St John the Baptist, Mt Carmel—Luke 21:25-31, Zechariah 14:4-9
I believe it was the renowned theologian of the last century, Paul Tillich, who said that a preacher should always prepare a sermon with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. If I were to follow that advice today, what would I find?
My Bible tells me we’re early in the season of Advent, because I have just heard passages of scripture that speak of that time outside of time when history as we know it will come to an end, the good guys in the white hats will win, everyone will be happy, and the curtain will come down on the play. And what does the newspaper—figuratively speaking; most of us get our news from the internet now—what does the “newspaper” tell me? The newspaper tells me that a militant fringe of the Islamic world is inflicting unspeakable suffering on the people of Syria and Iraq, and, when they can manage it, Europe and North America. The newspaper tells me that a crazy person with a gun could walk up most anywhere at anytime and start shooting multiple people. The newspaper tells me that that racial and ethnic fear and hatred is alive and well just about wherever you look, that illegal and destructive drugs are being sold and people still drive drunk … and bad things still happen to good people.
As Christians, of course, we have a name for what we read about in the newspaper, and that name is Sin. You and I are both victims of and perpetrators of Sin. It’s a basic fact of human existence, and has been since time out of mind. We get sick, we have accidents, we feel pain—both physical and emotional—we suffer from and participate in injustice, we do things we know are wrong and we do them over and over again, and eventually we die, sometimes peacefully after a long life and sometimes violently after a short one, but the end result is the same: we’re dead. We can sometimes put it off by a number of means, but we can’t ever escape it. We live under a death sentence, and it will eventually catch up with each one of us.
And so, condemned as we are, we find ourselves puzzled—oh, what the heck, not just puzzled, but cheated, toyed with, let down—by passages of scripture like today’s Old Testament reading.
On that day … the Lord your God will come, and all the holy ones with him. On that day there shall be neither cold nor frost. And there shall be continuous day … for at evening time there shall be light. On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem … and it shall continue in summer as in winter. And the Lord will become king over all the earth.
I’m sure you can recall hearing a good many other prophetic passages from both the Old and the New Testaments that speak in equally glowing terms about the blessings of peace and prosperity and health and eternal life that will be the reward of those who are faithful to God’s call. On that day. And when we compare that vision to what life is actually like on this planet, we want to know, “Ok, when?” “How long, O Lord, how long?” When will “that day” actually get here?
Then, if we combine these hopeful and inspiring passages of scripture with others that make theological assertions about Christ redeeming us from Sin by his death on the cross and defeating evil and death by his resurrection, we really wonder where the missing link is. How come we still experience ourselves as trapped by sin, both as victims and as participants? It’s like when you get an unsolicited email telling you you’ve won a free trip to the Bahamas, if you just first pay a small service fee, and, if you’re paying attention, you strongly suspect that, if it’s not simply a scam, they really just want to sell you a timeshare. Promises, promises. So, are we being scammed by God? How long, O Lord?
It’s no wonder, then, that many church-going Christians on the first Sunday of Advent find it difficult to work up much enthusiasm for passages of scripture like today’s gospel reading, which is apparently intended to get us all excited about the future. We’re told that the return of Christ at the end of time—“the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory”—will be preceded—announced, as it were—by all sorts of warning signs: natural disasters and unusual environmental phenomena, and the like. “When you see these things,” Jesus says, “Look up and raise your hands, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Well, you know and I know that practically all the way back to the time Jesus uttered these words, people have thought they were seeing the signs he was talking about. TV preachers talking about the end times is really nothing new; only the medium has changed, the message is an old one. So we tend to be kind of apathetic about this Advent warning. If our experience of Sin is mainly as a victim, then it may give us a tinge of hope, but not really what we’re looking for. If our experience of Sin is mainly as a perpetrator, as a victimizer, then it may trigger in us a split second of fear, but not enough to cause real change. It inspires neither very much hope nor very much fear.
Yet, we’re here, aren’t we? In some way, we still look to Christ as our Redeemer and Savior from Sin, from Sin that victimizes us and Sin that we participate in. Christian teaching is that human beings are helpless, bound by Sin, utterly reliant on God’s mercy. This mercy is what we are gathered here this morning to celebrate. This mercy was first hinted at to Adam and Eve as they were being expelled from the Garden of Eden, when God declared that the offspring of the woman would “bruise [the] head” of the offspring of the serpent. Christian interpretation has seen in this nothing less than a veiled promise of the coming of Christ. So from the very moment humankind became both a victim and a perpetrator of Sin, God put into motion a plan, a plan to rescue, to save, to redeem not only us but the entire universe from the curse of sin and evil.
In the mystery of God’s mercy, this plan of salvation was ordained not to take place in an instant, in one fell swoop, but in stages, over long periods of time. God’s plan for the redemption of the universe is, in actuality, a drama, in three acts, with a prologue. The prologue is the Old Testament, God’s gradual self-disclosure to and covenant with the people of Israel, our ancestors in the faith. Act I is what we find in the four gospels—the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, God made flesh. In this series of events, the kingdom of God was introduced. “Introduced” is the operative word here. Think, if you will, of Christ as a “good germ,” a “good virus.” When a virus is introduced into a human body, it may lie dormant for a while, or it may reproduce itself very very slowly. Long periods of time may go by before the virus makes its presence known by producing observable symptoms. The first coming of Christ, the first Advent, was the introduction of the “Christ-virus” into the organism of the human race. Various events, throughout history, have shown that humanity “tests positive” for the presence of this Christ-virus. And a good many cells in our collective body are actually symptomatic, they show signs of the presence of Christ. But the situation is still very fluid, very much in process, a process that is still quite some distance away from completion.
When I lived in Louisiana back in the early 1990s, one of my routine yard maintenance chores was to spread poison on any anthill that I encountered. (You see, ants are more than a mere nuisance at picnics in the south—they sting, and it’s quite unpleasant.) The ant killer I used comes in the form of a white powder, and the instructions say to apply a specified amount over the top of the colony, taking care not to disturb the structure of the anthill. It’s not at all dramatic, like turning the thing over with a shovel and emptying a can of Raid on it. But it’s a great deal more effective. It introduces the poison to the ant colony. Nothing changes immediately, but that colony is essentially “history” as soon as the poison is spread over the top of their home. Gradually, ants will carry it throughout the intricate network of underground passageways, and only after several hours will the process which was begun by scattering a tablespoon of powder on a mound of soil begin to show results. And the results are thorough.
The promise of the scripture readings for Advent Sunday is that God will finish the work of redemption that He began when He took on human flesh deep inside the womb of the Virgin Mary. God will finish what He started. Act One is not the entire play. Act Two, which is where you and I play our roles, is not the whole play either. When we rehearse the list of God’s mighty acts in Christ whereby he redeems us from the power of Sin: incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, descent of the Holy Spirit … we’ve got to add one more: return. The return of Christ, the second Advent of Christ, is Act Three, when the full meaning of the story is finally revealed, and all the loose ends of the plot that were left dangling after Acts One and Two are tied together. Only after seeing the entire play, all three acts, can a theater-goer make an intelligent assessment of the work. Judgments that are formed after an action-packed and suspenseful first act, or a long and complicated second act, may be shown to be totally off base when the plot line of the third act plays itself out. You just don’t know until you’ve seen the whole thing.
That means that we, who have roles to play in the second act, may be tempted to think that Act Two is all there is, or that it’s somehow our responsibility to make Act Three happen. Neither could be further from the truth. The truth is, we simply haven’t been given a complete script. We have a plot summary that gives us a broad idea of what happens—we know that the play has a happy ending and that the good guys win—but we don’t have any of the details. Those are the business of the Author and the Director. Our job is to know our Act Two lines well, to pay attention to the Director, and to not worry very much about the plot of the third act.
This assignment, of course, involves a lot of waiting and a lot of preparing and a lot of hoping. Sounds very much like Advent, doesn’t it? You might even say that life in Act II is one long Advent, one long season of waiting and preparing, but always with hope, always with the knowledge that there is an Act Three. “…when these things begin to take place, look up and lift up your hands, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.