Sermon for November 28, 2021 – First Sunday of Advent
Last month, PBS aired an excellent series of programs about the universe. They covered the Big Bang – the theoretical beginning of the known universe – as well as the majesty of our own Milky Way galaxy, the birth and death of stars, and… the end of our sun’s life, which includes the obliteration of our planet Earth – in around ten billion years or so.
It’s hard to get excited or worried about an event that is billion years in the future. Who knows if there will even be anyone or anything living on earth by then? But it does make you think. We take this life – this planet, this world of ours – pretty much for granted. After all, it’s been here long before us, and we are reasonably sure that it will still be here – in some condition, at least – long after our brief existence.
On the other hand, as I read recently, the “end of our world” can come at any time, any day. All it takes is a phone calling, telling us that a loved one has died suddenly, or that the company we work for has declared bankruptcy, or the doctor’s office calls to say we need to see a cancer specialist as soon as possible
Yes, it makes you think. Someday, this world of ours will end. And someday – a lot sooner than that, we hope – all of us will die.
In some years, the lessons for Advent are mostly focused on the events leading up to the birth of Jesus, but this year, the focus is on The End of Everything. We heard a dire prophecy from Jeremiah, followed by a tiny part of First Thessalonians, also speaking about “the coming [again] of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” [1 Thessalonians 3:13b] Then we jump into Luke’s Gospel for this morning – near its end. Chapter 21 is the last bit before the events of Holy Week, and the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Let’s start with Jeremiah. He was a prophet before, during, and after the terrible event known as “the Babylonian Exile.” Actually, he could not have lived that long, so scholars believe that more than one author contributed to the book named for Jeremiah.
As things went downhill in the kingdom of Judah, the prophet bravely went to the king and told him in no uncertain terms that disaster would result if he went to war with the surrounding countries. (A similar thing had already happened to the kingdom of Israel, to the north, with disastrous results.) The authorities wanted to put Jeremiah to death, but a wise man warned the king that if it was even remotely possible that Jeremiah was speaking for God, killing him would surely result in the destruction that he warned about.
And in today’s Gospel lesson, we hear Jesus echoing the dire warning of Jeremiah: “there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars;” the seas will be roaring and tossing, and people will faint with terror. It sounds horrible – the destruction of the planet and the end of all life. (And isn’t it a little chilling that the Bible’s description of the end of everything closely matches the predictions of astrophysicists?)
Jesus was simply doing what I just did – reminding his friends that life is full of imminent calamities and unexpected turns. But then Jesus offers us hope (which is the theme of this First Sunday of Advent): “stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near… when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
The old cliché is true: “the end” is really just the beginning of what is next. And Jesus reminds us that “what is next” is wonderful beyond words. In fact, it’s “ineffable,” as we learned on All Saints Day at the beginning of this month.
I know it’s more pleasant during Advent to focus our attention on the wonderful events like the birth of John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus, the angel appearing to the young woman, and Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth – but this year (one out of the three), the people who designed our three-year cycle of readings must have felt it necessary to remind us of the other end of Jesus’ life – his death, resurrection, and coming again in glory at the end of time.
So sit back, relax, and go along for the ride this year. It will be bumpy at times, and there is much to think about when we contemplate something like the end of the world.
But we take heart in Jesus’ final words: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” [Luke 21:34] The worries of this life cannot defeat us, because we are believers, and we know that Jesus will recognize us and welcome us into eternity.
Our Catechism – buried near the end of the Prayer Book [Book of Common Prayer, pages 861-2] – ends with a section called “The Christian Hope.”
What is the Christian Hope?
The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world. … Our assurance as Christians is that nothing, not even death, shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
And so, as Paul ends his First Letter to the Corinthians, we say, Maranatha – “Come, Lord Jesus, our only Hope. We are not afraid, and we welcome you.”
Come to us at Christmas, and come again in glory.