A couple weeks ago…actually two Sundays ago, I preached about apocalyptic language. And what I told you is that it's not about fear, even though we are conditioned to be fearful when we hear it. The language is intended to show us that there is another story—a deeper story of God's involvement. And the language is often inspecific—often "other worldly."
When I was preparing that sermon… You remember, it was about Peter, James, John, and Andrew, asking Jesus when his various predictions would come to pass, and Jesus saying, "Do not be alarmed…you will hear of wars and rumors of wars..this is but the beginning of birth pangs."
When I was preparing that sermon, I remember double checking the text with the calendar, because I didn't think we would be reading apocalyptic language before today, the First Sunday of Advent. If you were to thumb through the lectionary, you would see that every year we read apocalyptic language from Jesus on the First Sunday of Advent. This year we read from Luke; next year it will be Matthew; and the year after that it will be Mark. You simply cannot begin Advent without some kind of apocalyptic discourse.
Now, you can shrug your shoulders and say, "So what?" But for the first time, I really found myself reacting negatively to it. Maybe it's like I said before in my other sermon, I'm tired of the fear.
I'm tired of the television news trying to scare me, and I'm tired of being worried about the economy and the political situations in our world. You can say that this is an age of anxiety, but it sounds naïve to say that. Every age is an age of anxiety. Jesus was right. "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes. There will be famines in various places."
I knew that we would be getting another dose of apocalyptic language today, but I suppose I wanted to live in denial about it. Maybe you feel the same way. Everyone has their own method of avoiding things they don't want to hear. I think when I was a parishioner I just spaced out during the Gospel reading whenever I didn't want to hear it. It wasn't hard to do. You just look around at the congregation. Fiddle with your bulletin. And if the sermon is about that text you can always check out for a couple minutes. Some of you are already starting to nod off.
One of my favourite preachers likes to say that we have a tendency to treat holy Scripture like aging relative. We start to hear again the old old story, so we give polite silence, but we don't really listen to it. We hear it all the time—we could probably even tell it ourselves, word for word. And we don't plumb those old stories for meaning.
I'm inclined to say that we treat the parts of Scripture that don't appeal to us in the same way that we only half-listened to our parents tell us to wear and sweater, and don't jump in the puddles, and you know… "Thanks, Mom…Bye."
…especially the apocalyptic teachings as we start Advent. After all, once you get past these Sundays, we get a baby in a manger, shepherds, angelic choirs. It ends well. Don't pay any attention to all that stuff about signs in the sun and moon and stars and the earth in distress. C'mon. (Pause.)
So, why do we bother reading these texts? Maybe the world has it right. Maybe we've got it all wrong in the church. Out there it's already Christmas! Maybe we should just dispense with the lectionary and I will choose a few nice things from the Psalms…preach a fluffy little sermon about prayer. And maybe we should just skip these Advent hymns and start right in on Christmas.
Well, no. We can't do that. But why not? What is it that keeps us back? Part of it, of course, is tradition. This is the way we do it. The way we've always done it. The Advent wreath counts down the Sundays. Purple on the Altar to remind us that this a season of reflection, and spiritual preparation. And of course the text, (Luke 21:25-36)
Jesus said, "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 the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
Then he told them a 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. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
"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. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 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."
Why do we read texts like these during Advent? I already told you that the language is not really meant to induce fear. The text even says that: "when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads…your redeption is drawing near." For those of you who have faith…fear not.
Still, wouldn't it be less fearful if we just skipped these words altogether? Why read fearful language and expect us not to be fearful? It doesn't make sense.
Do you know, we do this all the time in the church? We talk about things that a lot of people would just as soon never talk about. A lame man comes to Jesus. Do you really want to spend your time thinking about the lame, the sick, the suffering? What about the hungry? The poor?
Some years ago, I was interviewing with a church to become their next Rector, and I asked the question, "What could I do that would really get me in trouble in this parish?" And someone on the committee answered without even batting an eye, "Don't talk about the poor." Can you believe that? "Don't talk about the poor."
But see, the reason it sounds bad is because it was said out loud. I'll bet you that at one time or another you have not wanted to talk about the poor. You sit down to a meal with your family…or you've got a friend coming in from out of town, and you're going out to eat. You're laughing and catching up, dressed up for dinner in nice clothes. Do you really want to talk about the people who are poor? …the people who aren't going to be having dinner tonight? I'm just saying that we all find ways of avoiding what we don't want to think about. "Don't talk about the poor."
We have to talk about the poor in church. We have to talk about the sick and the suffering. We have to talk about death. Why?
Well, the answer is really very simple. Because God cares. God cares about the poor, the sick, the friendless. If we didn't talk about people in need in the place where God's name is praised, and where God's ways are taught, we would be saying that God doesn't care, and of course he does.
But now, all this talk about distress among the nations, and people fainting from fear and foreboding…why would we talk about that…especially just before celebrating Christ's birth?
Well, to get to that answer is to get right down to the heart of what it means to be a Christian. You see, Christians… And when I say Christians here, I'm talking about devout Christians—we are not bound by the same fear of death as people who do not believe in Christ. We believe that when humanity had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, God, in his mercy, sent Jesus. And Jesus stretched out his arms upon the cross and offered himself in obedience to God's will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.
We rehearse this faith in the Nicene Creed and in the Great Thanksgiving every Sunday. The Holy Eucharist reminds us of, and celebrates, the faith we have that Jesus triumphed over death. We are no longer bound by the crippling fear of what could happen to us. (Pause.)
Did you know that every fear is rooted in the same big fear? Every fear you can possibly experience is ultimately, really, a fear of death. It's a fear that somehow that thing or person or whatever can kill you, or leave you without the means to survive.
So when Jesus went to the cross, you see, he went as an example of how to face that anxiety. He let himself experience all of the embarassment, the indignity, all of the pain and suffering, the hunger and thirst... He let it all happen.
He didn't have to, of course. There were many opportunities to escape. He could have avoided capture. He could have moderated his teachings. He could have stopped talking about the sick and the poor. But he didn't. He faced the fear.
And God raised Jesus from the dead to show us that there is no fear that can hold on to you forever—there is no pain, no suffering, no sickness that can hold on to you forever. Christ is risen.
You may go to your own cross. And you have to think about the cross metaphorically here to understand what I mean. For you the cross might be standing up in front of a group of people to give a speech. Did you know that the number one fear is speaking in public? What I am doing right now is considered the number one fear. Let me tell you… This is nothing. Speaking to a group of people about something you care deeply about… It's wonderful. (It's mice that are scary.)
We all have something that makes us afraid, and there are times when we come face to face with it. But when we do, God shows us that there is resurrection on the other side of it.
The story of the Cross and the story of Advent are the same story. It is the story of God interrupting humanity to show us that God cares, and that fear is not to be feared.
"There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory."
They will see that death is no more…that fear has been vanquished…that salvation is created.
Every once in awhile Peter or Maggie will encounter something new that frightens them. It could be anything. A stick, a strange toy, a shadow. And they will be scared. And Karin or I will pick them up and hug them. And we will go over to the thing that they are afraid of, and show them what it is, and show them that they don't have to be afraid of it.
That is what God did for us. God sent his son to show us that our greatest fear is not to be feared. That is the mystery of our Faith—the Paschal mystery—Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
That is the story of Advent, Christmas, and Easter. That is the Good News of Jesus Christ.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842, and
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664