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Two weeks ago, I preached on the apocalypse from the Gospel of Mark. The imagery today is a little different, with Luke predicting the shaking of the heavens and the passing away of the world,whereas Mark focused on war, earthquakes, and famine, but they’re both ominous and foreboding.
Additionally, every Advent season starts with an apocalypse. How many apocalypses must we endure, because it feels like a hundred? Please don’t answer that, because I’m pretty sure the answer is one that I’m not prepared to hear.
And so, I’m wishing for an easier start to the season, for words that would welcome us into Advent with more grace, hospitality, security, and joy. I mean, is that too much to ask? Apparently, yes, because the words in Luke’s gospel vividly remind us that we can’t know everything, can’t predict everything that will happen, and we can’t see everything.
However, the gift of having to wrestle with these difficult prophesies is sometimes something new is revealed, inviting us to see that in Luke’s gospel God is breaking through; inviting us to see creation as it is: gorgeous, fragile, and falling apart; inviting to see God amid the beauty and the ugliness.
It’s true that, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near,” is never going to make it onto an elegant greeting card to ring in the Advent season. Advent is not for the faint of heart. However, these words are an invitation of sorts. It’s easy to miss what we’re being invited into, because ‘these things’ sounds so threatening and mostly I want to decline this invitation from Jesus and go about my merry Christmas way.
But, as a pretty strong introvert, I’m accustomed to accepting the invitation, putting on my brave face, and stepping into uncomfortable spaces. If this surprises you about me, please note: I’ve worked hard to perfect the ‘brave face.’
So, let’s put on our brave faces, stepping into the startling and uncomfortable spaces of Advent as God whispers underneath the chaos of the universe, “Please. Come. Closer.”
Assuming you’ll receive the invitations being offered to us today, let’s open them up – one at a time.
~The Invitation to yearn.
For each invitation I’m also going to give you the versification that I’m using as my textual backup.
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars.” (verse 25)
Advent acknowledges we sit in darkness, longing for light much of the time. Advent acknowledges what ‘will be’ is simultaneously daunting and hopeful. Often, we yearn for what has been, many times for good reasons, predominately because we can point to hope, security, and beauty in what was. And pointing to hope is not as easy to do in relation to what will be. Memories partly make up who we are, but not all of who we are or who we will be. Jesus beckons us to turn our eyes to the heavens, to look for signs and wonders, and yearn for hope, even when we fear we will go mad with loss.
It’s not an easy invitation. None of them will be, but it is a necessary one, a life-focused one.
~The invitation to notice.
“Look at the fig tree. Look at all the trees.” (verse 29)
Be attentive to the details and see what is laid bare before you. Look as the final colors fall from the trees, notice the first snowflakes crystalizing on the grass, wipe the tiny tear from the eyes of a sweet soul. Notice how life and death; beauty and ugliness are married together. See your spouse with gentle eyes, don’t shy away from hardship, remember the rhythm of life that the fig tree teaches us.
The God who can show up in the womb of an unwed, teenage woman could show up anywhere.
~The invitation to imagine.
“So, also when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” (verse 31)
There is a phrase that’s sometimes used in theological discussions called, ‘the tragic gap.’ It means the gap between the hard realities around us and what we trust is possible – not because we wish it were so (again yearning for the past), but because we can imagine it’s not the end. When ‘these things’ take place, whatever ‘these things’ might be for you, a new invitation has arrived on your doorstep. Imagination is is where hope lives and grows and has its being. We have to sit directly in the tragic gaps and trust that God will break through. Imagination (or hope, if you will) is as simple and as complex as that.
~The invitation to truth.
“My words will not pass away.” (verse 33)
Doubt, the opposite of truth, tells us viscous lies about ourselves, our families, our leaders, and the world at large. Doubt makes us cling to immediacy, causes us to be impatient and distrustful, seeing things that may not be there. And worst of all, doubt tries to rip us away from our internal truth; the Truth that God has written on our hearts: we are claimed, forgiven, and redeemed already. Telling the truth also frees us to shout forth our pain and bewilderment, to name the seeming absence of God, and to lament, if needed, in the face of cheap holly-jolly cheer. This invitation calls us to get ‘real’ with ourselves, our family, and with God.
~The invitation to wait.
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life. That day will catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” (verse 34)
Waiting. Pausing. Being still. Quietly anticipating.
These practices are not our strong suits. Slowing down is not an easy task in our society, which encourages on-time arrivals, deadlines, performance, and knowledge.
But this invitation reminds us to gather stillness, to bring calm into the commotion of the world, to rest our weary souls. Otherwise our days do catch us like traps, filling our voids with distractions, and our lives pass us by without a second glance. Waiting summons us back to our true humanity and reconnects us with the divine within ourselves and the Divine from whom we come. Advent asks us to pause, to take a look around, and to say, “This is a place of new beginnings.” What might be waiting for us here?
“When you see these things,” as Jesus says, it is time to hope fiercely and live truthfully. The promise of Advent is that deep within the gathering gloom something tender will sprout forth and grow. And so, we yearn for it, notice its dawning, imagine what will be, and trust that something beautiful – something for the world’s saving and for our redemption – waits to be born.
As I close, the little card you have been given –
an invitation if you will – holds a poignant hymn
by John Henry Newman, which I believe captures the plea of every heart,
especially those of us who keep the honest vigil of Advent, trusting against
all else that darkness will give way to light.
And so, I close with this line:
The night is dark, and I am far from home –
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene – one step enough for me.