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.”

Jesus warns us to “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.”

Throughout our lives, we are faced with this choice between little “g” gods, idols, and the Triune God, the Creator, the Redeemer, the Sanctifier. What can we trust to the total exclusion of God: the lure of money or fame, the power of position, the fascination with technology, or the rightness of religion? To whom is our primary and sole allegiance: partner, self, employer, or mentor? We should know that these things and persons in and of themselves are not inherently idolatrous. Indeed, these very things and people can be a source of goodness for one and indeed for all. Yet, these things and people can become idols. We make the choice.

And in the midst of worries, how is it we can be distracted from God? When faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, why do we often forget to seek God’s peace? The disciple of Christ understands God as the source of all good things. Why not seek God in the midst of all the things in our lives, both good and bad?

Do not be distracted by earthly priorities, things, and worries at the expense of forgetting the “fount of all one’s blessings.” When we become preoccupied, the object of our preoccupation or the preoccupation itself can become an idol or little “g” god. When we are preoccupied, we risk cutting off the love and mercy of the real God. When we choose the idol over the expectation of God’s fulfilled promise, we forget the notion of divine blessing.

In the end, even though God calls us to faithfulness, remember that, ultimately, it is our choice. God calls. We choose.

And before choosing, take a moment and remember Jeremiah, the people of Judah, and the Babylonian exile. Before choosing, stop and remember the apocalyptic words of Jesus. At the outset of the new liturgical year, think this over with great care and choose wisely.

 

— John E. Colón is an active Episcopal layperson and is director of Human Resources at the Episcopal Church Center in New York City. He attends Grace Church, Brooklyn Heights, in the Diocese of Long Island. 

1 Advent (C) – 2006

God redeems messes

December 3, 2006

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

Advent, this season on which we embark today, these few short weeks of repentance, preparation, and expectation, begins with a picture of the end of the world. Jesus, already well aware of the likelihood of his own demise, is preaching prophetically about the destruction of the world people knew. And indeed, just a short 40 years later, in about A.D. 70, the Romans put down the last Jewish uprising, destroyed the temple, and the world for many ended. The Temple was the center of the world for Jews, who still mourn its loss.

Jesus’ prophetic words give us a chill down the spine as we hear them today. There has been a lot of “distress among nations” for some time now, and people do “faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” Trying to explain this passage as fixed in time is not a helpful exercise. In our context today it is just as relevant.

Sometimes you have to say things in a prophetic way to get people’s attention. Sometimes you have to tell people the awful truth: that things are a mess and we are all somehow responsible for it. Sometimes you have to say disturbing things to get people agitated enough to change their behavior.

Not long ago a couple went to a church, a large and prosperous one, for the first time. As they walked down a corridor they smiled at a number of people, but no one greeted them. Everyone was preoccupied with herding the choir and acolytes, getting business attended to about the coming bazaar, and depositing their children in Sunday school. As they entered the church, an usher in the back handed them a bulletin while engaged in earnest conversation with someone else, his face turned away from them. Afterward, the couple agreed the congregation was too preoccupied to engage in the simple act of hospitality.

And so are we, too preoccupied. Eugene Peterson translates part of this passage from Luke today, “Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping.”  A season of preparation and expectation should permeate all that we do, from expecting and welcoming visitors, to focusing on what’s really important: our relationship with God and the Messiah who is to come.

So, are there any tools offered in this Sunday’s readings, any hope we can grasp, any piece of advice we can take home and dwell upon? Let’s start with the collect, today’s opening prayer in the liturgy. “Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

This is a gracious prayer in which we ask God to give us what we most need: abiding grace. We can’t do it ourselves. A wise bishop one said, “People fix problems, God redeems messes!” So our first request is to have the grace to set aside darkness and think of ourselves clothed with the armor of light.

Let’s play that scene from the church again: It’s Sunday morning. A couple arrives for the first time and they are greeted at the door by someone who says, “Welcome. May I sit with you this morning?” After church, they are taken to the coffee hour and introduced to the clergy, and others. It’s all about them, and suddenly they’re not strangers, but part of a new community of welcome and light instead of the preoccupied one above.

In Jeremiah, we get a short and pithy message: “God keeps his promises.” Nobody has to wonder about that. Jeremiah had to tell his wealthy friends and others that things weren’t right between them and God. But he also got to say that God was going to do something about that, even if they weren’t. He was going to re-establish righteousness, a right relationship between God and God’s people. In this brief passage one has the feeling it’s a done deal, so you might as well enjoy the show! The passage also proclaims God’s intention of justice and righteousness in the land – a hope that has sustained faithful people through many faithless times, and continues to do so. God redeems messes.

In the passage from First Thessalonians the writer prays that the people who are the beloved believers will be blameless before God at the coming of the Lord Jesus with all the saints. And it all comes out of the boundless love that they share with one another. They have imitated Christ, and their reward will be Christ’s sustaining love forever.

So, we have the tools of grace, faith (promises kept), and our capacity to imitate Christ to use in our Advent journey. We can still shop, maybe even go to a party or two, but they’re not the main thing. The main thing is that even when the news is bad, and it’s not very good right now, even when terrible things are happening and we get them flashed live into our homes, they are not God’s message. God’s message is a response. “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

 

— Ben Helmer is a retired priest in the Episcopal Church. He and his wife just completed a year helping with relief efforts in the Diocese of Louisiana. They recently returned to their home in west Missouri.