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December 2, 2018

“Stand Up: Exhibiting the Realm of Heaven to the World”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Jeremiah 33.14-16

Luke 21.25-36

December 2, 2018

It seems the Christmas season begins earlier each year. This year was different because Thanksgiving fell even earlier in the calendar than usual, making it seem like Christmas music crept in sooner than years before. I have been fighting to keep Santa hats and music out of my house until after Thanksgiving. Perhaps, putting aside the fact that consumerism has a huge role to play in how Christmas appears in stores by Halloween, maybe Christmas slinks in earlier and earlier because the world is in an awful place right now. With each passing year more death and destruction and despair shows up in our newspaper and at our front doors. Christmas is a time of warm feelings and love and peace – why wouldn’t we want Christmas all year long?

The reality is our world isn’t yet ready – we are not fully prepared for the return of Christ. We have many lessons to learn and we need to be prepared. So, each Advent we wait. We take the time to wait. In a world of smartphones we are never bored and never have a dull waiting moment. Waiting in line, we can pull out our phones. Waiting at a doctor’s office we can check our email. Waiting anywhere has become less about waiting and more about entertaining ourselves until the next thing. Yet, waiting is good – research has shown that waiting actually stimulates creativity in our brains. That’s not why Jesus asks us to wait, but certainly reminds us that waiting is good – and waiting is what we are called to do in Advent.

On this first Sunday in Advent we wait for Jesus. We not only wait for the birth of Jesus, the return of Jesus, but also for stories about the baby Jesus. Instead we are reading about signs and fear and foreboding. As we seek the peaceful Christmas season that brings joy in our hearts, this might not be the message we expect. Yet, it rings truth – which might be why it is so hard to hear. Much divides our world today: war, poverty, politics, religion. If a topic has two sides to it, there are people on both. It seems that it is easier to find differences than commonalities anymore. Our scripture passages today offer a commonality – that of human despair and distress.

As humans we all experience distress and despair at some point in our lives. One commentator suggests that human despair is the “absence of hope…can’t imagine God’s promised alternative future.”[1] Despair is the absence of hope – the candle we light today. We light these candles each week in Advent to remind us of these aspects of faith. When we feel this absence of hope, we remember Christ. We remember that Jesus gives us hope when it seems the world is falling apart.

Each Advent season we offer a Service of Comfort and Hope. This is created for people who find themselves in the category of despair, or loss. Often the people who come are those who have lost family members in the past year, but it is also for people who battle depression or have lost a job or a home, or need some sort of spark of hope in a difficult season. It is a reminder of God’s promise that this world is not the end – that much more is in store. God has something else in mind – an alternative future – something we cannot fathom in our current world.

Jesus is bringing the alternative. He is telling of how the world will know that change is imminent. There will be a disruption in the world we know and these weather related events will happen. Jesus tells this from the temple. He is teaching them and talks about the Son of Man – a phrase used throughout the Bible, but is also often used whenever suffering is mentioned.[2] Jesus talks about his own suffering on the cross, but also sees the suffering happening in his context of the Roman empire.[3] Suffering is part of life. The Buddhists comprehend suffering well – they know that we cannot live without suffering. Christians don’t manage suffering quite so well – we like to avoid it and try to move on. Yet, if we look around, we know that people are suffering everywhere. The bigger question is how do we respond?

Jesus tells us to have hope for God’s realm is coming. How will we know? He gives the parable of the fig tree. You know it is spring by the growth on the fig tree. The leaves and the fruit will bloom. These signs that Jesus points to in the beginning are signs of the coming of the realm – disaster and destruction will be present. I don’t know about you, but it seems like that fig tree is growing every day in the world. Jesus tells the people to be on guard – not just to prepare, but to be on guard. Preparing seems to be a little bit calmer. You prepare for a trip – packing leisurely. You are on guard for something that you must brace yourself for.

The author of Luke uses the word “stand” twice in this particular passage – in verses twenty-eight and thirty-six. We are called to stand up. This verb is an action that one does proudly and with great conviction. The author is not asking them to rise slowly, but to stand up. This is a reminder that the day that Christ returns is not just a day when people will be judged, but that God’s grace will shine through.[4] We are all invited to stand – not to hide our faces or to shy away – because God is gracious and loving.

We are offered a word of comfort from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. The people are in exile and are having to wait and have faith in God. We read this story of the people waiting not because it predicts Jesus, but because it continues to tell the human dilemma of despair and how to wait in the midst of a crisis. The people are living in a strange land and have been strangers, not always treated with hospitality. How can they wait patiently? Perhaps at times we feel like we are in exile – from friends, from family, from faith, or some other situation – separated from the familiar. In those times we seek out the comforting word of our Creator – a reassurance that there will be a new form of leadership – a new branch coming out of the old stump, offering a new way of leading. Justice and righteousness will reign in those days.

Many people have expressed a despair from reading the newspapers and following politics. Many people are unsure of what God has planned for us. Yet, I believe we cannot yet see what branch will sprout up. We cannot see what God has in store.

Lutheran pastor Rev. Heidi Neumark expresses her love of Advent in her book Breathing Space. She writes: “…during Advent, I am always in sync with the season. Advent unfailingly embraces and comprehends my reality. And what is that? I think of the Spanish word, anhelo, or longing. Advent is when the church can no longer contain its unbearable, unfulfilled desire and the cry of anhelo bursts forth: Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!”[5] She goes on to say that God is with us, as that is the symbolism of God entering the world as a human being, yet “God is also absent…After all, you don’t long for someone to come when they are already beside you. The absence of a loved one wounds the heart.”[6] During Advent we have anhelo – a longing for God. We simultaneously celebrate God’s presence as a small child, but also lament that God is not currently present with us. This is a difficult place to be – not the idyllic picture of a Norman Rockwell Christmas.

So, we are in this anhelo Advent. What are we to do? We know that we are waiting for God, but what is our response? Whenever we talk about God and God’s great love for us, we must also talk about our response, because God’s word moves us. So, throughout Advent and part of January we will also explore the Great Ends of the Church. There are six Great Ends of the Church – you can find them in your bulletin and when each one will be discussed. Our Book of Order tells us that the purpose of the church is to accomplish these six actions. Today, our response is the exhibit the realm of God in the world. Why? Because it offers hope. When people see glimpses of God’s realm, they are hopeful – it is a sign that someone cares about them and that God is present, even in a feeling of anhelo.

Where do you see despair in our world? Where have you seen God’s realm? Where can the two meet? How will you exhibit God’s realm as we have an anhelo for God? Amen.

 

 

[1] Jennifer Ryan Ayres, “Jeremiah 33.14-16” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 4.

[2] Veli-Matti Karkkarnen, “Luke 21.25-36” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 22.

[3] Mariam J. Kamell, “Luke 21.25-36” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 23.

[4] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: C (Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1994), 6.

[5] Heidi B. Neumark, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), 211.

[6] Ibid., 211-212.